Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 2e: Retrospective by Night10194
A Case For a Lighter HamOriginal SA post Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 2e: Retrospective
A Case For a Lighter Ham
I'm doing this somewhat in lieu of the insane urge to go back and rewrite a bunch of the original core-book review. I want to stop and talk about all the stuff I've learned about this setting through writing these things, and the conclusions I've come to about why this game became one of my group's favorite games. I also want to talk about the multiple readings possible for the setting, but also about why I'll be holding to my original reading after doing all of this.
First, let's get down to it. Throughout the long write-ups I've been doing the last four years, I have consistently emphasized one of many possible readings of the text that emphasizes the more optimistic elements of the setting, particularly in light of 2e being set with the apocalypse cancelled. This is far from the only reading possible using the same text, and even flowing from the same thesis that most of the worst aspects of the setting flow from acts of brutality and injustice. It is not at all hard to write 2e as a black comedy where corrupt officials and powerful nobles ignore existential threats because they can't actually imagine everything collapsing, only to cause everything to collapse. That basically already happened in the Empire's history in the plague of 1111. Or in the complete collapse of Sigmar's original empire into 3 states during the Time of Three Emperors, which lasted for nearly 1000 years. The Empire hasn't actually been The Empire for nearly half its history. It's easy to imagine and write for a version of the setting where the heroes are barely better than thugs or Chaos Cultists themselves, it's always raining, and the world is teetering on the edge of its doom because the inbred idiots who lucked into running it are more concerned with making sure they get their roast pheasant than worrying about the peasants starving to death or cults running amok.
Part of this is because whether you take the setting lighter or darker, one thing that is absolutely consistent in Hams 2e is that nobility is irrelevant. Not 'evil' or 'good', though more nobles will be evil than decent by virtue of having massive unearned privilege and the means to defend it violently, but irrelevant. Nobility and Aristocracy mean absolutely nothing, despite all the importance the societies in Hams place on bloodline or the way they are still primarily run by hereditary aristocracies. It's something the people of Hams think is really important, but nobles are the same as anyone else. There is no 'better class of people'. There's no Chosen Ones. No God-Kings. The people of the setting are just that, people. Even the ancient elves and dwarfs are still fallible people who are often led astray. This is consistent throughout the entire line, whether it's in Bretonnian peasant women being just as good at being Knights as long as they have the armor on or the merchants slowly buying the Empire from the Nobles or the existence of Ranaldans and their entire schtick. Nobility is irrelevant, and while you've got Fate Points that give you some good luck and genre edges, no-one wrote a prophecy about how you're going to get a magic sword and be the best hero ever. You're just a ratcatcher with a bit of good luck who hung on long enough. Your Noble PC doesn't matter beyond being a decent social character and the way people treat them; their Nobility is a social construct, not a matter of superiority.
As for why I tended to emphasize the lighter reading, I turn to the adventure paths and books for this game and the way they all have extremely unsatisfying endings and a lack of a feeling of progression. I feel like that's one of the consequences of the darker reading; the books tend to feel they need to enforce it by reminding you what you did was irrelevant. Also, I got really into writing for these in response to the End Times, and there's a little bit of a sense of spite in there too. I'm not too proud to admit that 'And then people DIDN'T suddenly turn into massive idiots and let Chaos win' is more attractive in light of the fact that that's how things 'canonically' went and it sucked. One of the best mechanical elements of WHFRP2e is the progression system. Careers are just fun, and give you a tangible sense of improvement as your character moves through a life-path that you play out. It feels like having everything end with the PCs still treated like ragged thugs from day 1 to the end of the campaign misses out on that sense of progress. Plus, it feels really in character even for the lighter read of the setting that people who used to spit on someone like Otto as a simple thug and Protagonist now hail him as a hero and pretend they always knew he was special now that he's got money and an opera written about him. That even works to the theme of how the 'better class' is all a social construct propped up by wealth, reputation, and tradition rather than anything material; not like your now-treated-as-a-noble-and-hero former Peasant had a grand bloodline.
