By the beginning of 1988, my enthusiasm for Dungeon & Dragons had reached a low ebb. My group tried multiple times to change things up with unofficial house rules and other ancillary material, but none of was able to mitigate my frustration with the system’s limitations and overall clunkiness. We were still into fantasy genre roleplaying as a concept, but one that no longer aligned with D&D’s take on the source material.
Our attempts to tackle other genres and game systems resulted in a seemingly endless cycle of one-off adventures and aborted campaigns, with the sole exception of a ongoing yet infrequent Champions run. Space opera and gothic horror and post-apocalyptic survival was fun and all, but none of it could capture the thrills to be found in a small graph paper labyrinth stuffed with monsters and loot.
I considered making the leap to one of the other established systems, but most seemed like lateral shifts from D&D fiddly stodginess or required a dozen of so sourcebooks to properly enjoy. Then, right when I was about to give up on my quest, I spotted a copy of Warhammer Fantasy Role Play on the shelves during my maiden visit to the Compleat Strategist.
The book’s thirty-buck asking price — along with sensory overload caused by the store’s deep inventory — made me pass on picking it up during that trip, but the set the wheels in motion. The game was a recent offering from Games Workshop, a British based publisher I’d only known through the numerous full-color ads pitching the Talisman board game and various miniature lines in the pages of Dragon Magazine. Their stuff oozed character — a mixture of imported exoticism and an aesthetic exemplified by chunky-spiky “Chaos Warriors” sporting absurdly oversized weapons and a surplus of skulls.
I never imagined ever encountering this stuff in the retail wilderness, but now it was there for the buying. The following weeks were spent accumulating enough scratch to finance the purchase. In the meantime, I stoked the fires of anticipation by reading and re-reading Dragon Magazine‘s “good for a game that isn’t published by TSR” review of the WFRP (yes, that acronym does kinda look like “WKRP” and you are the first person ever to point this out to me, honest) rule book as well as the multi-page ad insert Games Workshop used to promote it in the mag.
The original plan was to make the voyage back into Boston on the Saturday before Martin Luther King Day, but fell though when I couldn’t find a wingman to travel with me. (I actually waited at the bus stop by myself for twenty minutes before I got cold feet — literally and figuratively — and walked back home.) The bus service to Woburn didn’t run on Sunday, so I had to wait until the holiday to make another attempt with my buddy Scott in tow.
My thoughts veered between pre-emptive buyer’s remorse and breathless excitement during the long ride into the Back Bay. Thirty dollars was a lot of money by my paper route funded, fifteen year old standards, yet I really, really wanted the damn book. When I got to the store, I flipped though the book for a minute or two before plunking it down with a wad of tattered singles next to the cash register.
Then I left the store and immediately dropped my new prize in a slush puddle. Fortunately, only a corner of the book got soaked.
We stopped at the Meadow Glen Mall in Medford for lunch during the ride home, where I bought the then-current issue of the pre-GMo Doom Patrol at Waldenbooks and pretended to pay attention to my pal’s chatter as I hungrily tried to absorb random passages of the WFRP manual.
The book was three-hundred-page-plus tome packed with all the info — character creation, combat mechanics, monsters, setting info — required to play the game and it took me the better part of a month to digest it all. In the process, I was elated to discover that it was exactly what I’d been looking for.
The game was set in an embryonic early version of Games Workshop’s (now destroyed) Warhammer Fantasy Battle wargame universe, a rough approximation of early Renaissance Europe where an analogue of the Holy Roman Empire was the dominant power against an array of enemies both magical and mundane. The fictional universe incorporated all the familiar fantasy archetypes, but adjusted to fit the tone of WFRP’s “grim world of perilous adventure.” Elves and dwarves were dying races bled white over centuries of conflict, magic was unreliable and viewed with extreme suspicion, and a extra-dimensional rift at the North Pole was spewing forth demonic energy which would eventually engulf the entire world.
