Friday 15 June 2012

Warhammer Third Edition: 10 Things I Love About You!

I have recently been on holiday. Not far, just down to Kent for a few days at a Haven Holiday Camp, so that my very pregnant wife and young son could have a bit of a break. We were really lucky with the weather; warm sunny days, mornings spent swimming, nice food and afternoons where the wife and son slept contentedly for a couple of hours.

During this rare 'freetime', I endeavoured to re-read the Third Edition Rulebook cover to cover. I say re-read, but I am not entirely sure if I have ever actually 'read' it before. Sure, I've flicked through (I've spent 20+ years doing that) and made reference to different rule sections but I cannot actually recall reading the whole book through, cover to cover.

Well, I have just finished it!

Upon completion, I began to ponder on what makes this particular edition so popular. It cannot just be the musing of a few nostalgic old leadheads. A glance at eBay tells a different story. You'd have trouble shifting a copy of 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th or even 8th (recently I've seen the deluxe, limited edition of 8th not selling for £30) but 3rd? Just look at eBay and you'll see what I mean.

Why is this?

That, I think, is an answer best left to the individual. We all appreciate different things about 3rd edition because we are different people. What does surprise me, however, is that there are some gamers who were not even born when the edition was published picking up a copy of the ruleset and having a go.

Strangely, Rick Priestley, one of the authors behind Warhammer, has gone on the record to say (and I paraphrase) that its the edition remembered most fondly but, in his view anyway, the least playable. I can see his point, it can certainly be an unwieldy beast if you are not prepared to do some homework, but that is due to the nature of the beast; having been written alongside a RPG during an age in gaming dominated by RPGs.

So, to me anyway, Warhammer 3rd is more of a RPG Wargame than a straight out the box battle you can be playing in under twenty minutes.

So what are the 10 Things That I Love About Warhammer Third Edition? I listed them below and made an effort to explain my choices. The sections are in no particular order, so don't feel one entry has any preference over any other

10: The Cover
It feel that its fair to say that the cover of Third is the best cover Warhammer has ever had. John Sibbick's work still packs a punch today. The orange, misty battlefield full of strange, mutated creatures fighting amongst themselves. The enigmatic central barbarian (who I have always assumed to be Sigmar) splitting skulls as warriors fight around him. In the distance, obscured by the smoke of battle lurk other, unseen things, hinting at the horror rooted deep inside the Warhammer World. Evocative indeed!

9: Internal Art
Some bloggers have condemned the art in Warhammer Third as being a lazy exploitation of GWs art assets at the time of publication. I disagree with this. Afterall, what is the purpose of GW's art but to illustrate what the Warhammer World looks like. Compare the art with what we have today, eh? Full colour oil paintings, many of which look like the work of old masters, that have a depth and imagination that is sorely lacking from the samey output from the company today. John Blanche's work from the 80s is exceptional in its execution and a real source of inspiration to this day. Then there's the detailed work of Ackland, or the busy linework of Nicolson, or Stephen Tappin... the list goes on and on. The art makes the book a joy to flick through really and everytime you look, you notice something different.

8: Freehacks and Routing
I love the freehack. The fact that you get two when a unit routs can be very destructive. I case you are not aware of what the freehack is, its a rule that sets to represent the carnage inflicted when a unit runs away. These are essentially automatic hits, though you still roll for damage and saving throw. On a good day, these can wreak ruin upon the enemy but also gives a unit more of the chance to rally and reform. I've had a unit routed across the battlefield, seen a number of them fall to freehacks, for the unit to rally, reform and do the same to the enemy!

This was one element of Third I really missed in later editions. I recall playing 5th Edition with my stepbrother soon after its release. I had a unit of Bretonnian Knights and he had a unit of skink archers. For whatever reason, my knights fled and the skinks chased them down a destroyed the whole unit!! WTF!! We just stood there amazed! Like that would happen, eh?

7:  Magic
The magic system is totally zany in Third but was designed to be used with the aid of a GM. Some of the spells are absolutely terrifying (Vortex of Chaos, anyone?) but the majority of them are available to all magic users. To me, its the illusions that are so fantastic. Field a unit, march them as normal seeing your opponent react to them. Then, as they charge into close combat you flip over your piece of paper and... it was all an illusion! I also love the rules for magic rings and scrolls. You can kit up your wizards with all kinds of magical mayhem and even supply a spell or two to regular characters.

