WFRP: The Rulebook is a Treasure Chest

(Part #1)

It's that time of the week again, #WARHAMMERWEDNESDAY!  So, let's get stuck right into Ben's latest blog!

It's WFRP Time, again! Hey folks, I'm Ben, and I literally cannot stop talking about Warhammer. Honestly, it's a serious problem... but we'll manage, won't we? This week, my compulsion has me thinking about all the little optional rules scattered throughout Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and what they might mean for the fiction of your Warhammer game, in addition to the mechanics.

As I've said before, the fiction is as important as the mechanics of a game, and the two are closely related. We know WFRP is a game about gritty heroes because we have so many rules dedicated to permanent injury, disease, and the slow encroachment of Chaos. The mechanics reinforce the fiction, and vice versa. Therefore, it stands to reason that every change you make to the rules — whether it's house rules or the Options given to you in the rulebook — will, in turn, change the fiction of your campaign.

I'm all for customising play experiences (and the Golden Rule on page 149 enshrines this), but I'm even more for understanding those choices and making informed decisions. Design is, after all, 9-parts research, 1-part action! So let's dive in, and see what our meddlesome behaviour brings…

The way I see it, there are 4 broad categories of optional rules in WFRP:

  • Character Options, which change how Characters are made.
  • Action Options, which change how Characters interact with the game rules through play.
  • System Options, which change the core mechanics of play.
  • And lastly, there is an entirely optional chapter: Between Adventures!

I’m going to pick what I think are the four more interesting options from each category, and we’ll discuss how they change the play experience and talk about why you might want to include them or leave them in the toolbox, depending upon your gaming preferences. There is a lot of ground to cover even with that small selection, so I’m going to split this into two posts for easier chewing!

So, let's get started with the first two categories: Character Options and Action Options.

Character Options

Options: Animosity (Elves)

On page 26 we get a glance at the history between the Elves and the Dwarfs. You know, the whole millenia-long war thing? Well, as all fans of Dwarfs know, they hold grudges — indeed, they keep whole books dedicated to listing every grudge, perceived or real, that they ever experience, and they make sure every grudge is avenged. So, as I'm sure you can imagine, centuries of war led to centuries of grudges, many of which were unavenged, so the Dwarfs have a special place in their bile-ducts for the Elves, and have many scores to settle with them.

Taking this into account, the Animosity (Elves) optional rule provides every Dwarf with the Animosity (Elves) Psychological Trait. If you use the rule, all Dwarfs have a difficult time working with, and not punching, any Elves they happen to meet. The old grudges bubble to the surface and fury at what their ancestors suffered at the hands of the faithless on-beards can overwhelm.

So, this optional Trait goes a long way to reinforce two of the main themes of Warhammer: that the Old World is full of history that reflects on the present, and that even among the ‘good guys’ there is tension and bad blood. No one is ever just allies, but instead webs of deception, history, and intrigue poison all good in the world…

Sure, it’s no Hatred (Greenskins), but still...

However, whilst this Trait does wonders for reinforcing the narrative of Warhammer, it does potentially hamper play if the party contains both an Elf and a Dwarf. Perhaps your group is excited by the prospect of constant bickering between the two Characters (though obviously only with the Players involved being enthusiastic about this), but that's not the case for most groups. If you want to use the optional rule, but are concerned about it's long-term implications for party unity, another consideration is to allow this Trait to disappear over time, or to diminish for individual Characters, allowing Dwarfs to grow and learn that individuals are not representatives of their entire people or responsible for ancient acts! However, no matter how rational that may sound to Humans, it's not exactly the Dwarf way...

Options: But I want to play a Wood Elf Flagellant!

On page 32 we get a discussion of playing out-of-the-box combinations of Species and Career, such as Wood Elf Flagellants (just think that one over for a while; how would you try to make that work in the game world?). Any combination of Career and Species could potentially work, and exploring these edge cases is admirable in itself. But the table of Careers exists for a reason: culture creates cultural roles! Check out It's Not Easy Being Elven, or Little But Not Overlooked, for discussions on Elf and Halfling culture, respectively.

Sticking to the Careers listed for each Species creates a campaign that reinforces the normal setting of Warhammer: High Elves are predominantly wealthier expatriates and Wood Elves are usually wanderers from their arboreal realms; Dwarfs mingle with Humanity somewhat, but also keep to their own ways; Halflings are social chameleons able to fit into almost any role, but have no magic; and so on. For Characters who choose to transgress the Career lists, life likely becomes difficult as they become marginalised by the social structures that would normally protect them, but it does help create a game more focused on the unusual! And, as we all know, WFRP Characters may look normal, but they never are (Fate points alone ensure this). Further, Characters may find members of their own Species treating them strangely, but they might find they get on better with folks from other walks of life. Example: a Halfling Priestess of Sigmar is never going to be understood by her Halfling peers ('what are you doing, Rosie? I just don't understand why you are even bothering with this Sigmar nonsense? What you need is a good hug, that'll sort you out.'), but she's likely to get on rather well with your average Reiklander.

