Deathwatch is a game that many people have been waiting a long time for. I’m not strictly one of them, but I understand the charm; while playing Inquisitors (via Dark Heresy) or Rogue Traders (via Rogue Trader) is fun, people have been wanting to roleplay Space Marines for a long while. Now, with Deathwatch, they can.
I have to admit I was a bit sceptical at first. While Inquisitors or Rogue Traders offer great roleplay potential, Space Marines are… well, Space Marines. They are genetically modified semi-clones in power armor, made to “Kill Stuff for the Emperor!” (and little else). That’s great in a tabletop wargame scenario, but is a but thin gruel for tabletop roleplay. Well, the guys at FFG have figured out a very elegant solution to that problem.
Deathwatch has the PCs be members of, well, “Deathwatch”, a militant arm of the Inquisition’s Ordo Xenos, with volunteer members from pretty much all the Space Marine chapters and tasked with fighting back against the Xeno menace (or reclaiming worlds from xeno scum for the Emperor, as might be). This places the PCs out of their base chapters into a “fish out of water” scenario, where they may well be the only member of their specific chapter in the Deathwatch combat group. So in a way, the game places the PCs in a “special ops” outfit, which is great for giving a bit of leeway and flex to the missions.
In addition, the game has a lot of stuff tacked on to the base rules as seen in the earlier games. There are rules for “hordes” (huge groups of enemies, resolved as a group), it adds “Demeanours” which give some nice rewards for roleplaying certain character traits, and equipment is handled quite differently than in the other games – it would not make sense for the PCs to have to buy their gear in this setup, so each mission is given a certain number of “requisition points” which can be used to requisition gear from the armory. This is a bit like how some mission-based computer games handle equipment, and it makes a lot of sense here. There is also a new bit of mechanical support for squad-level tactics.
The game gives the option of playing as a member of six possible Chapters: Black Templars, Blood Angels, Dark Angels, Space Wolves, Storm Wardens and Ultramarines, and I assume more Chapters will be given via later expansion books. While PCs will have to work together as a team, their original Chapters will have a lot of game effect in the form of skills, talents and other background-related crunch.
The ruleset is based on the same rules as the earlier games, but tweaked heavily to support the high power level that even beginning-level characters will have. Without playing with it I cannot really say how well it works, but it does look a bit complicated, due to lots of stuff being tacked on in addition to the base skills, talents and what have you. The squad tactics rules are interesting: the PCs are either in solo mode or in squad mode, and when in squad mode they have to option to perform advanced maneuvers which are based on (and powered by) a new mechanic called Cohesion. If Cohesion drops to zero, the squad has lost tactical sense of where everyone is and cannot function as a group; it doesn’t mean that they are in panic, but does mean that they are on their own (for a while). It makes for interesting tactics, though I got the impression that the Cohesion numbers only allowed for a few squad-level tactical tricks per mission, which seems a but weird – why should highly trained soldiers only be allowed to use a certain squad tactic a few times per mission? Again, of course, I haven’t tried this in practice so may be missing something.
Most of the bulk of the huge 400-page volume goes towards describing the character generation, rules and equipment – as noted, it’s all quite complicated. There are some antagonists listed, but it’s pretty skimpy; there is an expansion book out now devoted to xenos and other antagonists which should fix this lack, though. The book ends with a short but quite decent intro scenario.
I was quite impressed by this book, despite some early doubts. Though somewhat complex, the rules do seem to model these super-soldiers pretty well, and I like the fact that the game is designed to be played a bit differently than the other games in the line: here, the PCs get military missions to accomplish (with primary and secondary objectives), and can requisition gear for that specific mission. While a lot more constrained than the more freeform structure of the other games, it’s also more relaxed than a “normal” Space Marine game would be, due to the “special ops” nature of the Deathwatch. It seems like a nice balance to me.
It’s a (military) combat game, first and foremost. It lets the players play superhuman, power-armored soldiers, blasting away at endless alien hordes in the name of the Emperor. Assuming the game mechanics work well in practice, it should be a lot of fun.
Into the Storm is a companion book of sorts to the Rogue Trader core book, like The Inquisitor’s Handbook was for Dark Heresy. While the Inquisitor’s Handbook was a nice add-on, I’d rate this one as near-required – there’s a lot of important stuff here, so much so that I’d hesitate to run a Rogue Trader game without this. It’s not like anything absolutely critical is missing from the core, but this book does expand the options a lot, especially for initial character creation.
