WFRP: Setting Expectations

As its Warhammer Wednesday we want to share the third in our series of WFRPBlog Posts from C7 writer Ben Scerri. If you need to catch up on his previous in-depth posts you can find the first one here and the second here. You can also join the C7 chat on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to give us your feedback. You can find the WFRP4 Core rulebook in stores now or order directly here.

Hello again, folks! Today we’re talking setting expectations in WFRP — that’s right, we’re doing a little Gamemaster advice! The rulebook is full of mechanics, stories, hooks, monsters, spells, careers, trappings… EVERYTHING you might need to run a game. But today I want to talk a little about starting a game, so that’s where we’re going to jump in right now.

‘Nobody expects the Estalian Inquisition… but they sure as Sigmar should expect your game sessions!’

A good campaign will begin by setting expectations (especially in reference to what you should expect from the setting *wink*) — what are the likely themes, what are the boundaries, what are Characters going to spend most of their time doing — which allows the Players to become invested, and play their Characters to the strengths of the shared story.

I have a little tool I like to use when starting a WFRP campaign, and — like all good things — it owes its roots to the Ruinous Powers!

The four Chaos Gods have always stood as the four main pillars of what makes a good, fully-fleshed-out Warhammer experience to me. In them, we see the greatest extremes of Human emotion, and given Warhammer is a deeply emotional setting, it makes sense that Khorne, Nurgle, Tzeentch, and Slaanesh are the furthest extremes therein!

I like to think of each Chaos God as a slider — a scale from ‘0’ to ‘Tzeentch’ — that tells us how much we want to focus on that God’s style of extremism in play. A good campaign — in my opinion — will focus about half of the time on one God’s sphere, then have two other God’s peppered through, making up most of the other half, with the final God used only in extreme circumstances… What do I mean? Well, that’s a good question: let’s break it down further, shall we?

Khorne — the Blood God — is all about killing things, fighting enemies in glorious battle, and likely dying at the end of a sword.

Campaigns that feature Khorne’s sphere of influence heavily likely have a lot of combat in them: the Characters hunt monsters, or serve in the State Army of Altdorf, or plumb the depths of a Dwarf ruin, or serve as sewer jacks beneath Ubersreik! These sorts of campaigns can expect combat at least every session, with the risk of death always being right around the corner.

Players are encouraged to choose Careers that focus on martial Skills and Characteristics, or those that supplement martial Characters (barber-surgeons, wizards, priests, and so on). Additionally, Players are encouraged to have back-upCharacters ready in case their main Character passes through the Portal during a session, and greets Morr, the God of Death — perhaps taking control of a non-player character, like a hireling brought along for extra muscle.

GMs of these sorts of campaigns will want to be very familiar with the rules of Combat and Injuries, and might want to ignore the Sudden Death rule entirely! Further, the GM should focus on the action at the table — don’t worry about backstories and intrigues too deeply. Draw the Characters into conflicts using visceral threats — enemies knocking down the door, the threat of being hanged as a criminal, the murder of a loved one or notable-about-town.

Nurgle — the Fly Lord — is the perfect vector for stories of societal decay (both literally via plague, and figuratively via corrupt politicians) and hopelessness, with Characters struggling to hold back an inevitability.

Campaigns that feature Nurgle’s sphere of influence heavily likely have a lot of roleplaying with the downtrodden, lots of insidious cults, and lots of gritty ‘realism’ for the Characters to struggle through. Finding a meal and a place to sleep is a concern. Staying out of the rain so as not to catch cold is paramount. And avoiding the boil-covered beggars on the steps of Shallya’s temple is more than mere colourful description: it is the difference between life and death!

Players are encouraged to buy into the horrific themes of these sorts of campaigns: generally speaking, it’s impossible to scare someone whilst playing a game unless they want to be scared. Players should also look at Characters that mire them in the conflicts — so they can’t just walk away from all the horror — through academics who are rooted to a place of study, community leaders or family-oriented Characters, or other such small-folk who don’t have the luxury of leaving.

GMs should read up on the rules for Disease and InfectionPsychology, and the Between Adventures chapter. Further, the GM should look for what the Characters want, and use unconventional methods to threaten them. The GM should strive to stretch the Characters beyond their means, and to push them into hopelessness, and terrible consequences. This is not the sort of campaign folks should be foisted into without first agreeing to it!

Tzeentch — the Lord of Change — is a cunning tutor for the twisting of fates, and circuitous logic, with the Characters chasing leads, learning of foul cults, and uncovering secrets laid down in the dusts of time.

Campaigns that feature Tzeentch’s sphere of influence heavily likely have a lot of background woven in by the GM, involve investigations, conspiracies, and lies being told. The Characters themselves may even have secrets from each other — though it’s often more fun if the Players are all in on the secrets, so everyone can appreciate the dramatic irony when they come into play. Learning things that should be left alone, and the ever-present threat of Corruption are constant themes in these campaigns.

