NOTE: Recently, people have been asking how WFRP3e looks to people now that the game has been around for a couple of years. This is the second part of my response to that question. The first part can be found here.
Even though this post is about Warhammer, I’m going to start with FreeMarket. I finished reading the rules just before I went on vacation, and I have to say that I really liked the system quite a bit. Still, I can’t imagine running the game without seeing it in action first, nor can I much imagine my current gaming group playing it, even if I did know exactly how it should run. I suspect that they simply don’t like to push against the GM enough to make it much fun.
I often think of games in terms of how much they assume you ‘push against the GM.’ These games ask you not just to accept challenges designed for you to overcome, but to challenge the premises set forth by the GM or the gameworld. In games like these, questioning or undermining the plot hook isn’t bad playing–it’s precisely what the games mean to evoke. The extent to which rules allow you to push against the GM works on a spectrum; different games make more or fewer allowances for questioning in that manner. My group has enjoyed WFRP3e so thoroughly because it stands right in the middle of that spectrum.
I’d say something like Pathfinder Society Scenarios fall on the end of Not Welcome to Push. If I take a mission from the lodge to go investigate the Blackrose Museum, I’m supposed to take the cues given and go solve the puzzles as the GM presents them to me. I’m not, for instance, really welcome to go back to my homeland, suggest that the place is way too dangerous to continue to exist, and amass an army to raze it to the ground. That’s partly because PFS games are often designed to be convention scenarios, but it’s also woven into the fabric of many d20 games; listen to the story, follow the cues, solve the puzzles, get a satisfying climax scene. These games will always remain popular because they allow for intricate, long, overarching storylines; the give the same pleasure as reading a good book or watching an intricate movie. You can, of course, create sandbox games within these systems that allow the players some more options for reaching the final climax scene, but generally, those sandbox games give the players the chance to decide in which order they will encounter possible pre-scripted events.
On the other end of my spectrum (indie games offer even farther reaches, but I won’t talk about games I don’t know well here,) lie games like FreeMarket, or, to a lesser extent, Mouse Guard and Burning Wheel. You have to push in these games–that’s the point. Without players challenging the premises, not much happens, and in games like Mouse Guard, many of the scenarios are thin and simple because the spotlight turns on the players’ ideas. The GMs for these games are told to “say yes” to the players’ demands whenever possible, and the storyline takes its shape from the evolution of the characters’ psychologies as much as it does from the external world. The rules focus on having the players describe and shape as much of the game mechanics as possible. Burning Wheel and MG players narrate the outcome of their own dice rolls, while FM PCs play through rounds of a card game to negotiate the successes and failures of their goals. Players of all three games are seldom (if ever) reduced to a simple pass/fail (or even degree of success/failure) mechanic, because most ‘failures’ can be renegotiated in some way.
In all systems, the stories are more important than the individual outcomes; BW, MG, and FM all rely on players to come to the table with their own goals and use their background to shape game play. Sure, the GM might set a straightforward task (get the contents of the chest in the head Guard’s office,) but all three games reward straightforward and non-straightforward responses to that task equally; attacking the guard or sneaking past him works fine, but you might just as easily bore a hole through the wall or construct a thieving monkey robot which you give to the guard as a gift to retrieve it. Mechanics exist for large-scale tactics as well as small-scale tactics; MG’s negotiation rules, for instance, give examples of how to use them to amass and control an army of mice to do your mouse’s bidding. If you have a character with enough resources, creating an army isn’t mechanically much more difficult than finishing the task yourself, so your players needn’t skip it as a realistic solution to a conflict. These systems allow players to feel as though they have infinite paths to changing the world and those possibilities give them the chance to explore their characters extraordinarily carefully. The downside for players comes when they have an off night; they can’t rely on an intricate storyline or hook NPC to keep the story moving, and they can easily stall the game if they don’t have ideas. The downside for a GM, of course, is that a perfectly-planned dramatic moment may easily get sidestepped by your players. Still, if you have managed to put together the ideal set of players for one of these games, their narrative plans are probably every bit as dramatic and creative as yours were, anyway.
Personally, I see WFRP3e as a hybrid of these two types of games. Since the Warhammer universe is so rich with history and its RPGs have so many entrenched traditions, it’s not a good fit for a “say yes,” push against the GM-style of rules. The players would just have the chance to miss way too much good lore. Further, “say yes” games often allow the PCs far more autonomy and power than would really fit the “grim and gritty” feel of Warhammer; while an experienced GM could keep them on track, beginners might have a much more difficult time. So FFG’s official story material for 3e has a kind of d20 determinism to it, much to the chagrin of some players of first and second edition. On the other hand, that has allowed FFG to script some fantastically funny and dramatic moments in the official material–stuff that had my players hooked immediately and had them asking after each game, “What did we miss? What else was there in that chapter?”
On the other hand, many of the mechanics offer momentary negotiations and “say yes” moments to the players on a smaller scale. The dice, for instance, allow PCs to describe the whole a combat action outcomes without having to know any of the monster’s stats. Fortune points allow them to shift the game in their favor or direction; they’re essentially chits that invite players to negotiate with the GM. The party tension meter, while flawed in some ways, encourages players to focus on the evolving psychology of their group. Finally, mechanics like corruptions allow PCs to move outside a GM’s or a party’s morality comfort zone without breaking the system, letting each player develop his character’s psychology without allowing him to run rampant over the game world.
I find that my players negotiate with me on a more regular basis while playing WFRP3e than I’ve seen with most d20 systems, where the focus lies on solving the puzzles in the most efficient, least deadly manner possible. They feel supported enough by the game world and the rules to try creative or bizarre approaches to the problems in front of them. (For our group, these approaches often involve fire.) They will take risks, although they aren’t reckless, either, because they want to live to see what’s around the next corner.
WFRP3e isn’t the perfect system, by any means. Many of the complaints arise because the system doesn’t commit fully to a single traditional style of play, irritating players who come from both d20 and “say yes” types of games. Still, I think the rules and the pregen material do two things exceedingly well: they tell an interesting story and allow for PCs to develop their own interesting stories at the same time. Most systems err on the side of emphasizing one set of goals or the other; if WFRP3e has proven anything to me and my group in the past year and a half or so, it’s that it allows for nice a balance of both world story and player goals.