I got these rules as PDFs from RPGNow (all 245 MB of them) in preparation for a game my friend Rob has just started, after we finished his long-running WFRP2 campaign.
IN A NUTSHELL
Expensive boardgame/RPG hybrid with lots of custom components; rules favour co-ordinated parties working in harmony.
Warhammer Fantasy Role Playing 3rd edition costs about $100 (say £60) and comes in a large box; the PDFs alone are about a quarter the cost, but are an adjunct to the box, not an alternative to it. Fantasy Flight Games makes expensive boardgames with good production values, and this is no exception; my immediate feeling on seeing Rob’s set of components was that there are a lot of them, but production quality is good. The "trade dress" looks a lot like D&D 3rd Edition, with a colour scheme in brown tones and covers emulating a metal-bound mediaeval book.
The box contains four full-colour rulebooks, and enough components (numerous types of cards, specialist dice, cardboard standee figures etc.) for one GM and three players. Some say this was done to make the game difficult to copy - that might be so, but it also plays to FFG’s strengths; makes it easy to add in new character classes etc. by expansion packs, since the statistics for those are on cards rather than in the main rulebooks; and means you have everything you need for a group of four people to play, right there in the box.
Regardless of the reasoning, the rulebook PDFs on their own don’t give you enough to play the game. It says so on the webpage where you buy them. Believe it. Believe also that at about one megabyte per page of the rules, these are PDFs unencumbered by any snivelling notions about ink consumption or low-spec computers.
One touch I liked was that the interior art includes the covers for earlier editions of the RPG and the wargame, used as illustrations in various places. However, Rob’s regular group has six players plus the Game Master, so unless and until extra components are available or someone ponies up for another box, we’re sharing cards and dice.
This is the meat of the rules from the player’s perspective, and where I started. We have an introductory section, followed by chapters on Characteristics & Abilities, Player Character Races, Character Creation, Experience & Advancement, Playing the Game, Actions & Manoeuvres, Combat Damage & Healing, Conditions & Effects, Economy & Equipment, and The Empire, followed by an appendix of maps.
Introduction (12 pages): This provides your standard what-is-a-roleplaying-game stuff - that’s in every game so I won’t go into it in detail here - and also explains the components, giving a quick overview of the nine different types of cards, the career sheets, the character and party sheets, the four different types of tokens, the standees, the stance and progress tracker pieces, the character boxes where you keep all of the above between games, and the seven different types of custom dice. If you’ll forgive me, I won’t go into them all in detail.
Characteristics & Abilities (8 pages): The characteristics and skills are standard fare - Strength, Toughness, Agility, Intelligence, Willpower and Fellowship for characteristics; Ballistic Skill and Weapon Skill are treated as (surprise) skills, along with a number of other capabilities - no surprises here. The first change I noticed from 2nd Edition is that rather than being percentage ratings, characteristics match the statlines in the tabletop wargame Warhammer Fantasy Battle - one has Strength 3, for example, rather than Strength 31, making it a doddle to convert monsters from the (free) WHFB quick reference sheets. (This is because your characteristic rating is how many dice the characteristic places in your dice pool. But I get ahead of myself.)
Player Character Races (5 pages): Reikland humans, dwarves, high elves, wood elves. If you’ve read Tolkien or any of the Warhammer rules or fiction, you’ll be right at home here. The fact that humans are specified as Reiklanders suggests later supplements with more human types to follow. Your race affects how many points you have to spend in character generation, how many misfortune dice you roll when trying to do something in the dark, and what your starting hit points are.
Character Creation (7 pages): Now, this is a short section, but remember all the details of the actual careers are on cards, not in the rulebook. Be warned: This means you cannot create a character with the PDF files alone.
Character creation allows you to spend points to buy characteristics, skills, talents and wealth levels depending on your race (which you choose) and career. The default option for career selection is to select one career from three drawn at random - however, once player A has chosen a career, the career deck is reshuffled and player B chooses from what remains, then player C, and so on - so normally, a party will not have multiple instances of the same career; you could have a ratcatcher, a barber-surgeon and a hunter, for instance, but not two ratcatchers and a hunter. From reading only, I’d guess beginning characters would have 3-4 in their characteristics, a couple of skills, a couple of talents, and a couple of actions; but I’m not sure I’ve fully understood the point buy system, and I can’t experiment without the career sheets.
