Wednesday, July 21, 2021

New System, New Face: Organizing the Chaos of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay's Random Character Generation

This was a lot more of a painless bandage yank than I was expecting.

Generally, when I see that the default for character generation is to randomly roll for everything from species and class all the way down to eye color, I expect that the default result is also masochistically difficult to work with, and that that is intended as part of the Dwarf Fortress-esque "FUN" of the whole experience.

But on revisiting my not-too-old 2nd Edition books of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, I found that wasn't exactly the case. I found that there was control amid the chaos, and therein laid some tantalizing new character build potential.


WFRP 2E was the second iteration of the Warhammer roleplaying game that started in 1996. It released in 2005, developed by Green Ronin and published directly by Games Workshop through Black Library, later to be picked up by Fantasy Flight Studios. Like Fighting Fantasy it is a super British property with roots in 80s fantasy, but mechanics are not part of that shared DNA.

It uses the same skills-focused d% system introduced in the first game, revised and updated in areas like the magic system. It would be the last edition to use this system before FFS launched its radically different 3rd edition that was far more board-gamey, relying in part upon specialized decks of cards and custom dice for play. 3rd edition proved to be a bit of a "D&D 4E Moment" for Warhammer, and it was less popular than the previous versions (though much like D&D 4E, I'd probably find it fine if I sat down to play it).

WFRP 4E, the current version that launched in 2018, has far more in common with the first two editions than its immediate predecessor, but some notable differences and updates are present. I don't actually know what those differences are though, because I've only ever flipped through the core rulebook, so that's a post for another day maybe. And I have no freaking clue what the Soulbound game by Cubicle 7 is like because I've not kept up with Age of Sigmar stuff since its release- I'm not opposed to the prospect of throwing out the tired old Old World setting and starting fresh, but I don't think they've done what they could have with it so far.

Anyway, WFRP kicked off the "grim & perilous" genre of TTRPGs that has seen hundreds (thousands?) of entries over the decades, some of them very derivative and others only sharing the common thread of a dismal world and lethal gameplay rules. The major split between it and OSR games tends to be relative rules complexity and how many things it tells you to just roll dice for, to my knowledge.

The Warhammer world is often a crapshoot whose renaissance only reinvigorated the arts of war, devastation, and persecution, hope is on the wane, death and fates worse than death abound, and the player characters generally serve self-interest and/or inhumane powers who are the "good guys" by way of the opposition being presented as almost uniformly worse, often being supernaturally corruptive in nature.

Back in the old days of Warhammer it was far more tongue-in-cheek and happy to satirize any and all tropes, but since the late 90s they've been played progressively more and more straight so that their current grimdarkness is only surpassed by Warhammer's futuristic 40k cousin, and much of the dark comedic value is accidental.

But I digress. I came here to build, and build I will.

Rolling All of the Things

Character species (or "race" as the game calls it, and would continue to call it up until 4th edition) is one of the few selectable options by default. But in the spirit of chaos (but not yet Chaos) I decided to add that to the random rolls. So I whipped out my twenty year-old black caltrop and gave it a toss.

The species, as arranged on the career table, are Dwarf, Elf, Halfling, and Human.

My 1d4 landed on 2, meaning my character was going to be an Elf.

My heart dropped as I imagined what kind of aristocratic snob I would achieve a new hoit of toit with. Does huffing one's own farts count as mastering a Wind of Magic?

I went on to start rolling Characteristics, your primary stats. Each is 2d10 added to a number that varies depending on the species and stat in question. For example halflings only get a +10 for the Strength roll, but enjoy a +30 to Agility. This guarantees a certain minimum number range, so you can't be stuck trying to roll under 2 on d100 checks right off the bat. It's an interesting system where the inherent bonuses are equally or even more important than the random rolls, as opposed to games like D&D where outside of point-buy's minimum of 8, the only baseline you often get is a +1 or +2 to one attribute from ancestry.

Elves are actually super well-off with their primary Characteristic bonuses. Everything is a 20 or 30, and I happened to roll pretty average across the board. My nascent elf ended up with:

Weapon Skill 37, Ballistics Skill 39, Strength 32, Toughness 39, Agility 41, Intelligence 36, Willpower 36, Fellowship 30.

Not bad.

So average-to-okay in fact that I barely had anything to apply my free adjustment to. Every character gets Shallya's Mercy, a pity bump from the setting's resident luck goddess which lets you change one low stat to your species' average value instead. Since I figured my elf will be using a bow at some point, I bumped their slightly low 39 in BS (my favorite shortening of a stat name ever) to 41.

