Monday, March 20, 2006

Review: Old World Armoury (WFRP)

Old World Armoury: Militaria & Miscellania
Design and Writing: Robert Schwalb
Hardcover, 128 pages
Publisher: Black Industries (June 2005)
Overview: A perusal of WFRP-related message boards and mailing lists will reveal a running dispute over the quality and status of Old World Armoury. Some players regard it as one of the best supplements available for 2nd edition WFRP, and rank it just after the indispensable Old World Bestiary in terms of utility and importance. Other players see the OWA as one of, if not the, weakest publications to emerge from Black Industries since the revival of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay in 2005.

How you feel about the OWA likely has a lot to do with your expectations going in. If you're expecting an equipment book in the d20 model- with lots of new buffing gear, special rules and materials, and tons of new game mechanics- you're likely to be disappointed. Despite its ostensible focus on weapons, armor, and equipment, OWA is a very crunch-light book. On the other hand, if you're primarily interested in expanding the detail and color of your WFRP campaign, and regard any additional rules and crunch as a bonus, OWA is likely to be much more up your alley.

A few notable problems do persist throughout Old World Armoury. More than any of the other books released in BI's first year, OWA feels like it suffered a little bit from the aggressive publication schedule that Black Industries has pursued. Typos abound in the text- most of them apparently cases where a spell-check program made an incorrect replacement, and a human reader never caught the gaff. None of them interfere with the reader's understanding of the text, but tightly-wound copy editors reading the OWA should expect to spend some time grinding their teeth.

The second book-wide problem that persists in OWA is one that was first noticed by some players after the publication of the core book. Particularly in light of the wage listings given in both the core book and OWA, many players feel that the prices for many common goods (such as slings and rowboats) are grossly inflated- by a factor of 10 or more.

This has turned into one of those polarizing issues on the WFRP boards that gaming geeks love to turn red in the face over- on the order of the great 'would the Federation be able to beat the Empire' debates of the previous decades. And just like most of these debates, it's largely pointless. By and large, if you are just running a game and not worrying about the internal consistency of marginalia, you will never encounter any sort of real problem with the pricing lists. If you're intent on running a more detailed chronicle, say running a business and keeping track of every hay-penny your players spend, you might find yourself stressing out over the fact that, according to the published rules, only an Elector Counts can afford to buy or furnish a house, and only if he buys a small house and does it a little at a time.

Fortunately, the WFRP community has already rushed to solve this problem: a revised pricing table for the OWA have already appeared, re-adjusting the list prices to better please the low-fantasy cheering section, as well as folks like myself that just feel that a slightly 'deflationary' WFRP economy feels a little more realistic and satisfying.

Encumbrance has some of the same issues as pricing: some people think that the current system is terribly broken and needs a major revision, while others find it a silly concern. If you were bothered by this in the core book, you will not be any less bothered by OWA. If this Encumbrance problem is news to you, than you have nothing to worry about. For the Encumbrance-afflicted, a quick glance through the BI forums will produce a number of detailed fixes, as well as a minor solution that is now part of the official Q&A/FAQ.

The Nitty Gritty: Chapter I, Currency & Trade, deals with exchange rates, merchants, and other 'big' economic issues. The section on the coinage of different realms is a nice opportunity to inject some 'local color' into a WFRP game. The map of Old World trade routes is a welcome addition; while it doesn't provide great detail, it at least gives some idea of how ocean voyages might likely proceed, and which cities or nations are in direct contact with one another- information that is given additional detail in the Trade Centers section of the chapter.

Short blurbs on a number of merchant houses provide the bare nub of some adventure ideas; they would require quite a bit of development and additional detail to become useful, but the names and broad outlines are there. Another section that feels a little short-changed is the trade goods section. A table of prices for different sorts of goods is given, but there is no information on the relative demand, availability, or geographic origins of theses products. Some of this can be guessed from the prices and the descriptions of the trade centers in the text, but a little bit more detail would have gone a long way towards creating a fuller picture of trade in the Old World, and setting up some outlines for a GM or players interested in running a trading/merchant-style game- a bit of WFRP meets 'Tramp Freighters'.

