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The easiest first pass at simplifying WFRP3 is to make a stripped-down system for a high fantasy campaign, which means less classes, less actions, longer periods between level progression and more flexible magic systems. It also means using some ideas from D&D to simplify the action system and thus the character sheet, which is the main element of the original WFRP3 system that adds complexity. The basic goals are:

  • Ditch Action cards
  • Retain the attribute/challenge/skill/fortune/misfortune dice system
  • Ditch stances
  • Ditch resource management outside of magic
  • Retain Talents
  • Transform the career system into a type of multi-classing

The system then basically becomes like D&D with a revised dice-rolling and skill system. The basic mechanic is the same, but character classes start with a small number of special abilities and a set of feats that they can use to enhance existing actions. They get more of both as they gain levels.

Revised Action System

All character classes start with a few special abilities that are written just like action cards. However, we have removed the stance system so all actions now only have one “face,” and we further revise all actions so that they are described in terms of the same set of outcomes:

  • 1 success: the basic outcome
  • 3 successes: the superior outcome
  • 2 boons: a lucky side effect
  • 2 banes: the downside
  • Sigmar’s comet: the crit
  • Chaos star: the fumble

These can be written in 6 columns on a character sheet. The player can then spend feats to enhance any basic action, in an upgrade series that follows the path: increase bane line cost (to 3 banes); reduce boon line cost (to 1 boon); reduce extreme success difficulty (to 2 successes); double chaos star difficulty (to 2 chaos stars). These changes can be noted with a cross or a mark on the character sheet for the corresponding column. This makes actions easy to refer to.

Additional feats will be available which enhance particular lines of these actions (akin to the advanced parry action card, which basically replaces one line of the basic card).

Spells can be restructured to follow this idea too, though they could also retain their unique properties.

There are a basic set of 8 actions available to all PCs that are written on the character sheet: basic melee, basic missile, dodge, block, parry, guarded position, assess the situation, perform a stunt. The player then writes their additional character class special abilities on the sheet.

All other actions are resolved on the fly based on GM decisions. In combat, the perform a stunt action can be used to enhance attacks and defenses, i.e. to generate special action options depending on the situation. As PCs gain levels they gain access to more powerful actions that they can write on their character sheet in the same way as the basic ones above.

To further make combat favour fighters, we introduce a proficiency system for armours so that only fighters gain easy access to armour better than leather. 

Stance Dice

Stance dice are now a GM tool, added in to skill actions to represent the effect of certain decisions, spells and abilities. A party that sets up a careful ambush plan from a solid defensive position gains conservative dice, while a party that decides to just haul arse through the door and start smashing shit gets reckless dice.  The delay symbol on conservative dice only affects initiative order, since resource management has been ditched. The GM could use level as a guideline for the use of these dice – PCs can’t transform more dice than their level, though this could be enhanced with a feat. Alternatively the GM could choose how many dice get transformed depending on the excellence/recklessness of the plan.

The main methods I see, however, for using these dice are through the bard and barbarian characters, and magic:

  • Bards can use songs to grant the party conservative or reckless dice during combat
  • Barbarian rage obviously provides reckless dice
  • Clerical magic can grant conservative (prayer) or reckless (divine favour) dice

Also these dice can be a useful tool for GMs to affect the behaviour of NPCs – crazy reckless monsters can use reckless dice, for example.

Character Classes

Character classes are the classic set: barbarian, bard, cleric, fighter, mage, ranger, thief. Each class starts out with a few special abilities, key attributes, and key skills they can specialize in. They have a progression path that grants them additional special abilities, some minor and some major. PCs can move between careers just as in warhammer, i.e. they can multi-class over time. A few examples are given below.

Barbarian

Key attributes: Toughness, Willpower

Skills: athletics, weapon skill, ballistic skill, discipline, resilience

Career Talent: Perhaps equivalent to the dwarven trollslayer’s

Special abilities:

  • Barbarian Rage: success gives ability to convert dice to reckless; luck adds a free maneuver; critical success is the invigorated condition
  • Fighting stance: Upgrade the block action to improve its effect
  • Toughness: +2 wound threshold

At higher levels, the Barbarian gets access to the Shrug it Off action, and the devastating strike action.

Fighter

Key attributes: Strength and Toughness

Key Skills: Weapon Skill, Ballistic Skill, Resilience, Leadership, Intimidation

Career Talent: The Soldier’s talent (recovers fatigue at the end of every round)

Special Abilities:

  • +2 feats at first level
  • Proficient in all armours
  • Fighting stance: Choose block or parry and upgrade its effect

At later levels the fighter gets additional attack action cards (disarm, etc.) and can increase the number of people against which he/she can defend in a round.

Rogue

Key Attributes: Agility and Intelligence

Key Skills: Devices (Advanced), Athletics, Stealth, Skullduggery, Guile

Career Talent: The thief talent, of course

Special Abilities:

  • Disable trap action
  • Starts with Devices advanced skill acquired for free
  • Backstab: special attack action, conditional on being hidden from target, gives extra attack damage and critical chances

At later levels, the thief can learn to make traps and improve the backstab action/extend it to sniper actions.

A note on defense actions

In order to make this system simpler in combat, I would say that a player can attack once and defend once in a round, unless they forego their attack, in which case they can use all available defensive actions. This makes swarm attacks by weak creatures nastier.

Classless systems

Alternatively we could wrap the special abilities into a classless point-buy system, which would make characters more flexible but require judgments about how good each abilities was (for the point buy system).