So, do have fun with this optional rule, but also be aware it has significant social implications, and possibly spiritual, too (A Dwarf Wizard? That sounds suspiciously like a Mutant Dwarf to me...).

Options: Nefarious Plans

Page 41 offers some metarules for your game of WFRP: secrets, and how they function at the table! This is a topic I’m pretty passionate about, so excuse me whilst I climb on top of the soapbox stacked on top of the soapbox I was already standing on. Ahem…

Secrets are intrinsic to Warhammer roleplaying games: uncovering them, keeping them, exposing them, defending them. Evil Cults thrive in secrecy, and the Empire itself functions because of some of the greatest and most heinous secrets. Sure, we all joke about how Skaven aren’t real, but in many ways, that’s one of the secrets keeping ‘normal life’ going in the Old World (though to say nothing of the morality of that secret-keeping); after all, how likely would you be to live in Altdorf if you realised that uncounted thousands, perhaps millions, of malevolent, mutant ratmen lived beneath your feet?

To my mind, there are two useful ways of using Player Secrets (that is, secrets the Players control, which does not include those the GM is using to push forward the story): a) all the Players know the secrets, but the Characters are ignorant, or b) the other Players and the Characters are ignorant, so the secret only exists for it to be exposed during play. A secret kept for too long, or between whispering Players, isn’t a fun or engaging experience for everyone not in on the secret... so you should usually be angling to get everyone in on it as quickly and dramatically as possible! The same is definitely true of secret Ambitions (which, if either of the above two methods are used, I strongly recommend you try).

If your Campaign focuses on lots of intrigue (for example it may be high on Tzeentch or Slaanesh, as described in Blog Post 3: Setting Expectations, then implementing this Optional Rule is a good idea. But, if you do this, always take time to explain to your group that secrets are a part of the interparty play in the game. Some Players do not react at all well when the rug is unexpectedly pulled from under their Character's feet by another Player, so time should be spent discussing this possibility before it happens in-game.

Options: Psychology

Lastly for Character Options, let's discuss what's on page 43: Psychology. On balance, these rules are some of my favourites in 4th Edition. I love rules that inspire — or rather demand — a response from the Character based on their in-game environments. These sorts of rules ground parts of a Character’s backstory Players would otherwise only talk about into the game: you don’t just love your family, you Love them, meaning you must help them when they’re in peril... but that might mean missing an opportunity to do what needs be done!

And it's here we see another core theme of Warhammer reflected in the game mechanics: no one person can do it all. Not even Sigmar Heldenhammer forged the Empire into a cohesive whole alone… These sorts of Traits require clever roleplaying and ooze drama every time they come into play. I’d strongly recommend every Campaign pick them up... unless you’re looking for some more traditional hack’n’slash action, in which case they’d probably get in the way.

If you want to include them, perhaps use the Bestiary (page 311) as a loose guide. Maybe start with 1 Prejudice for all Humans, 1 Animosity and 1 Prejudice for all Dwarfs, 1 Animosity and 2 Prejudices for all Elves, and none for Halflings (they get on with everyone)? Then add extras as you prefer.

Action Options

Options: Alternative Characteristics for Intimidate

Now let's turn to the Action Options. On page 124 we have some general advice for flaunting the rules as written and substituting Willpower or some other Characteristic for an Intimidate Test. Now, you might be wondering why I considered this simple Option worthy of attention in this blog? Well, because it sets an interesting precedent. Whilst this Option deals specifically with Intimidate, it is an invitation for GMs and Players alike to consider clever ways of using other Skills with other Characteristics!

Maybe you want to use your Intelligence with your Charm Skill instead of Fellowship because you tend to make well-reasoned arguments rather than deliver flowery compliments. Maybe you want to use your Willpower with your Trade (Jewelsmith) Skill instead of Dexterity because you’re going extremely slowly, taking your time to be careful, rather than looking for a quick job.

WFRP game that plays a bit looser with Skills and Characteristics will likely see the Characters succeed more often, given the Players are able to play to their strengths, and may take longer at the table as there will be occasional stops to recalculate Skills. But these sorts of campaigns will often also go in more interesting directions, with the Players showing their creativity, and thinking around obstacles, rather than brute forcing them. Still, always be aware reason should be used here, and sometimes you just have to roll one Characteristic instead of another...

