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Friday 8 December 2023

1978: Reaper: Fantasy Wargame Rules

1974 is an important year for the gaming hobby. It is the year that Dungeons & Dragons was introduced, the original RPG from which all other RPGs would ultimately be derived and the original RPG from which so many computer games would draw for their inspiration. It is fitting that the current owner of the game, Wizards of the Coast, released the new version, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, in the year of the game’s fortieth anniversary. To celebrate this, Reviews from R’lyeh will be running a series of reviews from the hobby’s anniversary years, thus there will be reviews from 1974, from 1984, from 1994, and from 2004—the thirtieth, twentieth, and tenth anniversaries of the titles. These will be retrospectives, in each case an opportunity to re-appraise interesting titles and true classics decades on from the year of their original release.


The origins of roleplaying, of course, lie in wargames and the development of both would weave back and forth between the two over the first decade or so of the history of the roleplaying game. They had begun, of course, with Chainmail out of which would come Dungeons & Dragons. In the United Kingdom, the interaction between the two would arguably culminate in the publication of the Warhammer: The Mass Combat Fantasy Roleplaying Game in 1983 by Games Workshop. This hybrid between the wargames rules and the roleplaying game would form the basis for the future of Games Workshop, and both a hobby and an industry in their own right. Its origins lie in Reaper: Fantasy Wargame Rules, which like Chainmail and Dungeons & Dragons, combined mediaeval warfare with the fantasy genre. Designed by Richard Halliwell and Rick Priestley, who would go on to design numerous games and supplements for Games Workshop, the first edition of
Reaper: Fantasy Wargame Rules was published by Tabletop Games in 1978 with a second edition that followed in 1981. It is the latter, second edition of the rules that is being reviewed here.

Reaper: Fantasy Wargame Rules are not mass combat rules, but a set of skirmish rules designed to handle thirty figures per side. There is no setting as such, but there are descriptions of a mini-pantheon of gods and army lists of goblins, Wood Elves, High Elves, Dragon men, and more. Notably, it is advised that battles be conducted with an umpire—or Game Master—present to not only handle results difficulties, but also set up plots, games, work out the abilities of the troops on each side, and arrange the terrain and any hidden features. This is optional, but as an option, it removes the involvement of the players from any battle until they arrive at the table and begin writing orders. What it suggests, especially with the inclusion of single hero and magic user figures, is that Reaper: Fantasy Wargame Rules could be used as ‘Braunstein’ style of wargame, although it is not explored in its pages. Really, the role of the single Hero figure is undertake great feats of martial prowess and the role of the single Magic User figure is to employ great spells, both on the battlefield.

Once a battle has been set up, play progresses in a manner similar to many other wargames rules. Players write their orders, and then from one round to the next, players take in turns to move their troops, missile fire is conducted, morale tests are conducted for troops who have suffered missile fire, mêlée engagements are fought, morale is tested again for any remaining troops who have been fighting, and the round ends. This is simple and straightforward, and will be recognised by most wargamers today.
Reaper: Fantasy Wargame Rules, though, wastes very little time in getting to the rules. Troops, of all types, are primarily classified by their Strength Value. This is where the rules—and we are only on page three—begin to get a bit fiddly. A figure has a Strength Value ranging between three and thirty, but this can go higher. Halflings have a Strength Value of three, Humans have six, Medium Giants have eighteen, and Large Giants have Thirty. Mythical creatures given stats in Reaper: Fantasy Wargame Rules include classics such as Wyverns, Centaurs, Harpies, and Gargoyles, whilst the inclusion of the Tree Men shows the influence of The Lord of the Rings and of Owl Bears the influence of Dungeons & Dragons. These are joined by sillier options like the incredibly lethal Fat Corgies—one of which could win a battle on its own, if you could find a suitable miniature, that is—and Stampeding Cattle. Of course, in the second edition of the rules there are a handful of suggested codes for various figures from the then fledgling Citadel Miniatures. The listed Strength Value though, is only a base. Armour increases Strength Value piece by piece, the value depending on the size of the wearer. It takes a bit of arithmetic to work what the final Strength Value is for a figure. The figure’s Ability Factor, ranging from -10% for peasant and slave troops to +1-% for household troops and guards, modifies this further. Morale Value ranges from ‘A’ for staunch household troops to ‘E’ for disgruntled or starving troops. Most troops are rated at ‘C’. A unit of troops can be ‘Drilled’, ‘Organised’, ‘Tribal’, or ‘Levy’, a categorisation which dictates the speed at which its troops can replace (or elect) a leader lost in combat. Every unit will have leader who can be targeted. The categorisation also helps determine whether a unit is routed, force to retire, or simply okay when it is forced to make a morale check, whether due to suffering high casualties, being attacked by a superior force or foe, or even a nearby allied unit suffering a loss of morale and breaking. Non-intelligent creatures suffer a panic test instead of a morale test.