6: Character Creation
I love the rules about character creation, both for fighters and wizards. This was on of the elements I really enjoyed when re-reading the rules again. This section, though small, really got my creative juices flowing as I set about creating Level 5s, Level 10s, Level 15s and Level 20s. There is such an emphasis on characters being a integral part of the narrative in Third rather than simply just two armies slugging it away via list.

5: Rules for Different Weapons
My regular opponent in all things Third Edition, Dan, loves this section. Full rules from everything for Aquebuses to Morning Stars, and these weapons, they can be given to just about any character or unit within reason. Orcs with blunderbuses? Why not! Pygmies with Double Handed Weapons? Yes Sir! Just about any crazy combination you can dream of! Love this alot!

4: Encumbrance
Equipment, especially armour, weighs you down in Warhammer Third and affects your movement characteristic. This adds a tactical edge that I really appreciate, particularly in Realm of Chaos games where you field mixed units of troops. These rules add to the 'grown' up feel of the ruleset and we stick to them like glue. Its amusing when playing a campaign to end up with a character who cannot actually move due to limb loss and heavy armour!

3: Manoeuvres

If you have played Third then you'll know what I mean by the wheel, wedge or single file manoeuvres. The elaborate movement of units really makes this version of the game what it is. That, coupled with the Reserves phase, makes movement an interesting part of the game. 

2: The Bestiary
Pretty much every monster in the game is listed, described with full rules and presented with a points value. So it is possible to play the game WITHOUT having to buy any more books. Sure, Warhammer Armies is useful for the lists but with a little effort, its possible to create a game using the rulebook alone. The descriptions are also rather readable and help give an impression of what the Warhammer World is like. There are also rules for werewolves.

1: Believability
For this section I am going to quote directly from the rulebook.

"Games are always more satisfying when set firmly within the context of a credible society, especially when that society is situated within a carefully detailed world, complete with its own history, geography and political intrigues."

You'll find this quote on p.189.

Its a shame that GW forgot about this one, isn't it?

Well there is my list. Have you got anything else to add about Third Edition?



  1. I'm a recent convert to 3rd edition which I've come to via nostalgic affection for 80's British fantasy art - Russ Nicholson, John Blanche, etc so for me its the art and the lack of restrictive army lists. And, as more of an RPGer in the 80's the RPG like quality which underlies the game.

    In fact I can't help but feel that 2nd ed might be even more my sort of game. Although 3rd is a beautiful thing you can see the shift to pure wargame and tournament mentality starting with 3rd - glossy manual, big armies, pick-up play terrain rules, etc.

  2. I just finished reading the rulebook yesterday. It took just over a week, starting the day I got it from ebay. I love this rulebook. I really love all the artwork inside, especially the black and white drawings that are on almost every page. I didn't start warhammer until 6th edition but I'm still really enjoying these old rules.

  3. I agree with everything you've listed, although I have to give credit to Paul Dainton's epic sweeping oil paintings. Sameness or no, they never cease to remind me why I still play the game. Blanche will always be #1 in my book, of course!
    One of my favorite aspects of 3rd edition is the openness of the army lists (or lack thereof.) You are given the freedom to customize and create a truly unique force based solely on your own vision and the models you love. Totally awesome.
    I gotta echo your sentiment on the magic phase, too. So much more depth and subtlety, despite spells like Vortex of Chaos! For me, it is especially the magic system in 8th edition that I struggle with. I can't find a good balance with it- I either rely too heavily upon it, or find myself fighting to stay afloat against it. Magic should be potent, but not every army should have to tote an ancient sorcerer around with them just to keep even footing! Sorry, tangent. :)

  4. I always thought that the guy off the cover was intended to be the same chap as graced the first and second editions and later got christened 'Arry the 'Ammer which in both instances predates the invention/development of the Sigmar Heldenhammer character.

    I kind of agree with Rick that WFB3 is the most complete version but there's something very two-edged sword about that in that it's so wordy and there is so much of it - it's lineage can clearly be seen in coming from a mountain of fixes and clarifications and "what happens if" that raised their heads during the lifetime of the earlier two editions. I dragged WFB1 last weekend for a read and was flabbergasted by how little there is there - it's reads more than an extended cheat sheet on what you'll need during play rather than a fully fledged ruleset.

