Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 4th Edition – a Review

The very same copy from all those years ago…

My first RPG back in the day was Maelstrom – published under the Adventure Gamebooks label by Puffin.  I didn’t realise it was an RPG when I bought it – I assumed it was some kind of new fangled Fighting Fantasy book with a blue spine, rather than the distinctive green ones that had become such a feature on my bookshelf during the mid 80s.  However, rather than another foray into the fantasy kingdom of Allansia, Maelstrom actually turned out to be something called a roleplaying game – and it led to me merrily taking up the mantle of gamesmaster as I wrote adventure after adventure for my friends. 

Happy Christmas to me!

I don’t remember much of those early games, other than the fact that we all had great fun and our eyes were opened to the wider possibilities that this hobby offered.  At around the same time I had received a copy of Warhammer Fantasy Battle second edition as a birthday present, and I was absolutely sucked into the world that Games Workshop had created.  When I became aware of the fact that GW were releasing a roleplaying game set in this universe, well; I had to have it!  I got a copy the Christmas it was released and at that moment Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay became my first “proper” RPG. 

No disrespect Maelstrom.

A grim world of oversized nonsense

I stuck with it until the early 90s, but by then the direction GW were going left me disenchanted with the setting – gone was the grim world of perilous adventure and instead we had the high magic world of oversized hammers and shirtless dwarves on steroids.  I bought a copy of second edition when it was first released but, again, I was put off by its artwork and focus on “chaos spiky bits”. 

I didn’t even bother with Fantasy Flight’s third edition – their fetishism for board game components and custom dice in their RPGs always puts me off their products.
Why am I mentioning all of this in the context of a review of Cubicle 7’s 4th edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay?  Well, I thought it only fair that I lay out my stall early on and make it abundantly clear that I was a massive fan of first ed, didn’t really give second ed much of a chance and didn’t bother with third ed at all.  Therefore, this is a massive “your mileage may vary and Iain’s a bit of a grumpy old grognard” warning.

Pretty but not exactly functional

As far as first impressions go, it’s an impressive book.  Weighing in at just over 350 pages, this is a hardback that you could do some serious damage with.  The cover is an homage to John Sibbick’s iconic first edition artwork and everything is laid out in a clean, clear, easy to read manner.  I’m not a massive fan of the maps  found at the beginning and end of the book.  It seems, in a bid to make them more stylistically appealing they’ve actually made the maps more difficult to read.  They’re also out of place – they’d be much better served in the chapter dealing with the setting.  As it is, a reader unfamiliar with place names will find themselves flipping back and forth when reading about the setting to try and build up an impression of the land.

Regarding the rest of the artwork, it’s well produced…but it’s not my cup of tea.  Remember what I said earlier about disliking GW’s change in direction from “grim and dark” to “oversized everything for everyone”?  That very much applies here. Let’s dig into that for a moment. 

I have an issue with that the fact that over two thirds of the dwarf illustrations in the book are of Slayers.  For those of you unfamiliar with this aspect of the Warhammer mythos, Slayers are Dwarves who have suffered shame or dishonour and seek to make amends by finding  death in battle.  The thing is – they’re presumably not that common in the setting otherwise the dwarven population would be considerably smaller than it is.  However, if these images are anything to go by, a good sixty six percent of the resident dwarves have dishonoured themselves to that point that they feel the need to go off and seek a glorious death.  For new players, this pretty much cements the idea that dwarves have to be jacked-up shirtless Crossfit bros with ridiculous haircuts.