Some comments

I think a simpler alternative to this would be to introduce the fortune dice system into D&D. But this gives us some ideas about how to reduce the complexity of Warhammer, and match it to high fantasy. I’m not yet convinced that the resource management in Warhammer is so fiddly that it needs to be ditched at all, but if so this seems as good a method as any. It actually seems to represent a weakening of the PCs, since it removes a lot of their actions; but by getting rid of resource management it makes the actions they do have access to more readily usable. An option to make the game more diverse is to give all PCs action to an additional action from amongst the existing action cards (suitably modified) at first level, and allow feats to be used to buy more (at some suitable cost). But I don’t know if this would be necessary if we were moving to a game environment (high fantasy) where players are used to only ever having access to two types of actions (spells and basic attack) and the remainder handled freely in skill checks.

The result would just be simpler game mechanics, I think. But it would depend a lot on the GM’s ability to interpret dice rolls outside of the action card results, so is not a game for novices. But then, I don’t think the existing Warhammer 3 is a game for novices either…

This is a description of a magical tome that the PCs discovered in the grave of a wizard near Ubersreik in a recent Rats in the Ranks adventure. It’s designed for Warhammer 3 but it follows a general principle of mine for tomes: you have to read them over time and make a skill check, and the difficulty of the check is adjusted by the research environment, time devoted to the task, etc. Reading a tome is not risk free, so blunders and fumbles can create serious problems for the reader, but depending on the degree of success in the check various skill bonuses and spell benefits are obtained. This usually takes time in-game, and may cost money.

This tome is a simple book, containing 88 pages of very soft leather tanned to a very fine weight. The cover is dark wood edged with a thin, geometric pattern carved from some kind of delicate and unusual ivory. Nothing is written on the spine or the flysheet and there is no table of contents or apparent structure to the text at all. It is a collection of research notes, interspersed with a typical mad wizard’s ravings, some references to additional secondary texts, and some basic experimental results (which need to be repeated by the reader). Fortunately none of the secondary texts or the experiments are evil or chaotic in nature, though they nonetheless are not particularly pleasant. The book radiates a gentle glow of dark magic, but it is mainly the type of magic used for preparing a text to last the ages, and perhaps some residual magic from the laboratory where the notes were taken; the book itself is not intrinsically magical. It is written mostly in High Reikland, with occasional passages in various mystical languages with which most wizards are passingly familiar.

In order to read this book, a PC must possess the Education advanced skill, and be trained in Spellcraft. This is not a book that those with natural talent but no training can hope to make use of. The PC must spend a month reading this book, and although they can adventure while reading (they are assumed to be reading during rest periods, etc.) they are much more likely to gain the full benefit of the book if they devote a month exclusively to the task, and spend that time in a major city where they have access to a decent library (with the associated costs).

Reading this book requires a Spellcraft check with medium difficulty (2 challenge dice), and carries some risk due to the nature of the dark magic in the book (1 misfortune die). The following conditions add bonuses to the roll:

  • PC foregoes adventuring: 2 fortune dice
  • PC is in a large city (larger than Ubersreik) for the entire month of reading: + 1 fortune die
  • PC spends one gold coin on research and experiments: +1 fortune die

The skill check produces the following results:

  • 1 Success: The PC learns one dark magic spell of rank 1
  • 3 Successes: In addition to the above, the PC gains 1 level of training in Channel Power
  • 2 Boons: PC gains a single fortune dice on skill checks for a single existing spell of their choice
  • 2 Banes: The PC suffers a single insanity with no resilience check
  • Chaos star: The PC loses one point of willpower

All effects are permanent. The bane and chaos star affects apply even if the check is successful. If the PC commences reading and abandons the task within the month (due to interruptions to the reading process or loss of the book) the check must still be made and the negative effects can still be suffered, but there is no opportunity to gain the positive effects. Note that the dark magic spell can be learnt regardless of the PC’s order, but its use may need to be very carefully guarded, as possession of this power is heretical. Note also that the PC cannot choose not to learn the spell after they complete the reading; they can only choose not to use it. Knowledge of the spell itself will not taint the PC’s aura, but use of dark magic will, which may make the PC’s life somewhat more complex.

It doesn’t take me long, does it? Eight sessions of a system and I start thinking about tinkering with it…

The main causes of excess complexity in Warhammer are:

  • Resource Management
  • Action Cards
  • Stances
  • The Dice
  • Critical Wound Cards

Now, the dice are non-negotiable – they’re a core part of the reason WFRP3’s system is fun. I actually like the resource management ideas, so would prefer to keep them (though there are ways around them).

But the single biggest source of complexity is the use of Action Cards and their interaction with stances. So, I’ve been thinking about ways of dropping the cards and writing them out on a character sheet like a normal special ability in any other system, but somehow retaining the resource management system. The problem with this is that the cards are two-sided, so even a small number of cards takes up a lot of space on a character sheet.

The reason cards are two-sided is stances. So, we can simplify the card/stance system into a system that can be regularized on a character sheet quite easily, by reforming stances and regularizing cards.

Reforming Stances

We can reduce the complexity that stances introduce into the system by re-envisaging them as reflective of a kind of alignment (chaotic vs. lawful). Then at first level every character chooses an alignment and is only able to progress along that single stance direction (green or red). Careers then allow an increase in stance depth, but always to a maximum of one step per career.

This means that characters only ever have access to one side of an action card. So each action card potentially takes one line of a character sheet.

Reforming Action Cards

The next simple way to reduce complexity is to give action cards 6 possible lines only: 1 success, 3 successes, 2 boons, 2 banes, chaos star and sigmar’s comet. Then you can write a table on a character sheet with a column for each of these lines, a column at the end for recharge tokens, and a column for name. That’s it.

