Why Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay is the best tabletop RPG you aren't playing
A roleplaying game to lose your head over.
It was during my party’s second combat encounter when one of them turned to me and said, “This isn’t Dungeons & Dragons, is it?” In fairness, they had just had their arm broken in a pub brawl with some of the local town guards. All I could say was, “Welcome to Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay!”
Granted, on the surface, WFRP looks like any other tabletop fantasy roleplaying game. There are the familiar trappings of humans, elves, dwarves, orcs, demonic forces and a faux-medieval Europe aesthetic. From there, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 4E diverges significantly.
For starters, the setting invites you to explore the seedier elements of society. While these are often present in many other roleplaying games, WFRP makes them a core part of the environment around you and embraces the subtleties of the real world.
Think of a modern-day city centre, with shiny new sections and graffitied, dilapidated buildings alike in your peripheral vision. You know that both ends, and in-between, have their fair share of charity and corruption; Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay wants its world to share this relatable variety.
During our initial few hours, we were fortunate enough to explore a corrupt law court, an exclusive jewellers and a back-alley 'medicine' vendor, to name just a few places. Having the arrival of steampunk technology be part of the world gave us access to more options without resorting to "It's just magic." Everybody agreed: it just felt more honest an environment than other roleplaying game settings.
Coming from some other RPG systems, the party I was GMing for were fairly confident that they could fight their way out of any situation their mouths talked them into. Sure enough, given a rather obstinate guardsman, they decided to threaten him to get the information they desired. He gestured to his compatriots and the fight was on; unfortunately so for the adventuring group in front of me.
Unlike games such as Dungeons & Dragons, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay doesn’t work on a ‘roll to hit, then roll for damage’ mechanic. Instead, WFRP measures the success of anything you want to do using a d100 - two d10s, where one represents tens (10,20,30...) and the other 0 to 9 - compared to your character’s stats in a given skill. Simply put: the lower you roll, the better you succeed or the more damage you cause.
The party learned this when the guardsman rolled almost as low as is possible, taking away three-quarters of the unlucky player’s health points. Come their turn, the player then attempted to exact their revenge. Sadly, they failed to hit. Even sadder still, the guardsman landed a critical roll.
Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay feels more honest an environment than other RPG settings.
In many RPGs, when rolling a double number (like 22) or the highest possible roll (20 on a d20) all that happens is a guaranteed success and double damage. A critical roll in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying 4E causes a critical injury. This is where things get even more fun.
By rolling against a table of results, the precise nature of the critical injury is determined: anything from flesh wounds to instant death. In this case, a broken arm - meaning they would suffer a penalty to any rolls made over the next four in-game weeks. It wasn’t even the guardsman’s turn. As a player, sometimes it's better to quit while you're ahead and still have a head.
With regards to said potential decapitation, to describe the look of panic when I announced the critical hit would require much longer than I have here. Picture sudden horror and you’ve got the right idea. Needless to say, that player had learnt a very valuable lesson about Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay; you are not an exception here because you are a player character. You must learn to accept the risks of any action you take.
If you are willing to work with the risk, you can taste some beautiful moments of dice-based serendipity. Alongside the wonderfully brutal critical roll variant WFRP uses, every roll determines both whether you succeed and the extent of your success or failure. Roll low, the more fruitful your attempt. Roll high, you may actually make the situation worse.
Indeed, later that very session, one of the party rolled a complete success in their attempt to persuade a market-stall holder not to report them for casting magic in a public space. Anything less would have only resulted in the NPC delaying their report; only a complete success would reward them with a total reprieve. A complete fail and she’d have started screaming straight away. Their choice to pursue that avenue could easily have ended with the party in a whole world of trouble.
In just one session, WFRP managed to transform an over-aggressive bunch of ne’er do wells into a cautious crew. Yes, they absolutely continued to make poor choices but not because of hubris - more so out of hope or desperation.
There's nothing more fun for a GM, or players, than when a game draws you in so much you are awed, humbled and empowered. Everything about Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 4E is designed to make you feel a part of this world. Even when you walk away from the table, you can never shake the feeling that there's an alleyway or altercation waiting to be explored if you dare.