Speaking of which, I’m not a fan of the signature characters that the artists keep using again and again throughout the book.  We’ve got our aforementioned Slayer, whose hair seems to take on more and more ludicrous proportions.  Seriously – check out page 12; I actually laughed out loud when I saw that.  We’ve also got a lady sporting an ever-so-mysterious Guy Fawkes look.  All I can say is that if I pulled a hat down as low as she has in nearly every picture she’s in, I think I’d be banging into things constantly.  Seriously, how does she see where she’s going?  We’ve also got some kind of wizard guy.  Now, in the Warhammer setting, although magic is legal – provided you’ve got a “wizard license”; we’ll get to that later – the common folk are still fearful of sorcerers and the Church still have an annoying habit of burning those who get out of hand.  This fella though, seems either oblivious to the prevailing feelings towards wizardy types or is willing to provoke the ire of all around him, as he’s clearly going for some kind of Grim Reaper vibe.  Honestly – the guy’s carrying an honest-to-goodness scythe and is dressed in a long robe.  There’s also a woman who owns a hat which – much like our troll slayer’s hair – seems to vary in terms of impracticality.  On page ten it looks fairly normal, but by page fifteen it has grown to silly proportions, whilst on page 25 I’m not sure how she can walk about with it on without breaking her neck.

There’s also an over abundance of firearms.  Our angsty Guy Fawkes is pretty commonly seen posing with two of them, but they also absolutely litter the careers’ illustrations.  There are careers that don’t even have firearms listed as one of their trappings that see their character posing dramatically with one in their picture!

Check out my purity scrolls…

Speaking of the careers’ artwork, there seems to be a weird fetish – and I’ve seen this repeated in other Cubicle 7 Warhammer products – for characters to wear Warhammer 40k style “purity scrolls”, which is to say little sheets of paper secured to their person with a wax seal.  It also appears that 40k Terminator honours – that vaguely Maltese cross style medal with a skull on it – are worn as some kind of fashion accessory too.  There’s also weirdness like characters having scrolls tied to various parts of their costume, even when their profile doesn’t include the “Read/Write” talent – is this some kind of odd practical joke that happens in the Empire?  I remember in science classes in secondary school where pupils would attach crocodile clips to the bottom of their classmates’ blazers and wait to see if they’d notice them.  Maybe this is the equivalent?  “Hey!  Gunter!  Check it out!  Franz can’t read but we’ve pinned a copy of the Reikland gazette to his tunic!  Lol.”

By far the worst  image, just in terms of sheer “WTF” excess is that of the “thief” career.  I’ve looked at it several times, and I still can’t work out why a thief from Warhammer’s Empire would dress like Bane from Batman.
On the positive side, it’s nice to see some diversity in the artwork for a change.  Yes – you don’t have to exclusively play a white Anglo-Saxon Sigmarite any more…
As I’ve said, your mileage may vary – the Warhammer aesthetic might very much be your thing; it’s just not for me. 

So, now that you’ve finished bleating on about the artwork Iain, what’s the actual content like?  Well, the  first two dozen or so pages are made up of background fiction.  The first part of this provides two views of the Empire – one is clearly written by a sycophantic courtier who has nothing but praise for the rule of the Emperor, whilst the other view comes from someone more worldly and cynical.  It’s a nice touch, presenting both sides of the story – as always, the truth falls somewhere between them.  There’s also a letter, written providing an overview of the Empire.  It is what it is – as a long time fan of Warhammer there was nothing new there, but maybe new players will get something useful out of it.

We then jump into the chapter on creating a character.  This is all fairly similar fare to previous editions – you select a race, a career, attributes, skills and talents.  I was pleasantly surprised to see that they had ditched alignment.  It was present in first ed, but I always felt like it was a hangover from the Warhammer Battle game; the inclusion in which was probably a hangover from D&D.  Heroes in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay always seemed to operate in that “shades of grey” territory (remember, it’s a GRIM world of perilous adventure…) so it always seemed unnecessary to clearly box in someone’s morality.  As it largely served as a roleplaying aid, its inclusion as a “stat” was redundant.

Unlike first ed, where your attributes, skills and careers are all generated at random, fourth ed gives you the option to choose everything from stats to career.  However  you can choose to roll randomly and if you go with what you roll, you are awarded extra experience points.  I like this, as it encourages players to accept the vagaries of fate.  It can also be more fun taking the mish-mash of options that has been dealt to you and trying to tell a coherent story with it.