Each PC will start with the basic 6-8 cards, then a maximum of 2-3 from their development process and 2-3 from experience gained, so by the end of their second career they will still only need 15 rows in a table – easily set up on one page of a character sheet. Talents, of course, can easily be written on a character sheet, not as cards, which leaves only one set of cards relevant to the PC – wound cards. If we get rid of these, the PC is back to being represented by a standard character sheet.

Reforming Wounds

In my experience so far, critical wounds tend to consist of a nice description along with an effect, which is usually a misfortune (black) die on ability checks. So we could get rid of cards and, when a player suffers a critical wound, they simply roll up the stat location and assign a misfortune die to that stat. There is currently a box above each ability score for fortune dice; you could put a second box below each ability score for misfortune dice. Then, when the total of your misfortune dice exceeds your toughness, you’re dead. Descriptions are left to the GM. We could also have the number of dice compound; so 2 misfortune dice on a single attribute turn into one challenge, and so on.

There are some critical wounds that do other things, and we’d be dropping them from the system, but that doesn’t really matter.

Having done this, all that remains as a card is insanity. Insanity is rare enough to be okay  retained as a card.

Revising Resource Management

Some people think it’s unusual that PCs can’t use seemingly quite normal abilities every round, and one way to rethink this is to think of special combat attacks as requiring some kind of chi. A simple way to revise resource management would be to give all abilities a kind of chi cost, just as spells have a power/favour cost. This chi doesn’t have to be mystical – blocking someone with a shield may actually leave your arm stunned, or knocked aside, so you can’t recover quickly, so it’s mere physical strength. So we could switch the resource management system from recharge tokens to chi, which is always at an equilibrium equal to your toughness, and give all characters access to a Recovery action that works just like a Curry Favour action. Then instead of tracking recharges, they can use any action which requires chi less than their current total. Running out of points can easily be construed as losing energy, being put into a bad position, etc. The basic actions would require 0 points, of course, or maybe 1 point, since this guarantees that someone with 2 toughness (the minimum at first level) can conduct 2 actions in the first round and 1 every round thereafter, without using their recovery power.

Further Action Card Simplification: Feats

We could further simplify action cards by getting rid of them altogether, and having a basic set of actions that everyone can perform in combat. Players can then buy feats which change the difficulty of a line in a card, or give access to new lines. For example a fighter could use a feat to reduce the difficulty of extreme success from 3 successes to 2; and then could use another feat to buy a higher level of extreme success. These feats thus make the fighter better at basic attacks.

These feat purchases could vary by the stance you’ve selected. So Reckless stance characters find it very easy to buy better lines for boons, and to buy extreme successes, but hard to buy better lines for banes, chaos stars and the like.

PCs could also improve the basic outcomes of the existing actions using these feats, so e.g. you could use a feat to improve the outcome of a basic parry from a misfortune die to a challenge die.

The system could then introduce some common rules for firing into combat, using two weapons, casting spells in combat, etc. and apply these to everyone. Other special actions in melee would be entirely at GM discretion.

Then, the only action cards which would be necessary would be spells, which could be written in a separate spell book section.

Furthermore, since all the basic actions are available to all PCs every round, you could get rid of the resource management option altogether. You could also then get rid of recharge restrictions on parry/block/dodge, and instead say that if a PC has access to this basic action (due to meeting the conditions) they can always use each one against one enemy per round.

Handling Delay

The big problem with getting rid of the resource management system on ordinary cards is that the delay symbols on conservative dice become meaningless. We can give conservative stance a continued difference to reckless stance by:

  • In a chi-based management system of combat actions: the delay symbol means the card costs an extra point of chi
  • In a feat-based system: the delay symbol becomes meaningless, so we weaken conservative actions a little

Eliminating Stances Altogether

I like the stance system, but another way to simplify the game is to just get rid of this, and to have conservative/reckless dice either drop out of the game altogether, or be substituted for attribute dice at the GMs discretion to represent PC behaviour, with the delay symbol stripped out. Then conservative dice might be added to PC rolls if they’ve got a good plan and they’re working well together; reckless symbols could be added if they tell the GM they’re going to launch the attack all gee-d up, without a plan… or if they go into a situation not knowing the layout of the battlefield, etc.

In this case you could still allow PCS to choose which side of a card they will use as their default action (written on the character sheet).

A secondary advantage of dropping these dice is that players take less time assembling dice pools.

Conclusion

I think these simplifications would strip a lot of the unique colour from WFRP3 but would make it faster to play, take less table space, and make the GM’s interpretations of dice effects even more important. It would also shift the game from its warhammer-specific feeling to a more generalized fantasy RPG feeling.  GMs could encourage players to stunt ordinary actions, instead of hunting through decks for special cards, and to use the environment to add reckless or conservative dice to otherwise stance-less gaming.

The potential upshot of this would be that combat would become extremely quick (it’s already often quite fast) without losing its deadliness, and a lot of management faffery would go away. I don’t think the current level of management is extreme, but I’m sure many people differ with me on this, so it could be an easy way to make the system more generally fantasy-based, and quicker to play, as well as (potentially) more intuitive, while keeping Fantasy Flight Games’ unique contribution to the game – the dice!

 

Noisms at Monsters and Manuals has written a comparison of gaming systems with political theories, dichotomized into “top-down” games (D&D 3rd Edition) and thinkers (Marx) and “bottom-up” games (OD&D) and thinkers (Hayek). Noisms makes it clear what side he falls on (he’s a “bottom-upper,” oo-er), which he characterizes as “the right” (vs. “the wrong”), but even if you swap sides or dispute the particular product placement (I don’t believe Orwell is a bottom-upper, and others dispute Marx in the top-down category), the idea is interesting and has some bearing on a few common topics in the role-playing world. Noisms isn’t clear in the post about what this top-down vs. bottom-up distinction means, but in comments he adds:

The phrase “bottom-up” as I use it here doesn’t refer to the position of the agents of change on the social scale. It refers to the nature of the social change (i.e. not planned, emergent, incremental, intuitive)

which seems like a reasonable way of simplifying the political theories and the games.

