Wednesday, 6 June 2012

WFRP - Not Syphilitic, Not Knee-Deep In Shit

Jack at Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque (kudos points for 1980s Citadel flyer "Moria" font banner) has an excellent post here about how, in his experience, WFRP 1e never seemed to equate to the traditional view held by TEH INTERNETS that all WFRP scenarios involve drowning in an alleyway flooded neck-high with Chaos Hound shit.

It's an excellent post and one that chimes in with something I've been thinking lately. Jack is right, WFRP in it's original form is not an roleplaying game of drowning in an alleyway flooded neck-high with Chaos Hound shit. So why do we hold the view? Here's my reasoning.

1 - For a long, long time WFRP was defined by what it was not.

And that not was that it was not AD&D during the dark early to mid 1990s when TSR's public stock was at it's lowest ebb. AD&D was about powergaming and slaughtering things and 2E-era American Bible Belt Bowdlerisation was it not? Well, simply, WFRP will not be those things. Guilty party - the WFRP mailing list we all gloried in this. Including yrs truly.

(An aside - James Wallis once told me over a fry-up late breakfast at GW World Domination Underground Lair Hollowed Out From An Extinct Volcano Shaped Like Tom Kirby's Head Headquarters in Nottingham (I point out that James ate veggie being a full time veggie, your correspondent only practises semi-vegetarianism in the privacy of His Own Home) that he'd considered having a Hogshead t-shirt run up for a late 90s Gencon declaring that some Hogshead game was, almost verbatim quote, "the funniest thing in gaming since TSR went bankrupt". That he should even, if briefly, think this was A Good Idea sums up UK attitudes of the time.)

(Second aside - due to the presence of the huge double-headed eagle on the front of the factory, Nottingham taxi drivers know the building as "The Reichstag". If I ever visit the place again I intend to catch the train and then ask the first guy on the cab rank to proceed to the Reichstag.)

What kept this hoity-toity snobby attitude going was that...


It had legs with people who heard of the game during either of the three post-GW periods of WFRP 1e, that is Pre-Hogshead (out of print), Hogshead (in print) and Post-Hogshead (out of print). So a new generation of gamers grew up having heard that this WFRP game was the game in which syphilitic PCs drowned in alleyways flooded neck-high with Chaos Hound shit. Even/particularly when they hadn't seen or played it.

One of the reasons for the incompatibility between the two views is that...

3 - The rulebook pre-dates The Enemy Within.

It's as if WFRP, the rulebook, doesn't really know what it is going to be but along comes the big campaign for it and changes it's direction.

According to Graeme Davis (somebody please stop me from all this name-dropping...), in an unlikely and rare instance of YOUR DOING IT RIGHT Bryan Ansell walked into the WFRP area of the GW Studio one day and said "Write a Call of Cthulhu scenario but do it for WFRP".

This is why Shadows over Bogenhafen  is a Call of Cthulhu scenario but done for WFRP.

This is why nearly every scenario that post-dates Shadows over Bogenhafen is a Call of Cthulhu scenario but done for WFRP. There's an interesting parallel here in the OSR D&D world in that tournament adventures that got published were influential upon people's home adventures even though those tournament adventures were not really suitable for campaign play because it appeared that the company that printed the game - who really should know - were saying that this is what an AD&D scenario looks like. Case in point - Tomb of Horrors.

Grim and Perilous was therefore retro-fitted to WFRP as a result of the Enemy Within.

(Yes, I know it said Grim and Perilous on the back of the book from day one. That's called foreshadowing).

4 - The rulebook isn't really Warhammer - The Roleplaying Game.

It's chargen sample PC is called Clem Shirestock. Good German name that. I imagine plenty of syphilitic Rat-catchers in the city-states of the Hanseatic League were called that or, if they weren't personally called Clem Shirestock, their small-but-vicious dogs were. The pre-gens in it's scenario are called Mellory, Soho, Bianca and Jodri and they face up against an BBEG called Jonas Whitespore (that dog-shit thing again). Nobody appears to be thinking "Fantasy Germany But Worse!" at this point.

