Armagideon Time

You can’t roll home again

March 27th, 2019

I concluded the Role Playing With the Changes feature by stating that my days of buying pen-and-paper RPG stuff were well behind me. Because the fates enjoying mocking geeks who make such sweeping, it only took a few weeks before I acquired not one, but two “new” rulebooks.

The quotation marks were slapped on either side of “new” because the pair of books represent something of a homecoming. Warhammer Fantasy Role Play is the 4th and latest edition of a game which defined the bulk of my active RPG-ing years, while the D&D Rules Cylopedia is a dense compendium of the system that started me off in the hobby. The former was a birthday gift from Maura and the latter was picked up in a moment of nostalgic reverie (and weak impulse control).

The new iteration of WFRP is a strange beast, stuck in the unenviable shadow of the Green Ronin/Fantasy Flight second edition rules. (The less said about the third edition misfire, the better.) That version of the game was damn near perfect, a streamlined-yet-fleshed out realization of the concepts teased by its poorly supported predecessor.

Where is a new design crew supposed to run with that? Adhere too closely to 2nd ed, and you risk emitting a “why even bother” vibe. Break too far from it, and you risk turning it into something that isn’t really WFRP (as was the case with the 3rd edition). The folks at Cubicle 7 tried to avoid these pitfalls by bringing the system back to its “roots,” a vague concept with boils down to a narrower focus (itinerant adventurers in a single province of the Empire) and a core rulebook meant to evoke the look, feel, and density of the first edition’s hefty hardback rules “bible.”

The array of low fantasy character careers remain the centerpiece of the system, though the overall number has been drastically reduced. The game mitigates this through the use of advancement tiers — four for each career, representing levels of proficiency while consolidating similar or “advanced” options from previous editions. The shift to vertical progression does make sense in many cases. There really wasn’t a need to break out the different levels of Dwarven slayers or wizards into separate roles, except to justify the “features over 100 careers” cover hype. A soldier character who wants to be the best soldier in the Reikland doesn’t have to jump through an improbable series of additionally careers to pick up the desired skills and abilities.

It’s eminently logical, yet it still feels something important has been lost. Sprawling mess or not, the excess of career options was one of the selling points of the system from the get-go. Even though the new method did preserve the the bulk of available options in some form, it’s a difficult change to wrap my head around and set the tone for most of the other tweaks and revisions. The second edition’s magic system was an ingenious exercise in weighing risk versus reward — the more dice a caster rolls, the better chance of casting a spell and of manifesting a potentially catastrophic side effect. The fourth edition evokes the spirit of that mechanic, but in a less satisfying yet more complicated way.

The same goes for combat resolution, characteristic advancement, and other mechanics both large and small. There’s an overall tendency towards overcomplication — not because it leads to a better experience, but because the “best” way had already been employed in a previous edition and this ain’t no copycat effort, no sirree.

I don’t want be too harsh on 4th edition WFRP because I’m glad to see the game has kept chugging along in some recognizable form. The book itself is gorgeous and does a far better job of maintaining a gothic fantasy vibe than the second edition managed to (mostly because it was a little too beholden to Warhammer Fantasy Battles’ canon and the unceasing churn of Black Library novels). It’s exceptional on the fluff front, but there’s nothing in there that would make me choose it over the second edition.

My original D&D Basic Set went missing decades ago. It was the victim of two seismic shifts — first to Advanced D&D and then to WFRP. Any sentimentality I held toward it was a later phenomenon, meaning the box and its contents passed into the realm of myth without my ever noticing it happened. All I know is that neither it nor any contents of the Expert Set resurfaced in the giant crate of RPG stuff I retrieved from my late grandma’s attic.

Both were originally purchased from the clearance aisle of an Osco Drug (thanks, mid-Eighties Satanic panic!). They became the well-thumbed springboards for my fitful transition into the realm of AD&D, after which they ceased being relevant. Why settle for the stripped down version when you could have multiclassed characters and assassins and ninjas and all the other shit that keeps an adolescent edgelord honed?

