What Makes Warhammer?
The answer to this question will be different for different people. Casual observers on the internet might think its central theme was complaining. In recent weeks there’s been an awful lot of moaning (TL:DR “Because, GW”), despite GW taking the hobby to new heights with every passing month.
One of the many Warhammer side projects has a much better answer to the question. Cubicle 7, publishers of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 4th Ed, has recently brought out a new GM’s Screen for the game. Included with that screen is a slim volume devoted to better roleplaying in the Old World. It opens with the question “What Makes Warhammer?” and answers it with several sublime pages of background and ideology that would improve any game in any system.
What Is the GM’s Screen?
Before I dig into the booklet, a quick word about the GM Screen itself. Screens are now a de rigueur add-on sale for roleplaying games. We love our dice, we love our data, and we love stunning artwork. GM screens deliver 2/3 of these without any problem and the WFRP one is no exception.
The board is a four-leaf gatefold; one side has the most incredible Old World cityscape on it that almost entirely encapsulates the answer to “What Makes Warhammer?” by itself. The reverse side is full of a host of useful charts to aid a GM in their hour of need. Whether you’re wanting to flesh out a new NPC in a hurry, need to know the price of a blunderbuss, or one of your characters is feeling “fatigued” and you can’t remember the rule for the condition, you’ll find the answers you need here.
The board is made of extremely solid cardboard. It’s a premium product and you’d struggle to find a better GM screen anywhere.
And What’s in the Book?
Chapter 1, “What Makes Warhammer?’ is why I’m here writing this review. Warhammer has meant many things to me through the decades, but mostly it’s meant the Old World. This section discusses how Warhammer defines the Old World and how the Old World defines Warhammer. (Or it did until the End Times and the arrival of Warhammer: Age of Sigmar. If you want to know more about that, check out Cubicle7’s other new release, Soulbound.)
The book defines the GM’s role as:
- Make the Old World come to life.
- Create gripping and action-packed scenarios.
- Build a story together.
- Understand the characters.
I think we can agree, this is what every game requires of its GM.
It then goes on to discuss some general ways to approach games of WFRP, including:
- Embody uncaring gods. (I love this one.)
- Evil is rampant, good is rare. (And this one!)
- Everyone has a history—the importance of thinking about your NPCs and how they interact with the world.
- Lead the players to their story. You’re a guide, not a god.
- Always advance the story—tough, I think. The world moves on no matter what the characters are doing. Create a world that isn’t static, one just waiting for your adventures to interact with it.
Perhaps more interestingly is the discussion of theme. Unlike D&D, Warhammer is designed to be used in a pre-determined world. It’s a lot less flexible than other roleplaying games when it comes to setting. In essence, it’s rooted in medieval Europe, and there aren’t rules and alternatives for playing on different planes or other unusual settings. This grounding brings with it a set of assumptions that, whilst binding the world in a certain state, also gives it depth and richness. A richness that has been built up with care and love over several decades.
The themes are broken down as follows:
- Class Struggle – Rich vs Poor.
- Ideology – Order vs Chaos.
- Modernisation – Urban vs Rural.
- Factionalism – Us vs Them.
- Religion – Cult vs Cult.
The interplay within and between these themes is what creates tension in the Old World. Witch Hunters stopping at nothing to find the evil influence of Chaos, healers who have mutations, religious temples that disagree about the meaning of life, and nobles using their superior wealth and weapons to oppress the poor. Many more examples are given.
The End Times
The final entry in this section discusses the End Times, probably the greatest shift in the Old World from the days I used to play. In my games of 1st Edition WFRP, the end of the world was much prophesized but always averted. Here, we know the Old World will fall. When is not clear (at least to those of us not versed in the lore), but the victory of the chaos powers is inevitable. How will this inform player actions and NPC interactions? We live in interesting (End) times.
The Other Chapters
The rest of the book offers more practical advice. It’s not about the philosophy and ideology of the game. Instead, it gives some ideas for making more realistic adventures, such as character motivation, realistic roleplaying of careers, and portentous “doomings.” There’s also some sound advice and ideas for creating rounded NPCs that have agency and enhance the story rather than just fulfilling a role. Finally, the booklet closes out with a few useful tables, such as quick jobs to give your PCs or a table of ideas for where things can go from a quiet night in a tavern. Everything starts in the tavern, right?
All in all, Cubicle 7 and the WFRP team have once again put together a great product that embodies the heart and soul of the Old World. It’s great to look at, is filled with handy bits of information, and, at a push, you could probably fold it up and eat your dinner off it. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that though.
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Disclosure: GeekDad received a copy of this game for review purposes.