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Saturday 16 December 2023

1983: Warhammer: The Mass Combat Fantasy role-playing game

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.


Warhammer: The Mass Combat Fantasy role-playing game
was published by Games Workshop in 1983. The spiritual successor to the earlier Reaper: Fantasy Wargame Rules, but produced for a larger audience that by then the game would have through Games Workshop’s magazine, White Dwarf and through the popularity of the miniatures being produced by the publisher and Games Workshop’s partner company, Citadel Miniatures. Of course, it would prove to be a success and more. It would go on to spawn multiple editions, innumerable spin-off games, multiple editions of an actual roleplaying game, and as an intellectual property have novels and computer games developed from it. On this foundation,
Warhammer: The Mass Combat Fantasy role-playing game has in forty years turned Games Workshop into a multimillion-pound, London Stock Exchange-listed company that has dominated the wargames hobby and industry.

Warhammer: The Mass Combat Fantasy role-playing game consists of a box containing three books and a set of errata, which in subsequent printings would be inserted into the centre of the first book as a separate appendix. The three volumes are Vol 1: Tabletop Battles, Vol 2: Magic, and Vol 3: Characters. All three are done in black and white and illustrated by Tony Ackland. The game is designed to be played fielding regiments of figures ranging in size between five and fifty figures, though it does not say this about halfway through Vol 1: Tabletop Battles and then individual figures when the roleplaying aspect comes into play via Vol 3: Characters. Vol 1: Tabletop Battles is the longest of the three and presents the rules for mass combat on the battlefield. There is little in the way of an introduction before the basics of the game are being explained, beginning with an explanation of dice notation and the game’s turn sequence. During his turn, a player has a Movement Phase, a Shooting Phase (for all players with forces with missile weapons), a Combat Phase, a Second Movement Phase for any troops that did not fight, a Magic Phase when spells are cast and their effects implemented, and a Rout Phase when routed and pursuing troops. Movement is in inches and is determined by troop type and type of mount, and accounts difficult ground, obstacles, charging, counter charging, and so on. Psychology plays a role in unit interactions, whether that is hatred of another race, or fear, terror, or a state of frenzy. For example, as is traditional, Goblins hate Dwarves, so will always attempt to attack them and fear Elves, so need to overcome that fear to face them. Some creatures, such Ogres, suffer from Stupidity, and can forget what they are doing on the battlefield.

Units themselves have ratings for their Move, Weapon Skill, Bow Skill, (Attack) Strength, Toughness, Wounds, Initiative, and Attacks. These typically range between one and six, although some can go much higher, for example, both Weapon Skill Bow Skill range between one and ten, and can be numbers or letters. For example, Attack Strength ranges from one and Weak to six and Irresistible, whilst Toughness ranges from A for Halflings and Lesser Goblins to F for Dragons and other very large creatures. In general, once combat is engaged, whether missile or mêlée combat, the attacker rolls a handful of six-sided dice—
Warhammer: The Mass Combat Fantasy role-playing game needs a lot of six-sided dice, but does not actually say this until, again, halfway through Vol 1: Tabletop Battles—and attempts to roll as high as possible. This is modified by factors such as cover and range and is done on a figure-per-figure basis, so the game really does need a lot of lot of six-sided dice in addition to the other polyhedral dice. Rolling to hit is only the first step, as for each successful hit, a second roll is made against the Toughness of the target, using the Attack Strength of the missile weapon when shooting and the Attack Strength of the figure in mêlée combat, to see whether a wound or an automatic kill is registered—in some cases some combatants only have a single Wound and will die anyway, others have multiple Wounds and take multiple hits to kill. Finally, for each successful wound or kill result, the defendant rolls more dice to make a Saving Throw against each one. The Saving Throw is based on the armour worn and its type.

And that, fundamentally, is it to the core rules of
Warhammer: The Mass Combat Fantasy role-playing game. There are rules for weapons differentiation and monsters and advanced rules for things such as critical hits, follow on combat, and so on. The Appendix (or errata) runs to eight pages and adds further advanced rules like return fire and fighting defensively, throws in a few ideas like siege craft and even Warp Frenzy and Warp Spasm. The Appendix also serves as a reference sheet for the game’s core tables.