Movement allows for Walk, Trot, and Run speeds, and flying too. Both mêlée and missile attacks have a base percentage chance of striking, varying by weapon type, and a Killing Power value according to the size of the wielder. Modified by range and size of the target, the final percentage chance of striking is multiplied by the number of figures in a unit. This results in a total equal to hundreds of percentile points. A single hit is scored for each full one hundred percent and then percentile dice are rolled for the remainder to see if another hit is scored. For example, a unit of ten peasant levy troops has a base chance of hitting with their billhooks of 35%. This is multiplied by ten to give a total of 350%, to give three guaranteed hits and a 50% chance of a fourth. To work out the effectiveness of an attack, the defendant’s Strength Value is divided by the attacker’s Killing Power. This is multiplied by the number of hits to determine the percentage chance of the defendant being killing. For example, a unit of ten peasant levy troops with a Killing Power of seven attacks a single, fully armoured knight with a Strength Value of sixteen. Dividing the Strength Value by the Killing Power and then multiplying it by the number of peasant levies (16/7×10) gives a 22% chance of them killing the knight. To quote the rules, “This may sound complex but it isn’t.” In fact, it actually is because of the way in which it is worded. Thankfully, two handy charts, Chart A for determining the percentage chance of hitting and Chart B for working out the percentage chance of hitting a killing blow, both handle all of this heavy lifting for the player or the Umpire.

As you would expect,
Reaper: Fantasy Wargame Rules provides rules for unit organisation, using bases, the observational awareness of units, and much more, but a third of the book is devoted to magic and spells. A Magic User is treated as a standard figure on the battlefield, but his use of magic adds a lot of extra detail. A Magic User is graded according to the type of spells he can cast, from ‘A’ to ‘Z’, with ‘A’ being the worst grade and ‘Z’ the best, so that he can be good at all spells, better at some, and worse at others. He also has a Constitution which indicates how many spells he can cast before he gets tired, sixteen or seventeen being the expected average. (It is suggested that this actually be rolled on three six-sided dice as in a roleplaying game.) The type and number of spells known by a Magic User is determined by the Campaign Organiser, otherwise known as the ‘Tin God’, by which of course, the writer means the Umpire. They are allotted randomly, but other methods are suggested to, though not in any great detail. If the rules are being used as a roleplaying game, only the one spell should be known to the novice Magic User, another nod to Dungeons & Dragons.

There are spells listed in
Reaper: Fantasy Wargame Rules, as well as some good examples, such as ‘Swords into flowers’, which turns any non-magical weapon within 10” into a bunch of flowers, the rules are not just a simple listing system of spells, but by design, a costing system. They allow for the creation of spells with specific battlefield effects. Each spell takes into account nineteen factors. These start with range, and then take into account whether the effect of the spell is to kill, is on an area or individual targets, creates an object, raise the dead, inflict general or specific destruction, movement, immobilise, transmute, mind control, change the senses, illusionary, shrink or enlarge, protect against ordinary weapons or magic, raise a magic barrier, and lastly, its length of time. Each factor that the design of the spell takes into account increases the Difficulty Points value of the spell. For example, a Mind Control spell with a range of 5-15” (1 DP), affects a single target (1 DP), and influences the minds of sapient creatures (3 DP), for two throw periods (2 DP), has a total Difficulty Point value of 7. To successfully cast the spell, the Magic User’s player cross references the Magic User’s Grade, either in the specific type of magic or in general magic, with the Difficulty Point value of the spell. This gives a percentage vale that the player must roll under to succeed. Casting a spell, whether successfully or unsuccessfully, will temporarily tire a Magic User, preventing him form casting a spell again for a few rounds as well as reducing his Constitution, again, also temporarily. The lower his Constitution, the more difficult it becomes for the Magic User to at first cast spells, then move, and even speak. If a Magic User’s Constitution falls to zero, he is dead.

Alongside the rules for spell design, there are rules for variable magic and then spell specialities, including charms, necromancy, summoning, and elementalism. There is a lot of fully worked out detail in both the rules and effects of these, including imnformation about the types of creatures and elementals summoned by the summoner and the elementalist, respectively. This is followed by a set of sixteen pre-designed spells that the Umpire can pull of the shelf quickly as part of his preparation. To support the summoner,
Reaper: Fantasy Wargame Rules includes a sample mini-pantheon and summoning circle of deities. The chief deity, Aarlum, sits in a circle of neutrality, but the two houses to his right, Ashra and Oona and Aleel are inclined towards law and good, whilst the two houses to his left, Calyn and Tanith, are inclined to chaos and evil. Only a true neutral summoner can summon Aarlum or his forces, and similarly, the summoner must be aligned with the other gods to summon their forces. When they are summoned, they will enter into a pact with the summoner for a number of rounds. Full details of their manifestations are given in each case. Lastly, a handful of magic items are briefly described.