I think in his post though, Noisms is ignoring the importance of structure and planning for achieving emergent or bottom-up change. I think this applies equally well to game systems, and I think a bit of new left anarchist debate (genuine bottom-upping, not the crypto-statism of libertarians like Hayek) can help to inform what I mean.

In essence, “emergent” social change that occurs genuinely without structure or within a limited set of rules leads to a type of tyranny; an unstructured and intuitive game system, without a reasonable extent of rules and systems, leads to a type of tyranny as well.

The Tyranny of Structurelessness

Back in the 1970s the feminist Jo Freeman wrote a little pamphlet called The Tyranny of Structurelessness, in which she described the problems anarchist and left-wing feminist groups faced in trying to do organized political activism from a framework of having no organization or rules. The key phrase in that pamphlet that critiques both the political theory of unplanned emergent change, and (implicitly) the gamer’s ideal of unplanned and intuitive play, is this:

A ‘laissez-faire’ group is about as realistic as a ‘laissez-faire’ society; the idea becomes a smokescreen for the strong or the lucky to establish unquestioned hegemony over others. This hegemony can easily be established because the idea of ‘structurelessness’ does not prevent the formation of informal structures, but only formal ones. Similarly, ‘laissez-faire’ philosophy did not prevent the economically powerful from establishing control over wages, prices and distribution of goods; it only prevented the government from doing so.

In political systems we temper these effects by putting strict rules on how much can be achieved through individual contracts. You can’t sell yourself into slavery, there are strict rules about inheriting debts, etc. We further, in the modern world, introduce laws about manufacturing and employment processes – such as clean air laws and equal opportunity laws – because it is very very obvious (from long and painful experience) that without these kinds of structures, the powerful ride roughshod over the weak. Without these systems in place, society goes to the rich, the socially connected and the nastiest people, rather than to those who strive. This is the essence of most rational critiques of laissez-faire capitalism and systems of dispute based entirely on property rights and contract law. Creating a blank space for “intuitive” change opens up the social space to being captured, not by the most intuitive in society, but by those with the most power to act on whatever intuitions they do have.

In game terms this difference is summarized by Barking Alien in comments at the original post:

you get games in which the designers/creators try to govern play as much as they possibly can by coming up with a system that can cover many eventualities, and games in which the designers do not do so in favour of devolving the power to arbitrate, as much as possible, to individual DMs/game groups

What this means in practice is that in-game, the power and benefits accrue to the PCs whose players have most sway over the GM. And, given the fractured and socially backward nature of nerd social interactions, this generally means the most socially manipulative, or those with the loudest voices. It does not mean the most creative people, though it may mean this in a well-run group with a judicious and skilled GM. Even then, though, it rewards a particular creative impulse – the desire to express your clear plans in a way that influences the world. But there’s another type of creative impulse common amongst gamers, which is to enjoy the unfolding of the world through your actions even though you are not yourself capable of expressing your aims well. This type of person is stymied by an unstructured system of arbitration.They may be very good at describing what happens to their PC after the event, but not good at suggesting what they do before the event.

In short, this type of gaming rewards the expressive, not the creative. And it is especially vulnerable to exploitation by manipulative and bullying players, who are actually very common.

A good summary might be that, under one system the player suggests an action and then bargains the cost with the GM and/or players. Under the other system, the player suggests an action and then bargains the cost with the GM through reference to a well-structured system of action resolution. The former system rewards[1] good negotiators, while the latter rewards good ideas – or even, just rewards participation, which is what we want from a game.

The main way that this structure is reflected in practice is through the skill system and the magic system. An extensive, well-designed and well-described skill system gives the GM an excellent framework within which to handle novel tasks, to set the difficulty and to distinguish PC roles. And in terms of game enjoyment, the main thing this system prevents is a situation in which a single player gets to do everything, because they’re good at arbitrating with the GM over every single task. In open, purely “bottom-up” systems, the socially confident player is able to seize many fields of action for themself, such as trap-finding, diplomacy, fighting, information gathering, etc. while the shyer or less expressive players stand by and wait for the only time when they can fit their actions to a structure – combat. But once you throw a skill structure onto the PCs, suddenly the player loses the power to do some of these things well, and other players pick it up. Those other players may not express their actions so well, but they get to be a part of the group.

This is particularly noticeable in OD&D, which is one of the few old school games not to have a skill system of any kind. It seems to me that the OSR is full of comments and posts by people who exalt this ability to express actions and negotiate them with the GM over the desire to be involved effectively in a group (in the sense that I mean it above), and I don’t think this is a coincidence.

Essentially in these kinds of games, social ability is like temporal power in the real world, and the lack of structure in the game rewards social ability just as it rewards temporal power in real life. But this social ability doesn’t make you a better person, just a louder one, and shy or ineloquent people should be able to enjoy these games too. I think it was in response to those peoples’ lack of enjoyment of the game that the later systems incorporated much more extensive structure.