I also take and promote the lighter view because the sourcebooks give the sense that the world changes. The Empire has fallen before, and gotten back up before. The Bretonnian's stasis is specifically unnatural and probably enforced by an evil hellforest. Kislev is always in a struggle to unite its people against an existential threat while dealing with very real and reasonable political tensions. All through the Empire, you see agitators and academics questioning why the nobility has the right to rule. There are forces of reform and change that have nothing to do with Chaos, no matter what the powerful authorities of the setting say. Several of the Bret plot hooks in their own book are 'And this is when the Revolution starts'. Ranald and Verena exist. You get the sense that if you come back to the setting in the 2600s, it's going to look different. The Colleges of Magic have opened whole new avenues of advancement, both civil and military, and other nations are trying to match them or develop their own versions. Technology is moving and changing. There are religious reform movements and heterodoxies within all the major cults. There are so many avenues for a campaign to be about really changing something in the setting, which I should know, because I've played in those campaigns! I've gotten to fight in the Bretonnian Revolution of 2623 from multiple perspectives. My current PC is a Sigmarite religious reformer and junior Witch Hunter and veteran of the Siege of Middenheim who preaches against the Flagellant Orders and Monodominants. I ran a campaign set in the early 2600s about a Lahmian trying to help the Norse in their rebellion to throw off Chaos's yolk, because that hook was already written into the Norse! These things were already here, in these books; we just chose to write our campaigns about them instead of just fighting shitty cults at every moment like the adventure paths. Still fought plenty of shitty cults, though.
One of the most interesting things for me personally was discovering how much stuff I thought my GM made up entirely was in the books. We have a long-running meta-thread about the Old Ones in our campaigns, and how they created the species of the world to fuel their economy and immortality by the systematic sacrifice and harvest of the lives of their creations. And how Chaos was originally introduced to the world as part of a rebellion against that order. Imagine how surprised I was when I was doing the Realms of Sorcery writeup and saw that, right there, as one of the theories presented about the Old Ones. Now, it's not exactly what our group's take ended up being, but the basic outline was already in the game as one possible theory proposed by characters in setting about who the Old Ones were and why they made everyone. There are so many intriguing, interesting hooks and mysteries about the setting presented in the margins in the sourcebooks. Enough to let you decide what direction to take your games, while still suggesting all sorts of wild stories. You want to focus on the Dragon Ogres and what happens when their pact with Chaos breaks down? That plot hook is there. You want to explore what the hell the Lady of the Lake really is and how Grail Knights are made? There's material to either let you play them straight or make her a monster.
And some of that comes through something else that comes across in all the setting books: The people of the Old World are actually trying to answer these questions. Magisters ask why magic works how it does. They come up with theories, they study history, they observe the world. Natural historians and scholars genuinely try to understand the fantastical beasts of the world. Historians and Archeologists puzzle over what drove the ancestors of the Empire from the East and into the Reik Basin, or wonder what life was like in ancient Nehekara. People travel to other lands and learn about other peoples. The people of the world explore their world and wonder why it works how it works, and they come up with these plot hooks themselves. Which also means someone is going to pay your PCs good money to go into the dark forest and explore ancient ruins for clues to dark, secret mysteries. They might backstab you later, though. Lotta backstabbing employers in this world. The fact that the people of Hams Fantasy actually care about how Hams Fantasy works is one of the reasons it's so appealing.
And so, with all that material there, and with that material being the sort of stuff we used in the games I've run and played in, that's what I chose to emphasize when giving my reading and take on the setting material. Hams can be written very differently from the impression my writeups give. I merely gave the reading I think is most fun, and that produced a bunch of great games I was excited to share with other people.