So if it's not Warhammer - The Roleplaying Game, then what is it?

Well, it's Pelinore II.

What? Pelinore was TSR UK's campaign that serialised in IMAGINE which was an attempt to produce a campaign setting more suited to UK tastes. IMAGINE was TSR UK's magazine that got shitcanned by TSR Inc. for the twin sins of cannibalising sales of Dragon in the UK and an attitude that if TSR produced something that was shit then IMAGINE would tell people it was shit. And Uncle Gary could fuck off basically.

When IMAGINE got closed down, TSR UK's disgruntled staff went over to Nottingham and handily there was a great big gaping vacancy for a creative team to produce GW's competitor to AD&D. So effectively they carried on as before.

Ever wondered why WFRP is full of so many stupid punning names? Because Pelinore did that. That's why The Empire went all tits up in it's one thousand nine hundred and seventy ninth year when the electoral system was abandoned following the election of the Empress Magrathe.

Ever wondered what the point of Appendix 1 : Typical Buildings of the Old World was? It's there because Pelinore was built around floorplans of buildings and descriptions of the NPCs therein. WFRP even goes out of it's way to copy the style of Paul Ruiz who did the original floorplans for IMAGINE.

(There's a lot more to be said here - i.e. WFRP being the spiritual successor of Pelinore - but I'd rather expand upon it in a future post as it requires some considerable research and image grabbing. More later hopefully).


5 - Stock artwork.

WFRP has John Blanche pictures of flying galleons (p352 and p353). These do not appear in any part of the WFRP imaginarium, nor indeed Warhammer Fantasy Battle. Much of 1e's atmosphere that leeches out of the illustrations is stuff that simply does not exist in WFRP, like the armoured Mona Lisa standard banner with moon-faced (literally) friend (p357). This is because so much stock artwork was used that GW had commissioned for other projects. If you are bored on a rainy Sunday afternoon try and count how many times bits of the box cover from The Tragedy of McDeath turn up scattered amongst WFRP's page furniture.

WFB 3 is an even worse offender in this respect as it's rulebook appears to be a reference manual to GW's art assets with a fantasy wargame sneaking in wherever white space can be found.

So a picture of flying galleons was shoved in because it looked cool without any real thought as to whether it fitted in with the game.

(COOPS INTERNET COROLLARY - Somebody, who is unique amongst the internet-connected demographic of Planet Earth will now comment to the effect that all their WFRP games involved flying galleons therefore Coop you are as wrong as fuck).

This means that, surprisingly for GW, there isn't a huge amount of art direction in the WFRP project other than that if Blanche or Ackland drew it, it's fine and it doesn't cost us anything. (40K Rogue Trader seems to extend this attitude to cover anything Pete Knifton drew).

This means that the look and feel of WFRP The Rulebook Only version is something of an accident, The Enemy Within was something else. Nobody shoved a picture of a John Blanche flying galleon into Mistaken Identity because it looked cool.

Also, finally

6 - 1990s tastes darker than late 1980s tastes.

WFRP mailing list heyday, early to mid 1990s. WFRP copyright date, 1986.

And really finally this time

7 - It might be time for a WFRP OSR

All the cool kids have gone back to WFB3 played exclusively with 1980s vintage Citadel Miniatures. Perhaps we should have a pre-Enemy Within scene with flying galleons.


  1. It is actually much harder to die in WFRP1e than straight D&D. Small But Vicious Dog is more 'syphilitic, knee deep in shit' than WFRP1e by the book. Fate Points are extra lives, and you can survive at 0 wounds even when you're out of FP. If you trimmed the random career charts to professions suitable for adventuring - or simply let your players choose - then you easily create a dungeoneering party.

    I'm trying to put together an OpenQuest/Renaissance hack that takes the flavours from WFRP1e and mashes them with the 'adventuresomeness' of Titan. Which is currently going by the secret codename 'Hammerstein!' Step one, randomly determined archetypes that spend all the skill points and assign trappings - sorry, equipment - so that time spent in chargen is cut while still giving the players some hefty bones to build their character on.