Options: Tests Above 100%

Next up is a rule on page 151. There we are offered something that really plays with the wide power scale of Warhammer, allowing for epic and heroic moments between catching the Black Death and scrounging in the mud for food… Because, at its heart, for all Warhammer is always grubby fantasy (more about 'grubby fantasy' to come in Enemy in Shadows), it isn’t always low fantasy; indeed, much of it is high fantasy, with wizards throwing spells, great Elven cities of glittering alabaster, and nobles riding griffons into the sky. Further, some Characters, like our old friends Gotrek and Felix from Black Library's novels, are heroic, but that doesn’t mean they always have an easy time of it.

This Option allows you to have Characters who not only succeed often in their most powerful Skills (which, let's face it, they will anyway if they go above 100%), but also allows them to perform acts that beggar belief. Gotrek should be able to decapitate a Dragon. Felix should dodge out of the way just in the nick of time. Teclis should dispel terrible magics with a flick of his hand.

Also, it’s worth remembering that everyone benefits from this… So, look closer at your NPCs, and see who might cause your Characters grief in the future, if you choose to use this Optional rule. Oh, and check out Rough Nights & Hard Days when it is released, because there are a few surprises there on this front.

(Editor's note: Hi, Andy Law here, one of WFRP's designers. Let me add a little extra to Ben's ongoing blog of awesomeness. The Tests Above 100% optional rule was specifically added to support the Fast SL Optional Rule on page 152, or to support non-combat Skill Tests for those with very high Skills. Using the Tests Above 100% optional rule alongside the core rules for determining SL and the core Advantage rules can create some enormous SLs in combat, which will certainly suit some groups looking for epic campaigning, but can be overwhelming if not controlled. So, keep that in mind when considering this optional rule. Actually, on that, if you want to rein-in spiralling Advantage that causes enormous Damage in combat, which is not to everyone's taste, try out optional Fast SL rule — sorts it rather nicely if the core rule is not to your preference. Anyway, back to Ben...)

Options: Combining Skills

On page 155, there is advice for Testing situations where one Skill just doesn’t cut it. The Combining Skills Option allows Players to play more to their Character’s strengths, whilst also allowing them to specialise much further, and to get more varied outcomes. Consider the following:

Brigit the Boatbuilder has the Trade (Carpenter) Skill, and the Lore (Rivers) Skill. She’s planning on upgrading her river barge so that it can better travel down the Reik to Marienburg. Normally, she’d merely roll a Trade (Carpenter) Test, but her Player asks to combine Lore (Rivers) into the Test, with the reasoning that Brigit’s knowledge of the Reik itself should help inform her building choices. The GM agrees, and Brigit Tests. If both Skill Tests are passed, we have a quite different result from either of the single Tests. If one fails we know the upgrade is installed (but gains no bonus for river travel), or that it the upgrade works well on rivers (but maybe not for long...).

Why not a side of Ranged (Entangling) to go with your Drive Skill?

This rule is especially useful where a Player doesn't have a lot of time (so is forced to act quickly, combining their capabilities into one, complicated attempt), or when opposing another Character, and you want a single roll to determine all the opposed outcomes. It can speed play, and provides interesting, varied results that can strongly influence the ongoing narrative. As such, there are few Campaigns where I’d suggest not employing this optional rule.

Options: Little Prayers

Lastly for this blog, page 204 offers my favourite optional rule in the core book: Little Prayers. (For folks playing at home, my favourite-favourite rule is Dark Deals, but we’ll get to that in a later article.) Little Prayers presents something I’ve always incorporated into my home campaigns. The Gods, whilst aloof, and inexplicable (and likely entirely different to what any Species in the Old World believes), are definitely there. Something is listening. And we already know that the Characters are different — they have Fate points after all! The Gods are listening. And sometimes they nudge the world closer to their own goals.

Little Prayers evokes a Campaign where the Players and Characters alike deeply care about religion in the Old World. It presents a Campaign where learning as much about the Gods, their tenets, and their various Cults and heresies are not only entertaining but potentially game-changing. This is GOLD for a GM, and gives my Player-brain endless ideas for Character concepts.

What’s more, the manifestations of the Little Prayers are unlikely to be obvious, or necessarily mechanical. As the GM, you have the power to obfuscate the results. The Character prays, you roll the dice, and you make some notes. Maybe it worked, and maybe it didn’t. It’s wonderful, dramatic, and beautiful roleplay. And it makes me desperately want to run a provincial monastic Campaign, where every aspect of the Characters’ lives involves the various and innumerable Cults of the Empire...

Until Next Time…

I hope I’ve given you all a lot to think about. Until next time, when I go over System Rules and the awesome Between Adventures Chapter, have a think about some of the other Options in the rulebook, and reflect on what implementing them would mean, not just for the rules of your Campaign, but the fiction! And don’t forget to catch us on our social media channels, and tell us your favourite Optional Rules, and how they affect your game!

Until then, folks!