Next Time: Mechanical Impressions
Mechanical Merits and FlawsOriginal SA post Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 2e: Retrospective
Mechanical Merits and Flaws
Overall, WHFRP2e is a mechanically solid game, though you wouldn't know it from the pre-published adventures. Which is baffling to me; the core game and system is really well put together! Something I was foolish not to cover in the original is the actual extended author's note from author Chris Pramas in the Core Book, where he talks about what he altered from WHFRP1e and why. It's really helpful! Stuff like 'we were very careful to reign in S and T advances because they have a direct effect on damage' or 'We made armor more effective to get rid of 'naked dwarf syndrome' where dwarf PCs tended to be tougher than plate-clad humans' is neat. As is learning that advancement is actually slowed down in 2e, while a lot of attention was paid to re-balancing the starting careers so that nobody was worthless. In 1e (which I cannot review, never having run, but I have read) you'd have classes with over a dozen skills while other classes had one. That was removed and 1st tier basic careers were heavily standardized, which I think was important from both a mechanical and narrative standpoint.
As I said, one of the big things in WHFRP2e is that your characters are just people. A Charcoal Burner or Peasant still being a useful adventurer with real skills and abilities does a lot to sell the whole 'anyone can be the hero with a bit of luck' feel. This same feeling also helps a lot with challenging high level PCs. I'm running the Chronicle of Pferdekrieg as a single-player game staring Li Na the badass bandit queen, and despite her being as strong as a fighter gets without Chaos, Bret Knight, or Vampire abilities, I can just make a reasonable human enemy who can challenge her among the ranks of other Princes' courts and armies. Because anyone can get that strong given enough time, experience, and luck. You get tough, even heroically tough, without ever hitting a point where 'ten bandits hiding in the woods with crossbows' is completely trivial.
Starting characters are still competent enough. The reason they feel less so is primarily the really, really poor adventure design in the pre-mades. You don't throw -10 and -20 tests constantly at characters with 40% base chances, damnit. Fate and Fortune make up a ton of the difference, but not enough to deal with that. The base skill and talent systems work, and Skill Mastery (the ability to buy +10s and +20s in skills over time) makes a real difference. 2nd or 3rd tier characters become really consistent with their skills. Talents, Skills, and stat advances give the writers enough mechanical levers to distinguish classes, and the system doesn't break down under normal circumstances at high levels. High level play is honestly really fun. The other thing I've learned over time is the system takes well to modification, but you have to use what exists already as a guideline. +1 damage is actually kind of a big deal. Creating new talents is mostly unnecessary, and same for new skills, but if you pay attention to the existing classes creating new Career tracks is actually pretty easy, as I did with the Amazon Warrior track for a game set in Lustria. New gear can be difficult, because the original gear is already pretty balanced (though some of it is on the weak side); you saw the game run into that problem itself in Old World Armory.
The issue with creating new equipment is that by nature, equipment has to rely on side-grades rather than direct variance in numbers. With a limited number of weapon traits, this can make some proficiencies disappointing. Take Crossbow. For whatever reason, Repeater Crossbows pay a huge premium to be able to rapid fire without Rapid Reload, and are Damage 2. Crossbow Pistols are just shittier Pistols and Gun would be more useful for pistols. Most classes that can learn Crossbow could also have learned Longbow in its place, and usually have Rapid Reload, which would let the Longbow fire like the Repeater but at +1 Damage and +1 AP, so generally effectively +2 damage. Which also means the longbow is generally as effective as the standard Damage 4 Crossbow, whose only claim to fame is being a good weapon for unskilled characters as a ranged option (which is a good place for an Ordinary weapon, don't get me wrong). Or how the Main Gauche Parrying Dagger effectively does nothing a Shield isn't already doing besides being a little smaller and taking Parrying prof. I'm okay with (even glad of) gear generally having a low variance on damage and base numbers, but some of the weapons end up presenting no reason to ever use them as is. Adding in new weapons can be a challenge. Same for armor, because end of the day, there's only 1-5 AV and AV 2 and AV 4 are already covered (though the AV 4 armor in Old World Armory sucks).
