A few weeks ago, the Carbon 2185 crew decided they had enough of the Cyber & The Punk for a bit. We will be switching to Forbidden Lands soon, but in the meantime the players wanted to give WFRP 4th edition a look. To save time I grabbed the pre-generated characters and let them choose. We got the game setup and off we went with minimal setup or discussion.
von Gleiber Gate Towers (Play)
The two players chose to be a With Hunter (Dietrich Hess) and Soldier (Salundra von Drakenburg). The situation I offered them was simple: the von Gleiber family were driven out of their family estate forty years before by angry mob with pitch forks and torches. A family heirloom was left behind in one of the towers. All of this was just given to the players; there was no negotiation or in town encounter or any of the other (in my opinion) tedious small talk kind of play. This was a one-shot so getting to the point made sense. In medias res is my preferred open, which does not work for every system, but in this somewhat more traditional style of game I think it works great.
I used a couple towers I cooked up for the purpose, using simple creatures like rats, spiders, and skeletons. They searched both towers, fighting off some random giant rats and two spiders, dispatching them easily. There was some damage taken and nothing to heal it with, though we did not dig too deep into that part of the system. Once through the second tower, they find a grate into the area below that is supposed to look like a sewer system. But its really an elaborate death trap, or in the minds of the NPCs it is. The players choose the quickest path, finding a cultist family member using the necklace to summon a demon. A fight breaks out, the mercenaries win, grab the necklace, and return for their silvers.
If you are not familiar with Warhammer Fantasy Role Playing, it is an elaborate system that uses d100 roll under for most of its resolution system. The first edition was way back in the 1980s, and this is the fourth edition. The game has changed hands a few times with regard to design and publishing. It may have always been under license from Games Workshop? I would need to read up on that. It spawned what is considered one of the best multi-book campaigns, the Enemy Within campaign. It is also, I think, the origin of the term rat catcher as one of the professions. I may be off in this, but I think anytime someone refers to adventurers as rat catchers, they are meaning the definition found in WFRP. The system is elaborate enough that I just want to hit a few highlights relevant to what we played.
Opposed Rolls. There are several tests (die rolls for resolution) that are used to resolve conflicts. A simple test (ha!) is a you did the thing / you did not do the thing dynamic. However, as in many games, this can be modified by Difficulty. This adds a vertical axis to the resolution. It ranges from Very Easy (+60) to Very Hard (-30), where the associated number is added to the base attribute. Next step up is a dramatic test, which gives a spectrum of success to determine how well (or badly) you did. This becomes important in opposed tests because the winner is the character who rolls more Success Levels (SL). SL is calculated the “10s” of the dice roll from the “10s” of the characteristic or skill. So if your sword skill is 45 and you roll a 23, 4-2 = 2 SL.
But where it gets interesting is combat. As the attacker you can lose the fight. Its not pass/ fail, but instead if you as the attacker lose the combat, the person you attacked gains +1 Advantage. Obviously if the attacker succeeds, they do damage and get +1 Advantage as well. Advantage is a +10 bonus that can be used from moment to moment and is a currency to affect outcomes. In a non-combat opposed test, the character with the highest SL is the winner. I like how this works, because it feels dynamic and has less whiff factor.
To get there however, requires a lot of moving parts. Once you get the hang of things it runs okay. Exploration can be engaging when using aspects like Success Levels and opposed tests. WFRP feels as if you always need a hand on the throttle of the system or maybe on the gear shift. It’s a manual transmission as opposed to an automatic and the system never feels invisible. This is not good or bad, in my opinion but it may not be something everyone enjoys.
For those who may be unfamiliar, the setting / backdrop of Warhammer is a Holy Roman Empire analogue of the 14th and 15th centuries, maybe even with a bit of the 16th century dropped in. It has elves and goblins and orcs and trolls and… your typical fantasy lineup with some of the unique Warhammer color added in. Corruption is everywhere, no one is exactly who they seem, and frankly it’s a world of assholes. That is where, I think, the conflict derives from. Everyone is trying to grift you or kill you or use you. Chaos is always lurking around a corner and xenophobia is front and center. Not as “Kill all Xenos” as Warhammer 40k, but it is within a musket shot of that.
WFRP is an adventure game and I think adventure is a significant term. In a single word it defines the goal and point of the game, even more so than a word like dungeon might. WFRP is described on the cover as a ‘Grim World of Perilous Adventure’. Many older gamers used the word adventure or were described as an adventure game. Adventure is the desired situation. Compared to a game like Sorcerer, which is not an adventure game or Heroquest which is more hero’s journey. A game is largely defined by the situations that serve it best. Adventure, romance, relationships, quests, or exploration. On the other hand, the term comes close to being jargon as well as it can be squeezed into a number of different backdrops.
And for my money, that means scenes like being hired to do a job, especially for a one-shot, are useless. Small talk scenes, unless there is a reason for a bunch of social rolls, do not add anything to an adventure game. I started the players on the doorstep of the towers already knowing that they were hired, letting them choose the order in which they searched. From there they had an adventure, not a deep mystery that blew their minds, but the kind of adventure they were looking for.
In the end, we all had a good time, but felt the system, while interesting, was complex to the point of not adding to the overall experience. I think it would be worth trying with a more detailed situation, where the adventure has a bit more meat than this did. A little more mystery to it and letting the players make their own characters, which would give them more investment.