The second half of Vol 1: Tabletop Battles gives advice on both tabletop battles and fighting in dungeons, the latter intended for underground battles such as between Goblins and Dwarves through tunnels and caverns. There are rules too for flying creatures and then Vol 1: Tabletop Battles gives an introductory battle, ‘The Ziggurat of Doom’. Here, a band of six noble and heroic Dwarves led by Thorgrim Branedimm, who is armed with Foebane, an ancient and magical Warhammer. Chased by a band of Goblins, the Dwarves take refuge atop a ziggurat standing in the clearing in the jungle. They have time to collect a few rocks to throw down on the Goblins, but this is a desperate stand against wave after wave of the Goblins. The Goblin player scores points for killing the Dwarves, whilst the Dwarf player receives points for simply surviving. Variation in the Goblin type—Goblins, Red Goblins, Night Goblins, or even Hobgoblins—allow for some replicability, as does swapping sides. The remainder of Vol 1: Tabletop Battles consists of Creature Lists, including men and humanoid monsters, numerous monsters such as the Jabberwok, and numerous werecreatures and types of undead.

Vol 2: Magic defines wizards, their use of magic on the battlefield, and spells. Wizards have a Mastery Level, ranging from one and Novice/Initiate to four and Magician/Mage. Their Constitution determines how much magic a Wizard can cast before he is exhausted. Life Energy is lost whenever a spell is cast, but is a long-term factor for roleplaying campaigns rather than battlefield encounters. All Wizards possess an innate magical sense and lob fireballs back and forth between each other in Wizard duels. When casting a new spell or a spell of a higher Mastery Level, it possible for the spellcasting to be fumbled. The creation of Wizards for the battlefield is random, but is combined with the rules for character creation in Vol. 3: Characters.

A spell is described in terms of Time to Prepare, Talismans, Spell Level, Energy cost, Time to Rest, and Remarks. Time to Prepare is the number of active player movement phases a Wizard must remain stationary in order to ready the spell, Talismans or magical devices required to cast, the Spell Level is the Spell Mastery required to cast a spell, the Energy Cost is deducted from both Constitution and Life Energy, and where Constitution is recovered, Life Energy is not. Time to Rest is the number of active player movement phases the Wizard must spend inactive—but can defend himself—before preparing another spell. The combination of the Time to Prepare and Time to Rest, then, prevents a Wizard from wandering around the battlefield like a mobile field gun, blasting away at all and sundry. Vol 2: Magic then includes a full list of spells. This spell list feels proscribed with none of the flexibility or complexity of the earlier Reaper: Fantasy Wargame Rules, but there is a good range of spells given here. The rules also cover Necromancy, magic specialisation, and a list of richly detailed enchanted objects.

Vol. 3: Characters covers the roleplaying aspect of
Warhammer: The Mass Combat Fantasy role-playing game. Surprisingly, there is a longer introduction to this book than there is to the whole game in Vol 1: Tabletop Battles. A Player Character looks like this, and two things are apparent from the format. First, the Player Character is incredibly fragile with just the single Wound, and second, this does actually look very similar to what a Player Character from Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay looks like. Of course, this should be no surprise, given that the roleplaying game is derived from these rules. The result is also highly random so that a Player Character could end being a brilliant archer who is also a Pharmacist and a Transvestite—which really is listed under the skills!—or a Prince who is a Fisherman and a Miner!