In addition to a top of expanded career paths and background options, we now also get the first options for playing alien (xeno) PCs. The options are still limited, you basically have either Kroot Mercenary or Orc Freebooter – but so are the options in-game for nonhumans in the game world (the book goes into some detail on the problems nonhumans can expect to encounter). The new careers and elite packages expand options for PCs quite a bit, so with this plus the core book you have quite a nice selection of careers and backgrounds to choose from. Of course, if you’re happy with the selection in the core book, you won’t get much from this except perhaps some elite options later on.
We also get a nice section on generating the PCs’ ship, with different background histories, ship types and stuff like that. It’s still not a huge selection, but much better than the bare-bones information the core book gives you. You can either grab one of the pre-generated ships presented here, or use the rules here to generate a fun and unique ship (with appropriate stats).
Another major section is the one one vehicles in general, including mechanical rules for them – something totally missing from the core book. The PCs can now drive around planets in various deathmobiles, without the GM having to invent stuff from scratch.
There’s a lot of stuff here, much of it “crunch” -oriented. Lots of new rules, subsystems, expansions to old stuff, etc. While I would have liked to see some of this in the core book, I can understand splitting it into this separate book for page count reasons; the core book is already a heft tome, and this isn’t all that tiny either.
Consider this to be a near-essential core book for the game line. Proper rules for full-on tactical space combat are still missing, but I expect to see those in some follow-up book.
Blood of Martyrs is a religion sourcebook for Dark Heresy. Of course, since this is Warhammer 40k, this means talk of the One True Religion (worship of the Emperor), with all else being heresy. On the other hand, having One True Faith typically means that you’ll have lots of factions, cults and interpretations of that faith… and that’s where this book steps in.
We get a lot of detail on the internal workings of the Ecclesiarchy, including details on many notable and/or important NPCs, all of which is great stuff for players of church-oriented characters, especially in campaigns featuring internal schisms and political intrigue. The church of the God-Emperor of Mankind is a vast and fairly fragmented construct, even though it tries to maintain a unified official front for the masses. Historical corollaries can be drawn with the Catholic Church in medieval and later times in Europe: religion is politics and vice versa.
Additionally, the book contains multiple new options for Adepta Sororitas characters. In addition to the basic “Sister of Battle” template given in the Inquisitor’s Handbook, we now get interesting variants into other directions: Sisters specializing in social and genetic control (shades of Bene Gesserit here), and others specializing in information gathering. Not to mention specialized healer/medic options.
Also included are a bunch of new church-oriented career paths. Confessors, Drill Abbots, Witch Finders, etc. Should be useful in creating religious PCs, should the options given in the core book seem limited. All in all, it’s a nice package of church and religion -oriented background information in the Warhammer 40k world, and as always the production values are top notch.
Edge of the Abyss is a fairly thin but content-filled sourcebook for Rogue Trader. The initial portion is perhaps the best: you first get a bunch of ingame rumors and reports, purely as an idea source for plots and moods. This is followed by a big chapter detailing various random worlds and places in the Koronus Expanse, suitable for throwing at the PCs. Some are straight-out hostile, some are just weird, but pretty much all are interesting. Each place has a general description and then some plot hooks and ideas which could be used to incorporate these into the game. Most descriptions also contain vague references to possible lurking events, so the GM can easily add more detail and horror elements (since most of these details are on the horrific side) if needed.
Next up is a section with basic details on several alien races. Along with the standard Orcs, Eldar and such, this section also introduces a few new ones: the militaristic and Tyrranid-like Rak’Gol and the trader-oriented Stryxis. Neither fill any vital gap, but they are both useful enough, especially if the GM wants to throw something new at players familiar with the base game world and the “standard” xeno races.
After this there is a section on Chaos antagonists, followed by a list of famous Rogue Traders. Both contain good info, especially the Rogue Trader list – it’s handy to have a bunch of detailed major NPCs available. The book ends with a scenario, which is fairly decent: the PCs shuttle down to a planet to check out a dig site for archeological artifacts, and (surprise!) things turn nasty. It’s nicely freeform in most places and has stuff to do for lots of different character types.
Not much to complain about here, it’s a grab-bag of various bits and pieces to help a GM flesh out his game, it’s well written and the there should be something interesting for everyone here. I could quibble a bit about the price, it’s a pretty thin book with a (comparatively) not-that-thin price tag. Also, this is not a core book in any way; while it contains fun plot and locale ideas and examples, there is nothing essential presented here.