Players are encouraged to create Characters with deep motivations that run beyond merely generating wealth, fighting the good fight, or becoming famous. Characters with aspirations — the sky’s the limit — are easier to goad into terrible acts, and give everyone a good playing field to ask questions like ‘Do the ends justify the means?’Characters in these sorts of games also benefit from having some means already — nefarious connections, obscene wealth, a seedy past, or access to forbidden knowledge.

GMs should read up on the rules for MutationCorruption (specifically Dark Deals), and the investigation Skills like BriberyGossipIntimidateIntuition, and so on… Further, the GM should become deeply familiar with genre fiction — such as farce and noir — and learn to ask Player Characters leading questions such as: “Who was it who murdered your mother?” rather than “What happened to your mother?” This sort of game requires more preparation time for the GM, so it’s not encouraged if you’re time-limited, but I find it the most rewarding style of play.

Slaanesh — the Prince of Excess — is a seductive god who’s stories involve the worst of Humanity’s crimes. The inequalities of the Nobility, the hypocrisies of the Cult of Sigmar, and the undercurrent of Human greed and perversion are the constant threats to the Characters…

Campaigns that feature Slaanesh’s sphere of influence heavily likely deal with some real-world problems dialled up to the extreme, and can act as catharsis or amusing satire. Real world history can often provide inspiration for these sorts of campaigns, by tying in political figures past and present! Mostly, though, these campaigns will be about Characters talking, scheming, and stabbing each other in the back.

Players are encouraged to create Characters and stories that revolve around the movers and shakers — the nobility, the priesthoods, the wizards in Altdorf — whether directly (by being those figures) or tangentially (by serving, investigating, or surrounding them). Players should pay special attention to their Ambitions, and should work together to create potentially conflicting stories! If everyone is engaged and onboard, a campaign where the Characters are in opposition to each other can be very entertaining — so long as everyone is still having fun, and respects each others boundaries. Remember, a good story is more important than ‘winning’.

GMs should read up on the rules for Ambitions, and the politics of the Reikland / world history. Further, they should spend the majority of their preparation time planning interesting non-player characters with as deep Motivations and Ambitions as the Characters — perhaps even going so far as to give them their own full Character Sheets and engage in Between Adventures Endeavours just like everyone else! GMs are well served by having a relationship map of their non-player Characters, and often find most of their planning being reactive to the Players’ actions.

Now that we’ve discussed our individual ingredients, let’s mix them together and see what pops out! I’ll pitch four example campaigns, with a combination of the four sliders — one set high, another two at the low end, and the last for a single epicmoment in the game…

Slaanesh, with a dash of Khorne and Tzeentch, and a pinch of Nurgle. The Characters are servants and courtiers in a noble court, where duelling, backstabbing, and political intrigue are their bread and butter. Play revolves around pursuing their own goals whilst guarding their backs from the machinations of jealous and scheming rivals and villains. The threat of disease and starvation should be far from their minds… until a terrible winter spreads famine and plague across the land.

Tzeentch, with a dash of Slaanesh and Nurgle, and a pinch of Khorne. The Characters are burghers, investigators, local priests, and rat catchers — local folks in a big city — where something just isn’t right. People are going missing — dying of strange wasting illnesses — whilst new and strange folk are rising with great fortune. Only the Characters can put the pieces together, and confront the darkness growing in their midst...

Khorne, with a dash of Nurgle and Tzeentch, and a pinch of Slaanesh. The Characters are members of a mercenary company, stationed on the edge of the Empire, or deep in the Border Princes, who must contend with the constant threat of war, starvation, and the wasting diseases that war brings. But not everything is as it seems, and a mastermind behind the company has other, darker, plans — perhaps uncovering something from the hands of their enemies. Will the Characters be mere pawns of their general, keeping their eyes down and their bellies passably full? Or will they root out the cancer in their midst?

Nurgle, with a dash of Khorne and Slaanesh, and a pinch of Tzeentch. The Characters are members of a small community in the deepest parts of the Reikwald, in a forgotten corner of the Empire. Their lives are hard, and it’s a constant struggle to keep everyone’s mouths fed, and their spirits up… But such hardship breeds cruelty and corruption — will the Characters fall to this temptation, or will someone, or something else have to take matters into their own hands?

What I want you to take away from this is to talk about your daemons as a group. What do you care about? What do you find fun? What haven’t you played before? Discuss this as a group, before you begin to make Characters, and you’ll find a far stronger narrative, with more entrenched themes and fun, bleeds through.

I hope you let us know on our social media channels which of the above styles of play is your favourite, and your best advice for running those kinds of games!

Until next time, folks!