The biggest mechanical flaw in the system is Swift Attack. Number of attacks is actually pretty important to have in the game with the rest of the combat system's design. It really is; if you only have a 35% chance or whatever of doing damage after DR, active defenses, and to-hit even at higher levels, you need to be swinging more than once. The issue is Swift Attack being a 'plant feet and swing' move like in D&D 3e. Because of this, the character that charges is usually going to be disadvantaged against the character that gets charged in a duel of high level combatants. Or even low level combatants, as long as they have 2 Attacks or more. Once you can swing twice, you're never incentivized to do much else in combat. Feints mathematically don't make it easier to hit someone than just swinging twice and trying to get through their active defenses that way, since you have to succeed, beat their check, and then succeed an attack again anyway and give up your multiple attacks to do it. Maneuver is always an edge case at best. All Out Attacks, which are normally an interesting mechanical choice (give up all active defenses for +30 to hit) lose a lot of luster when you could instead keep your defense AND swing twice. The same comes down to the rate of fire and action economy issues guns and crossbows have next to King Longbow. Sure, Liniel's twin pistols worked great, but that's why you tend to see gun characters use pistols and the musket kind of falls off over time. A crossbowman with Sharpshooter making Aimed fire at +20 is still less advantaged, generally, than a Longbow user shooting twice. The Combat System is reasonably simple no matter what, but Swift Attack is just so much stronger than other options that I wonder if it shouldn't have just been 'you make attacks equal to your Attacks characteristic' in most cases as the standard half-action or Charge attack.
The other big flaw is the way magic items are done. There's never really a solid 'guideline' on what magical gear is like. Sure, PCs are relatively unlikely to have much magic gear in WHFRP, but it can certainly come up, especially if you're actually using the Trappings system (which is itself another flaw, I'll get to it) and thus your Wizard or whatever needs a Magic Item to keep promoting. Magic Items tend to have huge bonuses attached that throw off the normally restrained system math. An SB+4 WS+20 weapon is fucking nuts. Or a Damage+3 weapon that gains Impact, like one of the Master Runes. Even something with 'just' +10% WS like Otto's gloves is a huge bonus! Especially as these can go up and above normal caps. I have played a PC who got to 90% Toughness through Exalted Lord of Chaos, Chaos Armor, and mutation (Joan of Lyonesse's meeting with the Lady went very badly) and I can tell you the system starts to creak a little at DR 14, which is achievable for a more normal PC with magic armor. Still, this kind of stuff is an edge case. I also note that in the late books, they start to lose sight of how powerful 'Ignores Armor' is. Ice Magic is fucking full of Ignores Armor. When you put down Ignores Armor you have to mentally remind yourself this means 'is 1-5 Damage higher than listed'. Armor is fucking important!
Which is also why the Trappings system and the instinct to never, ever actually fucking pay PCs can really suck. Armor is vitally important to the party's fighters. Armor is VERY EXPENSIVE. Armor is also required as a Trapping for promotion for a lot of fighters. If you're going to write into your adventure paths that PCs are constantly poor and never paid real money for their work, don't fucking link their expensive items to them being able to class change! There's a reason we've always ignored that rule. If you use it, either your Squire ends up in Full Plate by the end of their first career (which as you saw with Otto is a huge boost to even a 1st Career fighter) to promote to Knight or they're stuck not really promoting because they can't afford plate. Either can potentially derail the flow of a character's progression for a kind of nonsensical rule as it is.
One thing I can definitely say for WHFRP2e, though: Outside of some pretty broken options like Virtue of Heroism (which was at least cool as hell to play) it does not become Rocket Tag. If you're keeping up on gear and things are balanced, you'll be able to take a few hits. Given my original experience was with WH40KRP, this was a huge goddamn relief when coming to Fantasy.