There aren’t all that many big Cthulhu campaigns out there (though the ones that do exist tend to be excellent). Also, all the ones I’ve previously read are from Chaosium, so an alternate one from Fantasy Flight Games, published in 2002 and statted for d20 Cthulhu, seemed worth checking out. Also, it was cheap, so what did I have to lose?
Let’s start with the good. Nocturnum is ambitious. It clearly strives to be a globe-trotting modern-era Cthulhu campaign, with a “save the world from doomsday” plot and lots of exotic locales. Unfortunately, ambition only gets you so far, on its own. The episodes are quite varied from each other, and some of them contain cool ideas – especially the early ones. I could imagine myself using (heavily modified) versions of some of these as standalones, or as parts of something else. Oh, and some of the in-between fiction pieces are ok and suitably creepy.
Then we get to the problems, and that’s a much longer list. The first one is: this is not Cthulhu. Sure, it’s marketed as such and there’s some awkward inclusion of Nyarlathotep here and there, but it seems clear to me that this was originally designed either as a standalone “modern horror” game (or intended for some other game line), and someone somewhere decided to make it Cthulhu so it would sell better. It’s an awkward fit, since the mood of this thing is much closer to The X-Files, Conspiracy X, Dark Matter, and such. The campaign introduces two separate new “mythos” races, and neither are very memorable or convincing. It just does not feel like a Cthulhu campaign, on any level.
I could ignore that if the writing and plotting was good, but unfortunately that’s hit and miss too. For every nice piece of plotting and scene-setting, there are five totally silly ones. Every time I started thinking “this section isn’t that bad”, along comes something totally idiotic and kills the suspension of disbelief. It doesn’t help that most things here are heavily railroaded. Oh, and there’s also that old bad-scenario-writing standby, the invincible (and often invisible) super-NPC who magically follows the PCs around and Does Stuff (and then vanishes again). It’s possible to have something like that and not have it suck, but it’s tricky. Here, it fails, along with many other things.
As for the plot and contents: an alien race wants to escape the Earth and is conspiring to have an asteroid hit the Earth in order to facilitate that. A bit campy, but ok, I’ve read worse premises in Cthulhu scenarios and had them work. As a quick rundown of the individual scenarios:
The first has the PCs trapped in a wintery logging town during a blizzard, and (surprise!) bad stuff starts to happen. It’s nice and atmospheric, but contains such gems as an alien creature using “evil magic” to transform humans into werewolves. If you ignore that bit of stupidity it’s not a bad scenario, and could work nicely with some other X-Files -ish games.
Second has the PCs in a college town, investigating a student friend who seems to have gotten mixed up in a bad drug deal. This is a good scenario, though the end is very loosely specified (the GM isn’t given too many tools to decide things). Also, it’s totally disconnected from the first adventure. Regardless, it’s one of the stronger entries in this book.
Next is the first scenario featuring the “metaplot” (in a way that might be visible to the players in any sense). The PCs are asked to hunt down a missing girl, last seen at a California monastery, because… well, that’s left a bit vague. “Because they know about this paranormal stuff”, maybe. It’s a bit unconvincing. The scenario itself is ok, but the end (or the next small chapter more properly), railroads the PCs into becoming wanted fugitives. The GM text says that this is to help build a sense of urgency for the PCs and remove their safety nets, but it seems very contrived and railroady. At this point, the campaign hasn’t given the PCs anything much to be urgent about, and arbitrarily making them wanted criminals “just because” doesn’t seem like a good move.
Next up are a few other mini-events (like the “let’s make them criminals” one), but more palatable. Nothing major here.
After that, the PCs need to break in to a mental hospital and get access to a patient being held there. The initial setup is ok, but then it verges into silly territory again. Apparently, this is one of those new-style hospitals where serial killers and slighly depressed teenagers and kept and treated in nearby rooms. Some predictable “the patients are loose!” mayhem ensues, but it’s a bit tired.
Next is a scenario set near a swamp, with a possible swamp monster. It’s actually not bad, and could be used (with some work) as a standalone scenario. Unfortunately, after that we get a bit where the PCs are captured by the bad guys, and the railroad gets into heavy gear (and also ramps up the silly).