When it comes to race, players can be humans, dwarves, halflings or one of two types of elf – wood or high.  As usual, the non-human races have better profiles than poor old humans – with elves particularly falling into the “everything you can do we can do better” territory – but this is balanced out later on as human are given more Fate Points; Warhammer’s “extra life” currency.

One gripe I do have around character creation is the use of the word “skill” when describing the characteristics of “weapon skill” and “ballistic skill”.  Now, I know why they use this nomenclature – these two attributes, representing as they do your natural fighting ability have been around since the beginning of the Warhammer line.  However, given that they’re attributes and you have a second category called skills the inclusion of a couple of “not quite skills but we’re calling them skills” in the attributes section can be understandably confusing.  In fact, I’m confusing myself as I say this so I’ll stop!

The skills themselves are bonuses that you add on top of an attribute when trying to do something that you’re, well, skilled at.  So, for example, the Pick Lock skill gives you a bonus to your Dexterity characteristic when you’re trying to nefariously tinker with a closed door.  In first ed skills existed, but they were a mix of bonuses to certain tests, additions to your characteristics and other more esoteric things such as the ability to cast spells.  4e takes this jumble of concepts and breaks them down into three separate stats:

  • Characteristics – your raw ability to do certain things.  Strength, dexterity and intelligence are all examples of characteristics.
  • Skills – things that you have been learned to do.  Cook, pick lock and navigation are all skills.  Some skills are advanced meaning that regardless of what your characteristic is, you can’t attempt this skill without having trained in it.
  • Talents – these are akin to special abilities; quirks or tricks that you’ve learned.  Things like spell casting, combat shenanigans and being able to hold your ale in a drinking competition count as talents.

What determines what skills and talents you can learn?  Well, that comes down to your career.  Unlike other games with their levels and classes, WFRP has a system of careers – namely what was your profession before you decided to sod off and become an adventurer?  This will inform what skills and talents you will have, as well as your social standing and any possessions you may own.  I’m pleased that Cubicle 7 have stuck with the careers system, as it’s always the thing that’s marked WFRP out as being somewhat different from other fantasy RPGs, and it certainly went a long way to contributing to it’s more grounded feel, as opposed to a high magic setting like D&D.

Unlike previous editions, where characters would bounce around from career to career, looking to pick up as many useful skills and characteristic bumps as possible, 4e looks to keep characters in their main career as long as possible.  Yes, you can switch career, but each one has its own system of levels – or a career path as the book calls it – which allows you to develop expertise within the confines of a single career.  This means that certain desirable skills or characteristic advances won’t be “unlocked” until you’ve devoted some time and effort to mastering your career. 

I’ve not played 4e yet, so I’ve not seen how this works in practice.  At an initial glance I like the thought of characters sticking with what you know, rather than being jacks of all trades.  Certainly, it takes away that issue that 1e WFRP saw where the GM – if they were running the game in a purist manner – would have to invent contrived excuses for how a character moved from one career to another.  Also, this idea does have precedent.  In 1st ed the wizard careers and things like the jump from mercenary to mercenary sergeant to mercenary captain all followed this route.

Artist’s impression of 4e’s mechanics

One aspect of the new system that I’m not so hot on, is how they handle advances.  In 1e, you had an advance scheme where you bought improvements to characteristics in ten percent chunks, and where skills were one off purchases.  In 2e I believe that characteristics were bought five percent at a time.  In 4e, not only can you improve characteristics, you can buy advances in skills and you can also buy talents – sometimes you can even buy them multiple times.  When you’re buying skills or characteristics, you’re improving them in one percent increments.  In addition, as you take more and more advances, the cost to improve goes up.  Oh, and the costs for skills and characteristics are (obviously) different.  This will lead to a LOT of book keeping.  I can quite easily see a situation where a character is paying three different costs to advance his characteristics and several more for his skills while trying to determine if those talents he has can be bought more than once and, if so, how much they cost.  That’s not to say the system is bad – merely that it’s very crunchy.  D&D players – and players of other “You reach this XP threshold and you level up” games – be warned!

