Weird Fantasy Role Playing grindhouse edition review part 1: my prejudices

I did NOT buy the original (“deluxe”) version, but I did download the free version of the rules, and liked the skill system enough to use it in my B/X game. I thought it looked OK but I have B/X, you know? Plus I wanted to run straight fantasy, not horror-fantasy, so I was not all that interested, apart from being strongly in favor of boxed sets generally.

Then Raggi’s smart marketing kicked in and he started writing about all the artists he’d hired for the new edition and even asked for feedback on the rules, and I became interested, and the clincher was winning a free copy. No risk there. It showed up at my house on a game day, so I didn’t really have time right away to look at it, but I did flip through the books as I was very excited to see how Russ Nicholson drew the idea I’d submitted. He took the idea and drew a great picture and it has none of the subtlety I envisioned (for starters I’d have swapped perspectives so you are only barely seeing the corpse in the barn through a cracked open door; his illustration puts it front & center) but it’s his drawing so I’m not complaining.

Anyway when I was showing it off at the end of game night, John asked “Why rewrite B/X?” and Tom asked “Do dwarves get attack bonuses as they gain levels?”

Both questions made me a little defensive, since they were crapping on my enthusiasm over the swag, but in all honesty those comments do a pretty good job of summing up why I am unlikely to use the rules except to mine them for ideas.

First off, like any retro-clone, I guess people will question why the rules are needed, and I think the answer generally is: so they are more available and possibly more clearly presented and attractive to new players. In WFRP’s case, Raggi would probably point out they are decidedly different from B/X even if they are derived from those rules. And he would be right. WFRP is obviously much more focused on dark fantasy, horror, and the weird. You could use it for vanilla dungeon crawling but that would be wasting all the neat little things that make it unique, like the new and rewritten spells, hireling and property rules, and so on.

Ironically, though, the most significant changes to characters make it utterly unappealing to some gamers. (And specifically I mean my brother Tom but I am guessing a lot of gamers will think the same way.) The “big” change is that
it largely rejects the assumption that anyone who has played other class-based RPGs would have: that leveling up means improving in all areas.

Personally I don’t mind throwing out that assumption, but it is a really hard sell to a lot of people. * I was asked to switch to the LL attack progressions rather than the as-written B/X rules because they seemed too slow to my spoiled rotten players. 🙂 But WFRP gives only fighters any improvement whatever in “to hit” bonuses. A 10th-level dwarf or elf (or cleric, etc.) only ever gets a +1 to hit. A first level fighter gets +2, and it improves up to +9.

Anyone with “regular” D&D experience will see this as a terrible problem — how will they ever hit tough opponents? There are a couple of mitigating factors. 1) The “press” which gives a +2 to hit (and -4 to AC), and 2) the lack of any monster listings, which should signal that monster ACs are not necessarily the same as standard D&D. Tom felt this second point means nothing, since it is not explicitly requiring that monster ACs be lower than say d20/3rd ed. standards, and I guess he has a point but I also think he missed the bigger picture that this is not really D&D. Still, any way you look at it, only fighters ever get better at the main task in fighting — hitting.

The other area where “leveling” does not bring the expected improvements is the “skill” system.** Only Specialists get appreciably better in these. Elves, Dwarves, and Halflings all get one “task” which improves slowly in the new edition, which shows that Raggi did accept some input on this issue even if he by and large is sticking to his guns and keeping this improvement very slow.

So the big hurdle with the rules as written (for players used to steady advancement) is that fighters and spell-casters will never get better at any of the “common adventuring tasks” and no other class or race will ever get better at fighting. The human types are essentially “balanced” in the sense of gaining spells (clerics/M-Us), attack bonus (fighters), or “skill points” (Specialists) as they gain levels. This is hard-core niche-protection but you could work with that. However the demi-humans (except elves, who also gain spells) face the somewhat grim prospect of gaining almost nothing but HP and saving throws as they gain levels. They each get one pet “skill” and it eventually goes up to the maximum, but still it makes them very “second class” classes. I think the best fix would be to drop demi-humans entirely, as they seem out of place anyway.

But is D&D still D&D with no demi-human characters? Yes and no.

WFRP would be fairly awesome for a Hyborian, or Hyperborian (CAS not REH) setting, or even for a Vancian Dying Earth. These are all pretty close to the “default” world of D&D, especially Vance, but in all three, humans are dominant and nonhumans are basically monsters. WFRP would work for that. I guess another analogy is that if D&D is “high fantasy” then WFRP is “low fantasy.” (Which is kind of unexpected, because the illustrations and setting overall remind me a bit of the Warhammer RPG, but that falls firmly into high fantasy, as there are lots of nonhumans and monster types.) WFRP is very up-front about rejecting “standard” high-fantasy D&D in favor of having all monsters be unique, which is a bigger change than you might think at first blush.

So, I’ll look more closely at the rules and such in a later post but I have to say, again, that WFRP is not D&D (or at least: not D&D as I know it)***. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. In so far as I like D&D, with its monsters and all, I guess WFRP is not going to be my go-to game. Should I want to run a game with a more literary setting (Howard, Smith, Vance, Lovecraft, etc.) WFRP would probably be it. But if I want to run a gonzo, anything goes “D&D” world, I guess I have to pass. Although I think I could deal with it as written, I’d have to change too much to make it something my regular D&D players would get behind and I’m not sure I’m in love with the rules enough to bother.



*If you’ve been playing D&D for a while, you will probably remember people griping about “dead levels” in 3e, where certain classes got nothing but their HD for going up a level. This was legitimately complained about in 3e, since so much of a fuss was being made about ‘balance’. I don’t think it is necessarily a legitimate complaint in other games, but the fact is a lot of gamers are primed to see ‘dead levels’ as terrible, terrible things.

** Which I don’t think Raggi ever calls “skills,” just “common tasks” or something similar.

***The following games are D&D as I know it: All published TSR/WotC D&D games and their “clones.” The Palladium FRPG. RuneQuest. Rolemaster. MERP. GURPS Fantasy. Gamma World. Warhammer FRP. DragonQuest. Shadowrun. The following are NOT D&D as I know it: Fantasy Wargaming. Weird Fantasy Roleplaying. Pendragon. TSR’s Conan the Barbarian RPG.
Got it? D&D = lots of monsters, maybe monstrous races, mostly anything goes,  and dungeons and/or dragons are a part of the landscape, and so on. Not D&D = monsters and magic rare or unique, Earth or near-Earth setting, dungeons and/or dragons are not normal/need to be justified, and so on.
To be D&D or not-D&D is not inherently good or bad, but I only know how to run D&D and my players like D&D.

Published in: on May 7, 2011 at 6:00 am  Comments (3)  
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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. You may want to change acronyms. WFRP = Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying, as well.

  2. Yep. I started using LOTFP:GE. This might become important if later he puts out another, non-Grindhouse version.

  3. Defiantly nothing there to make me want to play it. BD&D is not a horror game. If I wanted fantasy horror I would play dungeons and zombies.

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