The Tyranny of Tyranny

The classic response to Jo Freeman’s article was the pamphlet The Tyranny of Tyranny, by Cathy Levine, that reads like a bit of a gender-essentialist screed (oh, radical feminism, how you have failed women…) and argues, essentially, that structurelessness is a cultural alternative to existing ways of thinking, and that small groups coming together in voluntary association without a movement behind them can both protect themselves from exploitation and generate new (revolutionary) social change. The key quote relevant to gaming would be this:

What we definitely don’t need is more structures and rules, providing us with easy answers, pre-fab alternatives and no room in which to create our own way of life. What is threatening the female Left and the other branches even more, is the ‘tyranny of tyranny’, which has prevented us from relating to individuals, or from creating organisations in ways that do not obliterate individuality with prescribed roles, or from liberating us from capitalist structure

Dropping all the politically specific language here, we find a claim that less rules governing interaction will give more freedom to individuals to create new social organizations and new ideas.

In game terms we see this with the common complaints about D&D 3rd edition, with its extensive feats and skills and every situation covered by a rule, in which people stop thinking about what they want to do and start worrying about what they can do. There is also a strong risk of gaming the rules when they’re at this level, and also of a type of regulatory capture – that if you can get the ear of the GM you can bend the rules in ways that others haven’t, and this will leave you significantly more powerful or capable than everyone else. I think in fact every GM in a system like Rolemaster or D&D 3rd edition has seen this happen – it happened to me in 2nd edition AD&D, for sure. Also, gaming under these rules systems includes a lot of “red tape” in the form of rules checking, character development, etc. that can be seen as a hidden cost or regulatory burden stifling creativity. This regulatory capture and red tape is exactly a common complaint libertarians make against organized social structures, which brings us full circle to Noisms’ synthesis of Hayek and OD&D.

The Balanced Approach: Social Democracy of Gaming

Of course, the most effective model we have for social organization in the western world is social democracy, which protects people from the worst excesses of laissez-faire society while protecting peoples’ freedom of action. Such systems are commonly misconstrued by libertarians as “central planning” or “socialism” (see e.g. Glenn Beck on healthcare), but they’re so far from such a scheme that the comparison is silly. In game terms I think the analogy is with rules-light skill systems, flexible combat and magic systems, and an immediate reward system for creative self-expression (stunting) that isn’t essential for game satisfaction. This rewards all the different social types at the table and guards against excessive effects of bullying and social manipulation without falling victim to regulatory capture or high costs.

In my view the games that best fit this model of a social democracy of gaming are probably the three versions of Warhammer (but especially the third), Exalted, the Japanese game Double Cross 3, my version of the d20 system (or in fact any version that isn’t loaded down with D&D’s heritage), and maybe (? I can’t recall clearly ?) Shadowrun. Original D&D is too unstructured to fit this description, and D&D 3rd edition has piled a huge edifice onto an otherwise quite functional system, so that it carries a high cost in-game and is vulnerable to rules manipulation. I think Rolemaster can meet my conditions for “social democratic gaming” if it’s run by a good GM with a lot of experience, but usually it’s the ultimate communist game – a good idea in theory but it doesn’t work in practice[2].

I think a lot of people who laud earlier versions of D&D are ignoring the often quite toxic social dynamics that sprang up in early gaming groups, and don’t care about the game being available to the shy or the socially inexpressive. I think that just as good GMing has to take into account the social dynamics at the table, good game design has to take into account the many ways the game design can reward or discourage certain types of personality type from playing. Being a good social democrat, I’m all in favour of equality, and I think the game should be available to as many different types of personality as possible, so I think we should eschew strong ideological brands like Marxism or libertarianism, and instead focus on practical, simple systems for enabling everyone to get along…

fn1: by “rewards” here we mean, “provides a chance to act and have your actions resolved in a way that you can have faith in,” not “gets to succeed at the action”

fn: I don’t actually believe this about communism, but I think it’s an excellent phrase.

Another of my (several) complaints about Warhammer 3rd Edition is that it doesn’t seem to contain a great deal of flavour about the world, compared to the 1st and 2nd editions. I think this is largely because it is new[1], though I think Fantasy Flight Games are doing the rather nasty trick of assuming that everyone is just going to use old 2nd Edition source material for the flavour. In a way this is good because it means you don’t have to buy a whole new range of background material when you buy a new system, if you just want to upgrade to a system that actually works. After all, Black Industries may have produced a completely and insanely shit system, but the quality of their work on the world is unparalleled and unlikely to be bettered by any other company[2], and I think that the reason most people who play WFRP2 love it is the world, not the system – you love WFRP2 despite its myriad flaws.

So combining the two is the perfect way to play warhammer. And that’s what I did recently, when I started running the (excellent) first edition Fear the Worst adventure in WFRP3. I won’t spoil this adventure for readers by describing the content in detail, but suffice to say that it’s a really good example of the best kind of module. It has lots of material on the setting and a general structure for how the module should run, so that GMs can run it as intended and get a rich and interesting experience, but also leaves huge sections open to free-form development, so that the GM can drop things he or she doesn’t like, and players can make their own path to the conclusion (which occurs on a fixed timeline). It also openly allows for the possibility that the players will “lose,” with catastrophic consequences for the town if not for them. I like this style of adventuring a lot. And also, it’s quite lethal if the players are stupid.

The module was also very easy to fit in with WFRP3, with one caveat – played as written in WFRP 3 for the PCs as described in the module (novices), it is lethal, far more than I think must have been the case in the original. The module was easy to convert because the basic worlds overlap so well – the available flavour in the WFRP3 books makes you feel like you’re in a 1st or 2nd Edition Old World, and all the concepts described in the module are familiar to readers of 3rd Edition. Also, many elements of the module are very similar to those of the introductory module in the WFRP3 Tome of Adventure, with the same feeling of brooding trouble, everything on the surface happy and normal but chaos beneath. In short, the personalities of the different versions match up.