After that bit, we come to one of the low points of the campaign. On the plus side, some of the action takes place on an oil rig. On the minus side… where to start? The scenario features such pieces of idiocy as a spy from the Norwegian government with a mission to set up a bomb on an oil rig, and blame it on Greenpeace protesters. Said oil rig is in Norwegian waters. So let me get this straight: the Norwegian government wants to blow up an oil rig in their own waters, just so they can blame Greenpeace for it, and because they are evil? Apparently, according to this scenario. Also, said super-spy also kills a person in a ship cabin, cuts up the body with a knife, and throws the pieces out a porthole – all in a few minutes, while the PCs watch, and in a way which nobody else (in hearing distance) notices. Oh, and apparently all that blood also vanishes somehow, magically. The whole things is monumentally stupid and juvenile.
After that we’re in Copenhagen, and apparently there is “the world is ending” panic in the streets and the PCs are hunted by creatures. Mostly filler. After that things brighten up a bit, with a scenario set in a small Danish town, secretly ruled by old Norse gods. It’s a nice and creepy scenario, and might work great as a standalone, but here… come on guys. Old Norse gods? Real ones, not “mythos being masquerading as X”? In a supposedly Cthulhu scenario? Please.
The rest of the book is one big railroad where the PCs head off towards Nepal (via Russia), in order to do some superheroics and save the Earth. Or stuff.
Overall, this just isn’t a very good campaign. It contains some nice bits (along with lots of stupid), and some of this could be used as separate standalones – though more easily in a generic X-Files -style game, not a Cthulhu one. The campaign itself, as presented here, is at best mediocre and at worst pure crap. It’s badly railroaded, has uninteresting bad guys, contains monumentally stupid plot points, and (especially in the beginning) is quite incoherent. The PCs are given no real reason to do the things they are supposed to do, until the heavy-handed railroading steps in.
If you’re thinking of picking this one up, save your cash.
When the Dark Heresy game came out, a major complaint was the power level. Some people had been expecting to be able to play Inquisitors in the manner of Eisenhorn or others, and instead got to play “Acolytes”, assistants and staff to an (NPC) Inquisitor. I didn’t mind that at all, I liked the relatively low power level of Dark Heresy and the “Cthulhu in Space” vibe, but that doesn’t change the core argument: DH does not give you tools to play Inquisitors.
Ascension attempts to rectify that. It’s an expansion book for the base Dark Heresy game (and requires that book for the actual rules), expanding the rule coverage to higher ranks and providing higher-level career paths (yes, including Inquisitor). There is some attempt to streamline the system (like Rogue Trader does); many skills now have a higher-level version which replaces the base version and covers much broader ground, in effect combining multiple lower-level skills into one. It’s a good start, though the system does look like it can get a bit cluttered with all the piled-on stuff – Rogue Trader seems a bit cleaner, since it’s built from the ground up to support higher-level play. People have reported that Ascension characters can be a bit hard to keep track of. However, the book has also been reported to provide what it says on the tin: higher-level Inquisitorial play.
Since Inquisitors in the WH40k universe tend to operate largely on their own, a group consisting of all Inquisitors isn’t too believable – so the book does not even attempt to cover that. Instead it suggests a model where one of the players plays an Inquisitor and the others play high-power comrades and associates of the Inquisitor. If that doesn’t work because of player chemistry (“why does X get to be the Inquisitor!”), the book also suggests keeping the actual Inquisitor as an NPC and just giving the PCs much freer rein to reflect their status as high-rank Throne Agents. Of course, that also means “more rope to hang themselves with”.
It looks like a good supplement to expand the game into higher ranks of play. Some parts do seem a small bit cumbersome despite the rules streamlining, but it’s hard to say without actual play. As normal for FFG WH40k books, the production values are excellent and the book is packed with fun new career paths, equipment, antagonists and suchlike.
This should also work for people wanting to include a few Throne Agents in their Rogue Trader game, since the power levels are roughly equivalent. The books gives both “bottom-up” character design (to advance Dark Heresy characeters to this) and a “top-down” design which can be used to directly create Ascension characters. Nice touch.
Dead Stars is the third and final book in the Dark Heresy adventure trilogy “Haarlock’s Legacy”. I’ve written before about how much I liked the first two books; in fact, I’m currently running a small campaign that will lead up to those (assuming we get that far). They are well-written, nicely organized and have an extremely good mix of intrigue, action and horror elements. Despite their somewhat limited page count, they manage to contain a lot of tips on running the campaign, including notes on general theme and mood. As an additional bonus, the adventure in Disciples of the Dark Gods (“The House of Dust and Ash”) is an (optional) initial part of this scenario sequence – I intend to use it as such, myself.
