Friday, December 11, 2009

WH3: In Review

Ok, so that was a lot of text, but it laid down the groundwork for my impressions of Warhammer 3, and that means it's time for bullet points!

  • The GM's guide has a fantastic section dedicated to the resources the GM has at his disposal, in a mechanical sense, and how those can be used to various effects. Rather than simply giving the GM the authority to make things happen, the book focuses on how to do so, rather than just relying on the big stick of unlimited GM authority. It's not that this usurps anything about the traditional GM role. It simply helps the GM to get the outcomes he wants, without breaking out the big guns. This is brilliant, and I hope we start seeing it in more games.

  • I admit I've gotten spoiled by the monster stat blocks in 4e, because when I started a fight, I just assumed that they would have armor and damage right there on the critter writeups. Not so much - I needed to go look up weapons and armor, which was a bit clunky.

  • On the other hand, monsters are nicely simplified just by using expendable pools of points. This adds a bit of bookkeeping - I'd be inclined to just pool them all together for the encounter - but it also makes for a nice pacing mechanism (monsters start out tougher, but weaken quietly).

  • The game leans heavily on the small triangular tokens as all-purpose trackers, perhaps too heavily. Some of them come in different colors, but that's painful to track on the fly, and they're easily muddled. I expect that anyone who plays the game seriously is going to swap them out for colored beads where they're actually used, and substitute in something else for places where they're a bad match, like initiative tracking.

  • The setting seems less dark. I mean, it's still dark, and the art is still...highly stylized...but I don't get quite so much of the "The victory of Chaos is inevitable, all you can do it kick around pebbles waiting for the end of everything" vibe out of things. I like this a lot. It's a bit less over the top, which makes me much more comfortable engaging the setting. It's still got all the trappings, and the lightening of tone is slight enough that I might even be imagining it, so while I think it'll please people who like Warhammer, I'm not sure how it will appeal to the hardcore.

  • That is a big freaking box. Some part of me suspects it might be bigger than it needs to be, just for show, and if that's true then well done. The sheer size of it is a strange kind of point in its favor. However, it's just a big box, with a lot of space for stuff to rattle around in, and that's a bit rough when there's so much stuff. The box comes with no component storage, like the plastic tray you see in many boardgames, so you're going to need to figure out how to store ans sort all the many cards and tokens yourself. FFG is a bit notorious for this, as their position is that they'd rather put in more components for the cost of the plastic tray, and I can't fault that in theory, but I'm not sure I feel like I got a plastic tray worth of extra components, if you know what I mean.

  • That touches upon the elephant in the room: the price tag. This is a $100 game, and that's a high price tag even for quality boardgames, so is it worth it? There's no hard and fast right answer. Other $100 RPGs and supplements (World Largest Dungeon, Ptolus, various deluxe editions) tend to be big honking thick books, so there's a bit of apples an oranges there, but my instinct is that it seems like a better deal than that, if only because you get so many shiny bits. Similar math comes up when you compare it to, say, the 3 core 4e books, which come in around that price tag. But compared to boardgames, which might have similar components, it seems high, and that's hard to wrestle with[1]. In the end, I don't feel ripped off, but I also don't feel inclined to go "Wow", which suggests that they probably priced it about right for business, but a bit high for marketing. That said, if you can get it for $60 or $70 through Amazon or whatnot, that's enough to make it feel like a real deal, so maybe it wasn't such a bad price point after all.

  • FFG has managed to surprise me with their support, which is better now than it was even a few days ago. They now have a proper errata /faq (pdf) up (thanks to Ifryt for the heads up) and seem to be providing things like an index among the online resources. While this doesn't quite make up for the absence of one in the text, this is promising and I hope it's a hint of things to come.

  • I hope this because, while I dig how the component model makes piracy hard and allows for commercial expansion, it also makes it really, really hard for players to add or modify things for their own games. While I'm sure FFG will eventually address this commercially (with things like blank card packs), I would really like to see them get behind the idea of helping players customize the game. PDFs of card blanks, for example, would probably be a big hit, but that's just the tip of the iceberg. As big a proponent as I am of OGL, a game doesn't need to be open to robustly support a culture of homebrewing, and if WH3 is going to succeed, I really feel it needs to help players find a way to make it their own. If I spent $100 for a box of components which i can use just to play your game, then your success depends on my interest in that game. If I spent $100 on a toolbox of components that I can use for MY game, then you've got me hooked, because then each subsequent purchase is one I make for MY sake, not yours.