So what particular challenges faced me in converting the module?

Converting statistics: The WFRP 3 basic book and the Winds of Magic supplement include the monsters you need to make your adventure work, and all the NPCs in Fear the Worst can be mapped to them, so it’s no trouble to generate statistics. I fiddled a few details on some stat blocks to make the NPCs match up, and there were one or two spells that I had no analog for, but this didn’t bother me at all. Stat blocks in the original module are easily read and understood, and can be converted easily if you know what an average value should be in each system. This took very little time and produced creatures which in combat behaved roughly as the module suggested they would.

Handling traps: There are no rules for traps in the WFRP 3 rules, so I made my own, with corresponding cards. On the night my thoughts on traps were half-formed so I winged it a bit, which ended with the thief hanging by his hand over a pit full of spikes, looking very worried. But the joy of WFRP 3 is that it is the ultimate system for winging it. You can produce anything you want with those dice, and as I get more familiar with them I’m having a lot of fun making them do their creative work. This adventure depends on traps being dangerous, and I certainly made them so. Had the thief had a little less saving throw luck, he’d have been dead.

Handling the lethality:Quite unlike earlier editions of Warhammer, WFRP 3 is singularly lethal, and this was the third time my party came to a near TPK. This one was particularly dire, with the party cycling through unconsciousness several times (a very risky proposition) and their entire fate resting on a duel of wizards. My party were on the cusp of a second career, with all the extra power that entails, and so considerably tougher than the original module requires, but even if they had been smart and seen the ambush coming they would still have been in a very challenging battle. For novice WFRP 3 PCs the encounter at Black Rock Keep would, I think, be deadly on about 70-80% of runs, even without the ambush. The deadliness needs to be dialled down, either by reducing the size of the enemy group or by rolling some into a minion stat block, which is what I should have done with the two toughest fighters and the two weakest fighters. The original module calls for 7 unique creatures to do battle with 4 PCs, and gives those unique creatures reasonable strength in an ambush setting. I should have had 3 unique creatures and two pairs of minions, with the minions in melee and the unique creatures ranged/spell-casting. By not doing this I set a really challenging battle.

So the main take home lesson from this is to be careful in converting stat blocks and arranging enemy groupings, to take into account WFRP 3’s additional lethality; or to be ready with a backup plan for a TPK scenario (I had one vaguely mapped out in this case that would have been a lot of fun to run). Don’t be sucked in to the common myth that WFRP 2 or WFRP 1 are dangerous – compared to the third edition they are, in my (limited) experience much much less so. Module conversions need to take this into account, or GMs need to be ready to fudge it or wing it to make up for their mistakes half way through the adventure – or be willing to rain regular TPKs on their group, which in my opinion is not fun and soon loses you players.

I am thinking of trying to run one of the longer WFRP 2 campaigns (one of the famous ones) in WFRP 3 to see where it leads. It’s good to see that conversion is easy, because it means that I will be able to do enjoyably in WFRP 3 what would have been very frustrating in an earlier, less well designed system for the same world.

fn1: and actually I would say that there’s a higher ratio of background material to rules material in WFRP3 than any other system I’ve ever read. The magic and priest books are basically entirely about the world, as is the tome of adventure. By shifting all the rules into the cards, the books themselves get to have a lot of non-system content. But they’re chaotically laid out and it can seem like that material’s not there, and I think it’s not as good as the material from the 2nd Edition.

fn2: and I think Fantasy Flight Games are in a bind here. If they release a bunch of new companion material and background flavour they’ll be accused of fleecing fans a second time over, but if they don’t -and assume that fans will use existing 2nd Edition material – they’ll be accused of neglecting the warhammer world in favour of the system. More evidence that games need rescuing from their fanboys, if this happens.

My previous post described some ideas for setting traps in Warhammer 3; in this post I present the pit trap card.

The resistance side:

That sickening feeling of falling...

This is the disarm side:

Every party is spoiled if the thief doesn't come...

One of my (several) problems with Warhammer 3 is that it doesn’t contain rules for some basic aspects of adventuring that we all take for granted, including (rather annoyingly) traps. I don’t often use traps in adventures, since I’m not a great fan of dungeon adventures, and I understand that dungeoneering isn’t a big part of the warhammer milieu, so I can see why they don’t want to include the rules in a basic book, but traps are a very handy GMs tool, and it’s nice to have the designer’s ideas on how to handle them. WFRP3 doesn’t have a clearly described saving throw system of any sort, so in order to set up a trap I have to come up with some kind of scheme. Since the most recent adventure I’ve been running depended on traps, I need to design some method, and these are thoughts towards that method.

The Basic WFRP3 Saving Throw Mechanic

I’m not a fan of separating saving throws from the other mechanics of the game, so I’m happy to use a system like WFRP3 where the saving throw is not a special set of rules. However – and probably as a throwback to my days of using saving throws – I like any accidental event that the PC has to resist (like natural events or traps) to be resolved by a dice roll that the player does, rather than me. So if a trap is set off, the targeted PCs should all make some kind of ability check to avoid it. This is easily handled in WFRP3 as, for example, an attribute or skill check vs. a fixed difficulty determined by the trap. However, there is a small unorthodoxy built into this approach. Typically in WFRP3, action checks are constructed in such a way that the results are determined by the number of successes and boons rolled up. But in the case of a saving throw rolled by a PC, the results should be determined by the number of failures and banes.

There’s nothing wrong with this per se, but it seems to be a variance from the standard system.

