As of today, I've played Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying 3rd Edition (the nex big box set from Fantasy Flight) twice. More accurately, I've GMed it twice. I think I've got a somewhat solid handle on the game, and I thought that some people might want to hear some first impressions from me (at least, my Twitter feed seems to be ravenous about it).
Full disclosure: I'm a professional game designer, and I work as a game designer and developer for Wizards of the Coast. I also tend to like more games than I dislike. Lastly, I have ZERO experience with any version of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying prior to this point beyond owning and skimming the 2nd Edition core rulebook. The Warhammer Fantasy world was pretty much alien to me on first exposure to this game. So, take that into account when reading my impressions.
My general impressions can be summed up as follows: This is a pretty standard roleplaying game made very interesting by the way they choose to present their character information. I know a lot of people have dismissed this game as a board game, but it is not. This is a roleplaying game that has chosen to print many of its character traits in the form of cards. I can't stress enough that the information is pretty mucht he same, it's just presented in a different venue. Also, it works. One of the biggest steps forward that the game makes is making referencing the rulebook completely obsolete for the players. Everything you need to know is on a card, with more or less complete rules text on it. As a fan of faster play experiences, this pleases me greatly. I think one of the best things that many of my favorite board games do these days is give the player every scrap of information needed up front. It's not hidden in a rulebook, it's on the table in front of you. For WFRP3, this is a huge strength in many respects. First, it makes for an easy to use system of tracking character abilities for the players. Second, and perhaps a more subtle benefit, is that every time you add a new element to the game (such as more talents or more actions), you don't need to do anything to make it easier to use; the cards are simply added to the stack, which means that, two years from now, I will go to the exact same place for talents that I do today: my talent cards. For D&D 4th Edition, we created a pretty awesome character builder that helps players manage their large collection of powers, feats, etc. WFRP3E makes a character builder completely unneeded simply by virtue of including everything you need to know on a card.If you're a D&D player, imagine this: every one of your powers, feats, or spells is on a card that you bring to every session. You never have to look at a book, or comb through many books, to find your special abilities. That's powerful.
And it's not just limited to the talents and actions. The brilliant thing about putting most of your character data on cards is that you can introduce whole new subsystems incredibly easily. For example, the player kit introduces followers...who simply get their own cards that you lay out in front of you. Sure, you'll need to read the rules once, but after that everything you need to know is kept on the table in front of you, in an easy to reference place. Through our two play sessions, we had no spellcasters...but if we did then spellcasters basically would just get another set of cards. Moreover, you've got some subsystems (like critical wounds, spell misfires, conditions, and insanity) that could very easily become both convoluted and a chore to remember. In this game, they are all their own separate decks of cards, so that if the situation comes up that triggers one of those you simply draw the card and place it in front of you. What's great about this is that it makes old mechanics that can be a chore to deal with (in my opinion, things like critical hit tables) something that can be easily added to the game, and something that is easy to track.
This brings me to another thing I love: after character creation, there's almost no math in this game. You don't track numerical modifiers or figure out which bonuses stack. You don't recalculate damage or to-hit numbers. Sure, most of those things are pretty easy, but I have run two sessions now and didn't need a pen or pencil at all. Damage is tracked by cards, conditions are tracked by cards, etc. so that I spent 0 time bookkeeping and instead spent all of my time adjudicating events in play. It's not a perfect system (see some comments about both dice pools and Gamemastering below) but it does have its advantages, particularly in the area of tracking. Anyone who runs games on a regular basis can tell you that tracking is one of the most annoying parts of in-game play. 4E eliminated round tracking with the saving throw mechanic; WFRP3 eliminates it with its components.
Yet another great part about the data-on-cards-not-scattered-throughout-books nature of the game is that it has a great built-in balancing mechanic. In a game like D&D, you often have all kinds of special rules and conditions that keep you from stacking X on top of Y to create a crazy broken character. WFRP3 handles the stacking issue by giving you X number of slots that can be filled with special abilities...and you never get any more! There are interesting combos to be had, for certain, but the nice part about the game is that you rarely have to worry about ability X stacking on top of ability Y, since you'll almost never have them active at the same time. Instead, as you progress, you gain more of these talents, but the number of sockets remain the same, so that you have more choices of what you can have active at a time, but they don't all build on top of each other to create a convoluted, interconnecting mess. It also does wonders for game balance, as it removes one of the toughest areas of development:balancing special abilities based on how they stack with other things. It means the game developers only need to balance talents against each other, and need have little concern about how they stack on top of each other. Some concern, yes, but since each talent is cordoned off on its own, and each talent can only fit into one of a limited number of slots, there's drastically fewer stacking issues. As a designer, I love this. As a player, it feels like you're making interesting decisions on a round-by-round basis.
