Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Hundred-Dollar RPG

In this post, I present a fairly detailed review of what I do and don't like about the 3rd Edition of Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play.

You may or may not have seen the latest edition of Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play, the version that comes in a big box full of custom dice and full-color cards, with a $99.95 price tag on it. I've wanted that game ever since it released last fall, and just couldn't justify it. Luckily, my birthday is this week, and my wife is the most amazing woman on the planet.
A quick aside about that $100 price tag: That number nearly scared me off, which is kinda weird. I mean, I'm more than willing to spend more than twice that over time for any RPG I really like. The dollar value of D&D books, or 7th Sea books, or d6 Star Wars books, or Cyberpunk books on my shelf is way more than $100 for any of those. Just to run 4th Ed D&D you need three $40 books, so that's more than WFRP. Looking at it from that perspective, I don't know why I held off for so long.
Now that I've had a few days to look it over and play a sample combat, I feel like I can at least share my initial impressions of the game. There's a lot to love about this edition of WFRP. Let me fill you in on the things I like best...
  • The Dice: Okay, I'm a sucker for dice, and WFRP has 36+ of them, with all sorts of crazy little pictures on them instead of numbers. So, right out of the box, I was smiling. Reading the books and running a sample combat, I was happy to learn that the mechanics and the dice really work together to make a fast-playing fun-filled system.
  • Minimal Math: One of the cooler features of those dice is that there's almost no math during the game. You could, with a really awesome attack roll, maybe have to be able to count up to 110 or 12, but that's gonna happen very rarely, and when it does you're guaranteed to have killed your enemy. For the vast majority of rolls, you only have to be able to count to about 2 or 3.
    (In WFRP you'll never hear: "I rolled a... lets see... 6 + 6 + 5 + 3 + 2 + 2... +4... +1 more for higher ground... 29! Is that a hit? Nope, nope, I needed a 30!"")
    Actions are resolved quickly, and without being torn away from your mental image of the action.
  • Succeed but with side-effects, Fail but with a silver lining: That is to say, those funny little dice are designed to allow for benefits and drawbacks to happen in addition to your overall success or failure, so actions are no longer simply binary. Quirky little developments that happen in novels and movies can finally appear in games.
  • No damage roll: I've always hated that every single combat action gets two rolls, but saving the day with science or chutpah is usually just one single roll. I'm always on the lookout for games that either streamline combat, or expand out non-combat actions to get the same love and attention. In WFRP, damage is contained organically within the attack roll, and the same system is used for talking, tinkering, running, etc.
  • Simple situational modifiers: You're on high ground? Have a fortune die. You're rescuing your true love? Have another white die. It's raining cats and dogs, add a black die. All three are happening at once, add two white dice and one misfortune die. Fast, simple, on-the-fly. I love it.
  • Abstract combat positioning: This came as a big, beautiful surprise to me. Previous editions of WFRP have always been fairly miniatures-reliant. Now, I like my minis, but they usually come with a fair amount of baggage about character positioning, movement rules, attacks of opportunity, etc. So I was pleasantly surprised that the game uses very abstract positioning rules, with the assumption that a melee is "like a rugby scrum" with everyone in constant movement. If you're part of the melee, you're engaged with everyone. If you _need_ to get somewhere, you just do, but it costs you a few fatigue points. This is a completely different paradigm, and it feels fresh and innovative.
  • Cards for all your feats and spells: Beautiful, full-color cards, that put all your rules and tactical options at your fingertips. No more leafing through a 200-page rulebook to find the data on your special ability or obscure combat rule - it's on one of the dozen or so cards you've got next to your character sheet.
  • Reckless vs Conservative Stance: Before getting the game, I'd heard some grousing about "the little puzzle pieces that complicate battle". I'm pleased to say those complaints were unjustified, and most of them seem to be made by folks who haven't actually run a combat with them. Once explained, the system is simple and intuitive, and the stances provide a lot of flavor. Charging into battle full-tilt and headstrong plays very differently than opportunistically waiting for an opening. It accomplishes this without any obvious rules holes, and without breaking you out of the in-character scene. This is a very well-constructed mechanic.
  • Party Tension Meter: While not quite as awesome as the stance system or the fancy dice, this mechanic is very flavorful, and certainly unique. The concept of what your party is, and why it formed, gives you bonus abilities and a fine-tuned tension meter. If the party is at cross purposes, if the characters are squabbling, if the enemy tries bribing you, if the group's thug uses his "Fear Me!" power, the tension meter goes up. In short, you get rewards and benefits for selecting a theme that unifies the party, combined with a weakness the NPCs and situations can prey upon. I like it.
  • Unified Rewards: Experience and Fortune Points don't go to individuals, they go to the group as a whole. The problem with bennies or xp bonuses in most games is that if your gaming style and the GM's style don't match up 100%, you get shorted valuable resources. Meanwhile the person who really clicks with the GM gets the intangible benefit thereof, but also gets the lion's share of the out-of-character mechanical rewards. WFRP sidesteps that trap completely by giving bennies to everyone when one player does something good. No longer will you envy and harbor a grudge against the wittiest player at the table, or the guy who steals the spotlight, instead everyone gets to reap the rewards evenly.
  • Miscellaneous Tools: The game has figured out a clever way to get all the best aspects of crunchy systems like insanity rules, critical hit charts, fiddly combat options, fatigue, morale, etc, without requiring complicated rules and mid-game page-references. It's pretty darned amazing just how much they managed to retain amidst all the streamlining.
  • The Setting: This post is about the rules, mechanics, and components, but the reason you really play WFRP is because of the rich setting. It's not just generic fantasy, it's a grim, gritty world where the supernatural is really evil, the peasants are really smelly, the conspiracies are far-reaching and sinister, the orcs are football hooligans, and Monty Python quotes are not out of place for once.
Overall, I'm really thrilled with this game. In terms of character options, and how much it's got going on at once, it's every bit as crunchy as D&D or Savage Worlds. But if the sample combat my wife and I ran last night is any indication, the moment-by-moment math and resource tracking is so much simpler than most crunchy games, that it plays like something a good deal lighter. I'm very pleased.

