Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The End of Warhammer 3rd

Yesterday, FFG finally announced the thing all WFRP fans have suspected for more than a year. Warhammer Fantasy RPG 3rd Ed is over, and no new products will be released. They did kindly make a few final updates to their FAQ/Errata and Index files.

I really like WFRP 3rd, but it had some major flaws. The overall concepts were great, but the execution was often sub-optimal.
  • I love the narrative dice, and the non-binary results... but I felt I could never get their full potential out of them (and have had better luck with them when running rules-light spin-offs instead of the game itself). I feel that most of the cards give such small bonuses for most results that it leaves the GM very little room to improvise. If you interpret random left-over symbols on the rolls, your improvisations risk invalidating most of the printed Actions and Talents. 
  • It also feels like there's too many symbols on the dice. Boon/Bane/Success/Failure would have sufficed, but we got those plus Comet/Star/Exertion/Delay. Those last four weren't truly necessary and the game would have been stronger without them.
  • I like the idea of Reckless vs Conservative stance... but the benefits don't outweigh the clunky rules baggage. The difference between Reckless and Cautious makes sense, but transitioning from 2 deep to 3 deep in your current stance is jarringly gamist and hard to role-play or envision. "You know how I was really reckless and crazy last turn? Well now I'm officially 50% more reckless!"  The fights are too short, and the benefits of stance depth are too minimal, to justify building your character around the mechanic. Yet it's too integral (built into every Action and Career) to cut it out of the game without suffering a million little ripple effects. 
  • I love having cards to reference with all my powers so I don't have to flip through rulebooks during play... but in practice, the large numbers of cards and tokens laying everywhere make a huge mess on even the largest table. The lack of a good summary or analysis anywhere makes it hard to pick out cards during character creation and encounter design, so whatever you time saved at the table is merely shifted to pre-game prep sessions. Still over all a savings (because during play is when time matters most), but it's not what it could be if it were better indexed.
  • I like the idea of real-world careers, for the gritty realism they bring to the setting... but find it hard to suspend my disbelief during most actual career transitions.  You can choose Knight without ever doing anything worthy of being Knighted. Rat-Catcher today, Noble Lord tomorrow, all without the slightest nod towards storyline justification. Even when voluntarily restricting yourself to more sensible choices, the climb from raw Initiate to High Priest is usually accomplished in less than a month of in-character time.
  • And as much as GM's love the idea of gritty careers, I find most players want to be knights, wizards, and other combat-oriented D&D staples, rather than starting as Warhammer's default "dregs of the Empire".
  • I like that the critical hit, miscast, insanity and similar decks can be customized and updated on the fly to set the difficulty and tone of your campaign... but the game failed to ever take advantage of that flexibility and instead encouraged a shotgun approach where you just blindly throw in every card they made. The GM's guide really should have had some discussion of this, with custom decklists for various play styles.
  • I hate: 
    • the contradictory and confusing healing rules; 
    • the non-obvious high-lethality of every single disease, and the uselessness of the medicines that give bonuses only after your 4th day of save-or-die treatment; 
    • the opaque economic system and all those damn haggling and availability checks; 
    • the sad fact that being on horseback is a major disadvantage for your Knight; 
    • the advancement loopholes that allow you to career-swap for infinite Fortune dice; 
    • the prohibitively high monetary barriers associated with Runesmithing; 
    • the Rank One blessings of Verena and Ranald that break every single mystery-dependent plotline in the published adventures;
    • and a few dozen other smaller rules-holes that should have all been caught and fixed if anything got playtested for more than a single session.
Grr! I admire so much about the game's theories, but next to none of it's implementation.  Running this for the past year and a half has left me very bitter.

The press release about the end of WFRP3e makes a cryptic hint that maybe a 4th Edition is in the works... but FFG has sat on the license with releasing anything over a year, and had slowed the release schedule to a crawl in the year before that, so they may very well continue to hold the license hostage without releasing anything. That sounds silly, but it may be that the WFRP license comes tied to the more profitable WH40K license, and thus worth them sitting on it.

It's a shame, because there's so much of the setting that could use sourcebooks (for 3rd, 1st/2nd, or a new edition). I'd love to see sourcebooks for any of the three types of Elves, or the Norscans, the Chaos Dwarves, Tilea and Estalia, the Ogre Kingdoms, etc.