    Your point #1 is my fault line between "people like me" and "other people not like me who I don't wish to play with". I've never taken to army list-style gaming.

  5. The movement and manouvers section makes me weep with joy. Well, not quite, but I love that - it's the only thing I'd add in to 2nd Edition to make it more perfect :-)

    Regards the levels of complexity. Yes Rick called it the "least playable edition we ever did" at Tales from the Maelstrom. But I think we should also bare in mind that he knows his audience - quotes at Fighting Fantasist (hi Coop!). So we have to take these kinds of statements in context. It's not 'unplayable' - it's just not dumbed-down to the level of later editions.

    One example of the repercussions of oversimplification. Because Newhammer doesn't support actual formations or maneuvers, players are filling the tactical vaccum with formations called 'death stars' and 'conga lines' which are purely designed to exploit rules loopholes rather than simulate warfare. Whoops, tangent!

    Personally I like the art in 3rd but wish they'd bothered to select images which were relevant to the text on the page.

  6. About 25 years ago I made an adventure, across town-on my bicycle, to the local and now defunct Hobby Center to purchase: Warhammer Fantasy Battle the 3rd Edition. From that day forward I was no longer a role-play enthusiast- I was a role-play-war-game player. For a short while I enjoyed the miniature war-game as an extension of my D&D, and other role-play game origins. I would build adventures, worlds & heroes from my raw imagination.

    The 3rd edition was a lot of fun - I still pull the tome out to steal ideas from it. I think 3rd was by far the most creative edition, but it was real "clunky" to teach to teenagers; So you get what GW has done - simple rule sets, simple army choices, ect...

    Nothing is stopping any of us from pulling from the 3rd edition. As a matter of fact- I think the game community would be better-off if people did steal more from the 3rd edition.

    I always enjoyed the "Forrester" & "Scout" rules! (Along with the "sappers"...all of the special rules were cool.)

  7. What I love the most is how customisable the system is, at least with regards to creating your own armies. Want Lizardman suicide bombers? No problems. Fimir with rocket-artillery? Fine.

    No matter what fictional world you want to play in (your own or something published) there's a way to represent it with WFB 3rd.

  8. I agree with all of the above - artwork, disorganised as it may be, special units, changing formation, minutiae of different weapons (which I always forgot to factor in when actually playing), customising forces (and then making crazy conversions) and the magic system.

    To bring something new to the party I might add Page 81 - Rules versus ideas, and I quote,

    The typical gamer is of above average intelligence, willing to improvise and invent where necessary, and always keen to try new ideas.

    On a slightly less evangelical note, I always loved the baggage train rules, which were of course completely optional, but promised to lend a lot of flavour to a game.

  9. I agree with you on the baggage train. I was lucky enough to spot a copy of the rulebook for £6.50 yesterday at Phalanx and snapped it up. Not had time to read much but did have a look at the baggage train rules. I love the bit about how Halflings react to both attacking and defending the baggage. I also like the little comment 'you might want to add a flag to the baggage'- not a rule or an attempt to get you to buy extra sets for 'bitz', just a 'here's an idea' sort of thing.

  10. I'm late to the lovefest but I wanted to say that the baggage train rules were one of the things that really sold me on 3rd when my friend suggested trying it last year.
    The rules in Warhammer Armies about hiring mercenaries and having to have a baggage train so there is money to pay them... the rules about attempting to bribe said mercenaries into changing sides mid-battle... I just love that stuff.
    Probably because my background is RPGs, I'm always seeking to get that sort of 'story' out of our miniature games as well.
    Straight-up slugfests just bore me...

  11. Hallo, i could just copypaste the Mr.Ballista's comment, thats how exactly how i felt about old warhammer (plus fond memories of playing warhammer RPG and a bit of convincing from this beautiful blog).
    i recently ordered 3 ed and noticed that there are some differences in the book (notably in the rules summary Handout which is propably the most important page in the whole book). How come? i had the same book after all , i thought. After a bit of poking around i noticed with suprise that the 3ed. PDF from the dark corners of the interwebz is from 1991 , while mine is dated 1987 o...m...g... Should i hunt for the 1991 one? Can anybody tell me whether there are significant differences, or any highly unlucky typos/wording in 3ed. from 1987 which has been rectified in 3ed. from 1991 ? thanks in advance, Martin