But, of course, nothing's perfect. Here's the places where I think they dropped the ball...
  • You can't play the race card: The vast majority of your powers and stats come on these lovely full-color cards. The only exception is the racial abilities. The dwarven abilities such as ignoring penalty dice from darkness, and gaining bonus dice when fighting orcs, should be summarized on a card somewhere. They're not, and there's not even room on the character sheet to add them yourself.
  • No Weapon Cards: Like racial abilities, weapons have special abilities that don't appear on cards, and don't really have room to summarize on the character sheet.
    (I've got a bunch of item cards from Paizo's GameMastery line, which I'll slip into cardsleeves with rules summaries on little note-card scraps to take care of it, but it's a shame to have to go to that effort myself for a game that puts everything else at your fingertips)

  • No summary chart of Actions: It's awesome that all your actions and special abilities are on little cards, so you don't have to pass around a rulebook, but they should have been in the rulebook as well. What if you lose a card, or spill soda on it? What if you'd like to read up on higher-level powers between games? There's no easy solutions for either situation, and character creation (see below) is exasperated by it, too.
  • Hard to House-Rule: Since everything is on cards, and there's no good index or summary chart, house-ruling or customizing could be a pain in the butt. You want to be damn sure your new house-rule is a good one before you start inking it onto the relevant cards. Balancing new monsters or spells is a bit trickier than in a numbers-based system.
  • A weird approach to Niche Protection: I'm all for the idea that players shouldn't double-up on special abilities. You want your character to be unique, and to do something special no one else can do. Putting all the powers on cards does this, but game never clearly states whether or not two characters could "share" a card. The existence of multiples of the basic action implies you can't share. If they can, then there's no niche protection at all, which is a little sad. If they can't, then there's serious benefits to making your character first, spending your experience first, buying a particular card the moment you qualify for it, etc, which is equally sad.
    (Now, maybe I'm missing something, but it seems to me that there's nothing that stops a person playing a Student or Scribe from taking cards like "Troll-Feller Blow" or "Berzerker Rage". Nor does anything stop a two-bit Thug from taking "Honeyed Words" and "Winning Smile", which blurs the lines between character niches.

    The impact on a character introduced late in the campaign, when all the most interesting Action Cards have been bought by others, would be bizarrely limiting. "My randomly-generated character class is Elven Wardancer, but unfortunately, all the Ritual Dance cards were already taken by the group's Dockhand," seems guaranteed to result in hard feelings.)
  • Analysis Paralysis in Character Creation: The default rules assume a semi-random approach to character class. You shuffle up the deck, deal out three classes, and pick the one most interesting to you, instead of choosing from the 35 different starting character classes. Unfortunately, the rest of the options in character creation involve individually reading through 154 action cards, a couple dozen talent cards, etc. And then you spend your 20-25 character points on bonus dice, skills, wealth, and the aforementioned cards, with a completely open-ended point system and no solid advice for what's good to start off with. There's several thousand different viable starting builds, which is admittedly kinda cool, but it makes creating your first character very daunting.
  • Opacity in Card Evaluation: As mentioned in the first section of this post, I love that the game provides flavorful non-binary results, and that I don't have to do any math while playing. But boy does that make it tricky trying to figure out which card is best for my character, or for the current battle. The cards seem pretty well balanced so far, but there could easily be hidden brokenness that a munchkin might exploit, but a casual gamer would completely miss.

The phrase "diamond in the rough" springs to mind. The game has many beautiful polished facets, which shine brilliantly in the spotlight, but are sometimes going to be obscured by the shadows cast from the rough edges that surround them. Figuring out how much the genius of the game outweighs or is outweighed by the downsides will take some time. At first glance, though, it does seem apparent that the rough bits are at least outside of the action. While actually playing, the game is an elegant dream. All the downsides lurk in character creation and advancement, which can probably be house-ruled and simplified without impacting the way the game plays.

I'll have to haul this one with to my weekly one-shot group from time to time, but when I do so, I'll have pregenerated characters, with the relevant cards prepared and sorted. Teaching this character creation system to 4 or 5 people at once would take far more effort than is justified for a one-shot.


Chgowiz said...

That bit about abstract range... thank you. Thank you very much. I think you just kicked off a blog post.

r_b_bergstrom said...

You're welcome!

I just popped over to your blog and read, and yes the ranges in WFRP are a lot like the ranges in 3:16. In fact, 3:16 is the only game I've seen that handles range this way.

Your extrapolation of how to use fireballs in a system like that is pretty similar to what the fireball equivalent in WFRP does, IIRC.

SiderisAnon said...

The Men In Black RPG uses the same sort of range system. The DM screen even has pictures of an alien to help demonstrate the ranges for you. The alien at the other end of the hall is Far. The alien a little ways down the hall is Near. The alien who is blocking the camera (and probably about to eat your face) is close.

r_b_bergstrom said...

That's very amusing.