-Lars Hammett, Bounty Hunter
So it’s come to this. As should be a surprise to no one, early in August Fantasy Flight Games announced that it is officially ceasing production on new material for WARHAMMER FANTASY ROLEPLAY 3rd EDITION. And I happen to think the world of roleplaying games is a little darker for it.
A bit of personal history here. Let’s fire up the WayBackMachinetm. It’s the late 80’s and I’m on my way to Ocean City, Maryland with my family. Just prior to the road trip I’d picked up a copy of Dragon magazine to read on the trip. I can clearly remember lying in my hotel room that night and reading a preview of the forthcoming second edition of AD&D. And that was that.
By the late 80’s my gaming preferences had slowly begun to shift away from playing AD&D as I had become increasingly distracted by board games like TALISMAN.So by the time second edition AD&D was announced with a giant full color insert in DRAGON MAGAZINE Issue #142 I was primed for something new. I was lucky enough to live in Baltimore, which was where the only US Games Workshop store was located. Those trips to that store became magical pilgrimages, and for Christmas and birthdays my wish list began to simply read “trip to Games Workshop.” Somewhere along the way, a softcover copy of the first edition of WARHAMMER FANTASY ROLEPLAY made its way into my hands.
And everything changed.
Here was a fantasy setting with a tight focus, where the monsters were as real as your neighbor who might secretly be a cult member. Player characters frequently started out as commoners, good as a fisherman or a scribe, but a sword-wielding adventurer? Not so much. Death was ever present, and as likely to claim an experienced character as a brand new one. Not to mention those lasting injuries. The world of WHFRP did not have easily acquired spells that could regrow that missing hand or eye. (Hell, simply *casting* a spell might give you a *third* eye!) Level-based progression mostly flew out the window, replaced by incremental skill-based improvement. Sure, other games were doing it at the time, but not like this. And I certainly hadn’t seen them.
WARHAMMER FANTASY ROLEPLAY permanently changed my roleplaying preferences.
So yes, when Fantasy Flight Games released the new third edition of the game in 2009 complete with piles of cards and tokens and those crazy custom dice, yes I was among the righteously indignant who screamed out into the electronic darkness of the internet. “How dare they? How DARE they turn my beloved game into this.. this.. travesty? This abomination of tokens and widgets and … is it even a real roleplaying game any more?”
As it turn out, yes, it was a real roleplaying game. In fact, it was advancing the hobby in a way that nobody had done in years. And while after years of play, I found some of the bells and whistles unnecessary and a bit overproduced, what WARHAMMER FANTASY ROLEPLAY 3E did was nothing short of change the way I play roleplaying games. Again.
Two things stand out. First of all, yes, the dice.
Those wacky six- and eight- and ten- sided, non-numbered oddities got the majority of the antagonism when this thing was released, but man, they are a wonder. Within a single roll of a small handful of dice, they were capable of telling you not only success or failure, but degree of success or failure, plus WHY you succeeded or failed. Not only that, but there were a few symbols, like the hourglass or exhaustion symbol, that didn’t necessarily have any results that were hardwired into the rules. Indeed, as the GM you were expected to utilize these secondary symbols in interesting ways, something the game’s developers really began to explore in the Gamemaster’s Toolkit. Perhaps the hourglass meant your attempted task took longer to complete, or maybe it meant the bad guys chasing you were starting to catch up.
So why do these dice matter? ‘Cause they got me thinking differently. They taught me to “think beyond the dice”, which is to say, to use the dice themselves (any dice) as random indicators and influence upon story. ( I’ve seen the 13th AGE RPG do this too, by the way.) So that a roll of a single die can mean success or failure, yes, but either way, maybe an odd or even result triggers something on a different axis entirely. Perhaps it’s a special ability, perhaps it’s helping to track the spread of a fire ignited earlier in the battle.
Secondly, the Progress Tracker.
This thing changed my world. Originally designed to manage initiative ratings while having a few other flexible uses, once again the Gamemaster’s Toolkit really blew this thing wide open. You could use it for orchestrating chase scenes or tracking dwindling food resources over long journeys. You could use it to effectively time waves of reinforcements during large battles, or manage multiple factions as they’re all hunting the same quarry. By introducing just the tiniest amount of “gaminess” to a Gamemaster’s arsenal, entirely new vistas of dramatic inspiration were opened up.
Is there a storm on the horizon? Use the Tracker to determine when it arrives. Need to determine exactly how much “sniffing around” will draw the attention of the bad guys? Use the Tracker. How about the duration of torches in a dungeon? The party’s reputation in town? Combine the Progress Tracker wth some of those die symbols of indeterminate use, and suddenly life gets really interesting.
The Progress Tracker is this decade’s EVERWAY Fate Deck for me, something I will now use in every RPG I run. (What’s that? You don’t know about the Everway Fate Deck? Ask me about that sometime.)
So as WARHAMMER FANTASY ROLEPLAY once again passes into history, I’d like to remember that what Fantasy Flight Games did was a bold and ballsy move. While not as ultimately successful as some of their other courageous innovations (Living Card Games anyone?), this game’s mechanics were the father of those found in the new line of STAR WARS RPGs, and pushed the design of RPGs forward in new, boundary-breaking ways. Sure it’s easy to look at things now, in the wake of the release of the new DUNGEONS & DRAGONS Player’s Handbook and see a thriving hobby, but things were not the same in 2009.
So as WARHAMMER FANTASY ROLEPLAY 3rd Edition quietly passes into the realm of Morr, I’d like to say a prayer to the Emperor and remind the game that some of us out here loved it, stupid cards and tokens and dice and all.
-Paul Alexander Butler is the Store Manager at Games and Stuff. He misses the days when wood elf Bryce Windwater walked the roads of the Empire with his human companion Gulliver, Man-at-Arms. Or for a time when somewhere in the woods outside of Talabheim, an outcast mother mourns for the abuses her son has suffered at the hands of zealots, and an under-appreciated playwright seeks inspiration for his One Great Tale. But that story remains to be told.
-[Card.Board.Box] is Paul’s semi-regular column about stuff that he feels like talking about within the Hobby Game Industry.