East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Rat-men in the sewers

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I dug out my old copy of the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying Game, the other day, while I was trying – not very successfully – to put some order on my shelves.
I have two copies of this one – the Italian translation published by Nexus in 1994 and the Hogshead version of the first edition published in 1995. Before that there were photocopies, and notes, and pages clipped from White Dwarf magazine and what else.
And I thought, why not write something about it.
And by the way, yes, I am old.

The first time I was aware of the Warhammer Fantasy RPG was in the late ’80s, when while browsing the shelves of the local game shop, I chanced upon something that baffled my teenage self: an all female team of roleplayers, discussing in very gruesome terms their latest venture into the Old World – the definitely grim venue of the Warhammer game.
Up to that moment I had only known the setting as something connected with miniature games – something I was never interested in, and whose practitioners I often found scary.
I was a Basic RolePlaying game master myself – playing mostly Call of Cthulhu and RuneQuest and Stormbringer, but I started exploring – and while I still stick to the BRP, I have a soft spot for Wargammer FRPG.

The reasons: first, the setting, that was not mock-medieval but late-renaissance with a strong 30 Years War vibe. You got an empire very much resembling the Holy Roman Empire, with Electors and factions and opposed religious beliefs, you got firearms and explosives, plus sorcery and monsters.
Then, there was the fact that by randomly generating a character, you could end up playing just anything – from a rat-catcher to a political agitator to a knight. Character advancement was not just a matter of getting better at what you did, but also a professional and personal growth – you could go from being a lowly rat-catcher to becoming a witch-hunter or an inquisitor.

Playing characters that came from all walks of life and that were quite often utterly un-heroic did something to the players, too, that would adopt a less brash, more thoughtful approach to gaming. This fit much better the sort of sword & sorcery I favored – that tended to be more oriented to social interactions, swindles and complex plots, with a modicum of sword-wielding thrown in for variety.

Combat was deadly and gruesome – and entering combat meant a serious risk of losing a limb or some tender bit – and the general mood was one of conspiracy, betrayal and hidden dangers – starting with rat-men in the sewers.

Today someone would label Warhammer a grimdark game, but the whole thing came with an ample serving of humor and slapstick that helped lighten the tone. It was certainly more “European” than D&D, and it felt a strong influence from the Hammer movies, with an extra dash of Lovecraftiana.

These days I do not play it anymore – but the Italian handbook, with its rough yellowed paper pages and its sturdy cardboard cover, that I bought second hand for a pittance, still looks like the sort of book that could stop a gunshot, and whose insides have been put together from bits and pieces of other games. I like to keep it close at hand.
This, too, was a plus to me: the Warhammer Fantasy RPG was a one-stop sort of book: it featured everything you needed to play except the dice. Just as Call of Cthulhu or Stormbringer.

I never bought the later editions – I always found all I needed in the first edition, and in the handful of books that were published supporting it.
I never got into miniatures.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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