Finally, mechanically, the Career system is just goddamn great and nothing else has ever really managed to pull it off. You get enough options to do unexpected or odd characters, not to mention the '200 out to whatever Basic you want' rule, while still having coherent tracks of development and enough guidance that you pretty much can't build a 'useless' PC. The classes are fun and flavorful and give you a real sense of, well, a career. Liniel would have been a totally different character if she went Courtier. You're also always gaining stuff. Multiclassing/taking a diversion can take awhile, but it's because you're learning a ton of stuff, most of it useful. There's a great sense of your characters becoming broadly competent and good at things, and the pace of advancement is generally pretty good, though 2nd careers can slow you down a lot. About the only main class track I'd complain about is Priest; I wish they got their defining Divine Lore in Career 2. It takes forever to actually learn your God's magic and it can be really frustrating in play. Especially as they suddenly need to dump 500 EXP (five sessions, on average) into slowly learning Petty Magic, which isn't that useful. A friend proposed a solution wherein you'd get Mag 1 and Petty Magic in Initiate and then advance into either a fightery-Warrior Priest who still only has Mag 1 or an Anointed Priest at Tier 2 and get the Divine Lore immediately (with both those exiting into each other) that I'd like to try out some time. But as it stands playing a Priest can be a slog for a long time until you get your tricks.
Overall, WHFRP isn't going to set the world on fire, but it works. And it even brings a great advancement system to the table, as well as a general sense of restraint. Some of the specific authors get too hot and heavy on stuff that ignores the Wounds system, and Mutation being a sudden 'save or it happens' is a bad idea too considering the possible consequences. The entire Insanity system is trash and should generally be ignored for being both kinda offensive to mental health issues (like most San systems) and generally not well thought out. But those issues aside, the system fundamentally doesn't require hardly any houseruling to play just fine and works out of the box. Hell, Insanity is even explicitly optional in the Core Book as it is. In this deep dive, nothing really changed that impression, besides showing off that all the one-hit kills in Tome of Corruption feel pretty bullshit next to the generally non-rocket-tag nature of the game.
Next Time: Things I Learned
4 years and hundreds of pages later...Original SA post Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 2e: Retrospective
4 years and hundreds of pages later...
So, I actually learned a ton about both the game and setting by doing this project. It's one thing to read the books a bit when you're just reading for yourself. Reading to actually explain them to others or do analysis stuff is different! One of the reasons I'm a bit sad this is actually ending is because pretty much every book contained something that surprised me in one way or another when I went deep on them.
Probably the biggest surprise to me is how empty Sigmarism is. The religion defines itself entirely by what it's against and can fall into the trap of only being for 'hey you should do whatever the people with all the money and power say, and they should also have all the money and power'. You can see all kinds of avenues to fix that, but as written it's kind of a hollow shell of state religion that actually completely destroyed the Empire once. Sigmar's religion killed Sigmar's Empire. Because the more you actually read into the stuff on the Time of Three Emperors the more you see that it was Sigmarism attacking the other cults (and doing it after Sigmarism had outright exterminated a legitimate religion, Vylmar's party cult, for being 'too Slaaneshi') that eventually broke faith in the Electoral system and caused a total breakdown of order. Yes, a Sigmarite Seminarian and devout worshiper working in Sigmar's name then put the Empire back together a millennia later, but he did that partly by trying to take away some of their weapons for trying to bully other religions and setting up means to let the other Cults talk before it gets to civil war again. Sigmar totally ruled. Sigmarism is something to be careful of, even if it could also totally rule with some work.
I was also disheartened to notice a general issue with sexism in the way the Empire is written. It's not glaring, and I'm okay with the Empire being less totally equal than Kislev (though I'd be equally okay with just...dropping that and think that for official material 4e doing so is a much better idea; best to make the official book as permissive and inclusive as possible) but the way it's written as a nebulous thing enables stuff like the rampant misogyny in Forges of Nuln. Making it a vague 'well women don't normally do the same jobs as men but you certainly can' sort of thing is the kind of writing that lets shitlords worm their way in and talk about 'realistic' prejudice or whatever in this, the setting full of elves and fire wizards. We're already all fighting the devil in the HRE except it was founded by a version of Conan who fucking loved tax laws, calenders, and roads. Things can be different. Things don't have to justify being different. You never see those same people complain the fucking Steam Tanks are unrealistic, now do you? But little bits like the inexplicable 'the Colleges of Magic take fewer women and push them towards Life Magic' sidebar and stuff hurt the game and don't even make sense within the fiction, when the Colleges normally consider choosing a Wind as a deeply personal and sacred act. While I love Hams 2e, I will call out the places it could be better and I will happily report that those places actually did improve significantly in 4e's fluff writing.