So, now we have the final book. I’m glad to report that it’s quite excellent, but will probably leave some people unsatisfied (I’m not among those people). The book does not contain stats for Haarlock, it does not reveal the secret of the Tyrant Star, and in general some Big Mysteries are left as such. I think that’s fine. Haarlock himself is more a plot device than a real antagonist here, due to certain unfolding plot details I don’t want to spoil – and the writers have always avoided tying themselves into any one explanation for the Tyrant Star.
Despite some “plot device” NPCs, the PCs are in very real control here, and have actual power. In the end, they are forced to make some very difficult decisions, which will have significant effect on the whole Sector. The “how and why” of that is a big part of this module, and I’ll try not to spoil that here.
The initial action centers on the forbidden world of Mara, and an abandoned Ice Station there. It’s a very creepy locale; there is a strong “haunted house” mood. The PCs are far from the only ones gunning for the same target, so this thing could get very deadly, fast. From Mara, the PCs go… somewhere else. Many somewheres. Here is where I’ll use the “no spoilers” card and just shut up on detail… except to say that the endgame takes place on an infamous Death World, where the PCs will have the chance to decide the fate of worlds. Not making a choice is also a choice, in itself.
I really like the organization and production values in these books. There is a lot of GM help provided, information is clearly laid out, and in general this reads like something that should be a lot of fun to run. I’ll see about that in practice myself, later. The level of detail is less than in most D&D -style scenarios; many places aren’t mapped at all, and lots of things are described as loose scenes that the GM knits together. I’m fine with that, I’m used to thinking of games that way, but it might be a bit jarring to someone who is used to having all information pre-digested for him. The GM will need to do some prepwork here, but it’s more along the lines of “add some detail here and there” than any number crunching or creature statting; that stuff is included and nicely organized.
I remain quite impressed with this adventure trilogy.
The Radical’s Handbook is an expansion for FFG’s Dark Heresy (Warhammer 40k) game, detailing various “radical” factions within the Inquisition. Some of these are still (barely) within the accepted limits and can be followed openly (though not without risk), while others go outside that zone – some are a direct express train to excommunication and execution if discovered.
Organization-wise, it’s fairly straightforward. We’re given details on a number of Radical factions, with notes on their beliefs, organization, goals, views and some notable NPCs. That is followed by some game crunch, i.e. what game mechanics benefits characters can get from belonging to one of these factions. There is a short chapter on aliens and alien equipment, and some details on other “nonstandard” (and “unsafe”) gear. The book wraps up with a discussion of how to use all this in a game.
It’s a very solid and useful expansion book. While it doesn’t bring anything critical to the game table, the extra options it gives are fun. As the end section details, you can use this stuff in quite a variety of ways. First of all, you can just use this to spice up NPCs and NPC factions; a couple of the factions here are definitely in the “evil bastards” ballpark and the others aren’t exactly “nice guys” either – not that much anyone is, in this game universe. Second, you can use this book to give your PCs extra options. The Inquisitor and the Acolytes might all belong to one of these factions. Or the Inquisitor might be a secret member, and slowly lure his underlings towards a “deviant” path. Or, most risky of all, the Acolytes (PCs) might start to harbor Radical beliefs, even though their boss is still orthodox. And, of course, you might well have a case where different PCs within the same group belong to different Radical orders (though that’s tricky to pull off without things descending into Paranoia mayhem).
The whole thing is quite well-written, and the factions themselves mostly quite interesting and not too one-dimensional. I got the feel that many “crunch” things here up the power level a bit – but on the other hand, membership in any of these factions brings large amounts of risk, so some decent benefit from it all makes sense. Risk vs reward, and all that.
Damned Cities is the second part of the Haarlock’s Legacy trilogy of adventures for the Dark Heresy game. The whole thing is actually slightly more than a trilogy, since the adventure included in the Disciples of the Dark Gods book, “House of Dust and Ash”, is also part of this storyline.
I’ve really liked the first installments of this series. The House of Dust and Ash was great (if deadly), and the first adventure book in the actual trilogy (Tattered Fates) was also high-class. Both of those did share one common flaw (or “feature”, at the least): they had extremely deadly portions to them. Expect PC casualties if you run those without modification. They are also a bit complex, so some amount of GM prep is necessary.
This whole series is somewhat freeform. While the general expectation is that you run either House of Dust and Ash or Tattered Fates as the intro, then the other one of those two as a follow-up, and then this one… nothing forces that sequence. As all of these are standalone scenarios with just some plot lines and themes linking them together, the GM is free to combine them in any form that feels natural, or to add some extra scenarios in between. I like the format, it’s very flexible. The upcoming last part is meant to be played last, however, since it is apparently meant to tie off the storyline.
