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Thursday 26 December 2019

Your Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay IV Starter

The hobby seems sadly lacking without the definitive British fantasy roleplaying game being available on the shelves of your local gaming store, but the good news is that Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay returned in 2018—and from a British publisher to boot. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Fourth Edition is published by Cubicle Seven Entertainment and the good news that this new edition is a return to something akin to the original design and mechanics of the first two editions rather than the third. Inspired by the fiction of Michael Moorcock and the Lovecraftian investigative roleplaying of Call of Cthulhu, as much as by Tolkien, and all taking place in the Old World, a fantasy inspired by the Europe of the Thirty Years War and the Holy Roman Empire, it is a roleplaying game in which minor nobles, dwarf slayers, witch hunters, ex-soldiers, merchants, road wardens, petty wizards, priests to Sigmar and Ulrich, and of course, rat catchers—plus little dog, hold back incursions by the forces of Chaos, run scams, uncover cults and conspiracies, and more, all in the face of intransigence and callousness upon the part of the ruling classes and the churches. It remains still ‘A Grim World of Perilous Adventure’, with mud, blood, excrement, and worse, underfoot.

The starting point for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Fourth Edition is not necessarily the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Fourth Edition core rulebook, but the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Starter Set. Like any good starter set, this is designed to introduce the roleplaying game and its setting, and provide everything necessary to give a gaming group several hours’ worth of play. This it does in handsome fashion, right from the moment that Game Master or player open up the box. The first thing that you find is a set of percentile dice under which can be found seven portfolios—one ‘Read This First’ and six character portfolios; a double-sided map of the town and map of Ubersreik, a combat and injury reference sheet, an attributes and skills and tests reference sheet, An Introduction to Ubersreik and the Empire and a Conditions reference sheet; two books—The Adventure Book and A Guide to Ubersreik; and handouts sheets and a set of Advantage tokens. All of which is done in full colour on heavy stock—both paper and cardboard. The reference sheets are intended for both the Game Master and her players, to be accessed during play.

Having unpacked all of this, it should be noted that the production values of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Starter Set are such that the inside of the box and the lid are no mere ordinary, plain cardboard. The inside of the box is a full colour map of The Empire, whilst the inside of the lid is designed to work as a Game Master Screen. The latter is a rather nice touch, but perhaps it could have been better placed in landscape rather than portrait format for greater stability.

Each of the seven portfolios is a gatefold leaflet on stiff paper, a format which gives more space which is used well on all seven. So in the ‘Read This First’ portfolio, the main page is given over to an introduction to Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, whilst the wings serve as full-length sidebars either side of the main page on which descriptions are given for each of the various items in the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Starter Set. For the character portfolios, the character sheet and illustration is on the main page, whilst an explanation of various aspects of the character sheet is given on the left and the character’s background on the right. The latter includes possible motivations, group ties, and secrets, tying the character into the setting and adventures further detailed in The Adventure Book and A Guide to Ubersreik. An explanation of who each character is and why you would play them. Notably, there is advice here not to open a character portfolio until a player has decided that it is the one that he wants to play. Each character is given a full illustration on the back of the portfolio.

The six pre-generated characters include a noble turned soldier, a witch hunter dedicated to Sigmar, a High Elf merchant, a distrusted wizard (all wizards are distrusted), a joyful Halfling thief, and an honourable Dwarf slayer. There is much that a veteran player of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay will recognise. So a familiar characteristics—Weapon Skill, Ballistic Skill, Strength, Toughness, and so on, skills like Charm and Consume Alcohol—with skills and characteristics being rated as percentages, and Talents such as Luck, Sixth Sense, and Warrior Born, which will all be familiar.  In addition, a character has a number of other attributes. Fate can be spent to have the character avoid death, Fortune to reroll or improve a Test, Resilience to set the result of a Test, and Resolve can be used to remove or negate conditions like Fear.

The mechanics themselves, essentially a qualitative percentile system, are explained in The Adventure Book, a combination scenario and rules book. So when a character wants to do something, his player rolls percentile dice and attempt to get equal to or under the characteristic or skill being used for the Test. That though is a Simple Test. When a player needs to know how well his character did, he rolls a Dramatic Test. This is slightly more complex in that the ‘tens’ value on the dice roll is subtracted from the ‘tens’ value of the skill. This determines the character’s Success Level, which can be positive or negative. The higher it is, the better the outcome, the lower—or more negative—it is, the worse the outcome. So for example, Wanda wants to distract the town watch patrol whilst her compatriots get away, so uses her Blather skill of 45. The Game rates this is as Challenging, so there is no modifier to the skill. Wanda’s player rolls 29. Deducting the tens result of the roll (2) from the skill (4), gives a Success Level value of 2, which is a successful outcome. 