Even if someone picks up the license (or FFG is hard at work on 4th Ed), it'll be years before we see such books in print. First some publisher would have to:
  • 1) Pick up the license.
  • 2) Design and release a new main book, or reprint (and possibly update) the core book of a previous edition
  • 3) Write and release a new adventure to help ease new GMs into the setting and system. (Even if you were just reprinting a previous edition, you'd almost certainly put out a new adventure because it's an easy add-on sale and shows you're serious about reviving the product line.)
  • 4) Produce and release the minimum sourcebooks necessary to just play the default Empire-centric setting. 
    • So I'd guess at a minimum a magic sourcebook plus a religion sourcebook, and maybe some sort of GM's supplement or bestiary. 
    • 4 to 6 products published in total, counting the corebook and initial adventure, before they get around to exploring new territory.
  • 5) Sell enough copies of those 4 to 6 products to justify continuing work on new titles. This will take time, and for best results they'll be released about 1 per month.
  • 6) Decide entirely new content is a better investment of time and energy than merely rehashing old stuff initially covered in existing books from previous editions. In other words, choose to do things the hard way instead of just cashing in on the existing body of previous work.
  • 7) Get GW's approval on their manuscripts, which may be tricky if GW is (as has been rumored for months) rebooting the miniatures setting soon.
If someone picks up the license, and both major branches of the fan base embrace the new (or reprinted) version, then we'll eventually get some truly new content 4 months to 2 years after the new (or reprinted) core book releases.

If instead we splinter into further little angry sub-groups like the fanbase mostly did when 3rd ed came out, the new game (if there is one) won't survive long enough to explore new ground. I don't have a lot of hope here. I've been to the Strike-To-Stun forums, and they are not a friendly place to fans of 3rd Ed.

It's not impossible that FFG could be secretly working on a 4th Ed to be announced at GenCon. That would be the fastest track to us getting actual new content. If they are being that secretive about it, though, I'll be worried about whether or not it got enough playtest before publication. I love 3rd Ed, but as I said, it really needed a more thorough blind playtesting than it got.

If FFG is not secretly at work on a new edition as we speak, then the next best hope for new content would be if a new licensee was to launch a Kickstarter (etc) to gather up tons of fan money and not release the mechanics (since they'll likely be unappealing to at least 1/2 the possible fanbase either way) until after the money is in their hands. I don't know if GW would let them do that, but if they did, a successful crowd-funding might actually free up budget early on for exploring new corners of the setting. Even then, most Kickstarters take forever to deliver their product. I wouldn't hold your breath.


Dan said...

One weird aspect of WFRPG 3e: the game seems to be designed to really push "spotlight scenes". Here I'm defining "spotlight scenes" as scenes in which only one character is capable of contributing (possibly because only one character is present).

This is first visible in the stat system, where you need a large investment in a stat in order to be good at it. (cf. "Munchkin Opposition")

The career system reinforces this. If the party has a Scribe and a Commoner and a Soldier, their skillsets will be near-completely disjoint. In a social encounter, the Commoner steps forward and the Scribe and Soldier sit quietly and listen. For investigation, the Scribe makes most of the checks. Combat encounters become spotlight scenes for the Soldier.

(Compare to D&D 4E, where the character system makes very sure that every player can do combat, and they even invented a "skill challenge" system to make sure that everyone participated in non-combat. The game is sort of bland as a result, but it's really interesting how different the game design principles are.)

The TEW campaign goes further by setting up separate contacts and plotlines for each character. Time to talk to Captain Baerfaust? The Military character shows up, and the rest of the characters aren't even invited to the meeting. Luminary Mauer is at the crime scene? He only wants to chat with the Academic character. (This was most pronounced in the first act.)

And then, when you get into the plot, it's all about doing investigation under time pressure. The players quickly realize they can get four times as much done if they split the party.

Add it all up and, wow, that's a lot of spotlight scenes.

rbbergstrom said...

Great observations, Dan! I hadn't really thought about it in those terms, but you're absolutely right. The dynamic of both the game in general, and that adventure in specific is all about passing the spotlight around the table (and never sharing it). They really take that to extremes.

Rebel said...

Hi Rolfe,
I´m still reading your post, and an idea came to my mind whey you told fo the pre-game prep of the sessions.
Have you tried the Fantasy Grounds ruleset of WFRP3?
I´m doing the initial imput of all the cards and reference manuals (a titanic work, BTW), and doing so, I noticed that both WFRP3 and FG will work great together for online or offline gaming. The possibility of having, preciselly, all the cards and components at the fingertips allow to sort them without searching each card: a simple search in the library and the card pops up in the screen.
In the other hand, a 4th edition is in the works. Cubicle 7 is one of the more trustful companies out there, lets see how it comes.