The elf's Strength Bonus and Toughness Bonus were then calculated. Both are 3, taken from the first digit of each value, which means that when they deal melee damage they inflict +3 damage, and when they take damage, they can absorb the first 3 points that bypass any armor they're wearing- built in damage reduction, essentially. You gotta be tough to survive at all levels of play.

... I say that like I have any authority whatsoever on playing this game.

Next came Wounds and Fate Points- health and get-out-of-trouble cards, basically. These also vary by species, with a d10 roll corresponding to different numbers in a range. I rolled the lowest for Wounds but high for FP, getting 9 and 2 respectively. It's a good thing my elf can use a bow, because they'll be slightly squishy. I also put my free starting advance into Wounds to offset it a bit.

At this point I deviated slightly and took care of personal customization before finishing building my character.

What materialized was a 5'11" male with brown hair and eyes, and a star sign symbolizing mercy, death, and rebirth, born in the rough-and-tumble free city of Marienburg. About the only thing saving my elf from being a Ubisoft protagonist is his distinguishing mark, which gives him a Huge Nose. I decided Larandar's big honkin' schnoz looks like a leaf from a succulent plant. One of those really fleshy ones that you're tempted to bite as a kid but definitely don't ever do, not even when nobody's looking, because that would be weird, right?


Also his name is Larandar. That was another random table roll.

The next major step is to roll your Starting Career. Characters don't have their futures set in stone by a class or single progression path in WFRP. Instead, you semi-freely move between different careers which allow you to pursue specialized skill and talent (basically feats) training, as well as give easier pathways to future careers. Like AFF, there is no level system, and you buy improvements to your character piecemeal (in the form of those aforementioned advances). Unlike the quirky little 2d6 dungeon crawler, your choice of incremental advances is guided by career choice.

Up until recently I believed that you were hard-locked into a career path and couldn't deviate from its exit or entry branches. But then I finally read the books and learned that you can hop out of any career into any other that you want, so long as you complete your current career's stat advances, and can afford the increased XP cost and the various Trappings you need in order to qualify as equipped for the career in question.

To find my starting career, I broke out the big book of them. Up to this point I was consulting the core rulebook, but the Career Compendium has every career ever published for 2E, and packs them all into a single whopping d1000 table. I also had never rolled a d1000 before, and wanted to try the novelty. At a high 973, my elf landed in the last entry on the list: Woodsman.

Here's where things finally got interesting for me.

Putting it Together

The woodsman is exactly what it sounds like- a forester and lumberjack who fells timber from the massive, deadly forests of the Old World to fuel the Empire. Plenty of monsters infest the forests, so it's a dangerous job. Woodsmen get a smattering of ranger-esque abilities like following trails and setting traps, as well as fluency and literacy in a literal Ranger language used to speak or sign coded messages.

They also get a big fricking axe as their primary weapon, and according to the career fluff they are "known to clash with Elves, since the Elves do not take kindly to the clearing of their precious forests." Suddenly Larandar went from being voiced by Nolan North to having a somewhat unique position in life. Why would an elf be working as a forester in and around the humans' Empire?

Politics, I decided.

As with any derivative fantasy setting that doesn't care too much about hitting the mark on the tropes from the stories they lean upon, there are several strictly delineated families of elves in Warhammer- your fancy high elves, your fey wood elves, and your sadomasochistic, mass-enslaving dark elves- because there's nothing problematic about ascribing all evils and sexual deviancy to a single ethnic group, right?

Anyway, only high and wood elves really enter the scope of WFRP's setting outside of specific adventure books, and they each have ambivalent relationships with one another and the Empire. The high elves across the sea in not-Atlantis still hold benevolent watch over their wayward forest cousins, and it is not often appreciated. Both groups have strained but peaceful relations with humans on average, but if you enter a wood elf realm like Athel Loren unbidden, you will probably get shot on sight.

Which is why Larandar's randomly rolled origins in Marienburg become so interesting to me.

Marienburg is basically the free Netherlandish city-state to the Empire's decaying renaissance-era Holy Roman Empire, but with more rocky wasteland and less fertile low country utterly beholden to whatever god keeps the dykes working. It is a wealthy port city built upon trade with the outside world, and naturally the thalassocratic high elves from Ulthuan want a piece of that pie. There was a war at one point, and there's still some low-key mutual piracy that everyone politely ignores within the city limits, but Marienburg and the high elves are guaranteed allies and trade partners, ensured in part by the city's Elf Quarter.

Sith Rionnasc'namishathir, or just Elftown, is an independent enclave populated by semi-democratic sea elf clans who facilitate trade between the two powers. Sea elves, AKA high elves who happen to live on a coast and don't hate manual labor, are consummate mariners, and for their ships I figured they need a steady supply of lumber.