I really enjoyed discovering the subplot about how Mutation is written in Fantasy, because I think it's emblematic of what attracts me to Fantasy. I'd never noticed quite how much there is about how the ostracizing of Mutants is actually hurting the Empire and other nations. I really enjoy Chart taking the time to make a place like the town of Uisen in Bretonnia, or mentioning that there are communities of Mutants in the Border Princes who resist the Dark Gods and live in a normal community. Or the bits about how the Shallyans run secret asylums to protect Mutant children from the Hunters. Instead of being an uncomfortable thing about genetic purity or whatever, the fact that Mutants are just people and that the Old World is making an outright mistake that only aids the forces of Chaos by casting them out and fearing them is the kind of stuff that makes me fond of Hams. It helps reinforce the theme that a lot of the issues the world faces come from brutality. The Hard Man making Hard Decisions isn't a hero in Warhammer Fantasy. He's making a mistake and taking a coward's way out. The fanatical Hunter who would burn a village to ensure they killed their target isn't helping anyone. You see that reinforced even more in the Border Princes, where the reason principles are hard to come by is all the people without them proudly proclaiming they're too smart and hard to abide by agreements or do the right thing...and they don't actually do any better for it, they just drag everyone else down with them. That becomes part of the joke: The Hard Man proudly proclaiming he's a genius moments before he gets his ass kicked because now he's all alone and surrounded by orcs.
Similarly, I really didn't expect much of Renegade Crowns and it was instead one of the best surprises in the line. I adored making Pferdekrieg and really enjoyed the writing in the book once you get down to what it's trying to say. Hams makes for good dark comedy even if you're going for the somewhat lighter tone I prefer. I had never thought of playing a 'generate a map and a sub-setting' style of map-campaign before, now I'm running one off on the side. Not everything in that book is great; the wandering monsters step sucks and I'm not entirely sold on the Realm Management system (though I appreciate it's intent and I do like the Measure Time In Adventures conceit), but the basic history and landscape and especially Prince generation rules are great and produce fun realms full of backstabbing assholes and torrid love affairs.
I was also very pleasantly surprised by Lure of the Liche Lord. The Hams Undead rule, the Tomb Kings are one of the coolest ideas in Hams, and I was really glad to see their one appearance in 2e was well done (even if you'll need to write your own non-shit endings). I really think that book was onto something with the Toolbox campaign structure and would've liked to see more Adventure Books in a similar vein rather than seeing stuff like Paths of the Damned.
I also want to thank everyone who has read my nonsense about a silly British fantasy setting that's over 30 years old. I really enjoyed doing the close-reading and writing for this series and I'm sad to see it come to an end. Even if you don't use the 2e Rules System (preferring to use the new 4e, or some other system entirely) I hope a few people will give the setting a try as an RPG setting, because it's been great for me and wonderful to share it with you all. I firmly believe Fantasy is a great example of how to actually roll with cliches and run with them and make something of them. You can, without prior experience, recognize almost every element in Warhams Fantasy. You don't need to memorize hundreds of pages of backstory to appreciate a Landscknecht halberding the fuck out of the Devil. Or to appreciate Dracula hanging out in his castlevania, occasionally punching orcs. But almost every cliched fantasy trope in the setting has some twist or deeper bit to it or how it fits together with the others, and almost all of them make it feel more like a place where people actually live and some random ratcatcher accidentally ends up the hero, with a (worn out) statue built to them and their small (but vicious!) dog in the town square. Crapped on by pigeons for all time.