Careers also have the social level of the character baked into them.  This is represented by something call their status tier, and it can be brass, silver or gold representing the poorest in society to townspeople and professionals all the way up to the rules of society.  Each tier is further split up into five separate levels, representing the distinction between people of the same class.  This is a nice split – it shows that a simple trader won’t be able to distinguish one noble from another as they all seem important to him and people he should curry favour with.  Likewise, to the aristocracy, it doesn’t matter if you’re a hard working peasant or a filthy beggar – those at the bottom of society are all smelly oiks!  There are various rules for the effects of interactions between people of differing statuses, as well as mechanics for the cost of maintaining your standing in society.  Yes, it is possible for nobles to lose status by slumming it with the hoi poli…  More rules and crunch, but I think they’re handled pretty well – a few scribbled notes on the back of a GM’s screen should make this fairly easy to remember.

Speaking of crunch, characters also have fate, resilience, fortune and  resolve points – all of which let you interfere with core game mechanics in certain ways, and which are all regained in different manners.  
Character creation is rounded out by around half a dozen pages on “adding detail”.  A lot of this is cosmetic, like hair and eye colour, age and other physical details, but there’s a surprisingly crunchy (there’s that word again) section on your long term and short term ambitions – conditions which, if you fulfil them, you get a mechanical bonus.  There’s also the same for the party – rather than a “you all meet together in a tavern and decide to go on an adventure” approach to party building, 4e assumes that the protagonists will have a collective goal – the fulfilling of which will, again, generate a mechanical bonus.

I’m not sure how I feel like this – it feels a bit like the old White Wolf concept of Nature and Demeanour, which were tools to prod characters into roleplaying a certain way (with the promise of getting a refill on willpower) but which, in practice, very rarely came into effect.

Likewise, a lot of players, when a new game begins, don’t generally have a firm view of what their character’s long term goals are, and instead like to settle into their character and see where things will go.  Forcing them to nail down their ambitions – without necessarily knowing what form the campaign will take – seems artificial and limiting.

This far in, and still no actual system

So, after the introductory, character creation and careers chapters we come to the fourth which details the various skills and talents that a character can have.  It’s here that I have a problem with the book’s structure.  By the time you’ve finished the fourth chapter you’re over one hundred and thirty pages into the book and you still don’t know what the rules are!  I can imagine a lot of flipping back and forth in the first few sessions of a game – in fact, session zero where people make up their characters is probably going to particularly painful.  People like to know what effect on the game their choices at character creation will have – especially in a system as crunchy as this one.  When you consider that the actual core system itself only takes up around five pages, would it have been that hard to move the basic method of resolving tests to much earlier in the book?  There are also a lot of talents and, when you consider how they interact with fundamental game mechanics, I can imagine that these would slow a lot of games down and necessitate a lot of homework on the GM’s part to memorise the more important ones and what they do. 

Speaking of the system, when it comes to resolving challenges, 4e has two types of tests – simple and dramatic.  The difference between the two is…well…simple.  If the degree to which a test succeeds or fails is important you make a dramatic test, otherwise you make a simple test. 
A simple test involves throwing a d100 and comparing the result to the skill or characteristic that the GM asks you to use.  If you get lower or equal to it you pass, otherwise you fail.  The GM can impose a modifier depending on how difficult or routine the task is.

Easy, right?

