Thursday, 13 October 2016

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay: 30th Anniversary


This month is Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay's 30th anniversary. Way back when, in October 1986 Games Workshop's own roleplaying game slipped loose it's rancid moorings to set sail across the world, and its been spreading it's peculiar chaotic illumination ever since. What strikes me is that no-one seems to have noticed (well, at least in the journals and blogs I frequent) that such crucial event is now upon us. 

It was, ney still is, one of the greatest roleplaying games of all time, with the Enemy Within often heralded as the greatest adventure ever spawned. Whether or not you agree with this is irrelevant. This is an important anniversary and one that Realm of Chaos 80s will be exploring in greater depth in the coming weeks. 

But where to start? 

How about a world of perilous adventure? 


Issue 82 of White Dwarf contained one of those 'pull out' centre pieces popular in the 1980s. Flicking back through the magazine, its certainly looks impressive when compared with the other pages on offer that month, what with it's jet black background and chunky iconography. You were certainly informed that the long awaited game had arrived. Not that regular readers would have been strangers to the game - talk of it had been brewing for some time and work must have been frantic in the studio from the mid eighties onwards. Think about it now. Within about a year, development of not only Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, but Warhammer Fantasy Battle Third Edition and Rogue Trader: Warhammer 40,000 reached fever pitch. All three titles were released and later received a huge amount of supplements and support in GW publications.

It is also worth remembering that all three systems were (technically) compatible with each other - with WFB3 and WHFR sharing the same game world and many of it's idiosyncracies. In fact, it is due to Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay that the background to the Old World, basically the Empire, was so wonderfully fleshed out for later generations for writers, gamers and design studio members.

What is obvious looking back, is this is very much a dark fantasy world. GrimDark has not yet become a cliche and the more British feel of the background material is a refreshing change to D&D's 'derring-do' performed by long haired men in tights. Probably with white teeth. Sure, WFRP has it's fair share of longhaired men, but reading through this early material makes you feel like they are more likely to give your syphilis than an honest helping hand.

Production values also seem high. Esoteric symbols boarder the top and bottom of the pages, along with the striking margin detailing that would become common for WFRP publications in the years to come. The pages are well arranged and peppered with artwork from the High Lords of Fantasy- Ackland and Blanche. It looks high end. I always admire the work of 'paste-up' artists, especially considering it's practically dead as a job now. All of that text, those images - the lot were most likely put together manually ahead of printing - it is now wonder that these graphic artists were called the 'fuzzy felters' at GW towers. 


The dark fantasy theme continues as we read on. This short story exemplifies the dark and dangerous Warhammer world well, complete with chaos worshippers and witchunters, showing that these themes have been with the game from the very beginning. This opening salvo is also important because it contains a neat little overview of the Warhammer world's history and includes detail about the Gods of Law, who sadly went largely unrealised during the Ansell years, and so are lost to us. 

Ultimately, Gotter's hallucinations fail to unearth the true horror waiting in the dark future for our heroes. It wouldn't be the bitter civil wars of man, elf and dwarf that would go on to destroy the world, nor would it be the malign manipulations of the warp that brought about the end. No, it would be an accountant's penstroke. Both for WFRP itself, and later the Warhammer World. 


Reading through the story again, I find it hard to have sympathy for the fanatical Gotter. Being dragged from a prison cell to the bowels of some skaven tunnel complex is certainly a dreadful end, but somehow I imagine that Gotter broke free - probably by spending a fate point. Still, the idea that human society is rampant and corrupt with chaos worship is a familiar one to any who have spent time with the game. I have said it before, but I found this view of the Warhammer world much more satisfying than what came later. Chaos became too visible. Too, well, familiar - not only the inhabitants of the Old World, but to us players in general. The concept worked best when the general population just got on with their lives, totally unaware of the awful doom that was brewing far to the north.

Chaos should always been the 'spice' of Warhammer. Not the main ingredient.

Speaking of recipes, the rest of the launch article goes on to explain the game in greater detail. Again, the art quality is ramped up and the the now iconic front cover painting (which I tracked down to Canada, some years ago) for WFRP makes more than one appearance. When I got back into GW stuff in the year 2004, I really missed the vibrant art from the 1980s. Sure John Blanche still knocked out a few good 'uns but the house style that developed for big publications was somewhat lacking. 



It looks like whoever wrote the description of the 'Background' section has been imbibing heavily on a bottle of Lovecraft - what with all the brooding, loathsome long words and abomination. Sadly, the 'projected supplements' that promised to cover the rest of the known world never materialised and Richard Halliwell's 'Lustria' campaign remained unpublished.



