Classic RPG Review #9: Warhammer Fantasy Role Play

by Richard Halliwell, Graeme Davis, a.o.
1986 GamesWorkshop Ltd., Nottingham UK

To be honest, I never played this game, even if I loved the setting and I had a group nearby that revelled in it. At the time I was heavily promoting my own new role playing game, and a good friend used my rules for the Warhammer adventures instead. So I guess the dark, gunpowder flooded, warpstone infected, mutated dwarven, undead gothic horror, demonic magic version of Germany that Warhammer introduced was pretty good.

And the artwork is still pretty good too. Lots of black ink, chaos, axes and beards everywhere. Quite much like your average role playing group. No wonder it sits well with us chaotic and bearded nerds. Except that I did not have a beard nor an axe then. I never realized at the time, but the sprawling battle scenes, and the 16th century feel of the artwork are surely inspired by the 16th century artist Albrecht Altdorfer. If you don't know him, look him up and be surprised at the similarities to the whole Warhammer “raaah. Battle!” concept. And the Warhammer capital of the old Reich (“Reik”) is named Altdorf. That should be a clue.

So, the setting is inspiring and the artwork is dark and cool. How about the game itself? Well, that's based firmly in the miniature war gaming camp. Not the realistic wargame sort, but the quick and dirty, yet fun sort. Player characters have statistics as if they are soldiers of a tin men army too. Yes, they also have skills, and might even grow personalities as the game progresses. But they basically start out as a line of statistics, more than in other role playing games.

I suspect that the designers of Warhammer FRP like to play large fantasy battles. And one day they thought, hey, wouldn't it be cool to give our tiny heroes some specials? That's what it looks like. Personalised miniatures. Okay in itself, yet a different school of thought than say, radio theatre.

That the player doesn't have to be to close to his (or her) hero, you can also feel in other rules. If a hero has a mandatory hatred for another race for example (like dwarves hate orks), then you have to check your cool to avoid fighting. Sorry guys, couldn't help it! I just happened to split my axe in his head and now we are in big trouble... In many other games the player has to decide for himself, here the rules force you to proceed to combat. I guess the designers love combat. Chaotic combat.

Perhaps this game is best enjoyed with meticulously painted tin men in a huge chaotic diorama like you can see in the Games Workshop stores nowadays. Citadel Miniatures, sponsor and probably now owner of the game would like you to think so. And it sure may be fun if you have lots of money and time to spare. Otherwise imagination works wonders too.

Other than that, the hardcover is over 350 pages thick with practical rules, scores of monsters, spells, skills and careers, and best of all a fleshed out world guide and a first adventure. Artwork abounds, the font is readable (that's more than many current games can say), and the lay out gives the tome a magical feel. If you can lay your hands on an old copy it may well be worthwile. Even if you don't play the game, you'll find a lot of inspiration in it.

(rules are practical, detailed, and fairly easy to learn, but they lean much to the war game side)
(the worked out dark fantasy setting, and the rich career, skill, spell and monster templates make you want to play)
(if you like fun war gaming, this may be the game for you bridging war gaming and role playing, if not you may feel your heroes remain somewhat cardboard)
(dark medieval fantasy, with Teutonic-Moorcock-esque religion, lots of gunpowder, bombs, chaotic dwarves and horrific mutations, rules encourage militaristic, somewhat detached play, but with humour)


1 comment:

  1. Historically, Brit game designers have produced more atmospheric RPGs than Americans seem able to.
    I will stick with Dungeons & Dragons for its "true blue hero stuff" appeal but there's certainly something to say for Warhammer's gritty approach.
    Though I never did like the techno explanations behind much of the deep game lore. Also, like you said, WH is very true to its wargaming roots and it shows in the sketchy character portrayal.