Sadly, dramatic tests are not as straightforward.  These are used when it’s important to know how well (or badly!) a test went.  This is done through the concept of Success Levels (or SLs).  To determine this, take the 10s number of what you rolled away from the 10s number of the characteristic or skill you’re testing.  The higher the SL, the better things have gone, whereas the more negative it is the worse the consequences.  There’s a handy “have you succeeded” table for GMs to consult.  Like simple tests, it is also possible for the GM to throw over modifiers as necessary.  One nice touch is that an “average” test gets +20% to its success chance, taking away some of the “wiff factor” that WFRP is famous for.

Again, I’m going to caveat this with “…and I’ve never played this…” but the feedback I’ve seen online is that the concept of SLs – which is baked into a lot of talent usage not to mention combat – slows things down a lot.  Any test that has modifiers and which is affected by talents is going to take a lot longer to resolve than a simple D100 roll.  With a system already burdened by crunch this is probably not surprising, but I’m not sure it’s a welcome surprise.

Combat essentially boils down to a series of opposed dramatic tests.  Both combatants roll their melee and whomever scores the most success levels hits.  For ranged combat, you simply make the test – your opponent doesn’t oppose it. 

If you hit, reverse your roll to determine the hit location, then take the weapon’s damage number, your strength bonus and the number of success levels you scored, add them together and the resulting total is the number of potential wounds caused.  Then, subtract your opponents toughness bonus and any armour points on the location hit from the potential wounds total to determine the final damage total.


WFRP combat can feel like this

There are also additional rules for critical hits and fumbles, but it should be evident by now that there is a fair amount of maths involved in every swing of the sword.  Yes, 1e had a fairly similar and cumbersome system, but that was over thirty years ago!  One of my hopes for the new system was that it would cut some of the fat from the mechanics, but it feels a bit like Cubicle 7 have doubled down on the complexity.  Thinking of the opening chapters of the Enemy Within – the flagship Warhammer Campaign – the combats that crop up there could easily take up a sizeable chunk of a game session.

Anyway, this goes on for twenty odd pages with rules for critical injuries, healing and using fate and resolve to survive otherwise lethal blows.  It’s all very detailed.  Fine if you like that stuff, but fairly hair raising if you don’t.

There’s then ten or so pages dealing with corruption, disease and psychology.  This is all good, Warhammery stuff.  One of the things that always made WFRP stand out from the crowd was that it was set in a pretty grubby, dirty world.  Unless those wounds you take are going to be treated, chances are they will become infected.  Likewise, in the filthy cities of the Old World, disease abounds and things like the plague and the pox are as deadly as any monsters from the forests. 

Hand in hand with this physical decay is the concept of corruption, which represents the insidious influence the Ruinous Powers of Chaos  have on a character’s soul.  The more corruption a character accrues, the more likely the are to fall to the lure of Chaos and then they’ll start to change in various interesting ways…

THIS is Warhammer!

One aspect of this system that I love is that of “dark deals” and “dark whispers”.  In short, you can gain corruption by voluntarily accepting a point in exchange for something like a re-roll, whilst you can also lose corruption by letting the darkness within come out to play for a little while and generally cock things up for you.  Letting an enemy escape, making a mess of a ritual or telling that important noble exactly how you feel about him are all great examples of this.

Anyone who has had the misfortune to have played in more than a handful of games run by me will learn, very quickly, that I adore mechanics like this.  I’ve always found that any “temptation” mechanism can be used to drive story and interparty roleplay like nothing else, and I really, really  take a gleeful delight in letting players damn themselves like this.

In short, this is exactly the kind of approach to Chaos that I would put into my Warhammer games.  It’s insidious, subtle, slow and frequently starts from a place of good intentions.  In short, it embodies The Enemy Within.