Name: Holger Muller
Social Status: Freeman
Race: Human
Age: 18
Sex: Male
Intelligence: 5
Cool: 8
Will Power: 8
Leadership: 1

Attacks: 1
Wounds: 1
Initiative: 4
Weaponskill: 3
Bowskill: 1
Strength: 2
Toughness: B
Move: 4”

Armour: mail shirt
Weapons: Sword and boat hook
Skills: Ship’s Mate, Pickpocket

A Player Character can advance for doing things like defeating enemies, surviving adventures, defeating Wizards, and acquiring gold. As a Player Character acquires more Experience Points, he can advance certain attributes and when he passes certain thresholds, he choose to advance any of the ones previously selected. A Wizard Player Character can learn more spells and eventually increase his Mastery Level. Vol. 3: Characters suggests possible Alignments—Good, Neutral, Evil, Avarice, and Hunger—for both Player Characters and NPCs and monsters, and it also provides a means to alleviate the fragility of the Player Character, or at least avoid the possibility of certain death. Thus, if a Player Character is killed or looses all of his Wounds, the player can then instead roll for an injury, which can something that the Player Character can recover from, such as a concussion, or be permanent, like a severe wound to the arm that prevents him from using the arm. There is still the chance of death even so, and if not, the Player Character will be out of action for a number of turns and must recover for several weeks. Nevertheless, until a Player Character acquires a total of five hundred Experience Points, he is going to wander around with a single Wound, hoping that he is going to be lucky enough to survive… If a Player Character does die, then replacing him is a matter of a few random rolls, yet how many more times does a character have to die before his player gets annoyed with the game?

Vol. 3: Characters also suggests a few adventure ideas, gives a price list for arms, armour, weapons, and other goods, lists employment that a Player Character might undertake to earn a living, and gives a set of encounter tables. Rounding out Vol. 3: Characters, though, is a full scenario, ‘The Redwake River Valley’. The Player Characters are employed to find out why the town of Ath Cliath has lost contact with the settlements to the north and the envoys they sent previously. Essentially, this a broadly detailed sandbox in which the Player Characters will discover Goblins on the march and settlements being attacked and sacked, and may be in time in defend one or more, and perhaps find an ally or two and learn what is going on. It feels very inspired by The Lord of the Rings and especially The Two Towers and it is serviceable enough, though not a great adventure, you could have fun playing it. Of course, there are notes on what miniatures to order from Citadel Miniatures to be able to run the scenario.

The roleplaying game presented in Vol. 3: Characters and thus
Warhammer: The Mass Combat Fantasy role-playing game is perfunctory at best, underwritten at worst. There is no real guidance on the play of this aspect of the game, there is no means of handling tasks that a roleplaying game normally would—even in 1983, there is no way of handling the interaction between NPCs and the Player Characters, and the character options are extremely limited. The player has a choice of a Fighting Man who is likely to die very quickly and a Wizard who has to stand still for lengthy periods of time to cast magic and is also to die very quickly. No objectives for the Player Characters are discussed and the idea that a player might want to bring his character onto the battlefield looks absurd given their frail nature.

There is the genesis of the Old World and Chaos in
Warhammer: The Mass Combat Fantasy role-playing game, but you have to look between the cracks to find it, such as Warp Frenzy and Warp Spasm. There are some oddities too, like the Night Elves and the Red Goblins, which either have their name changed or be excised for later editions. It shows too in the attributes used for monsters, soldiery, and Player Characters, which will change slightly for later editions of the game and for the roleplaying game. The fact that the figures on the battlefield and the characters in the roleplaying aspect of the game share the same attribute is to be applauded, but the fragility of the Player Characters is not. They are not designed to survive the world that Warhammer: The Mass Combat Fantasy role-playing game suggests and definitely not the battlefield. If a Player Character does, it will be primarily due to luck and not anything that the player will have done. Of course, Warhammer: The Mass Combat Fantasy role-playing game is precursor to the grim and perilous world of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, but even that gave the Player Character some resilience where Warhammer: The Mass Combat Fantasy role-playing game does not.

Warhammer: The Mass Combat Fantasy role-playing game is in general, not too badly presented. It is easy to read and grasp, Tony Ackland’s pen and ink illustrations are good, and John Blanche’s cover is great. However, it does need a good edit.

Warhammer: The Mass Combat Fantasy role-playing game was reviewed in White Dwarf Issue 43 (July 1983) by Joe Dever. He awarded the rules eight of ten and said, “If you regularly wargame with miniatures, or have been wondering what additional fun you could have from your rapidly growing collection of fantasy figures, then I recommend you check out Warhammer and let battle commence!”