The thing that interests me most here are the Talents. These are similar to feats in D&D, advantages in GURPS, or edges in Savage Worlds; they give your character an advantage under certain circumstances. This is standard in RPGs and wargames, but the innovation in WFRP3 is the talent sockets on the character and party cards. Each character will have a number of talents, but can only have a couple active ("socketed") at any one time. However, he can also plug talents into the party sheet, in which case all party members receive the benefit - this represents his leadership, shouted instructions, going first or whatever.
The party sheet itself is another innovation. The players collectively choose a party sheet which defines how the group sees itself, and how and the wider world sees them, for example "Servants of Justice" or "Gang of Thugs"; each party type has a special ability, a place to store fortune points (which gradually refresh themselves throughout the session), and a tension track, which I can see being entertaining in play; when things go wrong for the party, the GM moves a token along the tension track, and when it reaches specific points the friction and stress within the party causes Bad Things to happen - which bad things, and when, depends on the party type.
Experience & Advancement (5 pages): Each adventure session garners you one or two experience points. Each experience point gives you one advance - you spend advances to buy more talents, skills etc, but your experience points are not affected by this, they are used to track your overall "rank" or power - D&D players would think of this as your "level". The game is structured so that you can improve your character a little after every session, or save up for a bigger improvement. As your rank increases, this unlocks access to higher-level improvements.
Once you have acquired the ten standard improvements for your career, it can teach you no more and you move on by paying a number of advances. However, you can leave earlier if you wish, and return later to finish it, or not, as you prefer. Changing careers is easier than in WFRP2 - you can move from any career to any other, but the cost of doing so is lower for similar careers. The cost of a change is also affected by your race and whether you have completed the earlier career. The advantage to finishing a career before moving on is that you get to keep its special ability as a permanent addition to your character’s array of capabilities, move earlier and you lose that power. You can also buy improvements which aren’t related to your career, but that is more expensive, so your character’s powers will grow more quickly if you focus on the career at hand.
Note that each career’s advances are checked on a separate character sheet. Since they are double-sided, I’m not sure how convenient or awkward this will be in play; character sheets are something else not in the PDF version of the rules.
Playing the Game (9 pages): Most of this is about dice pools, common in indie RPGs for some years now but less so in "mainstream" games. When you want to do something, you assemble a pool of dice; so many blue d8 for your character’s capabilities, perhaps a yellow d6 for his expertise, so many purple d8 for how hard the task is, white and black d6 according to good or bad circumstances, so many red or green d10 according to your character’s "stance" (how cautious or reckless he is being). You roll the dice (typically 5-10 of them) and look at the symbols. If there are more warhammers (successes) than crossed swords (failures), you succeed. However, there are several other symbols as well, which trigger good things ("boons") or bad ("banes") - the array of cards in front of you will show what things happen depending on the combination of symbols you rolled. Particularly interesting is that good things can happen even if you fail, and bad things can happen even if you succeed.
Actions & Manoeuvres (6 pages): The difference between the two is that actions are on cards, and manoeuvres are in the rulebook. Actions are things your character can do, similar to the powers in D&D 4th Edition; manoeuvres are things like mount a horse or ready a weapon, which most games call "actions". Some WFRP3 actions are double-sided cards, whose effects change depending on whether your character has a conservative (cautious), neutral or reckless stance - which stances you can select, and to what extreme, are defined by your career, although you can modify that in play by spending advances.
Encounters are not played out on a battlemat or grid, but on a semi-abstract battlefield which reminds me of Classic Traveller; distances are measured in range bands as in CT, but this is two-dimensional rather than one-dimensional. Groups of standees or terrain markers are placed next to each other to show that they are physically close, with tokens between groups to indicate range bands; it looks like the number of tokens is how many manoeuvres it takes you to get from one group to the other. This is neither fish nor fowl nor good red meat, and I’ll have to play it a few times to see whether it has the best or the worst of both worlds.
Combat, Damage & Healing (11 pages): On the face of it, this is the usual determine initiative, select an action card and play it to act in initiative order, get hurt and/or smack the bad guys around, get healed. Again, though, there are innovations. Firstly, while each player character generates their initiative, these are just slots in the initiative order - the party as a whole decides who will use each slot. In effect, players can trade initiative scores with each other to decide what the sequence of action is. This encourages tactical party play and I approve. You could apply this in any game with initiative and I’m tempted to deploy it in my Savage Worlds sessions, perhaps as something the party leader can do with a successful Knowledge (Battle) roll.
Characters can also choose to suffer stress or fatigue to gain extra movement or bonuses to their actions; however, this adds misfortune dice to the pool, and if carried to extremes can result in unconsciousness.