The barter rules provided in this chapter are distinctly odd. They regard anything with the same availability as essentially equivalent, despite differences in price, materials, labor required, etc. It certainly makes for fast resolution, but it seems like it creates the potential for some very unrealistic trades. I think most GMs who chose to deal with barter will prefer to create their own system that takes the price and other qualities of the item into account.

Chapter II: Old World Armour begins the equipment shopping spree in earnest. The focus here is on added detail and color rather than introducing new equipment and game mechanics. Two new armor types are introduced (studded leather and scale mail) which offer some minor advantages over the existing leather and chain armors in exchange for added weight and cost. The section on studded leather is worded a little confusingly; studded leather costs as much or more as leather and has equal encumbrance, but it must be worn over leather armor, giving a total of 2 AP for the locations involved. It also can't be worn beneath other armor. Why this couldn't be boiled down to 'studded leather gives 2 AP and can't be worn with any other armor' is a mystery to me. Detailed descriptions of the various armor components available give a bit more information and 'local color' than those in the core book, detailing regional variants and common practices.

The heraldry section presents the opportunity to work some more realism and world details into a campaign, providing extensive information about heraldric symbols used in the Old World, and the insignia of the major cities and counties of the Empire. Players can create their own personal hearaldry, if they desire, and GMs can give recurring antagonists or allies a distinctive 'look'. The chapter rounds out with an armor damage system, recycled from a v1 expansion, that adds some extra oomph and detail to combat.

Chapter III deals with weapons, and like Chapter II sees them primarily in terms of new details and expanded description. A few new-ish weapons are introduced (the garrotte, and some regional variants on axes and swords), but most of the chapter is given over to discussing non-mechanical variants on the weapons presented in the core book. Optional rules for distinguishing between high-Craftsmanship hand weapons are introduced, as well as rules for weapon breakage.

I was pleased to see the return of weapon and armor damage in chapters II and III. I've always felt that the Warhammer world is one in which possessions are, at best, temporary, and the damage system definitely gives that feeling to the game. I would have liked to see Craftsmanship having some effect on weapon and armor breakage; fortunately, WFRPist Dave Graffam has produced some homebrew armory rules that do just that.

Chapter IV gets into gunpowder weapons, and also deals briefly with weapons for large-scale combat. There is additional description of the specifics of different types of firearms, but no detailed rules to deal with the difference between, say, wheelock and matchlock weapons, or an indication of where they come into play. Some rules for keeping matches lit, and their tendency to alert others (particularly animals) to the presence of the firearm wielder would have been welcome; instead, I've found myself turning to an old GURPS book for added information on pre-modern firearms.

An advanced misfire table provides some added details and potentially dangerous fun for GMs whose players are eager to get ahold of some gunpowder weapons. They're not quite as colorful as the rules given in the v1 Warhammer Companion, but they're still a solid addition. The section on war machines is short, and mostly confined to description (diffusing the anxiety of certain veteran WFRP players (dare I say 'grognards'? Dare I nest parenthesis?)), with actual stats given only for a few of the less-lethal weapons likely to be operated by (or pointed at) players.

Chapter V and VI carry us through General Equipment and Special Equipment. Here we see again the strengths and weaknesses of the Old World Armoury laid out. There are lots of bits of equipment that give more depth to the setting, and which might even come in handy if your party is furnishing a house. Additional details about the make, color, and use of different sorts of clothing lend themselves to more detailed character descriptions, and using clothing as a more detailed indication of social status. Unfortunately, there are also a good number of items that are direct repeats from the equipment section given in the core book, and a number of items that seem to be of little use to the player or GM. Will anyone ever really need to know the exact price and encumbrance capacity of a bucket? Is there anyone who is unclear on what a footstool is?

