Armagideon Time

The purpose of this feature was to reconstruct a timeline of events through the lens of a hobby I adored through most of my teens and early adulthood. As we start to enter the final stretch, that timeline — and the personal connections that drove it — becomes a bit unraveled. For all intents and purposes, my active involvement in roleplaying games ended when Lil Bro’s and my Necromunda campaign did. Anything past that point was entirely a matter of morbid curiosity and force of habit.

Unlike, say, my copy of Oriental Adventures or the fourth edition Champions rulebook, there’s little nostalgic resonance in the stuff I picked up after 1997 or so. That mnemonic locus shifted to the various funnybooks, videogames, and music that supplanted RPGs as a major vector of interest. There’s no flood of lucid memories to be triggered via memorable passages, illustrations, or penciled-in marginalia, just a vague “oh, yeah, I forgot I bought this” when I spot it in the upper strata of the storage crate.

Even the few exceptions to this rule are lean on the anecdote fodder front, as is the case with the Realms of Sorcery supplement for Warhammer Fantasy Role Play.

The most notable thing about the tome is that it actually exists. WFRP’s magic system had been one of its weaker points since the game’s release in 1986. The “came with the frame” rules featured in the original hardcover edition were intended to be a placeholder that would be expanded on in “the upcoming Realms of Sorcery supplement.” Years went by, Games Workshop lost interest in the franchise and farmed it out to second-party affiliate publishers, and the chances of the promised sourcebook ever materializing grew increasingly unlikely.

To compensate for this, I decided to take matters into my own hands by going over every 1st edition AD&D spell, plucking out ones with useful non-combat applications, and adapted them for use alongside the WFRP’s wargame-influenced roster of enchantments. These hand-written loose-leaf notebook pages constitute at least a third of the material in my “Warhammer crate” by volume, and deciding their ultimate fate has given me no small amount of angst as I try to clear out and consolidate the stuff I stored in my grandmother’s attic.

Rumors swirled in the lonely little corners of the remnant WFRP scene about a Ken Ralston-penned draft of the tome getting rejected for publication by GW, which was tantalizing but fundamentally useless information from a fan’s side of the equation. Meanwhile, the Warhammer Fantasy Battle magic system continued to expand and revise the lore laid down in its unloved sibling, pushing it even further from WFRP’s rudimentary framework.

It wouldn’t be until 2001 that Hogshead Publishing, WFRP’s then-current licensee, finally managed to deliver the tome fans had been waiting for since Mr. Mister’s “Broken Wings” was at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 charts.

I’m not even sure how I found out it had been released, since my Warhammer fandom had fallen to a low ebb by the start of the new millennium. Either some old acquaintance from the Sci-Fi Club told me in order to make (awkward) conversation or I stumbled across it during a fit of boredom-induced Yahoo searches. Whatever the case made be, I chanced an order through some RPG mail-order place’s Geocities online storefront and waited the four to six weeks for the book arrive. (It’s bizarre to think those delivery times were once the norm, though it was quite appropriate in Realms of Sorcery‘s case.)

The sourcebook took some heat from critics for failing to live up to fifteen years’ worth of expectations, but that we got it at all was a borderline miracle exceeding any enchantment outlined between its softbound covers. For an overdue expansion to a game that had been suffering a protracted heat death, Realms of Sorcery was a weighty and robust attempt at closure. All the Old World’s existing schools of magic were given their relative due, alongside additional rules covering the color-themed Colleges of Magick from Fantasy Battles and various foreign and non-human arcane traditions. Rules for crafting spells, rituals, and familiars were detailed and expanded lists of spells and magic items were provided. The book also tried to clarify the role of magic and spellcasters in a world in which such things were viewed with intense suspicion (often followed by execution at the hands of secular or religious authorities).

Yet despite all of this, the meat and bones of WFRP magic retained its nigh-singular focus on battlefield enchantments over “practical” spells. The additions to players’ grimoire were either lifted from or inspired by WFB, meaning a slew of direct damage, incapacitating, or buff/debuff spells with little use outside of combat. I don’t know how much of the blame for that should be laid on Hogshead, though. They were merely coloring within the lines established by GW, which crafted and curated the lore in which magic-users were little more than leashed weapons used to turn the power of Chaos back upon itself.

When every spell channels energy from some demon-infested hell dimension, any mundane applications of the craft simply aren’t worth the risk. If you’re going to chance possession or spontaneous combustion by casting, you probably want to save that for incinerating an enemy regiment instead of helping you grab a book from a high shelf. It works fine in a wargame environment, but is limiting in the context of a role playing game, especially one where magic-users face severe social sanctions as well. Sure, the non-combat skills and talents such characters acquire can be useful, but the overall trade-offs don’t balance out in a way that makes playing a spellcaster worthwhile.

“My powers might kill me if the authorities don’t, but at least I get to cast some spells of very limited utility with a high risk of friendly fire!”

It might appeal to the edgelord crowd, but I’d rather have a WFRP equivalent to Tenser’s Floating Disk instead.

Related posts:

  1. Role-Playing with the Changes: The restless and the young
  2. Role-Playing with the Changes: Grim and perilous
  3. Role-Playing with the Changes: Building character

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