We then come to a chapter that is…well…let’s just say I’ve seen mixed feedback about it online.  It’s entitled “Between Adventures” and it covers how to fill the potential weeks of downtime between adventures.  This isn’t a new concept – I’ve seen stuff like this in other games.  In Vampire’s The Transylvania Chronicles, for instance, there is a system of “maturation” to cover what the characters get up to for the decades that can exist between chapters of the story.  It uses a system of tables and points to allow players to further develop their characters and provide a bit of colour other than “Yeah, I guess I slept off the years in my coffin…”

WFRP tries to do something similar.  It breaks downtime down as follows:

First, you generate a random event that has occurred.  Then, you spent any money you might have acquired on your last adventure.  After this you take part in what is called “endeavours” to represent tasks that you might take part in when not adventuring like plying a trade, or managing an estate.  Finally, all of this players resolve this stuff and they are ready for their next adventure.  Oh, and then the players lose all their money.  I’ll come back to that one shortly.

Now, credit to Cubicle 7, they DO have a box saying “IT’S ALL OPTIONAL” and that some people might choose not to follow the rules presented in this chapter, and after reading them, I know I would be one of them.  Simply put, there is waaaay too much crunch here for the sake of crunch with little regard to logical consistency. 

As an example of this, each player gets one endeavour per week of downtime between adventures, but no more than three regardless of the length of time that passes.  This makes no sense – yes, I get that they want to limit players potentially abusing the endeavours system, but there is a substantial difference to what a character can do in three weeks of downtime and what they could accomplish if there were six months of downtime between adventures (which isn’t an overly unrealistic thing to imagine!).

Then there’s the fact that high tier characters have to take an income endeavour or they’ll drop to a lower career tier, and the fact that elves have to use one of their special endeavours to send messages back to their elf families – this wasted endeavour is apparently a way of balancing out the fact that elves are so much better at everything else.

By far the most egregious part of this system – and the one that I’ve seen most outcry about online – is how it handles money.  In a nutshell, if you don’t bank your cash you lose ALL THE MONEY YOU’VE ACCRUED ON THE LAST ADVENTURE DURING DOWNTIME. 


Cubicle 7 vs their WFRP players between games

Apparently you’ve drunk it, gambled it, paid off old debts, had it stolen or whatever other reason you want but, it has all gone. Now, for adventurers with a purse full of coin, I can see  that being possible.  You’ve just come back from seeing off those goblin bandits and you’ve spent your three weeks (no more, remember?) of downtime living it large.  Time passes and you’re left thinking “Best sharpen the old sword, strap on the backpack and get adventuring again, because those beers won’t buy themselves.”  However, what if instead of dealing with some miserable goblins you and your erstwhile companions had undertaken a quest of epic proportions and had returned with a king’s ransom in treasure?  Or even just a few thousand gold crowns.  Are we honestly meant to believe that you’ve somehow managed to splurge all of that with nothing to show in a couple of weeks?

Now, there are options to try and mitigate this.  If you want to start the next adventure with some money you can either take the “income” endeavour and earn an honest wage, or you can choose to “bank” your cash.  With the latter you can choose to “invest” and can then roll for things like interest rate and whether or not your investment goes bankrupt and you lose all your money.  If the investment succeeds you can use another endeavour to withdraw your money and do more fun bookkeeping to work out how much interest you’re due.  If that doesn’t sound appealing you can choose to stash your money – you don’t earn any interest, and you can withdraw your cash without spending another endeavour, but there’s a ten percent chance someone will find your stash and steal all your money.

Do you get the impression that the authors thought that if they took cash away from the players GMs would be able to make more use of “…and the NPC offers you great riches if you’ll accept the adventure?”  Only, if they know that they’re probably going to lose it all when they finish whatever quest they’re on, it’s hardly a great incentive is it?

Moving away from downtime, we jump into the Religion and Belief chapter.  This was always one of my favourite sections of the original WFRP, and I’m pleased to say that Cubicle 7 have done a brilliant job with it this time around.  The gods of the Warhammer world always had a very unique feel to them, and this has been captured perfectly across 20 or so pages.  All of the main deities of the Old World are accounted for, with one page write-ups for each detailing things like worshippers, holy sites, penances and strictures. 