  • One last corollary to that: by going components based, FFG has created a game where the actual rules text is pretty secondary to the product. I hope that means they'll be pretty liberal with it (creating reference pages and such). To my mind, they could give away the core rulebook as a free PDF and get nothing but benefit, and once a few more products are on the market, I wouldn't be too shocked if they consider that.

  • Another big plus to the GM advice: there's a large section on roll interpretation that talks about looking at the dice, thinking about where they came from, and coloring the outcome with that. That is to say, the rich rolling is baked right in.

  • Additionally, the GM's book has some great "Say yes" advice, which is to be willing to just say yes but lay a bunch of misfortune dice on the roll. It's good advice, and it works very well with the system since misfortune dice are transparent, so the player feels they got a fair shake. Compare that with trying to hit an arbitrary difficulty: you might roll well and the GM says you fail anyway, and there's a sneaking suspicion that things aren't quite kosher. Laying it out there works well for everyone, and players are startlingly receptive to it. They often know when they're proposing a crazy or foolish idea, and will totally be good sports when you finish building the pool and add "and here are four misfortune dice as a stupidity tax." Does that sound mean? It's not, because the contract is clear: I'm making this hard, but if you pull it off, it will actually work.
When I picked up WH3, 4e was not far from my mind. My ideal hope was that it would provide me with a game that hit the notes I liked about 4e (of which there are many) without requiring that I carry all the books (or software) that 4e requires. It is not quite that, but I can see the shape of that game within it, and I feel like I could take a chisel and some time and find that game inside it. But that will definitely be no small amount of work, and I have only so much time in the day, so I hesitate to start down that path just yet. A lot of this hinges on what FFG does next - I know there will be more supplements and expansions, but I don't yet know if they're going to excite me, or if they're going to be cut from the same cloth as past Warhammer RPG supplements - technically excellent, but not of any real interest to me.

And I think that's the rub. The one thing WH3 failed to provide was any really strong inspiration for something I wanted to play. The blame for this falls squarely on the setting: the world of Warhammer is one I already know well, and this did not change or expand my understanding in any way to make me want to run something. But I'll concede it laid the groundwork - if they put out a city book/box with the kind of quality GM advice in the core and without falling back into the old Darkety-dark-darkness of classic Warhammer, then that could be a genuinely magnificent product, and I suspect I'd eat it up with a spoon.[2]

So the ball is in FFG's court. I'm already stealing the parts I like (the freeform combat model offers some useful tools for making better combat in other games) , but only so many of them can be pulled free of the chassis, so the big question is really how much use I will be able to make of the core of it.

I am hopeful. FFG knows what they're doing, and my faith in them was represented by a willingness to plunk down $100 on an unknown quantity. But I also know that this is a fickle business, and that lots of things can go wrong between here and whatever future FFG has in mind. So I'll wait and watch, and consider.

That said, if you do want to adventure in the World of Warhammer(craft), then this seems like a decent investment. The only reason I can't totally endorse it is that, well, it's not like WHFRP2e sucked. If you're still playing that, it's not like this will address some gap in the product. This is a different sort of beast entirely, and comparisons between the two games are very nearly apples and oranges. Both are delicious and good for you.

1 - The rub, apparently, is in the custom dice, which add substantially to cost, but I am not sure how much that compels me, when I look at boardgames that have them. Even a reasonably apples-to-apples comparison - FFG's Descent - has custom dice, plus minis, plus components and it costs less. Of course, there may have been a greater expectation that a boardgame would move units (no idea - I know zilch about boardgame sales) or it might have been that because WH3 is sold as a book, it was going to have to be priced to handle Amazon-style deep discounting. As a businessman, I am intensely interested in and sympathetic to all these issues, but as a player, I admit they just muddy the water.

2 - And if there's support for a city watch game? They already have my money, simple as that.


  1. So a few more links. :)
    Unfortunately they are not FFG's, but useful/interesting fan material.

    Reference sheet that you wanted:

    Traditional character sheet (for use without counters and cards from the box):

    Both those links come from Hammerzeit, very good place for WFRP3 goodness.

  2. Sweet! I'm not shocked to see fans stepping up to fill the gaps, and I really, really hope that FFG does everything they can to help that.


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