Thursday 18 June 2015

More Than the Sum of its Parts - Giving it 160%

I thought that a suitable first post would be one that discusses one of my favourite WFRP books. It isn't the WFRP 1st edition rulebook. It is not one of the parts of The Enemy Within campaign. It is not even either of the Realms of Chaos books, which, if my shelf ordering 'system' is anything to go by, are WFRP books, not Warhammer Fantasy Battle. No, it is a book that exemplifies the way in which WFRP can be so much more than the sum of its parts.

More than the sum of its parts. That could describe WFRP, pretty much. It wouldn't be entirely unfair to suggest that it has a 'clunky' system, or that it has an undeniably derivative setting - complete with avaricious, drunk Dwarfs in the mountains here, haughty, magical Elves in the forests there, even jolly Halflings in an idyllic Shire (sorry, Moot). It would certainly be true that both system and setting were built on the foundations of a wargame, which, while Warhammer Fantasy Battle 1st edition (the White Box) did describe itself as a 'mass combat role-playing game', means that the foundations were built to serve a different purpose to that which they were eventually put. Despite all this, WFRP is a role-playing game that has had a much greater effect - indeed affect - on players and GMs than the combination of these ingredients would suggest.

My choice of book to exemplify the way in which WFRP can be far more than the sum of its parts will probably be surprising, given my grognardly ways. I'm going to talk about one of the polished, focussed books [over-]produced by Fantasy Flight Games during their brief tenure as the publishers of WFRP2e - the Career Compendium. In fact, it was the very final book produced for WFRP2e!

More than the sum of its parts? Yes indeed. This book is at least 80% 'crunch'. It shares much, at first glance, with the kind of books that other systems might call something like 'Player's Options'. You know, the type of splatbook that details new classes, powers, &c. In the Career Compendium, we find that 230 of just over 250 pages are dedicated to describing the mechanical details of careers. Yes, I know that strictly, if every bit of those pages were crunch, that would make for something like 92%, but...

But the Career Compendium is also 80% 'fluff', bebacuse the fluff is so thoroughly integrated into the crunch of the career system. The career system of WFRP is constitutive of the Warhammer RPG setting. Even if we strip out the wonderful 'fluffy' details, such as 'A Day in the Life' sections, and the adventure seeds provided for each and every career, we are still left with the mechanical nuts and bolts - the advance scheme, the skills, talents, trappings, entries and exits - which, alone, tells us a great deal about the world. This crunch does so in a way in which, for instance, the deliberately (and invaluably) generic system of Classic D&D's class and levels simply does not. Classes work best, I feel, as role archetypes, not concrete descriptions of a character's social and economic position. Now, in the OSR there are interesting exercises in revealing the implied setting of D&D, deriving this world from the class system, the level names, the random encounter tables, the treasure tables, &c. See, for example, the fantastic work done by Chris Kutalik. But this is implied setting, and relatively covertly implied at that. The diversity of games that we ran using Classic D&D and the like, and that we now run using Swords & Wizardry and Labyrinth Lord &c., suggests that these implications are easy enough to ignore. And easy enough to omit by ignorance, rather than design. There is no such possibility with WFRP - if you want to ignore what the system tells you that the world consists of, you have to consciously decide to do so. This is even true if you were to run a game of WFRP, based solely on the first edition rulebook and ignoring Chapter 7: The World Guide. Treat the Warhammer world as just another sample setting, and you will still find that the career system contains a great many assumptions about the way the world works and what it is to be an 'adventurer', assumptions that add colour to any game of WFRP.     


  1. I adore WFRP 1 and 2 and it has, indeed, infected the way I run each and every RPG. The careers system is such a brilliant thing in terms of pulling people into the social and imaginative milieu of the world.

  2. Must be something in the air. I just started revisiting my WFRP 1e and 2e books the other day. And FWIW, I know the setting is largely Tolkien-derived but at the same time I also find their more modern "Europization" of the human realms quite fun. But maybe that's because I like doing bad/silly French and Spanish accents at the game table. ;)

  3. May wee. I ham, ow you say, le sucker for ze akzent, yes?

    Most of our most entertaining sessions were in the Old World.

  4. The problem I always have with NPC accents is that if I can't keep Daddy Pig's voice straight for the length of a Peppa Pig book at the kids bedtime, you can't expect Rene the scheming barkeep to have the same accent when the PCs return from their adventure...

    ...which then leads the players to assume that the new Rene must be an imposter...