Basic D&D occupied an odd niche in the franchise’s ecology. The prevailing notion was that it strictly for the kiddie crowd, which was true but more due to its pricing than its approach to the rules. The buy-in cost for the three “core” AD&D hardbacks ran close to fifty bucks, where a D&D box set might set you back ten (or less if you hit a place like Toys R Us). If provided enough of a framework to build around, if you so desired. There wasn’t perfect parity with the AD&D rules but they were similar enough to fold the various supplements from that system — which in in my case were Fiend Folio, Oriental Adventures, and the “NPC” classes from the Best of Dragon collections.

I didn’t start to feel nostalgic about those box sets until I realized they’d gone missing, at which point I began sniffing around for replacements. I was also motivated by a sense of curiosity about basic D&D in general and its evolutionary drift away from its franchise flagship sibling. It was designed to be accessible, but at a time when RPGs suffered from absurd levels of complexity. I was genuinely curious how those factors played out, now that I was more conscious of the contexts involved.

I was less keen about acquiring a stack of beat-to-shit fourth-hand box sets that would take up a fuckton of space and set me back a significant chunk of change. “For use” would be one thing, but there’s a much lower cap on my “intellectual curiosity” impulse purchases. Then I noticed the Wikipedia article on the system mentioned a D&D “Rules Cyclopedia” which collected all the box set rules — from Basic through Immortals — into a single hardback tome. None of the ones listed for sale were especially cheap, but they were still less expensive than buying the original sets, and made for an easier browsing experience, to boot.

My copy arrived three weeks ago, and I’ve been having a grand old time working my way through its curious and often confounding assortment of mechanics. There’s a quaint sense of determinism about the rules, which makes it feel more like a board game than an RPG at times. “Upon reaching such-and-such level, the player must…” is a common refrain and one lacking any defined rationale. It’s just how it’s done, no explanation needed.

Though it offers a simplified version of AD&D’s mechanics, it still devotes excruciating levels of detail to edge case scenarios while leaving more common existential threats to an unmodified d6 (or d4 or d8 or d12 or d20) roll. On subjects like weapon mastery, the results are vastly more complex than the equivalent AD&D rules. The overall vibe is one of an ad hoc agglomeration of mechanics developed by an insular community without a coherent grand design. It’s functional but inelegant and inefficient, even in a simplified form.

As I go back over it all, I can see why I gravitated to Champions and WFRP as a teen. While their systems were fairly complicated, both employed a single, consistent resolution mechanic for most combat and non-combat circumstances. Both also allowed for a far wider array of character customization options than D&D’s handful of fixed classes (which was also why I shifted to AD&D in the space of a couple of months.)

Yet for all D&D’s counter-intuitive and rigid mechanics, there’s something endearingly quaint about it which goes past nostalgia-induced cognitive impairment. It’s an effective vehicle for heroic fantasy at the genre’s most, well, basic level — easily understood archetypes and familiar scenarios and clear paths for progression. After making it a dozen pages into the cyclopedia, I began contemplating the logistics of getting a gaming group together for a run. It’s not going to happen due to time constraints and other obligations, but the fact I even thought about it demonstrates there’s still some strong magic in this battered old tome.

3 Responses to “You can’t roll home again”

  1. Zeno

    For the last year or so I have been DM’ing my younger kids and nephews through some simple dungeon crawls using the 1977 Basic Rules. While they don’t really know any better, what I have seen of Rules Cyclopedia (as available through somewhat nebulous online sources) suggests a world of improvement in game operations from my creaky old TSR-2001. I would love to have a hard copy of this as soon as I can steel my wallet to take the collector price hit for it.

  2. bitterandrew

    Something I didn’t find out until after my copy arrived, Zeno:

    Drive Thru has a print on demand version available for $25 SC or $30 HC.

  3. Zeno

    Thanks! That simplifies matters considerably…

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