    1. Hammerstein: *very* relevant to my interests. Please go on.

    2. It'll be no SBVD, I'm afraid...

    3. I've come across a game called Lamentations of the Flame Princess ( that seems to be trying to do some of the things that WFRP did, although with a setting about a century later technologically. They just finished an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign to reprint the rulebooks, and I almost got to write and adventure for them, but funding didn't reach that particular stretch goal. Kenneth Hite of GURPS fame will be doing one, though, and I'm looking forward to seeing it.

    4. I stumped up a contribution to that Indiegogo campaign - and I was hoping a few more of those stretch goals would be hit. LotFP is a flavour of D&D that I really like (as is Crypts and Things, and, stretching the D&D-alike a bit, Dragon Warriors). But I do like my skill systems...

    5. I have to admit I haven't looked at the LotFP ruleset although I do have a bunch of James' adventures in PDF form from an offer he ran where you could get the lot for a bargain price. Not sure why I haven't paid more attention to LotFP, maybe retroclone fatigue, maybe being miffed at him calling it Weird Fantasy Roleplaying and insisting on using the four letter acronym...

    6. It's a really good clone, and probably my favourite version of The Game.

    7. Regarding LotFP, i spent a weekend at Expo sitting on the stall next to James Raggi..... Nice guy, good work, but very, very dark!

  2. Good spot with the Pelinore thing.

    1. I wish we'd been that self-consciously deliberate. Any similarities between WFRP's look and feel and that of Pellinore, are due more to the fact that the same personnel were involved, rather than a desire to "keep the Pellinore flag flying..." Tom Kirby was general manager at TSR UK before moving to GW. Paul Cockburn was Imagine's Editor. Jim Bambra was one the key writers for the TSR UK series of AD&D modules. The puns and other bad jokes in WFRP say more about my sense of humour than anything else...

    2. I wasn't really suggesting that it was a deliberate continuation but to my eyes that didn't ever see IMAGINE when it was in print (or indeed at all until about 18 months ago), coming to the Pelinore articles with those wonderful floorplans was an eye-opener as suddenly I could see proto-WFRP.

      And again in GM Publications with characters named Panna Seer, Gottun Himmel and Methurtyd Vill. :)

    3. The pun names are far from unique to the WHFRP line, and there were plenty before it and have been many, many since :-)

  3. I never had a flying galleon, but I did have submarines for a while - that has to count for something, right?

    Also, I've never read or played The Enemy Within, and I wonder if my rather more light-hearted WFRP might be a result of that. The only supplements I ever bought were the two Apocrypha books and 'Sold Down The River', which I still think is an excellent piece of sourcebooking.

    I support this endeavour for a version of WFRP that's more like the one I read and played, and doesn't wallow in exactly the sort of 'grimdark' absurdity that TEH INTERNETS (rightly, but perhaps hypocritically) accuse modern GW of wallowing in.

    Also, Reichstag. Hee. Strangely appropriate, and reminds me of the brouhaha over that Greek newspaper hatchet-job that made Greek GW gamers out to be a bunch of part-baked fascists. Never mind that I hear part-baked hateful gibberish that's not coherent or organised enough to qualify as fascist in pretty much every GW 'veterans' night' I've ever been to or anything...

  4. This is so true, I have always played WHFRP as heroic fantasy like it pretty much says in the book, when I say that aloud I usually have to explain that heroic does not mean same as superhuman. There is also the wonderfully quirky gonzo side of WHFRP that gets sweeped under the rug with the whole warp gates and the slann space alien thing.

  5. Thanks for the post. This makes me want to try WFRP even more.

  6. Post is eye-opening gold. I was vaguely aware of the Imagine-WD connection, but didn't realise it was so fundamental to the identity of the (pre-Reichstag) Dwarf.

    Flying-galleons-and-militant-Mona Lisa Mannerist WFRP sounds like a lot of fun: I'd definitely play it. Who knows, maybe the poor old Life/Death Elementals might get some screen time.

