PrinceofNothingReviews: Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying 2e Pt. VI: Adventure and Madness

This section of the review covers the GM section in WHF2E. The GM section is an odd but very good one, containing terse yet useful guidelines on how to run a game, ideas for adventures, campaigns, notes on evoking the tone of Warhammer Fantasy, as well as a very large and impressive section on mental illness and rules for adjudicating it, really driving home the mood of roleplaying in the Old World. It is, in fact, one of the most useful sections in the book in terms of shit that actually helps you to run a game, while being for the most part bereft of mechanics.

The overview of what you need for a game is about as standard as you can get and should be familiar to anyone who has ever run a game before. You need pencils, dice, character sheets, snacks and a sign that says NO GIRLS ALLOWED to play elfgames. The description of the GM’s tasks and the Five Golden rules are solid guidelines and I don’t think anyone can disagree really. The section is perfectly sufficient but simply too mundane for anyone familiar with the hobby to cover in any great detail.

The section on adventuring is more interesting. The game gives several options for player characters to meet other then YOU MEET IN A TAVERN. I like how all of these options are involuntary, involving such events as being press-ganged, accused of a terrible crime, forced to clean the sewers or captured by evil cultists. This really nails the feel of Warhammer Fantasy, where adventuring is a grim profession and the world, even the non-adventuring part of the world, is not a nice place. This contrasts nicely with the at times cartoonish division between good and evil that modern fantasy games can fall prey too (Pathfinder and Forgotten Realms serial offenders).

Similarly, the adventure hooks/ideas that are provided are not so much brilliant as they are solid, driving home the overall feel and giving the GM a guideline to work with. The PCs get embroiled in a hidden war between different chaos cults, the PCs hire themselves out as sellswords in a factional conflict within a small settlement, the PCs are tasked by the Temple of Morr to implicate a noble who is secretly a vampire but so powerful he cannot be directly accused without evidence, a Scavenger hunt where the PCs have to travel all round the world looking for powerful magical shit for a wizard (what does he want with the magical shit? Why would Magister Ludolf Darkblood need the skull of Garthagh the Defiler and fifty kilos of warpstone?) and of course the Seven Samurai only with Orcs edition. The adventure hooks drive home that in this world, while the authorities are mighty, they are neither benevolent nor competent, and swordplay and vigilante justice is often the best answer.

As far as crafting adventures goes, this section is really very helpful, covering several elements that can be and usually are part of a good adventure. Subjects such as Roleplaying, Investigation, Complications, Combat, but also more general topics such as Humour, Scope and the nature of good opposition are covered. The sentiment on Combat is an appropriate one: Players in WHF 2e have Fate points and are meant to LOSE THEM. Combat should be deadly so players will avoid it. Nevertheless, the game seems to grasp that sessions without swordplay in Warhammer Fantasy are rare. The section on crafting antagonists is short but sweet, with hints about building up a foe as well as the suggestion that good foes cannot always be combated directly (for example, a fanatical witchhunter or a Chaos Corrupted Noble cannot be murdered without incurring the displeasures of the authorities, which means burning at the Stake).

Suggestions abound. Over the course of a campaign, adventures may even be Character-focused, tailored on the PCs histories and goals, since they are the fucking protagonists after all. We get an almost story-gamery half page discussing possible Themes, but it makes perfect sense and is not story-gamery in the slightest.
Ultimately they merely recommend adding a delicious coating of story-gamery butter to what is otherwise a very wholesome and just game of simulated fantasy battle murder, a set of themes or underlying messages to appease the dramatic, homo-sexual part of the brain into compliant somnolence while you shoot beastmen in the pouring rain and pin down your buddy Friedrich in the blood-soaked earth so Klaus can amputate his limb before it turns gangrenous. A Theme is usually nothing more then a single line, something like Appearances can be Deceiving or Wealth is but Temporary. I recall using something similar for my campaign in Dark Heresy, albeit it subconsciously, which I think most GM’s do. I would go so far as to say that one of the limitations of running an Lotfp game with mostly premade adventures and high lethality as I am doing right now is that it can feel artificial and overly mechanical at times, so this section certainly has its balls in the right place. Ideas for campaign models are of a similar vein to what we have seen thus far: Players are criminals getting embroiled in matters beyond their simple understanding, a time of Blood and Darkness is upon you!, players are squires striving for knighthood in the Knights of the Inner Circle or White Wolf and finally an espionage campaign involving all manner of cloak and dagger shit.

Still useful but less worthy of note is some advice on the adjudication of test difficulties, details on handling fate points (it takes great pain to point out that while you should be able to earn a fate point back you should never ever ever be able to buy one using xp) and, more importantly, Fear and Terror. In Warhammer Fantasy Fear and Terror are shitty and debilitating abilities possessed by hideous monsters and a great reason to have a high Willpower score. While they are not quite as crippling as they are in the futuristic descendant games of Dark Heresy and others, Fear and Terror are still very potent abilities that effectively stun normal characters for several rounds until they pass their Willpower tests. Terror is even worse, causing Insanity on each round the creature is in sight and the test is failed, meaning that creatures that cause Terror can literally drive people insane merely by being in their presence. Fucking hardcore.

One of the more noteworthy aspects of Warhammer Fantasy and something that sets it apart from other rules-heavy Sword and Sorcery games are it’s insanity rules. Few things like these rules, as well as the debilitating critical hits and nearly irreplaceable Fate points, drive home one of the central premises and themes of the Warhammer Fantasy Setting: Life is finite and the struggle for supremacy is a slow erosion that you will inevitably lose. This is what sets it apart from something like DnD, where even death itself may be reversed with powerful sorcery. In Warhammer, death is final, debilitating injuries are irreparable and curing madness is almost impossible (though the very rare healing arts of Shyalla or Verena might help a character, the game takes great pain to point out that this is a formidable quest in itself).

The point is that modern (3e-5e) DnD characters go through life gaining in strength, ultimately unfazed by the trials that beset them. They accumulate wealth, xp and magical items, growing more powerful, a gradual, almost inexorable upward climb where even death is but a temporary setback if one has the resources (which is almost a mathematical inevitability if you keep to the recommend wealth levels in 3e for example). In Warhammer Fantasy, you also gain in strength, but these adventures can leave scars on the body and mind, giving them a weight that DnD can lack at times. More importantly, these scars are often difficult or impossible to reverse, making your character all the more precious because he is so fragile. There is a precious mortality to a Warhammer Fantasy character that, despite his Fate points, makes it easy to grow attached to them, and I fucking love that.

Back to the Insanity section itself, it might be one of the most complete and useful sections I have ever seen, providing guidelines on determining the type of insanity a character might get as well as specific rules on adjudicating it. The essence remains unchanged from its predecessor. If you accrue 6 insanity points you must make a willpower test. If you fail you get an actual affliction.

Insanity in the Old World fucking sucks. It is not so much viewed as an illness as it is a sign of demonic possession. The mentally ill are often burned at their stake or at best incarcerated in asylums with no hope of treatment. Actual treatments involve either an experimental treatment by a trained surgeons (removing a point of Insanity is merely challenging whilst curing an actual Insanity is almost impossible) with botched surgery meaning even more insanity, intelligence loss or death on the operating table (like 1e, it fucking rocks, only this ruleset is slightly better since it takes into account the skill of the surgeon). Tonics to treat madness are very expensive (2d10 Crowns per weekly dose) and very difficult to produce, with botched tonics being useless at best and downright poisonous at worst. Magic healing is reliable, but known only to handful of priests in the entire empire, thus requiring a quest in and off itself.

Types of insanity have poetic names like Wheel of Dread and Pleasure, Beast Within, Firebug, Fortune’s Thrall, Desperate and Doomed and Host of Fiends. They are, for the most part, harrowing and crippling disorders that will have a serious impact on the playability of your character. Some represent actual disorders like bipolarity, paranoia, delusions of grandeur or addiction (gambling, mandrake root or alcohol). I like it that addiction actually takes a physical toll upon the user, turning him into a hollow shell and eventually killing him after several months of abuse. Some of this stuff is atmospheric as hell, like the Desperate and Doomed insanity that convinces the character that judgement day is nigh and one must repent and spread word of the end times as a direct command from god (there are secluded communities of End Timers in the old world ADVENTURE HOOK ADVENTURE HOOK). A lot of these disabilities will get one in trouble with Witch Hunters, the Authorities or will cause one to be sought out by the Cult of Tzeentch, who view it as sort of divine madness. Two Insanities can only be accrued by exposure to Chaos and involve either actual Posession or gradual Corruption and mutation into a Chaos Spawn. These are so debilitating that the game recommends you start the KLAUS MUST NOW QUEST FOR A CURE TO HIS INSANITY immediately upon being afflicted by them.

All of the insanities are fucked up and drive home the point that this is a grim dark world that leaves men broken even if their bodies are whole. Perfect.

A short section on magic serves to highlight the fact that Magicians are different from other players and adds a sort of GM’s discretion break to the otherwise very overpowered magical abilities of Wizards in WHFRPG in the form of Chaos Made flesh, an invulnerable GM’s discretion manifestation of Chaos brought about by excessive magic use. While the creatures themselves are atmospherically described this method is, pardon my french, HORSESHIT. Either make mechanics that limit magical ability or do it entirely by story, don’t take the coward’s way out by implementing mechanics to limit magic use and then giving the GM a beatstick to arbitrarily limit it even further in case that does not work. If the GM would know when you get to use your magic then we wouldn’t need mana, give players some agency for fuck’s sake.

A last section covering such aspects as XP and other rewards in a single page is good but not really worth remarking upon. Any veteran of the genre should be able to conceive of the type of rewards players can generally earn in a fantasy rpg.

Overall the GM section is really fucking sweet. As a side-effect thereof, I got too excited to cover the Setting section that came after. Stay tuned for another update soon!

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