I briefly touched on it above, but I really like how the recharging of abilities works. Basically, instead of having encounter powers or spells that can only be cast once per day, every action (and some talents) have a rate of recharge that is simple to track and remember. Once you get into the rhythm of your turn, this becomes second nature, meaning I can have multiple actions and talents in different states of recharge and still not be confused by it at all. Moreover, from a design standpoint it creates a huge amount of design space, wherein I can balance abilities based on not only what they do, but how quickly they recharge. It also means that you can bend balance on certain powers a long way, so that instead of having basically a toggle of two possible strengths of effect (weak & at-will vs. strong and encounter/daily), you have a much wider ranger. Some powers can be used every round; others take 2 rounds, 3 rounds, or more to recharge. It creates more variety in actions, and makes character building very interesting.
Another thing I like is the way intiative is handled, and story tracks in general. When you roll initiative, you essentially create initiative slots that can be filled, round by round, by any character in a given faction. So, if I roll a good initiative but I want my high elf mercenary to go first, he can...without having to do a bunch of fiddly delaying as such. Monsters do the same, though, so there is a greater chance that beefy monsters get their powerful actions off first. Similarly, their skill challenge/story tracking mechanic is nice, versatile, and visual. While some may find it game, I find that for things like chase scenes and countdowns it works really well. I'm still unsure about how it will work in dramatic scenes (should I let the players see their progress tracker so they know how close they are to intimidating the nobleman into aiding them?), but in many ways it's a nice, highly visual way to track progress in a scene other than by how many monsters are dead.
(As an aside: I really like how thoroughly keywords are used in this game. It makes it so much easier to define something in an unobtrusive way. Keywords should be used much more often in games of this complexity).
Monsters have some interesting things going on. They have their own actions, so they aren't limited to just the same things that players can do (yay exception based design), and their statistics are much simplified from what the players have. Furthermore, their actions are clearly spelled out, with descriptions of what happens when certain dice results come up, making adjudicating monster actions very easy. That said, I find the way those statistics are presented very difficult to read. There's a lot that's sort of in "code" and not obvious from first glance. Furthermore, they don't give statistics they should. For example, the game's damage soak value is Toughness + armor. Well, in a monster stat block, instead of figuring that for you they just have a number followed by another number (i.e. 4(4) or something like that), and you have to add them together on the fly. I mean, that's not hard by any stretch, but it is unintuitive, and I had to reference the rulebook several times during play to remember which numbers added to which other ones in which situations. I really hope Fantasy Flight takes a look at how they present their monster stats again; it's one of the greatest deficiencies in the game (see below).
Yet another area where the game does some great things is in the area of character advancement. The nice part is that you get SOMETHING after every session, and you're constantly improving. I like that you don't track numerical XP necessarily, and that every time I show up at the table I have the chance to be a little bit better at something than I was before, or have a new ability. The career system is what it is (I neither like not dislike it; it's just a system) and there are some fiddly bits that could stand to be ironed out (such as what you can advance when, and making it more clear whether or not you can save up advancement points). The other thing that is nice about it is that FFG has basically created a system whereby they can tell exactly how fast players advance based on the number of sessions they play. I know for D&D there are a lot of times where we've had to examine the rate of advancement, as advancement is one of the key areas that keep people coming back to your game. I don't know that I'd want this exact system for D&D, but at the very least they've created a very solid advancement system that they can use to accurately predict how their own players are advancing.
One mechanic that I both like and dislike is the new "party type" mechanic. Basically, your party as a whole gets a "Career" of its own, that provides special rules that benefit/apply to everyone in the party. I like that it helps explain why the party is together, and helps remove the necessity of the "you all meet in a tavern" session where you explain why you're all together. I like that each party type has different special abilities, and different talent slots. Since you can slot in unused talents into the talent slots of the party, and those talents then apply to EVERYONE, you benefit the party by contributing something that is uniquely yours. Moreover, since you can in turn take talents out of the party slots and slot them into your own talent slots, it means that players can effectively trade talents between each other freely--but only if their party type has that kind of talent on it! So, you party type determines the areas of your party's greatest versatility. Given the relative simplicity of characters, this adds a lot of depth to the party in the long run.
Alas, the party mechanics aren't all good.I feel like the party benefit associated with each party type can be easily forgotten. Worse, I think the party tension track might be completely extraneous. I understand generally its purpose, but it's really not clear when I need to use it as a GM. My players today worked together great, but there were some tense scenes. Is the party tension track just a punishment mechanic for players who let their minds wander or bicker too long? If so, that feels very meta, and is something I'm not crazy about having story/mechanical ramifications. In both playtests, the tension meter felt kind of like something that could be abused with a jerk DM, but in our case was mostly ignored. I'm not 100% against it, but I need some more instruction about how to use it for a positive gameplay effect.
