When I’m thinking about which RPG I’d like to run next, I generally imagine them somewhere on a single spectrum. Of course, RPGs are nuanced and couldn’t possibly all be summed up by a single value, but I find this tool to be quite useful for categorising systems. This sliding scale asks the question - ‘how combat-oriented is the system?’
You can extrapolate a lot by answering this simple question and pretty much all RPGs sit somewhere on the line. The more rules a system has for fighting, the more likely it is that the game’s tempo is going to be defined by a series of combat encounters. In a combat-oriented system, stats and their manipulation are going to be of paramount importance. Perhaps most telling of all is that in a combat-heavy game, there will be a higher sense of the ‘players vs gm’ attitude.
“You should never be trying to beat your players!” I hear you cry out. Yes, I know that. But here’s the thing. While I’m always rooting for my players to win, and while I don’t want to beat them, the NPCs I’m controlling don’t feel the same way. By proxy, if I’m controlling an antagonist, I’m playing against my players. I’d be doing them a disservice if I didn’t play these characters as though they want my players to die.
It’d be nice if Dungeons & Dragons, the game so many of us experience first, was smack in the middle of this spectrum, but it absolutely is not. D&D has more rules for combat than almost any other system out there. Epic stories, nuanced characters, and deep lore are really a modern addition to D&D. First edition was a game about looting dungeons and acquiring gear. It was a concept derived from Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson’s experiences playing (and creating) miniature war games. Modern D&D, though much more narrative-driven, still carries the fundamental design ethos of those salad days of RPGs.
Modern players demand RPing from D&D, so the custodians of this legacy came up with a very clever way to deal with this issue. Players in D&D are above average in every way. The basic human NPC in D&D has a 10 for every stat. The players, even at level 1, vastly outmatch 99% of the rest of the world in both wits and muscles. Indeed, while the band of thugs that ambushes the party in their level 1 adventure absolutely intend to kill them, and while their DM should definitely be trying to kill them, the truth is that they never really stand a chance. Their purpose is not to challenge the players, but to nourish them, nudging them on their way to level 2.
So, what of this spectrum? If D&D is so far on the combat-oriented side of the line, what could possibly lie even further in that direction? The answer, as you’ve no doubt guessed, is Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay.
WFRP is a truly brutal, unforgiving slog through a pseudo-medieval Germanic land that is rife with squalor and corruption. This is emphasised pretty much immediately upon playing the game, during character creation, which is likely to result in your players being a ramshackle collection of peasants, beggars, thugs and various other bits of muck from the underside of life’s boot. Even if one of the players has the incredible good fortune to randomly roll up someone built for combat, such as a gladiator or a road warden, their stats will still be randomly generated anyway, so all they’re really getting is the ability to use a slightly better weapon without lopping their own arms off.
...And arms will come off. Every fight is a desperate, last-ditch struggle for survival, often resulting in semi-permanent injuries that have long-lasting effects. In my last campaign, one of the players was running a kind of orator, whose strengths lay in convincing groups of people to see things his way through the use of sound logic and a flowery vocabulary. Unfortunately for him, the party got into a bar brawl very early in the adventure and he got his jaw smashed to pieces. He had to spend 4 weeks of in-game time healing, during which he couldn’t talk properly (gaining a huge penalty to all checks which required speech) and couldn’t eat any solid food. At the end of this period, his player was allowed to roll to see if his jaw had set properly. Fortunately for him, it had.
Frankly, our chatty friend got off lightly. Literally any swing of a blade in WFRP can result in extremely dire consequences. Unlike D&D, scoring a crit in WFRP prompts players to roll on a ‘crit table’. This table contains everything from simply being nicked on the ear, causing a round of being stunned, to major arteries being severed and players imminently bleeding out, to straight up decapitation, from which there is no return. Entering into combat in this system is a very grim decision to be forced to make. Every time you step up to an opponent, you know this might be your character’s last action. It creates a sense of consequence that is simply not possible in a more forgiving system like D&D.
Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay does have a lot of the trappings of other RPGs, they’re just simultaneously more muted and more exaggerated. Magic, for example, is a constant gamble for any wizard-like characters. You’re just as likely to blow your fingertips off as you are to actually cast the desired spell. Similarly, being of a religious persuasion is often a risky endeavour. Clerics and the like can actually pray at shrines for a chance to receive miraculous buffs and boons. However, woe betide those who fail to strictly follow the teachings of their deity, as the Gods will inflict curses, with characters auto-failing checks, being unable to recover lost magic points or HP, or possibly even causing the word ‘HERETIC’ to appear, tattooed across their chest.
That’s not to say WFRP neglects the actual role playing elements of the hobby. It just approaches them in a very grimy way. Consume Alcohol, for example, is a skill that almost every player will put a decent number of points into. Much of the game is spent in taverns and alehouses, and there are very precise rules for the chugging of booze and the inebriation that follows. Many skills have sub-skills. Others will perhaps be advanced skills that only very specific characters, in very specific circumstances, can acquire. For all of the emphasis on ensuring each character is a weak, mewling nobody, the truth is that few other systems create characters that seem so unique. Consequently, few systems provide this many gut-punches when your beloved character dies.
Warhammer’s Old World is obviously an established setting, which the core rulebook does a pretty decent job of describing. You won’t be able to run your steampunk homebrew games in this system without significant tinkering with the rules. But if you’re a fan of Warhammer, or simply want to kick the shit out of your players for a bit, WFRP is as good as it gets.