Damned Cities continues the storyline of the Acolytes (PCs) chasing down the trail of the vanished Rogue Trader, Erasmus Haarlock. Haarlock has killed off most (all?) of his bloodline, and has also left deadly traps all over the sector and apparently organized some sort of grand plan, which is now slowly activating with various countdown times winding down.
This time around, trouble brews in the decaying formerly-grand Imperial city of Sinophia Magna. A series of brutal murders has upset the balance between the local nobility and the powerful criminal gangs, and the whole place is on the verge of sliding into anarchy. Something about the murders has triggered the interest of the Inquisition, and the PCs are sent to investigate. Mayhem, shootouts, insanity and heavy rainfall ensues.
It’s good stuff. While primarily an investigation piece, there is room for lots of action here too. It’s very freeform, almost a sandbox (with rain replacing the sand). The GM is given a host of interesting NCPs and a general timeline, with some helper events to spring on the players in the event that they bog down. It doesn’t feel quite as deadly as the previous installments, but that’s just a gut feel – there’s plenty of danger here. The PCs need to figure out the killer or killers, and the possible tie to Erasmus Haarlock, before things get… interesting. Where “interesting” means “very, very bad”.
Despite the fairly slim page count, the book is nicely organized and a lot of thought has been given to how the GM can best use the material. There are lots of GM helper ideas and events, with discussion on when and if to activate various subplots, and the NPC descriptions are very nice. I also liked the discussion on general themes and motifs for the whole series; the use of clockworks, countdown times and such as symbols, etc.
So far, I’ve liked this series so much I’m almost considering running them myself. Scary, that.
The Warhammer fantasy game world has always been a very popular one, and some of the old campaigns for it (Enemy Within, especially) have a near-legendary status. The second edition of the game, published (mostly) by the Black Library imprint, was very popular and the whole game line consists of a lot of books. It’s always been a fun setting, as far as I know, but it has always also had a very “retro” game mechanic that hasn’t changed much over the years. It’s been serviceable by most accounts, but nothing all that fantastic.
So, when Fantasy Flight Games got the Warhammer license and announced that they are working on a new edition, the Internet rumor mill started buzzing again. The buzz intensified when some details became clear: it would (gasp!) use a dice pool system, would (gasp!) include some mechanics in card form, etc etc. Many of the initial fears were along the lines: “it’s a board game, not a roleplaying game!”. These complaints intensified when it became clear that the release was a gigantic boxed set, to the tune of a $100 retail price.
So now Warhammer Fantasy 3rd Edition is here. What is it? How does it play? I’ll try to answer some of that, but I do have one disclaimer: I’ve never played either 1st or 2nd edition of the game. I’m halfway familiar with some of the material, but really… I’m a relative newbie to the Warhammer world. I’ll inspect the game on its own merits, not “compared to 2nd edition sourcebook N”.
I’ll start with “what is it?”. First off, it’s a real roleplaying game. It’s in no form or fashion a board game. It uses some mechanics from board games (and card games) to keep track of things, but the game itself is a pure tabletop rpg. The box contains all you need for a GM + 3 players; only one person in the play group actually needs to buy this, assuming a group of 4 people.
The box is big, and contains 4 books (total a bit under 300 pages) and piles upon piles of different counters, cards, sheets and… stuff. It’s all a bit overwhelming at first, but there is a method to the madness. Fun fact: the page count of the books alone is actually higher than the 2nd edition corebook – and you get a ton of stuff in addition to the books. One book contains the core rules, one is a GM sourcebook, one is detail for playing priests, and the last one is about playing mages. All in all, the books are nicely laid out, and most things are clear enough. However, some of the rules are spread out among multiple books, making some rule details a bit hard to figure out. It’s by no means the worst I’ve seem (compared to Burning Wheel this is a cakewalk), but still… the books could have been a bit better organized, in an ideal world. I do have to give kudos to the GM section; it’s excellent, and contains lots of “indie” stuff like “say yes”, emphasis on a three-act structure, and lots of nice general advice.
In general, this game has taken a lot of cues from “indie” games. I can see bits and pieces of Burning Wheel, Spirit of the Century and other games in here. The design is quite unconventional, and in most places extremely innovative. It’s not without its problems (I’ll get to those later), but in general: this is the most innovative roleplaying design to come from a major publisher for a long time. Not everyone will like it, but I do think that most people who are interested in rpgs should take a look at it. There are lots of cool ideas in here.