    However, I stand by the position that Warhammer is - by the book - a pretty crapsack world.

    Look at the careers, or the nation descriptions (Bretonnia & Kislev esp.); at the Skaven write-up, or the introductory scenario (The Oldenhaller Contract - back alleys, dank cellars and disease cultists). Look at the concept of the dorf nihilist Trollslayer: both a pre-gen ~and~ front-and-centre on the cover art. Everything from the cover art, to the incidental art, to the rules themselves, seem to clearly indicate that the world portrayed in this game is the antithesis of glossy Elmore/Easley/Caldwell high fantasy.

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    2. I think it was that antithesis that got me buying Warhammer after reading a few articles in White Dwarf. The system had spice and style and big brass balls, all that was missing in AD&D.

  7. Great post!

    Yes, there is a Pellinore influence. It is inevitable given that most of the Pellinore writers fetched up at GW: Jim & Phil, Paul Cockburn, Tom Kirby, and Mike Brunton (aka Fiona Lloyd and various others - he wrote a lot more of IMAGINE than anyone knows) plus Carl Sargent later. But I think it's going too far to call the rulebook Pellinore II. Here's why:

    The ex-TSR UK folks arrived piecemeal: Paul and Tom first, Mike a few months later, Jim & Phil last. By the time Jim & Phil came the rulebook was almost done.

    The vast bulk of the rulebook was based on the work of Rick and Hal, with occasional ideas thrown in by Bryan in the same drive-by management style as "write a CoC adventure for WFRP." Rick had collected everything into a first draft which I edited and developed, filling in gaps and bushwhacking through everything ever published for Warhammer to make sure nothing was missed (which is why we see monsters like the Life and Death Elementals, based on old Warhammer minis, that fell by the wayside as the Warhammer mythos coalesced).

    You're right that at this stage, WFRP didn't really know what it was going to be. The Warhammer mythos as a whole was still at the red box second edition stage, with odd and sometimes contradictory snippets of background scattered across the Citadel Compendium and Journal, miniatures ads, and the backs of mini boxes. Third edition, the orange hardback, was the first to try to pull everything together, following on from WFRP.

    SoB fulfilled its purpose, but I don't think anyone expected it to set the tone for the entire game, and turning the Complete Dungeon Master series into the Doomstones campaign was seen in some quarters as an attempt to redress the balance and get back to the dungeon.

    We were a fashionably cynical bunch at the GW Design Studio in the Thatcherite mid-80s, and sick of D&D's "shiny" fantasy with its perfect teeth, chrome-plated armour and Fabio hair. Films like Jabberwocky and Monty Python and the Holy Grail were big influences, as were Rick and Hal's offbeat (and often disturbing) senses of humour. I think these were the major forces at this point.

    The nations were already set by the time I got to GW. As for the careers, it seemed that every day Hal would come in with three or four more, based on people he'd seen around Nottingham - like the Bawd or the pavement artist that became an Entertainer specialisation. We ended up with about twice as many careers as were ever published - most of them very grubby and many too silly for words.

    Death on the Reik, to my mind, owes a lot to a UK D&D module called B/X 1 (later B10), Night's Dark Terror. It's a primer on campaign play, written to bridge the gap between the Basic and Expert sets. Jim & Phil wrote it along with Graeme Morris, who got out of the games business when TSR UK folded. I think it is DotR that most people think of when they recall the Enemy Within campaign - that and the memory of sewer mishaps in Bogenhafen.

    Of course, since Jim & Phil had also worked on Pellinore there were influences from that quarter, but Pellinore wasn't yet dead. It survived in Paul Cockburn's short-lived GamesMaster Productions zine, and was never intended to become part of WFRP.

    Power Behind the Throne is high-level political intrigue with very little sewage involved, and Something Rotten in Kislev takes the campaign screaming down a side-alley for reasons that have been explained elsewhere. Finally, Empire in Flames was written and published in a great hurry to bring the campaign to an end.

