Saturday, January 29, 2011

Review: Weird Fantasy Role-Playing

Weird Fantasy Role-Playing is a "traditional fantasy role-playing game" - code words for early D&D clone rules based on the OGL.   You can get the full copy of the rules over at Indie Press Revolution, or get a free copy over at the publisher's blog - Lamentations of the Flame Princess (the download link is on the left).  It's low risk to check out the free rules first, but the art and the extra books are only in the paid version.  (So as not to confuse with Warhammer, I'll abbreviate it as LotFP instead of WFRP).

Like my recent module reviews, this is a play-test review; we got the LotFP rules back in September when we were playing Moldvay basic.  We introduced a number of the LotFP changes as house rules to our Moldvay game, and after a few weeks switched  the rest of the way.  We've been using the rules in weekly, active gaming for almost five months and have a pretty good feel for the system and how it compares to classic D&D - most characters have gained a few levels in that period.

My first impression of the rules was very similar to how we used it - as a restatement of classic D&D, with a healthy dose of house ruling, and a darker tone.  It has most of the usual suspects for classes - Cleric, Fighter, Magic User, Elf, Dwarf and Halfling.  You'll notice "race as class", which is very much in line with Moldvay's rules.  You'll also notice there is no Thief; it's been replaced by something called the Specialist.

The first big philosophical change is the implied specialties or roles present in other editions have been made more explicit.  Clerics and Magic Users continue to have their own magic styles, but now Fighters are the best attackers, Halflings have amazing saving throws and stealth, Dwarves are tough and hardy, and so on.    In most versions of D&D, for example, all first level characters attack equally as well as Fighters for the first few levels; Fighters are vanilla.  In LotFP, even beginning Fighters attack better than everyone else, and have better hit points; they are the workhorses of the party.

The Moldvay basic rules have an implied skill system built around the d6.  Every character has d6 chances for open doors, hear noise, find traps, and searching.  A few classes have d6 skills for secret doors or stone traps.   Only Thief skills use the percentile dice.

LotFP evolves the skill system in a logical way by replacing all the Thief skills with d6 versions and adding new skills like Foraging; it creates a unified skill system for all adventurers.  The Thief replacement class, the Specialist, is the class that takes the most advantage of this new skill approach.  The Specialist class gets skill points per level to customize their skill selection.

I can't emphasize enough how much of an improvement the unified skills and customization is over the traditional Thief; I think at this point it would be near impossible for us to go back and use the regular Thief in a classic game.  We still call them Thieves; it's just that they no longer suck at level 1.

A few of the classes are de-powered compared to their Moldvay era antecedents - namely the Cleric, Elf and Dwarf.  In the case of the Cleric, it's warranted and appreciated.  It's tougher on the demihumans.  While I'm glad to see the Fighter elevated to the place of premier warrior, the combat capabilities of Elves and Dwarves (both Fighter hybrids) have been taken down too far; the rules are very human centric in that way.

As for the Cleric, the class has had Turn Undead reduced to a 1st level spell, and the spell progression charts don't grant higher level spells as quickly as in Moldvay/Cook.  However, the Cleric gets more lower level spells, and my players found this to be an acceptable compromise.  Reducing the pervasiveness of Turn Undead is a good thing.

Another major improvement is the new encumbrance system - it's very simple to apply, and the players can calculate and adjust encumbrance throughout the game without bringing the action to a grinding halt.  It's really helped with resource management and keeping resource pressure in the game; especially when treasure is found.

Other things to notice are the various adjustments to combat - there are sensible combat options to provide fighting types more strategy, shields are slightly better, and there are aiming rules for crosswbows.  Ah - here's a big one - LotFP uses ascending Armor Class similar to a d20 era game; I found it easiest to put some cross-references together to convert old-style AC on the fly.

There is a fair amount of "implied setting" in the rulebook; for instance, the equipment list would fit a late Medieval or Renaissance period (sans firearms).  There are rules for investment property, and maritime adventuring, that imply a merchant economy and ocean-based voyages like the age of exploration.  If you're expecting feudalism, that stuff can seem a bit odd.

There are a few issues I'd raise with the boxed set.  The collection tries very hard to be an introductory game, but I wonder if it's as new-DM friendly as could be.  Although monsters and treasure are significant parts of adventuring, they're given short shrift in the referee's book.  The author provides good advice on customizing monsters and using monsters, but I don't believe it's realistic for a new DM to have the confidence to create all of his or her own monsters without a bestiary.   I'd submit that creating monster statistics is more art than science, and requires a fair amount of experience as a DM.  I tend to keep my Basic/Expert books  handy for its random tables, monster statistics, and treasure tables while using LotFP.

The rest of the referee's book is advice on running games and campaigns in a 'Weird Fantasy' manner;  I would highly recommend reading it.  There's a lot of practical advice on adventure styles, campaigning, and achieving a weird horror vibe in your game.  Invaluable stuff, good as gold.  As I looked it over again for the review, I realized many themes I've touched on at Dreams in the Lich House are already covered in the referee's book.

The rules include a magic book that recreates most of the standard repertoire from classic D&D, minus a few 'troublesome' spells like Raise Dead and Resurrection.  Quite a few have adjustments to the descriptions to fit the darker theme.  The magic book has a nice system for magical research, spell transcription, and item creation.

There's also a Tutorial book with a choose-your-own-adventure style of programmed adventure, beginning player advice, and a long example of play.  Everybody dies.

Would I Recommend This?
Yes, yes I would - I consider it a fresh update to the classic D&D rules.  After 5 months, the players still really like this rules set.  They rely heavily on Fighters (both PCs and henchman), and I previously mentioned I can't see us ever using a classic Thief after having the flexibility of the Specialist.  The combat options have been very popular as well.  The only issue is the players have petitioned for a house rule to improve the lot of Dwarves and Elves in combat.

It's no secret we used to play 4E,  a system that puts formal class roles into the game.  This was one of the elements of LotFP that struck a chord with my group as we made the switch back to old school gaming.  As mentioned, the implied specialties present in older editions have been strengthened.  The players scout with their Halfling, the Specialist focuses on locks and traps, the Dwarf hauls a ton of gear, their casters throw spells, and the Fighters take on the bloody grunt work.

From my (DM's) perspective, the approach to encumbrance has been very useful at the table, and easy to administer during treasure gathering, when PC's are prone to overload themselves.

I found the referee's book instructive and inspirational; if you've followed this blog at all, you know I aspire to run as free-form and sandbox-oriented a game as possible, while creating situations that feature high adventure and horror.  The referee's advice lines up well with my own inner compass.