Traps as Attacks

We can get around this by making the trap an attack, that the GM rolls against a PC’s skill or ability score, and then resolves damage etc. accordingly. This is entirely consistent with all the other rules of the game, but vaguely unsatisfying. Especially for save-or-die type traps, players should always be able to make the roll that determines their fate. Even though it’s exactly the same if the GM does it, it feels too … narrative … if it’s handled by the GM. The same applies to skill checks in which one PC or monster uses a social combat mechanic to control the actions of another PC – resolution of this should always be performed openly by the affected PC.

Disabling Traps

There also needs to be a mechanic for disabling traps, which pits a specific skill against the trap itself. The act of disarming the trap then has results depending on the number of successes gained, and also a standard result for banes. I’m thinking the standard results are:

  • 1 Success: the trap is disarmed
  • 3 Successes: The trap is disarmed and can be rearmed by the same PC later
  • 2 banes: the trap is triggered
  • 2 boons: the PC learns how to make this trap if their intelligence score is greater than the trap’s difficulty

This allows for the possibility that PCs might be interested in developing trap-making abilities of their own, and requires the inclusion of special trap-making rules.

We can put all of this together through the construction of Trap Cards.

Trap Cards

Of course traps don’t have to be represented by cards, and neither do items (or actions, or anything else) but it’s consistent with the way the game is laid out and it’s a convenient way of setting out rules. I don’t have the ability to make cards beyond those in the Strange Aeons software package, so I am going to recommend a card design based on cannibalizing the basic Action Card format. The Trap Card will have two faces, one (the red face) representing the trap’s effects, and one (the green face) representing the disarming process. The red face doesn’t have a recharge number, but gives the skill the PC needs to use to defeat the trap. The green face has a recharge number, which in this case is the number of rounds it takes to disarm the trap. The body of the card then shows the success and failure lines and their outcomes. Each card is for a type of trap, so will refer to a trap difficulty. This difficulty determines how hard the trap is to evade and how hard it is to disarm. Note that traps basically come with three difficulty types – search, disable and resist. These are not specified on the card, but the card will specify the results and skill checks in terms of these ratings. Note that there could be a fourth value, which would be the strength of the trap and would affect damage.

My next post will contain an example of such a trap card.

Last night was the 6th session of the Rats in the Ranks campaign, so about my 9th session of Warhammer 3rd Edition. This time, we again were missing one of our players (Mr. Camphor) so we again decided to put off the main plot of the campaign for a random side adventure, which is fine because the PCs are waiting to get a report from their dutiful spy, and so side adventures are all the rage. I could have seeded the town with rumours and let them do whatever they want, but  in truth I haven’t had a lot of preparation time and (as I think will be obvious in a moment) I’m not yet confident making up encounters on the fly in WFRP3. It’s a bastard of a system if you get it wrong.

So, instead, I used an old Warhammer 1st Edition adventure, Fear the Worst, converted it to WFRP3, and assumed everything would come out in the wash. And it almost did.

If you’re planning on running this adventure, in any system, then it probably would suit you to read this. If you’re going to play it or at risk of playing it, then don’t read on. But if you are planning on playing it, you should note that my general preference is to avoid TPKs, and this one came damn close.

A standard mercenary advert and a sausage festival

The PCs having just returned from a near-death experience and spent most of their money on healing, they were naturally in need of a new adventure and a new chance to get themselves all killed, so when they stumbled on the following handbill posted up in some dubious corner of Ubersreik, they naturally responded immediately:

Men and women of a brave and adventurous bent needed for work of a sensitive nature. Seeking wide range of skills, from strong-armed warriors to learned scholars. Excellent opportunity for neophytes. Ask for Karl Taunenbaum at the famous Dancing Dragon Inn, Heideldorf

So, being in need of money and lacking their main meat-shield, off they went to investigate this simple Heideldorf job. When they arrived they found themselves in the midst of a sausage festival, thronging with nobles from the Reikland and full to overflowing with delicious sausage. Viewed with suspicion by these nobles, and having already had a rather unpleasant roadside encounter with some approaching nobles, they went straight to the Dancing Dragon Inn and asked for Taunenbaum. Taunenbaum in turn served them some sausage and sent a runner for the head of the village, Heinz Schiller, who turned up about 10 minutes later. Before speaking to the PCs he deigned to spend 5 minutes scolding Taunenbaum in front of his guests, complaining about the speed of service and the slovenliness of Taunenbaum’s staff, before joining the PCs. Schiller himself was an overdressed fop, noble in bearing but done up in a slightly tawdry version of last season’s fashions… in short, an overpuffed rural dandy. Not that this stopped him looking down his nose at the PCs as he explained their job to them…

[Slight cultural note here: most cafes and bars in Japan worth their coin have on the menu “sosseji moriawase,” a sausage mixed plate, and most Japanese know a little about German culinary and festive culture, so a mid-winter sausage festival where you get served a mixed plate of delicious sausage is exactly the kind of environment that makes the players feel like they’re part of a German-themed but chaotic world]

The Job

So, Shiller set about explaining the job to them, though first he needed to assure himself that the PCs were, in fact, capable adventurers. Since the group contained two girls (one just 15 years old!) and an elf, this probably isn’t surprising, but after a bit of poking and prodding and some judicious questions he was satisfied, and proceeded to tell them that this sausage festival was his own exclusive idea, built up over 10 years, and he couldn’t afford anything to destroy it. But this year,some bandits had gathered in a ruined castle near the keep and were attacking visiting nobles. If even some nobles left Heideldorf with the impression it was unsafe, he would be ruined. So he needed the PCs to visit the ruins and … deal with… the bandits.

He initially offered the PCs 10 silver coins each to do this. Given they had entered their first adventure on a 20 silver coin payment, and bargained up from there, they were kind of shocked. So they bargained, and secured a 2 gold coin payment each.