Wounds are represented by cards drawn from the wound deck; they are all much of a muchness as normal wounds, but should you be critically wounded, you turn the card over and suffer the special effect on the other side. If you are knocked out, and the number of critical wounds exceeds your Toughness (which is probably only 3-4, remember) you die. Can’t say much more without the cards, which are (all together now) not in the PDF files.
Conditions & Effects (4 pages): This is mostly about fear, terror and insanity, your constant companions in the grim, dark world of WFRP. It’s not all bad; being insane is one of the prerequisites for becoming a Witch Hunter. If you see something scary enough, you have to make a saving throw; fail, and you draw an insanity card which explains to you in what way you’ve become deranged. At certain points during the game ("the end of an Act") you make another saving roll; fail, and you get to keep your new insanity permanently; collect enough permanent insanities and your character is retired from play. Each insanity card has a severity number on it, showing how hard it is to treat.
Note that if you are fatigued or stressed, it is easier to go mad, because the stress and fatigue apply penalties to the saving throws.
There are other conditions such as "Staggered" which affect your character in other ways, for example adjusting your stance for you involuntarily.
Economy & Equipment (13 pages): This opens with a nice atmospheric piece dividing the world into tiers - the nobles, who deal in gold; the burghers, who deal in silver; the commoners, who deal in brass; and adventurers, who cross the boundaries between tiers, although they are never truly accepted in any of them. There are the usual lists of armour, weapons and general equipment, rules for haggling, and a statement that you don’t have to roleplay the haggling if you’d rather not. There are rules for encumbrance and penalties for being encumbered.
The Empire (11 pages): This describes the history, geography, friends and foes of the Empire, the main human state in the Old World, and the place adventurers occupy in it.
Maps (3 pages): Zooming in, we have maps of the Old World, the Empire, and the Reikland, one per page.
THE TOME OF ADVENTURE
This is the GM’s book, and covers Game Mastering 101 (8 pages - how to be a GM), Episodes & Acts (7 pages - how to set up a scenario), Game Master Resources (5 pages - the use of fortune points, experience points, wealth, party tension etc. to reward players and encourage certain play styles), the Progress Tracker (7 pages - an innovation, so it gets its own paragraph below), Campaign Play (9 pages - how to set up and run a campaign), Enemies & Adversaries (5 pages - how to create and run memorable bad guys), The Bestiary (25 pages - what it says on the tin), and An Eye For An Eye (26 pages - the obligatory introductory scenario, a mixture of combat, diplomacy and investigation).
The focus of WFRP3 from the GM’s perspective is on the story. You’re encouraged to put your effort into episodes and their component acts rather than detailed maps (hence the semi-abstract battlefields), using the familiar three-act model. There is a formal Rally Step between acts where the flow of the game pauses for book-keeping, snacks and bathroom breaks, while the characters gather their wits and composure for the next scene, adjust socketed talents and so on. The book includes a number of example episodes to illustrate how things are done. The advice on adventures and campaigns is solid stuff - nothing especially new, but it’s presented in a clear and structured way.
I promised the progress tracker its own paragraph. It replaces many of the notes GMs normally take - it’s effectively a ladder whose steps can represent various things, for example how much food there is left, how long until the storm breaks, the current state of enemy morale, or (with one token for the party and one for the villain) it can adjudicate a criminal investigation, with events moving each token forwards or backwards along the track. Making the abstract concrete in this way is the innovation; I normally use dice myself for most of these purposes.
It has become common to have weaker "henchman" or "minion" versions of opponents as well as the full strength boss monster model, and WFRP3 adopts this, together with the ideas of hit point pools and ganging-up bonuses to hit. Mechanically, then, a group of minions is effectively one larger monster - since the group size equals the party size, larger parties automatically attract opposition with more hit points and better hit probabilities; as damage is inflicted, the number of minions drops, reducing both hit points and hit probability. This is simple and elegant, and I like it.
The meat of this book is the bestiary. Here, the usual Warhammer tropes are advanced - beastmen, chaos cultists, greenskins and so forth. Rather than list individual skills and talents for each enemy, the GM is provided with the creature’s rating in Aggression, Cunning and Expertise - these represent dice the GM can add to appropriate pools without requiring more detail. This means that each beast can fit on one line, so the bestiary consists of a series of double-page spreads, each defining a related group of foes in terms of statline and special actions. The GM can thus run a group of opponents who would realistically work together without flipping pages constantly - I hate that, so this is a worthwhile innovation. Another benefit is that all the mundane NPCs fit on one spread, so you can run an entire town adventure with only that page open - this is an improvement on the usual approaches of either having many different types of NPC in alphabetical order, spread over many pages, or ignoring human NPCs altogether. This will probably be a valuable resource for me if my planned Savage Worlds campaign in the Old World ever actually starts, as it will make converting and running the monsters very easy indeed.