One of the best chapters

Following these, there’s a brief overview of non-human deities, and an even briefer note on the Chaos Gods.  Hopefully, a future supplement will expand upon these topics in more detail, as these were always areas that I felt were lacking in the original (Realms of Chaos supplements not withstanding). 

We then get details on the two types of powers available to clerics – blessings, which are minor miracles, and invocations which are your flashier manifestations of divine favour.  Each deity provides those with the Blessings talent six Blessings, whilst the miracles are flavoured to each of the individual cults.  I really like this update to the system.  In first ed, Clerics were essentially wizards with a much more limited choice of spells.  In this edition, clerical magic feels special, different and – more importantly – themed to each of the individual gods.  Therefore, a Cleric of Verena will invoke miracles of a very different type to those of a worshipper of Ulric.  My only gripe is that the focus of miracles is purely limited to human Old World cults – it seems like halfling, dwarf and elven clerics will have to wait for another supplement to get spells of their own.

Following on from Religion we dive into a chunky chapter on magic.  This was one area that first edition REALLY struggled with.  Seriously – the magic system was a straight port from Warhammer Fantasy Battle 2nd Ed and really not suited to an RPG.  Advancing as a wizard was difficult, learning new spells was difficult, casting spells was difficult and in general the whole thing was a clunky mess.  With a few exceptions, all of the spells were a straight port from WFB, and as a result their application in a non-battle setting was seriously limited.  Hell, the main body of spells (which Clerics drew their magic from too) was called “Battle Magic”.
So, how does 4th edition compare?  Thankfully, the system is a LOT better, and also a lot more thematic.  Naturally, this means that things are a lot more crunchy but, if you’ve made it this far into this review you’ll probably not be surprised at this!  At its simplest, casting a spell involves making a casting test and accumulating a number of Success Levels equal to the casting number.  If you don’t manage this, you fail.  Given that all but the most basic of spells  have a casting number much higher than that which can easily be achieved, spell casters have the option to “channel” the winds of magic, allowing for the round by round accumulation of arcane energy until they are ready to attempt their spell.  I like this – it conjures up images of sorcerers trying to control the dangerous energy that surrounds them and weave it into a spell which they finally unleash upon their opponents. 

Thankfully it’s not this…

The rules also do a great job of conjuring up how dangerous magic is – a critical roll means that the winds of magic have flared out of your control, granting your spell extra power but with potentially disastrous results.  Being around a source of chaotic corruption makes this more likely, which fits very nicely with Warhammer’s theme of “magic is really just controlled chaos”.  Allowing wizards options to mitigate the effects of miscasts through preparation and ingredients helps add to the flavour and gives magic using players a lot of options.  Do I take the time to safely cast this spell, or do I really need to get it off quickly?

Spells are broken out into petty magic – simple cantrips every wizard learns when starting out – and lore magic, which represents your character’s area of specialisation.  Normally, a wizard can only learn one lore but, naturally, elves are able to learn more if they meet certain conditions.  Because they’re magical and amazing presumably?  Lores might relate to one of the schools of colour magic, witchcraft or something naughty like demonology or chaos magic.  While each lore is wonderfully thematic, magic users can also choose from a pool of “arcane” spells which allow for more generic magical effects like flight, magic shields, teleportation and magic missiles.  There are almost twenty pages of spells, so there’s plenty for budding wizards to get their teeth into.  I love how each Lore feels different from the others, and I’d be interested to see how the system plays out in an actual game.  Yes, it’s crunchy but I think that could work in its favour.  After all, isn’t magic meant to be complicated and laden with potential risk?  I can see a player accidentally forgetting that they could use an ingredient with a spell and having the spell flare out of their control!

But…but…we’re a grimdark, dark fantasy, low magic setting unlike that silly D&D game!