The careers section is what made WFRP different. Rather than just being a cleric or the ubiquitous magic user, the character you developed could go on a professional career, and if you were anything like me, you'd spend hours and hours reading through the different entries. I must have created hundreds of characters over those early years, all of whom I have long since forgotten. Actually, that is not quite true and one surly chap springs back into my mind - 'Lightfingered Rob', the house burglar and emerged from the cloudy recesses of my mind. I created him when I was GMing the Enemy Within for a school friend.

Perhaps I should reproduce him in miniature form one day?


There is a  quote on this page that I love: 'developing Warhammer into the most complete and enjoyable fantasy game available.' There always seems to me to be an undertone of this attitude ringing through our period. Though commercial requirements would no doubt have dominated motives at GW, there was at least an earnest opinion on producing high quality, versatile games that stood out from the fore. WFRP does this in droves.

Having had a great number of conversations with gamers the world over about WFB3 (and by extension WFRP) the general opinion can be generalised into a single world. Potential. These two games gave the player almost total freedom to design, adapt and play a huge variety of games and scenarios. You are limited by your imagination alone. Obviously, to the causal gamer this reeks of trouble. There is little balance, and some of the option available are game-breakingly powerful. Restraint is a key part of old school style gaming, as many of us have learnt, though sadly there will always be those 'powergamer' types whose sole purpose when rolling dice is to win.

And no lamentations of the women for those players either, just an ever decreasing circle of associates, until squalid and alone, they exist solely alongside the other greasy oiks of their creed. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay often strikes a problem chord with these types, for the game quite clearly states its Warhammer but with little or no meta (or cheesey lists) the game can seem empty and confusing. After all, WFRP is a social game. It is about not only character interaction in an invented universe, but about people pretending to be other people for mutual enjoyment. The shared experience is key here, as it is in early versions of Warhammer, only with WFRP the spectacle is in the mind alone.


Looking back on a near twenty plus year love affair with Warhammer's roleplaying game, I can certainly recall plenty of spectacular moments. Unlike with my miniature endeavours, these affairs are on a much smaller scale and have been far more intimate. I can recall leading my adventurers through the grimy corridors of Castle Wittgenstein as GM, feeling creeped out by the story I was weaving. My old wooden stereo speakers choose this as the moment they would collapse from my bedroom wall in an almighty thud. My players and I nearly jumped out of our skins in fright, so enraptured by the game were we. 

Just one of many, many fine moments of gaming. 

Looking back over this article with fresh eyes brings that word back into my mind. Potential. Just reading through the blurb on offer her inspires me all over again and encourages me to once more delve into my dusty old tomes to enjoy the adventure again. But some of that potential is, alas, forever unfulfilled. Glancing across the 'coming soon' text above the coupon reveals another one of those 'lost projects' we have become accustomed too here at Realm of Chaos 80s. 

And I quote.

"Blood for the Blood God - a battlepack for use with Realm of Chaos. The army is camped in the chaos wastes preparing to raid the empire, but dissension is growing and blood must be spilled before the differences can be resolved. Scheme and battle your way to supremacy of the chaos army in this unique adventure which combines Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay rules with Warhammer Fantasy Battle rules."

How intriguing, eh?



34 comments:

  1. Thirty Years. THIRTY. YEARS! I shall have to go and lie down now. :-)

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    1. You wait until it's fifty years, Mike!!

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  2. Good grief, that long now? It's a shame I never really managed to get any friends to play RPG's the closest I ever got was Advanced Hero Quest which clearly looking back now, owed a lot not only to it's simpler cousin but to this classic RPG as well.... I do hope one day I'll get to play this game, I've heard that the Enemy Within really is the best RPG Camapign ever written full stop....

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    1. It is a beautiful game. I have had the pleasure of playing through most of the Enemy Within as GM. I would like to do it again as a player!

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  3. Whilst I didn't get much of a chance to play WFRP back in the day (I did for a short time after playing MERP for years) the system and background fascinated me and still does. The character progression system was brilliant and original and the background to the world was extremely detailed. I used to enjoy reading WFRP updates in white dwarf when they came out in the period 89-92 (basically the period I collected the mag) even though I wasn't playing the game. Looking forward the further posts you have planned on this.

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    1. I too enjoyed the background material put out in White Dwarf and they remain to this day my favourite articles in the magazine. I intend to look at them all in detail.

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  4. Wow, I can't believe that it's been 30 years! I picked up my copy in college. Still have it. Still love it. Still hoping for a new printing!

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    1. Like you, I searched for the out of print copies of the game in the late '90s, before the Hogshead reprintings. I remember popping into Virgin and seeing copies of the rulebook for sale and it blew my mind. Shame that I have bought most of them second hand by then.

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  5. I played this more than WHFB. Thge adventures around the Bretonian town of Renardpont lasted years. I've played through TEW with three separate groups and tried but failed to do it via blog as you well know!

    I guess a post is in order.

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    1. I really enjoyed our blog approach all those years ago. Such a shame it didn't work out!

