Sunday, 21 October 2012

Protestor in pro Imperatore: WFRP3

"Romanes eunt domes!"
I've mentioned before that I like Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. And while it's a mistake to declare any one system or setting The Best, I will say that WFRP is definitely among the best, both in terms of technical playability and subjective experiencey-ness. Except I have to be clear here that I mean WFRP 1st and 2nd editions. I completely reject the 3rd and most recent edition. This post will be a rant along those lines.

The original WFRP began with a weird foundation, borrowing rules from its miniatures predecessor, Warhammer Fantasy Battles, but also simultaneously borrowing from and competing with Dungeons & Dragons. It came out pretty good, with a simpler, smoother game mechanism than D&D, and on average much better plots, though that may be more of a numbers effect, since waaaaaaay more D&D stuff has been published by a much wider selection of authors and for a much wider audience, increasing the odds of some being written in styles I subjectively disapprove of. But the point is, WFRP1 was a good system underlying great content.

WFRP2, borrowing the skills/feats distinction from D&D 3rd ed., took a decent system and made it near-foolproof (sadly, I've played near fools a lot). It really is one of the best systems I've seen, covering everything I ever need it to (bullshitting, disease, dismemberment, sailing, etc.) in sufficient depth to make the rules worth having at all, but not bogging down play in fiddly detail so much that only accountants and marketing people can care about it. WFRP2 is almost exactly what I want from a system, and the closely-related Warhammer 40,000 Roleplaying system shows how adaptable it is, once you've put in the hard work of re-writing the entire careers system to reflect a completely different setting. But to be fair, "careers" or "classes" or "occupations" or "professions," whatever the equivalent flavoured skills packages in any system are called, are almost always very difficult to re-build and customise, even within the same setting. To compare a rules system across genres, it's more reasonable to look at how the core mechanics translate than anything else. And WFRP2's core mechanics are great.

Then came the premature, unnecessary change to WFRP3, now published under Fantasy Flight Games. I tend to like Fantasy Flight; their boardgames are generally excellent. Twilight Imperium, in particular, is masterful. And weirdly, when they took over the 40K roleplaying, they kept the same system and did brilliant things with it. Yet WFRP, they botched. They took an excellent system with 20 years' heritage and completely junked it. It's not even like original D&D 1st ed. vs. 4th ed. (or the upcoming 5th), where it's gradually become quite different, but you can still identify the common heritage. Instead, they imposed a whole new system from scratch, which doesn't run as smoothly (even though they've stripped out character detail), doesn't convert at all well between earlier editions or with the miniatures game, and requires you to purchase a fucktonne of extra cardboard to play it at all. Before, all you needed was a core book, blank paper and a d100. Now, with WFRP3, you need action cards, condition cards, item cards, creature cards, terrain cards, talent cards, career ability cards, equipment cards, assorted different classes of tokens, and a bajillion special dice, etc., with every single expansion. They've tried to push the boardgames' way of doing things onto a roleplaying game, and it's a mess.

Worse, they haven't even got decent plots. Everything's simplisitic and mechanical, with no depth or flavour. I can tolerate a bad system that props up decent plots (my friend Arran, for example, did good things with Vampire, which was never a smart system), and I can accept a system that refuses to provide plot at all, leaving that responsibility to the more creative GMs. But to push big, expensive background and adventure books (in fact, always box sets, in WFRP3's model) that don't actually provide much background or plot information is just wrong. The mark of a good roleplaying book is not how big, heavy or expensive it is, but how useful it is to the GM. WFRP1 and 2 books are full of way more information than you need, a lot of it done in a style that conveys the style and tone of the setting. WFRP3's books offer only a bare minimum, much of it in a clunky, step-by-step style that makes sense in a list of boardgame rules, but not in a long description, explanation or exposition.

I will admit that the introduction of nicely-printed character stand-ups was nice. WFRP can (and was designed to) borrow heavily from the real miniatures of its parent game, but that is admittedly a bit more like hard work than many roleplayers are used to, and quick, easy cardboard substitutes are a fair compromise. But that doesn't really justify (or relate to) any other change made to the game.

Now I'm especially annoyed that Fantasy Flight have taken hold of the name Enemy Within for their newest release. Enemy Within was the grand WFRP1 super-campaign, a really monumental thing, declared the best campaign of any sort ever by gaming magazine Casus Belli, and described by roleplaying guru Jonny Nexus as "superb." My group and I are playing through it at the moment, 48 sessions and 3 years in, and it really is amazing, though definitely not well suited to those with short attention spans. WFRP2 is the better rules system, so we use that (it's a very easy conversion between the two), but it didn't stay in publication long enough (thanks to the horrible decision to switch to WFRP3) to produce a new campaign of similar quality. The WFRP3 "Enemy Within" name-steal seems like a mere crass, commercial attempt to make a quick buck off a classic name, and I fear, based on my assessment of WFRP3 so far, that it'll end up spoiling that good name. It's probably not going to be anywhere near as good, but even if it is, and even if you're a fan of WFRP3, it shouldn't steal the name from the classic campaign. It'd be like like using the Star Wars name for stupid movies with a cartoon rabbit and a sulky, emo, teenage Darth Vader. Or like putting the Star Trek name on movies that have no interest at all in Roddenberry's utopian vision.

I don't imagine much can be done to pressure FFG into changing their minds at this point, but I still feel compelled to object... for Sigmar!