Having done this, he told the characters to head off in the morning, and then left the pub.

Investigating the Job

As we will see, the PCs are nothing if not thorough in their preparations, and promptly set about finding out more about Shiller and the town. They started, of course, by drinking with the locals. From various locals they found out the following:

  • The nearby keep has been deserted for a long time and is called Black Rock Keep
  • Black Rock Keep is so called because it was destroyed in war about 400 years ago
  • Black Rock Keep is so called because it was originally made of white rock, but a dragon came from the mountains and attacked it. The dragon’s breath weapon was acid, and turned the keep from white to black. After the attack, a bunch of elves turned up to help the village (this was a long time ago) and shot at the dragon with their bows, killing it. The current inn is named in honour of the dragon’s death throes.
  • The keep was always called Black Rock, but 400 years ago it was destroyed by an earthquake. At that time the inn was called the Black Dragon, but after the earthquake the locals changed its name to the Dancing Dragon
  • Shiller always works his staff very hard, especially his mercenaries
  • Some mercenaries came through last year
  • Some mercenaries came through two years ago, possibly including a dwarf
  • They couldn’t possibly have come through during the sausage festival, because everyone knows mercenaries investigate keeps in summer, not winter…

So… Delicious sausage… regular adventurers… the characters were becoming suspicious. Still, with no definite cause for their suspicion they could hardly refuse to do their work. And what could possibly go wrong if they went into their adventure aware of the possibility of a trap…?

Entering Black Rock Keep

The following morning the PCs headed off to Black Rock Keep. When they reached the surrounding area they entered with typical caution, surveying carefully and checking for guards, etc., but found no evidence of bandits of any kind, so entered the grounds proper. They were just about to enter the main wooden double doors of the ruined keep when a crossbow bolt thudded into the doors in front of them. This bolt had a note of some kind wrapped around it.

Unwrapping the note, they found a map, with the following note written on it:

From a concerned friend. Heinz Schiller is more than he appears. Beware the cellars!

The map itself appeared to be a detailed map of the cellars, complete with secret doors marked, and several traps detailed on the map. Unfortunately, none of my 3 players paid any attention to the map. They didn’t really even look at it.

They explored the ground floor of the keep, finding some evidence of habitation but no living things, and then entered the aforementioned cellars. The thief moved ahead to investigate rooms as they found them, and so within a few minutes he encountered the first trap – a 10′ deep pit filled with spikes, which he managed to avoid through a feat of dexterity that left him clinging to the floor under a door while the remainder of the party threw out ropes for him to grab onto.

After they had overcome this trap, rather than checking their map or checking for traps, they moved on, soon stumbling onto two more. Both of these traps were hammer traps, huge warhammers falling from the side of doors, and one delivered a nasty blow to the thief, knocking off quite a few wounds[1].

Having sprung all the traps and ignored their map, the PCs finally managed to discover a secret door and loot some sarcophagi of about 4Gps worth of gems and jewellery (this is a lot of money in WFRP3). However, they hadn’t found any outlaws, just evidence of an ancient, well-looted tomb. So they decided to leave, and returned to the entryway.

The Mutant Ambush

When they reached the stairs the PCs were ambushed by a grotesque pair of misshapen mutants, who dashed out of the stairs to lay waste to the thief and the roadwarden. These mutants were vaguely human, with huge bodies, massively strong arms, and tiny tiny heads, inset with vacant, staring eyes showing no intellect of any kind. Perhaps one was a woman; perhaps they were a couple. The thief and the roadwarden didn’t have time to tell, as a single blow from their huge arms was sufficient to cripple normal people.

Battle was joined, at which point another five mutants burst from the secret door in the stairwell, to attack the PCs from behind. These mutants were:

  • A wizard with eyes floating on tentacles
  • A normal-sized man, with a St Bernard Dog’s head that constantly drooled as it fought
  • A completely normal man, carrying a pistol
  • A human with a normal-sized body, but very long arms and legs, who could use his arms to punch as if they were missile weapons
  • A horrific, bloated man whose entire lower body had shrivelled and atrophied to become a mere bulbous waste of flesh, so that the man had to flop and flip about like a seal in order to move

The battle that followed was evil, bitter and desperate. The PCs realized they had only one hope of survival, which was to block the stairs so they only had to fight two mutants at a time; but even then they still had to face two ranged fighters and a wizard, though fortunately the wizard was a Tzeentch Wizard, and Tzeentch’s magic is disgusting but weak. Nonetheless, the PCs found themselves in a desperate situation, with the Cleric falling unconscious and recovering (through her own magic, mostly) three times; the Roadwarden fallign unconscious and recovering once, and the thief being knocked out just once (and staying there). The battle ended with all the PCs except the wizard unconscious, and all the mutants except their wizard; the final three rounds were an old-fashioned magical duel, which the party’s wizard won by perhaps one round – at the end the mutant wizard was so low on power and so desperate that he was forced to charge into melee with a knife. This didn’t end well for him, and the session ended with the party down to its last 6 hit points – all of them belonging to the wizard – while a pile of mutant bodies slicked the floor with blood, and the players all cursed their stupidity for not using the serendipitous message they had been sent.

Next session, we will find out why they met mutants not bandits, and what exactly was happening in this remote outpost…

 

fn1: I actually messed up here, giving the thief an agility check instead of doing an attack roll. The thief’s agility is impeccable, so nothing touches him when he gets to do a save. An attack roll, though, would have left him in a sorry state indeed. I realized during this session that in addition to WFRP 3’s many other flaws of incompleteness, it has no rules for traps and no suggestions about how to do traps.