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  6. Thanks for reminding me of this anniversary. I loved dungeon=s and dragons but WFRP career system seemed to allow the development of real characters with a background in a believable world and became the hall mark of Games Workshop and also a measure of what they gradually lost over the years. Every Games Workshop apocalyptic end times type scenario with super villains and foot tall models produced is shown to be hollow simply by flicking through this rulebook or it's supplements and seeing the potential that is there and how it fires the imagination instead of spoon feeding it.

    For me the legacy of WFRP is two fold. There is the world, which will always be my Warhammer world. One that is believable and full of detail while also not so constrictive that it doesn't have masses that can be left for my imagination to fill in.

    The second bit of it's legacy is that it encouraged me to give every aspect of gaming back story no matter what I'm playing. This approach massively enhances every game although appears to be missing from a lot of modern gaming. Basically the point of the gaming, painting and so on was to interact as part of a narrative and to make this narrative interesting, not to win at all costs.

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    1. Well said Hegel. Roleplaying, like 'proper' wargaming, is a shared social experience that doesn't need a victor, just satisfied players.

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  7. Outstanding post! I had no idea it was 30, I actually would have said older than that. I guess I was under the impression that WHFRP was out a few years prior to WHFB3 so much thanks in educating me. You have stirred an interest in getting out my copy, sadly not a GWS 1st edition but a Hogshead print of the game. Damn now I will have to fight the urge to collect an original GWS copy!

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    1. Good luck with that! I am surprised how expensive the WFRP material has become online. I sold my original Empire in Flames for £70 over ten years ago! I doubt I will never get my hands on another physical copy. ):

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  8. Thanks for the lovely commemoration. Although I was more or less fed AD&D with my mother's milk, my heart will always belong to WFRP. The long (long) campaign I played in highschool remains the my favourite roleplaying epic.

    Incidentally, I love your observation that "Chaos should always been the 'spice' of Warhammer. Not the main ingredient." That is my view too. A little chaos goes a long way. Overdo it and Warhammer just seems like a fun house.

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    1. "Overdo it and Warhammer just seems like a fun house."

      Wise words. And true, just look at Age of Sigmar!!

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  9. Played this game hard for nearly 20 years. Still the king of kings.

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  10. Regretably I sold all my WHFRP stuff in 2002. Now trying to get it back to start a group to see if they like roleplaying.

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  11. I hadn't realised it was 30 years! As it happens, I've just bought a mint hardback to replace my old one I lost.

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    1. Nothing like the feel of the hardback edition in the hands.

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  12. I recently found an old school exercise book with several pages of characters for WFRP that I'd rolled up, none of which I ever actually played

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    1. I used to spend Sunday afternoon's just creating characters as a youth. I then owned the character pack (the yellow version) and spend many a happy hour devising all classes of character and then never using them. I am sure it was a hobby in itself!

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  13. 30 years! Ouch, where did that go.

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  14. Hogshead reprints were the best thing to happen to old Warhammer Roleplay.

    I have been lucky enough to play Enemy Within campaign several times, though never to the final part Empire in flames.

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    1. I too fell that the final hurdle when GMing the game. We finished Death on the Reik and then stopped. In hindsight, perhaps that wasn't such a bad thing. How do you top the greatest scenario ever put to print?

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  15. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay is probably tied with the Original and Basic/Expert editions of D&D as my favourite RPG system. The career system is great and the whole game is suitably brutal for the Warhammer universe. While it's an amazing and well produced package I don't think I agree that it was as strikingly original as you describe.

    I don't think that the 'grimdark' element of WFRP was as sshocking in the '80s as it is now. The earlier editions of D&D and AD&D were quite dark and had no qualms about killing off large numbers of PCs. They were much more dark ages games. Human life was expendable. The focus of play was much more on exploration, dangerous environs, and skirting danger that was beyond the player characters capacity. There were dedicated rules for caravans of hirelings for a reason, because they died in droves, often taking the PCs with them. There weren't yet the huge HP numbers, the more 'amateur theater' style of roleplay, and all of the feat and ability based combat. Roll the dice and die was an old saying (Steve Jackson maybe?).

    I also think the obvious influence of Chaosium's (later Avalon Hill's) RuneQuest system has to be acknowledged. The % based resolution systems and a lot of the 'atypical' (eg. non-Tolkien, non-D&D) creatures and chaotic forces are clearly influenced by RuneQuest. It was a pretty popular system at the time and we know that Games Workshop was involved with distributing and promoting Chaosium products in the UK, so it only makes sense.

    Not to take away from the greatness of WFRP, but a bit of historical context helps I think.

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  16. A grand game and grand times, well-evoked by your article. Many good memories.

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    1. I am glad that you enjoyed it and that it stirred up a few memories!

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