Reaper: Fantasy Wargame Rules are rounded out with a set of five appendices. These in turn covers the use of buildings and the laying of sieges, setting things on fire and its effects, several army lists and assorted monsters, some play hints, and rules for wounds and kills as well as creating heroes. A Hero has a random Strength Value and Ability Factor, with a high Strength Value also increasing his Killing Power. In general, a Hero fights in hand-to-hand combat, but there is an option for a missile specialist too. The hints in the fourth appendix are really more a collection of random ideas, such as the anachronistic inclusion of  Science Fiction weapons, the use of the scenery to set the battlefield, converting miniatures, preparing games, and so on.

Physically, the
Reaper: Fantasy Wargame Rules are well presented. Much of it is also well written and the artwork, mostly hewing to a Swords & Sorcery style, is serviceable enough. As befitting that genre, there is some nudity, but it feels out of place in the book itself. However, there are points where the writing is unclear, such as in the way in which kills are worked out.

Ken Rolston reviewed the Reaper: Fantasy Wargame Rules in ‘Advanced hack-and-slash – Combat plays a big role in four fantasy games’ in Dragon #85 (May 1984) along with Warhammer: The Mass Combat Fantasy role-playing game. His evaluation was that, “Reaper is not a state-of-the-art fantasy wargame. The best thing that can be said about the vague and incomplete rules is that they are flexible and open to local customized variants. The real value will be for established fantasy miniatures gamers who already have satisfactory wargame rules (like Wargames Research Group’s War Game Rules, the standard rules for ancient, classical, and medieval historical miniatures warfare) but are looking for a good magic system. With the basic principles of Reaper’s magic system and a lot of work, the spells and magic items of a local campaign can be worked into large-scale fantasy engagements. At $8, Reaper’s price is a value for the experienced fantasy miniatures gamer. For a beginner unfamiliar with miniatures wargaming, it will not be a good introduction to the hobby; Warhammer would be far preferable.

Reaper: Fantasy Wargame Rules are over forty years old, but they could be brought to the table and a battle fought with them and it would provide an exciting game experience. It might not be as slick or as smooth as more modern designs, but the rules do work as intended. Whilst not necessarily complex in play, they are complex in terms of set-up, in designing units with the determination of the Strength Value of each figure and in the designing of individual spells. Nor is there any real advice on setting up a battle or specifically for the Umpire, on designing one. Yet the complexity—which has been eased between the two editions of the rules—has its benefits. The determination of the Strength Value means that a figure can be accurately represented on the battlefield according to the armour worn and the weapon wielded. Similarly, the spell design system allows the creation of individual spells to both great effect and variation, and this system really is the highlight of the Reaper: Fantasy Wargame Rules. The system was highly innovative at the time and were it to have been incorporated into a roleplaying game it would have been recognised as a great piece of design. There are hints that the Reaper: Fantasy Wargame Rules could handle roleplaying, though more likely on the battlefield in a ‘Braunstein’ style rather in the traditional fantasy roleplaying style of dungeon delving. This though, is an aspect that the rules do not explore.

Reaper: Fantasy Wargame Rules combine classic fantasy with both complexity and choice. The magic rules and spell design system stand out and could have been a supplement all of their very own. As the precursor to the Warhammer: The Mass Combat Fantasy Roleplaying Game of 1983, the Reaper: Fantasy Wargame Rules foreshadow what was to come, but remain a playable and demanding—especially in terms of set-up—set of rules.


  1. I still have a copy of this, 1st edition, I think.

    Are you planning on reviewing its sister publication, Laserburn? It might be the right time to do that, given the sad news of Bryan Ansell's recent passing.

  2. The news of the death of Bryan Ansell is sad indeed. More so because 2023 was the fortieth anniversary of Warhammer. I was lucky to find a copy of the Reaper miniatures rules cheap and so reviewed it as a precursor to the review of Warhammer: The Mass Combat Fantasy role-playing game I want to write on its anniversary. Unfortunately, I do not actually have a copy of Laserburn (or at least not one to hand). I would be interested to review as I did Reaper and Warhammer: The Mass Combat Fantasy role-playing game, even though I am not wargames player.

  3. Laserburn rules are still in print and available from Alternative Armies. Possibly worth reviewing alongside Spacefarers which were brought out just beforehand by GW

  4. Currently playing battles of about 200 figures a side. I think they work well for mass battles. Much better than Warhammer IMO.