If the only wholly positive review was to appear in the pages of White Dwarf, it is hardly a surprise, but other magazines took a more critical assessment. Chris Hunter reviewed it in Imagine No. 8 (November 1983). He said, “My main criticism of Warhammer is that Citadel seem to have provided a mass combat system which cannot be used to the full by the characters that the role-playing section generates, at least not until they have become experienced enough to lead, rather than be led, into battle. The mass combat rules are very good, probably some of the best available for fantasy combat; but surely a better way of selling them would have been to publish them separately from the role-playing rules as a standalone supplement.” before concluding that, “Finally, then, if you are looking for a mass fantasy combat system, I recommend Warhammer; but if all you want is a role-playing game, it would perhaps be better to look elsewhere, at least, until further role-playing supplements have been brought out.”

In Dragon #85 (May 1984),
Warhammer: The Mass Combat Fantasy role-playing game was reviewed by Ken Rolston in ‘Advanced hack-and-slash – Combat plays a big role in four fantasy games’, along with the earlier Reaper: Fantasy Wargame Rules. His evaluation was that. “Warhammer is exceptionally simple and playable for a miniatures rules system. The presentation is good in comparison to other miniatures rules, and adequate in comparison to recent FRP games. The rules sacrifice detail and comprehensiveness for simplicity, but most of the important aspects of tabletop battles are addressed. Though hardly a model of English usage or proofreading, the rules are well-organized and readable. The game has strong action potential, and the flavor of the fantasy elements is quite satisfying.” but like other reviews in concluded that, “The rules are not readily compatible with other published role-playing systems; adapting Warhammer to other FRP rules would be a major do-it-yourself project and of dubious value. It could be a satisfactory introductory role-playing game for a beginner or for someone willing to convert his campaign to Warhammer rules, but its most likely application is for occasional mass combat tabletop games independent of your role-playing campaign.”

This was followed in the same issue with ‘Warhammer FRP system falls flat’ by Katherine Kerr. From title, let alone the opening remarks, it was clear that she was not impressed, stating, “…[I]t’s one of the most irritating new games I’ve ever read. Warhammer has all the potential to be a good game – in fact, parts of it are very good – but overall it’s a sloppy, amateurish piece of work that needs rewriting, editing, and extending to be a playable system.” She was highly critical throughout, leaving her to ask the question at the end, “Is Warhammer worth buying? The answer depends on the potential purchaser. An experienced referee who’s discontented with the magic system in some other game might well profit from the magic rules in Warhammer. Anyone who revels in gory combat to the exclusion of all else will enjoy the game heartily. The novice gamer, or any gamer who’s looking for a complete rules system, should save his hard-earned cash. Perhaps someday the game will be revised to make it live up to its potential; until then, it will be a curiosity and nothing more.”

Edwin J. Rotondaro reviewed
Warhammer: The Mass Combat Fantasy role-playing game in Space Gamer #72 (January-February 1985) in the magazine’s regular ‘Capsule Reviews’ department. He was in agreement with many of the other reviews: “Overall, I have to say that Warhammer is a good miniatures game, but a terrible roleplaying game. The system is flexible enough to be used as a mass combat module in most RPGs, but you have to decide whether it's worth $12.95 for a set of fantasy miniatures rules.”

Warhammer: The Mass Combat Fantasy role-playing game is an important game for the influence it would have on the wargames, miniatures, and roleplaying industries, but it is not a great game. Or rather it is both a good game and a bad game. The miniatures rules are very good, decently explained, and serve as a good introduction to fantasy wargaming, whilst the roleplaying rules are bad, underwritten and ill-explained. The concept of integrating roleplaying characters onto the battlefield is a good one, but in Warhammer: The Mass Combat Fantasy role-playing game it is poorly handled. Ultimately, the two would have split to get the best of both, and consequently Warhammer: The Mass Combat Fantasy role-playing game can be regarded as a classic game more because of its influence rather than its overall design, even though parts of it are very good.

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