The only real gripe I have with the magic chapter is that I am not a fan of the direction Warhammer went with regards to magic following the 3rd edition of fantasy battle.  Suddenly we had “wizard licenses” and “magical universities” and the low fantasy world of Warhammer all of a sudden became much more high magic.  This is a personal thing – I know some people love it – and this edition was released with over three decades of fluff established for it, so I’m not going to suggest that the inclusion of these elements somehow makes this a bad product.  Just don’t claim your game is gritty, low magic grimdarkness when you’ve got wizards wreathed in blazing nimbuses of fire, whizzing by on griffons and blasting people from their skull-topped wands.

After we’ve finished with magic we get around half a dozen pages on how to be a gamesmaster.  There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking here, but I’m sure new players would find it useful.
We then get around 20 pages that serve as a guide to the Reikland – a section of the Empire that is the game’s default setting.  The content is fine, and it details the setting quite nicely, but as someone who has ready the World Guide in first ed this just feels somewhat sparse in comparison.  If 1e could give us an overview of the entire world, how come we only get detail on what amounts to a single province here? 
Worst of all, there are no maps!  If you want to work out in your head where everything is, you’ll be flicking back and forth between this chapter and the end papers which, as I mentioned earlier, aren’t that easy to read.  Whilst these maps do a wonderful job of looking like an Olde Worlde mappe, they’re not that usable.  Plus, they’re repeated – once at the beginning and once at the end of the book.  Why not replace one of these with a useful, simple, black and white map?  This example of style over substance goes a long way to making the Reikland chapter less useful than it could be.

We then have the Consumer Guide, which is to say pages and pages of useful equipment to spend your hard earned gold crowns on – presumably before downtime steals them away!  This includes everything from weapons, to clothing to prosthetics.  Weapons, unsurprisingly, add more complications to the game.  They can have “qualities” and “flaws” which is to say extra rules that affect combat.  On one hand, this makes weapons more interesting than “this is a sword and this a plus one sword – I like the plus one sword better” but it does mean that there’s a lot more to remember in a fight and combat will consequently take a lot longer.

Quick! Let’s buy something before our money all mysteriously vanishes…
This guy looks properly monstrous unlike some of the tosh GW used to churn out…

The final chapter is a bestiary made up of a mix of generic fantasy creatures and creations that are pure Warhammer – Fimir and Skaven, I’m looking at you! Each entry is exactly what you’d expect – a brief description of the creature, a stat block and a picture.  One nice thing is that creatures are assigned a number of “traits” which do a good job of shorthanding things like skills, talents and weapon qualities.  For example, the Orc has a trait saying “weapon +8” which means when it hits, to calculate damage you just take the success levels earned in combat and add them to 8 to get the total wounds caused.  This is a great design decision and should hopefully make things like combat move more quickly.  The downside is that most creatures have a LOT of traits – the goblin, one of the most generic of adversaries, has at least half a dozen!  This means that the GM will have to do quite a bit of prep before most games and, I would imagine, it will probably entail a lot of page flipping during the first few games they run. Speaking of orcs and goblins, the artwork for them is great and the descriptions are devoid of the “gobbo” nonsense that Games Workshop are  so fond of in every publication ever to feature these creatures…

It’s funny ‘cos dey soundz like cockneys…

…so imagine my disappointment to find a quote from an “Orc Boss” full of the “dis, dem, day” pigeon English that is still serving as a substitute for humour after almost three decades.  Still, at least I’ve not found any references to “Zoggin’ ‘oomie gitz“….yet…


That was a BIG book.

So, after 350 or so pages, what do I think?  Well, gripes about artwork aside, I think there’s a lot to like.  It’s a complete package in one book, and its overhauled some aspects of earlier editions quite nicely.  I have my reservations about how complicated some of it feels, but not having run it yet I can’t comment fully on that just yet.

The most important thing is that it “feels” like a Warhammer product – again, other than my gripes around some of the more high magic elements creeping in.  I was happy that, after reading it, my first thought was “I can’t wait to run it”.

Guess I’d better get something planned before Steve listens to this and takes that last statement as a promise…

One response to “Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 4th Edition – a Review”

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