The Special Equipment section ostensibly deals in items slightly more exotic than those in the preceding chapter, but many of them (such as lucky talismans and cheap herbal poultices) aren't really less common than anything in Chapter V. Again, we have a mix of new gear (including new poisons, droughts, some religious trappings, and various anti-poison measures), as well as a number of items carried over from the core book equipment.

Chapter VII is focused on animals and transportation. Again, some stats are repeated from the main WFRP book. Additional pricing and other information for overland and water travel are included, as well as rules for combat while in motion. The information on local cart tracks and minor roads was welcome- I always thought that road maps of the Empire looked a little sparse.

The bulk of Chapter VIII is given over to a rules system for running your own business. I will readily confess to having given this section only a brief read. It's the sort of thing that will immediately become the center of the campaign for some groups, and never merit a second glance for others. The mechanics seem reasonable enough, and for some players it might be fun to take some time off of dungeon crawling and intriguing to run Dad's tannery for a while. It's also a potential source of adventure plots for the GM- a little bit of Grand Theft Auto-style business running/mayhem to take everyone's mind off the goblins and beastmen.

Chapter IX deals with hirelings and henchmen. The big bonus here is a wide selection of NPC stats at various levels of power, ready for a GM to drop into a game as opponents or allies. The table of quirks can help flesh out NPCs a little, and the loyalty rules provide a not-too-onerous mechanism for keeping track of the loyalty and compliance of hired help pushed beyond their limits. The range of expected duties here is spelled out very well, making it clear that players shouldn't be hiring a bodyguard in the hopes of using him as extra muscle in a fight against a gang of trolls.

The advanced medical treatment rules presented here are another minor rules tweak that provides a good deal of color and realism for the game. On the downside, they do significantly increase the deadliness and potential for permanent injury already inherent in the WFRP system; unless you're really sure that you have a good doctor or barber, you might be better off with a broken arm than with a visit to the infirmary.

Chapter X rounds out the book with some information about treasure. Don't expect D&D-style "10d6x200 gold" treasure tables; instead, we have a modest selection of collectors-item coins, and some guidelines for the values of gems, jewelry, and various home furnishings that the eager looter might stuff in his sack.

Conclusions: Old World Armoury is, in many ways, a great expansion to WFRP. It fills in a lot of little details that have been MIA since version 1 was out, ensuring that equipment lists for PCs and NPCs aren't reduced to little traveling weapon racks. The added regional details- trade, heraldry, fashion, etc.- can be added to any campaign, resulting in a world that is a lot more detailed and real than most generic fantasy settings. This sort of detail and specificity has long been one of the strongest points in favor of WFRP over other fantasy roleplaying games.

On the other hand, there are some weaknesses in the OWA that are hard to ignore. There are simply too many things repeated from the main rulebook. While I can understand the desire to have everything in one place, is there really a need to reprint, more or less verbatim:

  • Encumbrance rules
  • Availability rules
  • Craftsmanship rules
  • Starvation rules
  • Drunkenness rules
  • The melee and missile weapon tables
  • All the pieces of personal equipment from the core book
  • Stats for horses, dogs, ravens, and various other animals

That's just too much duplication, and it leaves the reader feeling like there isn't that much in OWA that is really and truly new (particularly since all the tables appear again in the appendix!). It's particularly irritating when there are several sections- the gunpowder section, the merchant houses, and the trade goods info- that could have legitimately benefitted from additional new material.

The good news is that most of the new mechanics that were added in OWA are all nice additions to the game- the hireling rules, weapon and armor damage, and the more detailed medical treatment. The expanded personal equipment listings are great for giving a little more detail and color to a character, but are unlikely to change your game in major ways. Overall, the OWA is a great book for players and GMs who want to bring as much detail as possible to their characters and campaign world, but a much less attractive choice for gamers just looking for lots of cool new practical equipment.

1 comment: