In this last installment of this interminable series I will cover the Setting, Bestiary and the sample Adventure in the back of the book so you do not accidentally stumble upon it whilst idly flipping through rulebooks in the rpg-section at the ABC and throw up all over the tabletop section.
The setting has not changed greatly from its first iteration but the focus is far more on the Empire, the greatest and most powerful human nation on the planet. Instead of an opening section on the creation of intelligent life by magic space frogs we instead learn of Sigmar, founder of the Empire and unifier of the disparate tribes of mankind (or at least most of them). After helping the dwarves drive out the Goblins from the region at the legendary Battle of Blackfire Pass and receiving his iconic Warhammer ™ from the Dwarves, he unites the Uberogens (fantasy germans) and becomes the first Emperor. You really get a sense that this is where recorded history begins (which is accurate, the calendar is based on the first year of his reign).
The Empire itself reflects the history of its founding. It is far more a coalition of nation states then it is a single unified empire. Though it originally consisted of 12 provinces, over the centuries it has been reduced to 10, each providing a hereditary Elector Count responsible for the election of the Emperor. In addition to the aristocracy, the halflings and the Churches of Sigmar and Ulric both have a vote in the election process (the temple of Sigmar has 3). Also in accordance with a sort of historical verisimilitude, the Empire is politically, religiously and economically divided and it takes a strong Emperor to keep everything from going to hell (there are numerous periods of Emperors being less then strong, the infamous Age of the Three Emperors being a particularly noteworthy example lasting the better part of 8 centuries). Each province is given a few paragraphs on its history, prominent features, notable exports and miscellaneous information, giving you a good idea of the Empire without boring you to death with trivia. The descriptions of the Electoral system are pretty solid, but by far the most interesting read is the explanation of the Age of the Three Emperors, the numerous Civil wars that took place and the Chaos invasion that eventually caused everyone to pull their shit together again under Magnus the Pious, Unifier of the Empire and founder of the Colleges of Wizardry and so on. Rather then burying you under mountains of historical detail, WHFRP 2e gives you enough to work with, giving the GM adequate tools to embed his adventures deeply into the intricate setting of Warhammer Fantasy.
In terms of threats to humanity, the book wisely glosses over the numberless hordes of nasties that are lurking at the edges of human civilization and instead focuses more on threats from within. Though these threats lurk in the heart of the Empire, one need not fear them to be so subtle as to remove all opportunities for sword-murder. Threat Numero Uno is of course Chaos, an imperishable malignant force relentlessly grinding away at the hearts, minds and souls of men, personified by the Dark Gods and their numberless servants; Horrifically twisted beastmen lurking in the forests of the Empire (the game actually gives an explanation for this, the collapse of the Gates of the Old ones actually having showered the world with mutating warpstone dust), Mutants hiding among normal men and those lost souls who willingly offer worship to the Dark Gods, often in exchange for some great boon or sorcerous power. Chaos is everywhere, it is eternal and it can be defeated but temporarily. Welcome to Warhammer Fantasy.
As if the threat of invasion by a demon-worshipping horde of bloodthirsty barbarians with sorcerous powers and their horrific mutant allies is insufficient, we also get introduced to the Skaven, a race of mutant ratmen who vastly outnumber mankind living in great caverns and tunnels under the Empire. Despite the Skaven being involved in all manner of shenangians like spreading the Black Plague, stealing every child from Waltdorf after the Graf refused to uphold his bargain with them and pouring forth from the darkness in great, chittering hordes of ravenous monstrosities, the official narrative is that they do not exist. This is explained by a mixture of willfull blindness on the part of the Empire to avoid widespread panic and rioting as well as numerous cunning attempts by the Skaven to erase all evidence of their existence from human history. The Skaven are monsters but they are capable of diplomacy and bargaining to get what they want, which sets them apart from becoming yet another Goblin or Orc variant. The last entry in this unholy trinity are the Restless Dead, in particular the dreaded Vampire Counts hailing from the Imperial Province of Sylvania. If you think Count Dracula with an army of Ray Harrenhausen skeletons you are essentially on the mark. Though the histories claim Vlad von Carstein and his progeny Manfred von Carstein have been finally, and permanently, slain, hints are given that this is very much not the case.
If those are your enemies, what about your friends?!? The book focuses mainly on the nations of fantasy Europe, eschewing vague descriptions for distant Cathay and Araby in favor of Estalia, Tilea, Kislev and, of course, Bretonnia. Most of it remains essentially unchanged, areas like the Border Princes or the City-states of Estalia and/or Tilea (I find I keep mixing them up, but Estalia is chaotic duelling jerks and Tilea is merchant-princes/pirate Isle/mercenaries) get a bit more description but nothing raises the eyebrow. The entries for Kislev and Bretonnia have been expanded considerably. Bretonnia has changed in tone, while it is still very much a regressive feudal kingdom ruled by an absolute monarch the overall corruption has been tuned down somewhat in favour of a more Arthurian bent. The mysterious Lady of the Lake (heavily implied she is an elf sorceress) is now the religion of the land, and valiant knights quest for a sip from the mythical grail so they may become like French King Arthur (called Gilles). The Kislevites are given ice-sorcerers and a BEAR GOD to worship which is so fucking typical it rocks but basically their lands are still butt-raped by Chaos on an ongoing basis. Kislev is what the Empire would be if it didn’t have science, manpower, dwarf allies, colleges of magic and Kislev to take the vanguard of any chaos invasion.
This overview, while by no means as comprehensive as the overview provided by the 1st edition, is more then sufficient to set the stage, provide a vast diversity (I refer to the non racially-obsessed ideologue kind used by sane people) of different settings and venues for your grimy and filth-spattered adventurers to die in. It is therefore harrowingly tragic that this is followed by the Bestiary section, which is the most aenemic fucking excuse for a monstrous manual I have ever seen. I understand that GW wants us to buy the Old World Bestiary but WHAT THE FUCK GW?
The Bestiary consists of three templates (professions really) that may be slapped on any of the monsters to give them some different roles like Chieftain, Brute (the champions or veterans) and Scouts. In addition we are treated to the following monsters. Are you focused? Do not blink or you will read over this list and miss the contents of the bestiary.
– generic daemon stats for both Imps and Lesser Daemons
– generic Skaven
– Mutants (slightly different from beastmen because FUCK YOU) and a mutation table
– Skeletons, Zombies and Wights
And that is fucking it. This section needed ONE master level monster. A Vampire Count. A powerful Daemon. A Dragon Ogre. A minotaur. ANYTHING. SOMETHING. Right now it is not even terse. It is a placeholder. A teaser trailer. A TO BE CONTINUED (tantalizing wink) followed by a short normal animal section. The game provides a (very useful) list of generic NPC stats for frequently encountered human foes and it is perhaps telling of the Sword & Sorcery genre that this one is as long if not longer then the monster section. Brigands, innkeepers, bandits, rogues, burghers, town guards and river pirates. By no means inspiring but thank god it is there. Dnd’s approach to NPC statts always sucked (it didn’t have any). 3 pages and short stattblocks and BAM instant throwaway NPCs.
The game ends with a sample Adventure. ‘Through the Darkwald.’ It fucking sucks. Gone is the complex, open-ended and beautifully set up introductory adventure of 1e. Instead we get a railroad with a series of random encounters followed by a payoff that does not pay off. The only thing this adventure gets right is the window-dressing.
We are in the village of Untergard, shortly after the Storm of Chaos (when Archaon, extremely powerful chaos dude, marched once more upon the Empire and almost wrecked it) has ended, and now everything is still sort of shit. Untergard has been half burnt to the ground and the PCs are there for [sample reasons]. There is also some sort of old feud going on with some other bloke named Graf Sternhauer but it doesn’t really effect us.
Anyway, after providing statts for boring named NPCs with essentially plot armour (barring one), we get what is by far the least interesting intro section, gameplay wise. The captain is about to make an announcement. You can use your Gossip skill to get rumors about what the announcement will be. Then you can gather rumors but they are really just that and they are irrelevant to the conclusion of the adventure (though some might be relevant later, like tales of a dude called Kazhrak One-eye coming to fuck shit up). Did you roll your Gossip test correctly? CONGRATULATIONS YOU HAVE FIGURED OUT THAT THE CAPTAIN IS GOING TO SAY EXACTLY WHAT HE IS GOING TO SAY!
As the captain is announcing that Graf Boris is totally happy with the defence of Untergard against the hideous beastmen and offers bread and wine to what few remaining dullards can still stand, a shot shatters his glass. ROLL A PERCEPTION TEST. IT CAME FROM ACROSS THE RIVER IN THE BURNT OUT SECTION. OH YOU MISSED IT. FUCK YOU IT DOESN’T MATTER MUTANTS ATTACK ANYWAY FROM THE RUINS. HAVE 3 ROUNDS OF MEANINGLESS COMBAT BEFORE THE GUARDS LEAP IN. Who the fuck wrote this?
After this meaningless battle ensues, which is really a diversion for another meaningless attack on the front gate, A huntsman returns warning the town of an imminent attack by A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT FACTION THAT HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH THE MUTANTS. The game could have included some sort of investigatory component so the heroes at least figure out this is just a vanguard by using their brains but no a fucking hairy shit NPC that probably fucks goats and masturbates to anime in his spare time tells us that we are doomed. After a meaningless discussion that cannot be influenced by the PCs yet they must participate anyway, the villages decide to flee to Middleheim. The PCs are now faced with a difficult choice: Letting the villagers die seems like the ideal option since it will avoid the railroad, but the GM won’t have anything else prepared so it entail more meaningless combat. Resigned to their fate, the pointless trip into the Darkwald begins.
Then a series of meaningless encounters. They are not connected to anything nor to eachother so they are good only as window dressing. Untergard was originally founded by peasants fleeing taxes from Sternhauer, and the villagers march through Grimminhagen on their way there, learning news that will not have a payoff. The next encounter is much better, because it involves A) diplomacy with elves that might turn into combat and B) hints that a certain NPC might not be who she appears to be. The next encounter is the site of an ambush, which was done by goblins (they are not in the adventure), whose traps will kill a priest and give the player a relic (that might conceivably generate up to 5 minutes of entertainment as the PCs debate who to pawn it off too).
For some reason no one can fathom, the adventure ends with the NPC, a wizard named Granny, deciding she wants revenge on Sternhauer for the murder of her father (THIS WOULD HAVE BEEN A FUCKING CENTURY AGO BY NOW WHY REVENGE NOW?!?) and thus with a demon summoning ritual with some wolves. If the PCs understandably refuse to investigate the disappearance of this strange old lady that takes care of orphans that has fuckall to do with them the GM is given a list of reasons with the final option of just ending the fucking adventure and docking 50 xp from their pay.
Fucking. Terrible. An absolutely air-headed nonsense crawl virtually devoid of intelligent decision making. The only thing it has going for it is the references and that its short. Terrible, even as an introduction to the game. Instead of the subtle way the old introductory adventure let you gain minor advantages and test things out the current one offers you meaningless skill rolls, purposeless combat and no fucking reward (minor note, you are at least free to take the Ritual tome from the dead Granny and credit where it is due, the game does at least entertain the NOTION that this adventure may be ended by something else then combat). If the goal was to make an adventure that evokes the sensation one gets from reading Wundergeek’s dog-scribblings then consider the mission accomplished. Garbage.
WHFP 2e is a mixed bag. I like the streamlining and I think the game has improved considerably on a mechanical level. The addition of the Fate point mechanic should add a wee bit of durability to the otherwise fairly weak characters. The stat point increases have been toned down somewhat, creating a more street-level gritty feel, and the equipment differentiation is nicely handled. Sorcery has been overhauled and, while I like the idea behind the current system and heartily applaud the addition of spell components as optional boons and the addition of the Winds of Magic and unique spells for each deity (originally described in the Realms of Sorcery supplement for 1e I think) makes magic feel far more distinct and awesome, the Curse of Tzeentch feels a little weak and I wonder how much of a detriment it is to magic use (I suspect a mere speed-bump). As far as classes go, the expanded classes are all really flavorful and while I shall miss the circus performers with all my heart on the whole, 2e provides a much expanded and varied assortment of character classes. I even applaud the minimalist approach to skills and the simplification of combat, seeing as it provides the player with more tactical options.
Even setting-wise I feel the game has improved a little. The focus on the Empire sacrifices breadth for depth and allows the GM to focus more on the center of events. The added descriptions of the most important country in the Old World and the numerous historical events add a rough sort of verisimilitude that makes the place FEEL lived in and believable. A place where things do in fact change.
Where the streamlining goes WAAAAY too far is the bestiary. For a Core Rulebook to contain a bestiary with five fucking humanoids, 3 undead mooks and some throwaway demons so you buy the monster manual is fucking garbage. In a similar fashion, the lack of magic items and any description of chaos is a crippling flaw. I understand why it is there, I simply think it is no excuse. Leaving out critical information of such a central setting element is garbage.
The introductory adventure tells us a strange tale. This is not your grandfather’s WHFRP. The game is an elegant creature of streamlined clockwork mechanical bones and thick, full setting-fur but its gaze is cross-eyed and the black ichor that drips from its pores might require further investigation. Somehow the makers of this impressive inheritor have forgotten what even is an adventure in lieu of linear set-piece battles and atrocious boxed text.
Overall, I think Warhammer Fantasy 2e shows immense promise and it is mechanically the superior game, but the incompleteness renders it a weaker book. As part of a greater whole it is quite good, but as a stand alone corebook I give it a 7 out of 10.