Making Magic Mysterious

Magic is a problem in RPGs. On the one hand, it is supposed to be mysterious and occult (literally: ‘hidden’), but on the other hand the game part of roleplaying games requires consistent rules so as to be fair to the players. The result is that magic is reduced in players’ minds to a kind of science or mathematics.

I’ve spent way too long noodling with magic systems to try to solve this conundrum, but now I think I’ve finally come up with a solution.

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Making the Speak Language Skills Interestingly Useful

A few weeks ago I posted on making the Read/Write skill interestingly useful, but that just raises the question of language skills in general. Tim Eccles’s article on this topic in Warpstone #19 is excellent on the historical and linguistic implications of what we knew about (then-)canon, but this post, like the last one, is going to concentrate more on the in-game practicalities of the skills. Because, like with Read/Write, the exclusivity of the language skills may work in favour of flavour, so to speak, but against the kind of communication a game needs to flow:

This is an example of language problems used wonderfully, but unfortunately few of us are Simon Pegg or Edgar Wright!

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Making the Read/Write Skill Interestingly Useful

I’ve always had a bit of an issue with WFRP’s handling of the Read/Write skill, at least in its first and second editions. One of the strengths of the game has always been how it’s rooted its fantastical (and sometimes fantastically silly) elements in a world that felt real. Much of the heavy lifting with the latter was done by the careers system, but it was also observable in the rarity of the Read/Write skill. (Of the six pregens in The Enemy Within, only two were literate, and the Elf wasn’t one of them.) Meanwhile WFRP3 and Zweihänder both fold literacy into a more general education skill, in both cases treated as ‘advanced’. This was a world, the system tells us, dominated by illiteracy; those who could read or write were a privileged few.

But the wisdom of this approach is contradicted by the last 40 years of game design. Generally speaking, GMs now know that it is a bad idea not to give out any information because a lack of leads stalls the game. An entire rules system, Gumshoe, has been designed to address this issue. If the characters can’t read, then that immediately eliminates a major source of clues and leads to keep the action going. The problem cropped up as early as 1e’s intro adventure, The Oldenhaller Contract, itself: the scenario relies on the PCs being able to read the advertisement nailed to the Deutz Elm in Episode 12. So in this post I’m going to look at a few ways a WFRP GM can help keep the game going while still being true to the (pseudo-)historical verisimilitude of the setting.

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Bretonnian Knighthood

Photo by: Kirill_M Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/39781580@N04/4154860768/

Photo by: Kirill_M
Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/39781580@N04/4154860768/

After nine years of “it’s going to happen” one of my players who got me back into WFRP all those years ago started his own campaign. And we get to play knights! In Bretonnia!

We created the character (naturally taking the advantage of the magnificent Expanded Character Module by Dave Graffam) and discussed a little about what’s to come. The GM asked us all to write a little something about our characters’ background and I set out to work.

I haven’t actually read the Knights of the Grail in almost ten years. I might have leafed through it on an occasion but now I wanted to get the facts right with my Knight Errant from Parravon. Aaand naturally this was where the problems started.

All players of Warhammer know that it is about exaggerated mockery of the actual history. And most players know that Bretonnia is about chivalric knights in shining armour – like those in Arthurian legends. But what got me off-guard was the description of the Knight Errant:

Knights of the Empire start their careers following after some other knight, acting as nothing more than a servant. What else would you expect from a nation who has forgotten the true meaning of chivalry, the true meaning of honour, and the true meaning of courage?

In Bretonnia, knights start off riding their own trail, as they set off on their errantry tour. Bretonnian knights learn from the best school there is: genuine experience. At the start of their tour, they don’t have any genuine experience, but most make up the deficit with their enthusiasm.

Wait, what?

So young boys are set on a warhorse, given a suit of armour and a lance and sent of to their own adventures? No training, no time acting as a squire, no nothing? Just “keep yourself alive lad and kill some orcs for the Lady?”

As it turns out our GM had different plans and he was a bit shocked by this. Even though he has been reading stuff about Bretonnia on and off for all those nine years. “That makes absolutely no sense!” was the summary of his words.

On the other hand I have to (naturally agree) but on the other hand it got me thinking the pure ingenuity of this kind of behaviour.

Warning – This post contains some spoilers and racial doctrine about the evolution of Bretonnians. You can blame the fairies for that.

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