I've talked a lot about what I like so far (and there's a LOT to like about this game), but there are a few things that I don't care for. The movement and distance system is one of them. I get it that they wanted to go abstract, but it's painfully obvious that this game would be much better with a grid (even a large-scale one, more like the concept of zones), rather than futzing with the distance tokens. Not only is it annoying to keep track of realtive distance if players go off in different directions, it also has inexplicable complication (why does it cost 2 maneuvers to go from long to medium range when it's only 1 to move from medium to close?) and extraneous distance tracking (I can be at close range with a guy, but not engaged with him, so in truth there's actually an invisible measurement of distance between close and engaged that the game isn't really honest about). I'm in no way suggesting that the game needs tactical movement or a 1-inch grid, but I think just being able to draw the equivalent of a big tic-tac-toe board and dropping the encounter locations into large-scale zones might have been a lot easier. As it is, distance and location is probably the most difficult to track thing in the game, and it feels like they reached too hard for abstraction while not fully embracing it.
Speaking of somewhat extraneous mechanics, the stance system is an interesting and unobtrusive mechanic that is introduced...and I think it might be so unobtrusive that it's unnecessary. In theory, this determines how reckless or conservative you're being. In actuality, players seem to reach for one side or the other and ignore the rest of the track. I guess I appreciate conceptually what it's trying to do, and like the variety it applies to your actions (each action card is two-sided, meaning that the action is slightly mechanically different depending on which side you're on), but in the end it felt like kind of pointless tracking that I didn't want to fool with.
The dice...ah, the dice. I'm of a split mind about the dice pool mechanic. On the one hand, it means no fiddling with math. It's relatively intuitive, and you get very good at it very quickly. Since the possible outcomes of your die rolls are written right on cards, it's easy to resolve...most of the time. At the same time, there are a lot of "hidden" results in the game; sometimes, if you get enough hits, you turn one into a crit. Sometimes Sigmar's Comet means one thing, and sometimes it means something else. Moreover, while I appreciate the rarity of true opposed rolls, trying to figure out anything other than attack vs. defense can be tedious. Why do I use challenge dice sometimes, and misfortune dice others? What's the real difference between expertise dice and fortune dice? I know there are answers, but they are far from intuitive after two plays. When I use a skill vs. a target's skill, my challenge level is determined by a formula that has to be referenced in the book, which in turn references multiple enemy statistics. Maybe I'm spoiled by attack vs. defense, but I felt like, a lot of times, building you dice pool when using a skill vs. another skill was time consuming. Given the frequency with which this occurs in the game, I'm halfway convinced that the dice pool mechanic could do with about two less kinds of dice.
This is sort of leading into my single biggest problem with the game: It doesn't make GMing nearly as easy as playing. Oh, sure, there are a lot of places where it's pretty simple, but there are a lot of places where it's downright convoluted. Monster stat blocks need serious work in becoming easier to read. Figuring out how to build dice pools needs to be easier. Figuring out how to interpret dice pool results on the fly, especially when improvising effects, needs to be easier. I have no idea how to create a new monster. Creating a balanced encounter seems difficult (admittedly, I've only run it twice now). I found that, without the cheat sheets downloaded from BGG, there's a lot of time spent looking in the books. What can you do with a maneuver? When should I add misfortune dice? What happens during the rally step (a very nice mechanic for creating a short lull in the combat)? What are the First Aid difficulties? I sincerely hope FFG considers putting out a GM screen with a lot of the most commonly referenced information on it.
Lastly, the rulebooks. They're pretty, but I found them lacking in the areas of readability, and more specifically in the ease of reference. Lots, and I mean MOST, of the rules are in running paragraphs. When you're trying to look up a rule during play, you end up having to search through multiple paragraphs of text, across many pages. What I wouldn't give for simple things like bullet points, inline headers, shaded text, etc. to make the rules easier to reference at the table. For all the great things the game does with making sure players don't have to reach for the rulebook, there are few similar advancements on behalf of the Gamemaster. The rules are clear, mind you; they're just buried and hard to find.
All that being said, I think there's a lot in this game that's brilliant. I give it a solid B+, and I would play in a campaign of this (and maybe even run one, depending on how easy to run their full-length adventures turn out to be). I think anyone who's a modern RPG designer needs to play this game, familiarize themselves with its strengths and weaknesses, and figure out WHY it does what it does. It's clear that Fantasy Flight put a lot of effort into thinking about how we play games, and though it's radical in some areas, for the most part it is merely a redistribution of data. You get the same things out of this game that you do any other RPG, you just have the information you need given to you in different ways.