To give an exact description of the mechanics would take more space than I want to spend here, so I’ll give a “nutshell” summary.
You still have a traditional “character” sheet, but it’s enhanced with numerous cards. First off, you get a large-format card detailing your current profession. This contains main info about the career. You also get a smaller career card, with the career special ability. This is a bit kludgy imho, that stuff should have been on the main career card… I think they just ran out of space on the main card, here. Anyway, in addition to those you get a bunch of abilities which you attach to your career card into dedicated “slots”. Some of these may be swapped in and out during play. Last off, you get a bunch of Action cards, which represent your normal actions.
Traditionally, this is stuff that would have been represented by written lines on a character sheet. Here they are pre-printed cards. The advantage is that it vastly reduces the need for book lookup during play, since the cards contain much of the mechanics. This is good. It also allows for visual representations of when the action (or whatever) can be used again, via “recharge tokens” placed on the cards.
Then there is the dice pool, which is very cool. It consists of a bunch of custom dice, with symbols on them. The dice have different numbers of faces… some are d6, some d8, etc. You collect a “pool” of them, based on various factors: you base attribute for a skill gives you blue dice, skill training adds yellow “expert” dice, your “stance” (see below) modifies some of your blue dice to green/red, the difficulty of the action adds purple “challenge” dice, and lastly you may get white “fortune” dice and black “misfortune” dice. Once you have your pool you roll it, and the result gives you a “multidimensional” result: in addition to saying whether you succeed or fail, it also provides good or bad side effects which are not tied to success. So you might succeed, but get a bad side-effect. Or vice versa.
All that may sound complicated, but it’s actually quite quick to learn and works really nicely. Good job there, FFG.
There are lots of details I could mention, but I’ll only note two specific innovative extra things here.
First, the party sheet. This is the first rpg that I’ve run into which details the group of player characters as a separate entity (in addition to the PCs). So after the players create their characters, they need to decide what kind of party they are. Are they Intrepid Explorers? Or a Gang of Thugs? Or Brash Young Fools? In addition to providing some mechanical effects, the party sheet also serves to remind the players of that important thing: “why are we together in the first place?”. It’s a nice idea.
Secondly, stances. Each character gets a “stance meter”, which depends on his/her career and other things. This consists of a neutral middle point, and a number of “conservative” and “reckless” spaces on either side. In “encounter mode” (the mode you use to resolve most things), characters decide their current stance on that meter. That setting has an effect on how all their actions resolve; doing stuff “recklessly” nets potentially higher benefits, but also runs higher risks. It’s a very nice mechanic, and a clear evolution from many “indie” game ideas.
Ok. Up to now I’ve talked about how the game looks and reads. Based on just those, my impression was very favorable: the production values were excellent (as usual for FFG productions), the mechanics contained a ton of innovative bits, and the thing was still a traditional rpg at the core.
I did have a few issues:
The price is high. Sure, you get a lot for your $100, and the box contains enough for a GM + 3 players – the equivalent set in D&D 4th edition would actually cost you more. Still, it’s a lot of money. I personally think it’s worth the price, though (and you can get it for a lot less than that $100 via Amazon, for example).
As noted, the organization of the rulebooks could be a bit clearer. In addition, there are mistakes and omissions here and there, you need the FAQ document to figure some things out. It’s not horrible, just in the “could be better” department. Also, there is no index.. but FFG actually provides an online ”living index” instead, which is a nice idea and might prove better than a normal index in the long run.
After reading the thing, I was a bit concerned about the amount of table space this thing would probably take, and the amount of fiddly bits (cards, counters, etc) you had to keep track of.
There are only a limited number of races, careers, etc available here. I don’t find this to be much of a problem, the design here makes it easy to expand things as the game develops. It does feature less initial choice in those matters than earlier editions; to me that’s no big deal, but it of course affects the price-vs-value proposition for some people.
Luckily enough, my housemates were all home the next weekend after I got this, so I recruited them as victims for a quick playtest. One had never played any sort of roleplaying game before, one had run some 2nd edition Warhammer, and one some 1st edition… so a nice mix of people there. I decided to run the “Eye for an Eye” demo scenario included with the box.
Character creation went fairly smoothly, though at that point there was quite a bit of “pass me the book” going on… some printouts of relevant tables etc might have helped. The players settled on a priest of Shallaya, an Agent and a Mercenary – forming a gang of Brash Young Fools. After a brief into, off they went into the wilderness.