In enters Larandar, or really any other schlub from one of the less prestigious clans who might be assigned to guarantee that lumber supplies from the nearby forest of Laurelorn remain uninterrupted. This might only require an extra pair of hands and an axe at times, but having a friendly high elf on hand to diffuse the situation in case wood elves show up with bowstings taut could be the difference between life and death for the woodsmen of the Old North Road.

Maybe Larandar even fancies himself a White Lion of Chrace, one of the axe-wielding woodsmen from back home- albeit one who is greatly removed and much-reduced. A 110 year-old cub with a bite, if you will.

Of course it'd be a cakewalk if the only dangers were wood elves understandably acting in defense of their homeland in the face of existential threat from a rapidly industrializing imperial power. The forests of the Old World are also full of beastmen, tribes of greenskins, bands of mutants who are none too pleased with the whole 'systemic extermination' policy most people have going on, etc. The time will probably come when Larandar's lumber camps need more proactive protection, or perhaps the wood elves will need assistance dealing with a mutual threat.

For that reason I mapped his future careers out to be Hunter for basic ranged weapon familiarity, Kithband Warrior for more military skills and combat talents like Marksman, Scout for, well, scouting, and finally--if he lives this long--Ghost Strider, to reflect him becoming the elvish equivalent of spec ops.

He's almost guaranteed to be dead to some Ungor with a sharpened stick before then, but we can still dream.

Little is left after that to finish a character- just some bookkeeping and inventory. It's a good thing advanced encumbrance rules are optional, because Larandar started off overburdened by his default loadout thanks to great-weapons weighing 200 units- over half his total capacity right away.

Some Chaos on the Side

Of course I couldn't put Chaos in the title without dabbling a little, so after I finished with Larandar I cracked open the Tome of Corruption to take a look at player character options for the Ruinous Powers. 

Rolling up a stereotypical devil viking from Norsca was too obvious a choice, so I decided to roll with the Kurgans instead.

The Kurgans are like ancient Scythians, if the Scythians were seven foot tall musclebound Mad Max extras who were not actually Scythians at all, and just happen to wear pelts and ride murder-ponies. They routinely descend from the eastern steppes alongside the Hung, Tong, and other parodies of historical Eurasian nomads, oftentimes making up the bulk of a Chaos invasion behind the more popular Norse vanguard.

Norse and Kurgans both have a deep spirituality that gets hinted at in this book, describing how they see Chaos in all things, not just violence, and that the changes and transformations of life and death are sacred things to be embraced. They also believe that the material world is a dream, and that the realm of the gods is the only thing truly real. Death becomes something not to be feared, and the act of killing takes on the positive aspect of helping "sleepers" wake up to the ultimate truth of reality.

This is an extremely odd passage for me. It feels like it was lifted from a book that was written when Warhammer was much younger, and not as many parts of its world were boiled down into self-parody played straight yet. It hints at the vibrant, creative humanity possessed by Chaos-worshiping peoples that is presented nowhere else in the universe, nor is it even supported elsewhere in the same chapter of this book. Everywhere else, the tribes are presented as singularly brutal and without nuance, slaughtering, razing, mutilating, corrupting, and--especially in the case of Slaaneshi war hosts--committing sexual atrocities against anything other than themselves- but also sometimes themselves because cHaOsSS!

The sole exception to this (sometimes) is the southernmost Norscan people, who take mercenary work or trade with as well as raid their Imperial neighbors on an ad hoc basis.

I wonder if the writer of that section had wider plans that never panned out.

Anyway, in the absence of customization tables like what the species in the core book get, I whipped up a pretty rindy, haggard marauder named Tcha'laar. I decided she didn't like the prospect of hunting down the best warrior to squirt babies out for like most Kurgan women are expected to do if they want any form of standing in their society, so she stole some horses from her father's herd a few years ago and has been causing trouble on the steppe ever since.

She's also blessed by the gods because I rolled under the 25% necessary to have a starting mutation.

Mutations are a wild array of random effects, sometimes beneficial, sometimes detrimental, but always terrifying to behold and likely to lead to more mutations, which will eventually cause most creatures to collapse into a mindless beast called a Chaos Spawn.

Just one mutation isn't too harmful to start off with though, and they are highly esteemed among Chaos folks besides- it only fits.

So I rolled another d1000, and got a 47.

Then I rolled a 54 on that mutation's sub-table.

And then I learned the true meaning of regret.

I guess I should be thankful.
At least it wasn't Orifices.

Hearken and despair all ye feckless, would-be baby-daddies. Tcha'laar, Beast of a Thousand Nipples has come! She is the Champion of Chaos Undivided!*

*Each of the four Chaos Gods gets exactly 250 nipples dedicated to them.

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