    So that's my two penn'orth. Yes, Pellinore had an influence, but as far as tone and style were concerned WFRP was already moving in the direction of "grubby fantasy." The "grim and perilous" (another of Bryan's over-the-shoulder pronouncements) was what it morphed into as we went along.

  8. WFRP is Grimdark™, but it's also very, very silly and over the top, and I don't think the two are incompatible. I've long held the belief that the Grimdark™ is itself funny, and that most people Just Don't Get It. Playing a rat-catcher going up against Chaos cultists armed with nothing more than a stick isn't supposed to be some meaningful statement about the working classes and how crap it is to be poor, although it would be if WFRP were a White Wolf game. No, it's supposed to be a joke precisely because it's so over the top and silly, just like the puns and the flying ships and the space frogs. WFRP is, to my mind, a comedy game, and I've never understood why people take it seriously.

    So yes, I sort of agree that a point was missed somewhere along the line, but I'm not sure that I agree it's the same point.

    I think it is DotR that most people think of when they recall the Enemy Within campaign - that and the memory of sewer mishaps in Bogenhafen.

    We tried to knock out the watchman, instead doing a critical and exploding his head. Then his dog killed half the party. Good times.

    1. Accidentally caving in the head of a foolhardy, but largely innocent, watchman with an exploding series of 6s seems to me to be the very essence of WFRP. Happens about once a session when we play!

  9. I just left a message of broad agreement here, but it seems to have gone. Perhaps it will return.

  10. Firstly Graeme, apologies for spelling your name wrong. Corrected above. Slapped self around side of head for idiot mistake as I've only been seeing your name in print since I was a little 'un and ought to know better.

    "Drive-by management style" - I know exactly what you mean here :)

    Night's Dark Terror is often spoken of highly, it's perhaps something I should try and get my hands on with an eye to reviewing for the blog.

    It's good to hear your tales from behind the scenes of the development of the games, I remember a lot of similar anecdotes from the days of the WFRP mailing list. From the outside to teenage boys the GW studio came across as something like the Willy Wonka chocolate factory!

  11. Kelvin,

    I see your comments arriving in my inbox but not on the blog - there aren't in the spam folder so I have no idea what is happening.

  12. Similarly, Vampire grew out of a Tunnels & Trolls variant called Fangs for the Mammaries: The Game of High Stakes. The first example character was called Lord Broody McTightpants, and...OK, not really.

  13. The UK 80's RPG's seemed to inspire each other. You can see fragments the warhammer feel in the Fighting Fantasy series (and Titan), and elements of the rule system in Maelstrom, which came out a couple of years earlier.

    Good times!

  14. I wonder if Hammer Horror films were an influence? I don't know much about either WFRP or Hammer, but the worlds seem to be similar: monsters are real, but the inquisitors are still corrupt.

  15. Echoing the James M, Thank you!

  16. Brilliant piece, and glad to hear from Graeme Davis on the subject as well!


  17. Sign me up: Vornheim owes a lot to WFRP. And to the Brit fantasy that inspired it.

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  19. This article - and, obviously, the high contribution of Graeme Davis and Phil Gallagher - is very informative and relevant. Definitively, it enlighten me on many points i had noticed myself. On my WFRP1 blog (, i am highly interested with this kind of informations. Can i translate your article, graeme & phil comments and display them on my blog ?

  20. Regis, feel free. The article is getting on for two years old now though! I wouldn't perhaps have written the same way were I writing it in 2014.

  21. I only just found this (through a link from Graeme Davis), and it's very interesting background.

    But as to the rulebook not yet being The Enemy Within, I have to point to the Oldenhaller Contract. It's gangs and Nurgle's Rot and is basically already pointing into the direction of TEW if you ask me. You don't strictly have to go that direction yet, and Doomstones was definitely something totally different, but the grimdark was already with WFRP from the beginning, even if it wasn't fully formed yet.

  22. That's true, mcv. I'd be lying if I said The Oldenhaller Contract didn't have an influence on Shadows Over Bogenhafen, especially in the sewer sections.