Things started off with a combat encounter, which ended up taking the bulk of the session. It almost ended with a Total Party Kill also; I should have had the Beastmen break morale earlier than they did, but since I wasn’t familiar with the system I didn’t realize the problems fast enough. The PC group had only one really functional combat character, and against a horde of beastmen.. well, while the Mercenary could hold his own for quite a while, it was a losing battle. In the end, one of the characters would have died if we went by the rules, but I decided to fudge it and “just” leave him critically wounded.
All in all, the combat mechanics seemed ok. Needs a bit of practice to get it to run smoothly, and that one fight went on a bit too long due to the PCs being a bit underpowered – but in general, the system seemed to work nicely. Players reported that having the combat powers right in from of them on cards helped a lot, both with book-keeping and with figuring out capabilities in general.
After that we got to the “investigation” section at a hunting lodge. Things proceeded pretty nicely, though things were a bit hampered by only one of the characters being in mobile shape… and here I ran into the first real rule problem: the rules give no help for deciding how fast a priest can heal someone outside of combat. I decided that the others could get back to decent health pretty fast to keep things moving, but… the rules failed here.
After some stalking around, I decided to call the game session a day – character creation and that one combat had taken a lot of time, and it was getting late. We may continue that scenario later, but for now that’s where we are: halfway in the demo scenario.
So, my opinion of the game after some (quick) playtesting?
The basic mechanics worked pretty much as well as I had hoped. The dice pool thing rocks.
I’m still undecided on when and if to use the “Rally Phase” mechanic.
The “progress tracker” is a nice general mechanics, but the books give way too little actual examples of how to use it. As it, it has promise but needs more game support in order to be really useful.
Despite my own hopes, the game doesn’t really have a “social combat” mechanic. It has something in that direction, but it’s pretty rough and simplified. Of course, due to the expandable card-based design, this might change in the future. I’m sure something cool could be built on top of the Progress Tracker.
Yes, it takes a lot of table space, but nothing impossible. The abstract combat movement mechanics means you don’t need a grid or miniatures, so things balance out. Might be a problem with a larger play group and a small table, though – you need decent table space for this thing.
In the future, I hope they provide NPC/monster stats as cards, also. Here I had to keep a book open for that stuff, which was a bit cumbersome.
At the moment, the rules have a big gaping hole (or at the least, a massive source of confusion). I’ve talked about this a lot of rpg.net and FFG’s own forums, but for now there is no official answer, you must do some houseruling in order to play this game. The problem is this: the game has Encounter Mode, and Story Mode. Action cards make sense in Encounter Mode, but stop making sense outside it. Nowhere in the rules does it say exactly when to use which mode, and how to handle Actions outside Encounter mode. As priest healing “spells” are Actions too, it results in stuff like zero information on how fast divine healing (outside combat) is. Is it instant (one interpretation of the rules)? Does it take days (another interpretation)? Nobody knows, and there is no official answer yet. Though…
…ok. I won’t go into length on this, but in a nutshell here is my current interpretation: you play most of the game in Encounter Mode. You only use Story Mode for “scene switch” narrations, etc. The important thing is this: the amount of time a “turn” takes in Encounter Mode is highly flexible. During combat it might be some seconds or tens of seconds. Outside of that, it may be minutes, hours or even days. Depends on the context. With this framework, you can sort of make the game work outside “combat-time” mode also, though you must fudge things a bit (allow multiple actions during “turn” even though the rules don’t strictly allow that, etc). The problem is that this interpretation depends completely on GM fiat, and also results in some corner-case problems – but it results in less problems than other interpretations to date. To my mind, at least.
So… be prepared for some house-ruling. At the moment, this is a somewhat weird game… it goes from “exact rules with exact results” to “no rules whatsoever, total GM fiat” with no warning whatsoever. While the nice and visual layout of the game might make it good for newbie GMs, the fact that the rules contain some holes at the moment make it less than ideal for that. It’s nothing that a good GM (even a newbie) can’t deal with, but… you have been warned.
In sum: this is a very good new incarnation of Warhammer Fantasy, with lots of (honestly) innovative bits and lots of promise. It’s a bit unpolished at the moment in places, but I have hopes that FFG and/or the player community can slowly fill in the missing bits. Despite the small problems, I’ll highly recommend this one. It’s a breath of fresh air to an old world, in many respects.