The tone owed as much (if not more) to Moorcock and Lovecraft as it did to Tolkien, yet its grubby atmosphere of existential dread was leavened with a good deal of the sardonic absurdity in a similar vein to the 2000 AD comics. It perfectly matched my developing adolescent head-space, becoming the role playing equivalent to the Watchmen. My tastes in fantasy had already shifted from high fantasy The Lord of the Rings to the grimy viscerality of Boorman’s Excalibur and ITV’s Robin of Sherwood series that ran on one of the market’s lesser UHF channels at the time.
WFRP’s mechanics were far more streamlined and logical than D&D’s sprawling mess, but also offered far more options and detail. Combat and skill resolution were based on percentage checks modified by various perks and situational factors. You rolled against your Weapon (or Ballistic) Skill stat. If you hit, you reversed the roll numbers to determine hit location. Then applied damage based on strength and weapon modifiers against the enemy’s toughness and armor stats.
It was fast-moving by RPG standards and extremely lethal. Even the the toughest veteran characters had fewer than a dozen Wound (read “hit”) points, and then it was time to face the graphically gory outcomes of the game’s infamous critical hit tables.
During my college WFRP runs, it only took the players a month to memorize the various results and join me in reciting them. One of Maura’s earliest memories of me is of trying to study in the club room between classes when I led the group in a chorus of “your opponent’s abdominal cavity ruptures, spilling entrails across a wide area. DEATH IS INSTANTANEOUS.”
Yet she still said yes when I asked her out a few months later. Go figure.
Healing magic was next to non-existent, which meant treatment for injuries were handled by mundane and equally risky period-appropriate (i.e. leeches and a bonesaw) methods. Characters could (and most likely would) suffer a number of permanently crippling physical and mental traumas during the course of their brutal and short adventuring careers. To offset this, each player was given a small pool of “Fate Points” which could be burned to set up a life-sparing deus ex machina scenario.
“The blow leaves you unconscious. The bandit thinks you’re dead and strips your corpse before tossing your body in a muddy ditch. You wake up naked and bleeding in the dark six hours later.”
Apart from the joyously grimdark tone, the big selling point for WFRP was its robust and open-ended character creation and advancement system. Instead of levelling upwards in fixed classes, WFRP characters were able to progress through a path featuring scores of individual basic and advanced careers defined by gear, statistic advances, and skills. A provincial fisherman could — with some effort and enough experience points — become a powerful wizard over time, or a lowly serving girl could claw her way up into the ranks of knighthood.
The system was full of exploits and odd omissions (no farmer or peasant careers, for some reason), and wildly imbalanced. Some careers included upwards of a dozen skills and advances while others ended up with only a couple. Meta-minded players had a field day sussing out the optimal combination for in-game dominance (until their fate points ran out), but the system also gave less grasping player groups a responsive investment in the organic development of their characters — the grave robber turned surgeon or the alchemist apprentice turned assassin, and the stories about how they got there.
For all that it got right in a compact package, the game’s magic system was a rudimentary affair pulled right from its wargame precursor. It was supposed to be a placeholder, but one that remained in said place for over a decade. It was functional, but limited in scope and heavy on battlefield enchantments, which discouraged players from pursing the associated career paths. I tried to sweeten the pot by adapting a few dozen utility-minded spells from D&D for the game, but to no avail. (I think I had one wizard and one druid in all of my WFRP runs.)
Despite my evangelism, my group didn’t take an immediate shine to WFRP. Being able to play as a “pit fighter” or “bounty hunter” out of the gate had a strong appeal, but the lethality of the combat was a big hurdle the we had to overcome. On my end, I had to re-learn how to properly scale encounters to make things challenging but not impossible. On the players’ end, they had to figure out that rushing into a crowd of enemies would most likely result in a quick and gory demise.
Folks like my brother, who enjoyed playing a bit cagey, were able to adapt quickly. The kids who were still hung up on the adolescent power fantasy aspects of role-playing didn’t fare nearly as well. Those who were able to reconcile themselves with the game’s tone, however, absolutely adored it.
Of all the role-playing games I’ve played in the past three decades, Warhammer Fantasy Role Play is at the top of my favorites list. It is “the” game, the one I most associate with my experiences in the hobby. Its grimy, punk-inflected Britishness was both a revelation and a gateway into some weird and wonderful things to come.