I’m approaching the second edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay from a somewhat unusual direction: I’ve never played the first edition (even though I’m well aware of the legendary status that things like the Enemy Within campaign have), but I am familiar with the third edition (which radically revamps the rules), and also with Dark Heresy and related games (which use pretty much the same basic game engine).
So, second edition. It was a pretty big deal when it came out, and it’s still extremely well-regarded even though the game system itself is extremely old-school. I can see why… without being able to compare to the first edition, this does seem like a very solid game core. The book isn’t a huge time, but due to the smallish font and dense layout, there is a lot of information here. The game keeps the “grim and muddy” antihero feel of the first edition but streamlines and somewhat revamps the rules (as far as I know). The game system is the same one that was later incorporated into the Warhammer 40k games; it’s very traditional but hey, it works quite well as long as the GM is aware of certain quirks. Most importantly, heavy emphasis must be placed on situational modifiers, since base chances to succeed are on the low side. Without positive modifiers, combat can deteriorate into a series of “whoops, I missed again” flailings. This is especially true when you take all the chances to fail into account: first you must roll well enough to hit, then the opponent must fail a dodge roll, and then the damage must penetrate the armor. In a way it fits in with the Warhammer world, where the PCs typically aren’t all that heroic or competent, but some care must be taken to avoid player frustration.
Other than a old-school (but perfectly workable) game system, the book contains quite a lot of game world information. This is one area where the 2nd edition wipes the floor with 3rd edition, the information given here is vastly better and more detailed than the barebones sketches we get in 3rd edition. I much prefer the new game engine in the 3rd edition, though, so it’s a case of win some, lose some – and of course, there is nothing stopping you from using 3rd edition rules with 2nd edition game world information.
The book ends with a short intro scenario, which is ok but nothing all that awesome.
This is a great game system (and world) for someone wanting a traditional rules set and gameplay with a more gritty and grim feel than D&D. It’s still fantasy, but there is a huge difference in mentality between D&D and Warhammer. Whether the game group prefers the superhero antics of D&D or the “eating rat-on-a-stick in the rain” anti-superhero mentality of Warhammer depends on the group, of course.
Added later, since it was asked: yes, the system used in the later WH40k games (Dark Heresy, Rogue Trader) etc is for all intents and purposes the same system used here. The character creation and advancement rules are different, and of course some details are different (WHFRP has magic and divine intervention, 40k has Warp/Psyker effects, some limited forms of ritual magic, etc). This is both good and bad; good because it lets players who are used to this system to get up and running with 40k with minimal fuss. Bad because, well, the system is starting to be a bit old and creaky and has some “whoops, I missed again” problems as noted above.