Opposed rolls generally compare Success Levels, the character or NPC with more succeeding over the other. Melee combat also uses opposed rolls—Weapon Skill versus Weapon Skill if parrying or the Dodge Skill if trying to get out of the way, whereas missile attacks, rolled on Ballistic Skill are Simple Tests. Success Levels not only determine if a character manages to strike his opponent in combat, but also the amount of extra damage inflicted. If a double is rolled—eleven, twenty-two, thirty-three, and so on—then a critical hit has been made. This can be made when attacking or parrying, and it can even be made when an opponent has rolled more Success Levels than the character’s player. So a character can lose an exchange of blows, but still inflict an effect. In addition, the combat mechanics in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Fourth Edition are designed to have a character build upon success, gaining Advantage when attacking an opponent who is surprised, charging into combat, defeating an important NPC, and so on, gaining a +10 bonus to combat actions each time. This is lost if a character loses an opposed roll or suffers a wound, but is designed to give a character an edge as he gains momentum in a fight. Both players and Game Master can keep track of characters’ Advantage using the tokens which come in the box.

All of these mechanics are explained over the first ten or so pages of The Adventure Book, not in one go, but as they are needed in the first scenario. The aim here is for the Game Master to teach her players on the go and in this they are successful. There is probably slightly too much text for the Game Master to teach them unprepared, but a single read through should be enough otherwise. The adventures in The Adventure Book consist of one main scenario and ten detailed seeds. The main scenario is ‘Making the Rounds’ and consists of five parts. It starts innocently enough with a shopping trip before exploding into a big set piece which first lands the player characters in hot water and then with unexpected duties. Episodic in nature, it is solidly plotted, and there is scope for the Game Master to expand it with scenarios of her own or mixing in the ten seeds that follow ‘Making the Rounds’, many of which are written for each of the pre-generated characters. In addition to the rules, there is advice on playing all of the NPCs, when to run certain scenarios, and so on, for the Game Master throughout The Adventure Book. For the most part, ‘Making the Rounds’ is fairly straightforward, but the latter two acts will need a little more preparation than the earlier three, being more open in nature than the other parts.

The second, thicker book, is A Guide to Ubersreik. It describes Ubersreik, the fortress-town in the south of the Reikland, noted for the great Dwarf bridge across the river, which sits at the mouth of the Grey Lady Pass, the only reliable trade route south to the Bretonnnian duchy of Parravon. The town and its surrounding duchy are in turmoil after the ruling House Jungfreud was unseated by the emperor. The book gives a history of the town, reasons to visit, and the various places and districts of the town. They include the various guilds, shops, and places of the artisan’s quarter, such as the Locksmith’s Guild—with its pathological hatred of illegal locks, Satrioli’s Sausage Shop—known for its Tilean food and the gaggle of Halflings employed there, and Wandiene Rookery—the largest and worst of the town’s slums. The guide also covers Dawihafen, the Dwarf Quarter, home to the town’s many Dwarves, Ubersreik Bridge itself, temples to the various gods, Von Holzenaur’s Potion Shop, Wahlund’s Rat Catchers, and more. The sewers are also detailed, as are several cults devoted to the Chaos gods—Khorne, Nurgle, Slaanesh, and Tzeentch, and the Yellowbellies, the Faceless Ones, and the Cult of the Bog King, a number of local cults which may or may not be fronts for the other cults… Along the way, there are lots of inns and taverns described too—which seems befitting any town or city in the Old World—as well as yet more scenario hooks to bolster the adventures given in The Adventure Guide. If there is an issue with A Guide to Ubersreik, it is that only a single building is given a map. The book could certainly have done with more.

The Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Starter Set is not a good introduction to roleplaying and nor is it designed to be. It just does not start from the first principles to do that, but that is fine, because as an introduction to Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Fourth Edition, it does a very good job and does so in an attractive package. In the main, the designers keep the rules to a minimum, allowing the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Starter Set to focus on the story, the setting—and importantly, room for the Game Master to expand upon its content. There are of course the extra scenarios in The Adventure Book and the hooks in A Guide to Ubersreik, but the publisher has published further material set in and around the fortress-town, including several scenarios. Ultimately, the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Starter Set and its expansions are designed to set up the classic The Enemy Within campaign for the new edition.

As written, the contents of the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Starter Set can be played straight through and should provide multiple sessions of gaming. All of which can be done without the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Fourth Edition core book, but if the Game Master and her players want their characters to progress, then they will need access to that book. The Adventure Book in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Starter Set does provide the experience point awards for playing through its scenarios, but not the means to apply them. Conversely, a group with access to Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Fourth Edition core book could simply create their own characters and play through the content of the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Starter Set without any problem, although some of the nuances of the pre-generated characters and their ties to Ubersreik may be lost. 

Although not quite suited for a beginning Game Master, for the experienced roleplayer or the veteran player of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay wanting a first taste of the new edition, the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Starter Set is the perfect jumping on point. Overall, the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Starter Set is something that every Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay devotee will want, offering high production values, excellent value for money, and all that a gaming group will need for several sessions of grim and perilous adventure.


  1. I like how you mentioned "the Gamemaster and HER players" not once but a couple of times! You could have just used a gender-neutral "Gamemaster and players" but your choice of phrase will surely earn you merit points with someone, somehow!

  2. Yes, I could have used gender-neutral terminology and in other reviews I do where appropriate. In the main though, I refer to the Game Master as feminine and players as masculine as standard throughout. This is for simplicity and clarity of writing and not intended to be exclusive in any way.