Armagideon Time

Publicly embracing a niche fandom means having a dozen people inform you whenever there’s some new development within that fandom.

That’s not a complaint. While it can be a little reductive in the sense of “you = thing you consume,” it’s nice to discover folks know and care enough about your nonsense to connect with a well-intentioned heads-up. I’ve been on both ends of phenomenon, so I can’t be too judgemental about it. Plus, it’s (arguably) better to be known as the “world’s biggest Jack of Hearts fan” than not to be known at all.

This is why, sometime in the latter half of 2004, I started getting emails and chat messages from old friends and current acquaintances informing me that Games Workshop had tapped Green Ronin Publishing to launch a second edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay.

I had a mixed reaction to the news. My WFRP fandom stretched back to the game’s launch in the late Eighties, helped propelled me into presidency of my college’s Sci-Fi Club, and remained one of the few fixed points of my tabletop RPG fandom. The game’s rules may have been incomplete, poorly supported, or downright broken, but it held a cherished place in my heart. I had grave reservations whether the new generation of glossy RPG design could do the franchise justice. Would it drop the baroque career system? Would it succumb to hegemony of the “d20” mechanics? Would it retain its aura of gothic horror and existential dread?

I wasn’t confident, or at least confident enough to justify buying the pricey hardcover rulebook when discretionary funds were at a low ebb. I managed to maintain my refusenik stance for half a year before succumbing to the usual arc of “Don’t want it/Kinda interested in it/Just sell me the damn thing, already” which governs most of my dumb impulse purchases.

Though I went into the thick hardback looking to find fault with the presumed ways the revision fell short of the blessed original, I only made it through the first couple of chapters before the “that makes a lot of sense, actually” became a muttered litany. The folks at Green Ronin managed to retain nearly every aspect of WFRP’s first edition, reworking them into a streamlined and more intuitive form.

The massive roster of character careers was simultaneously consolidated and expanded. Redundancies were folded into broader archetypes, new careers reflecting the “flavor” of the setting were added, and all paths were rebalanced to ensure that all had a useful selection of abilities and characteristic advancements. Characteristics and bonuses were also simplified, with “dexterity” now falling under the “initiative” stat and “coolness” under “willpower.” d10/d100 became the default dice for the game (with d6 used in certain circumstances) adding further consistency and clarity.

The only major rules revision in the second edition was a long-overdue overhaul of WFRPs “permanent placeholder” magic system. The creaky magic point mechanics were replaced with spell domains based on Warhammer Fantasy Battle‘s color-themed Colleges of Magic and the game world’s various divinities. Casters needed to hit a specified target number to use a spell. Higher level casters could roll more dice to cast, but at greater risk of rolling multiples of the same number — causing unpleasant side effects ranging from ghostly voices mainesting to being pulled screaming into the warp by a daemon. It fit the atmosphere of the game perfectly, although the spell lists continued to favor combat applications pulled from the wargaming side of the franchise.

At the time of the original WFRP’s release, the world-building backmatter was little more than a basic framework pulled from the wargame and a fantasy-themed take on European history. The fleshing out of what would eventually become the “Warhammer World” took place over the course of two decades across various franchise supplements, spin-offs, and White Dwarf articles. When the second edition of WFRP rolled around, this “fluff” had grown to eclipse the games which had given rise to it, becoming a profitable (and self-contradictory) canon supporting a multimedia juggernaut.

A good portion of the second edition rulebook is given over towards shoehorning the game back into that canon, specifically the aftermath of the catastrophic “Storm of Chaos.” It made sense for a Warhammer RPG to be extremely Warhammer-y, but I wasn’t thrilled by the tight integration between setting and rules. I didn’t get into WFRP because I loved Warhammer (because honestly, it was a shade too edgelord-y for me even when I was an adolescent edgelord), but because the game’s late-medieval, high-lethality grubby fantasy approach was such a radical departure from the rigid and generic realm of AD&D.

With WFRP’s second edition, the rules got smarter while the setting got stupider, and it was much more difficult to decouple them from each other.

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