THE TOME OF BLESSINGS
This covers priests and religion, and is mostly background information on the setting. It is divided into Faith in the Old World (4 pages - overviews of the ten principal human cults), the Imperial Cults (11 pages - the structures and strictures of those cults in more detail), Other Faiths (6 pages - the dwarven and elven gods, and superstitions and rituals of the common folk), Corruption & Heresy (7 pages - the gods of chaos, their cults, and the witch hunters who oppose them), Divine Rules (5 pages - how to curry favour with the gods and use it to cast spells), and Playing a Priest (12 pages - how your character became a priest, which cult he should join and why, and what sort of missions he undertakes for his god). Divine Rules is a short chapter since it has no spell list - the spells are on cards, which are not in the PDFs, so I can’t speak to them.
THE TOME OF MYSTERIES
This is the wizard’s book, and the shortest of the four; again, it is mostly setting material. It contains Magic Theories (4 pages - how magic works in the setting, as opposed to the rules, and the history of human wizardry), the Colleges of Magic (9 pages - how an Imperial character becomes a wizard and rises in rank), the Eight Orders (11 pages - specifics on how each Order operates and how you join it), Forbidden Lore (5 pages - magic in other lands and chaos magic), Magic Rules (6 pages - how to channel power and use it to cast spells), and Playing a Wizard (12 pages - what being a wizard is like, which Order you should join and why, and how the rest of humanity react to you). Again, one would expect the Rules chapter to be longer, but this is because the spells are on cards.
- It plays faster than I expected; once you’re used to the dice pool system, it’s as fast as any other rules set.
- The dice pool system means that success isn’t a binary yes/no or a four-way critical/success/failure/fumble; it’s generally “yes, but” or “no, but”. This feels good in play, but I’m not sure the additional complexity is worth it.
- The spread of cards and tokens which form a character at the gaming table are actually not much bigger than an A4 character sheet once you park the cards and tokens you hardly ever use in your character box (or, in our case, ziplock plastic bag).
- For a player, tracking status, wounds etc. requires almost no note-taking during a session, because everything is tracked by tokens.
Changes we’re making:
- Our campaign is set in historical Elizabethan times, so player characters are not permitted to know any spells. I just know some of the NPCs will, though.
- The abstract combat locations have already been ditched in favour of our old standby, a hexgrid under plexiglass with whiteboard markers.
- There are some good ones here. Keep scrolling down, you’ll find ‘em.
Wow, that’s a long review! Then again, it’s a large and complex product.
Firstly, this is an innovative game, although the innovation is more merging existing mechanics from other games into a coherent whole than creating anything wholly new - to be fair, after over 30 years of RPGs, the latter would be difficult by now. The game mechanics make it natural for parties to co-ordinate their actions, and reward their doing so. I especially like the concept of the party as a whole effectively being another character, with its own basic personality and talent slots.
You need a big table, without cats, small children, or strong breezes, to play this. Each character rolls 5-10 dice of various shapes and colours for each action. Each player will have in front of him one or more character sheets (you need one sheet per career you have had), a card for his current career with a couple of smaller cards "socketed" into it, a fistful of cards for his possible actions, and something to represent fortune points. There will also be a party sheet, which will be much like a character sheet, and several trackers for the Game Master to keep track of things like Initiative.
It’s going to be too complex for my players, and the sheer number and variety of specialist components mean it’s not portable - I can play Savage Worlds or Castles & Crusades while on holiday so long as I throw the free test drive rules and a handful of dice in the suitcase, but WFRP3 is best suited to a group which plays in the same spacious room each time and has somewhere to keep all the parts pre-sorted.
Finally, the PDFs are of very limited use without the card decks and dice in the box. From a marketing perspective this is a great idea; from the player’s or GM’s perspective, it means you really need to buy the game instead of, or as well as, the PDFs - they are an accessory to the box, not a replacement for it. It would have been possible to have another file with the cards in it, and a statement of how many symbols of each type are on each die - it would be impractical to play the game with standard dice. None of this bothers me, partly because I don’t plan to GM the game, and partly because if I did I would buy both anyway; but if it would bother you, now you know.