Category Archives: WH3

WH3: In Review

Ok, so that was a lot of text, but it laid down the groundwork for my impressions of Warhammer 3, and that means it’s time for bullet points!

  • The GM’s guide has a fantastic section dedicated to the resources the GM has at his disposal, in a mechanical sense, and how those can be used to various effects. Rather than simply giving the GM the authority to make things happen, the book focuses on how to do so, rather than just relying on the big stick of unlimited GM authority. It’s not that this usurps anything about the traditional GM role. It simply helps the GM to get the outcomes he wants, without breaking out the big guns. This is brilliant, and I hope we start seeing it in more games.
  • I admit I’ve gotten spoiled by the monster stat blocks in 4e, because when I started a fight, I just assumed that they would have armor and damage right there on the critter writeups. Not so much – I needed to go look up weapons and armor, which was a bit clunky.
  • On the other hand, monsters are nicely simplified just by using expendable pools of points. This adds a bit of bookkeeping – I’d be inclined to just pool them all together for the encounter – but it also makes for a nice pacing mechanism (monsters start out tougher, but weaken quietly).
  • The game leans heavily on the small triangular tokens as all-purpose trackers, perhaps too heavily. Some of them come in different colors, but that’s painful to track on the fly, and they’re easily muddled. I expect that anyone who plays the game seriously is going to swap them out for colored beads where they’re actually used, and substitute in something else for places where they’re a bad match, like initiative tracking.
  • The setting seems less dark. I mean, it’s still dark, and the art is still…highly stylized…but I don’t get quite so much of the “The victory of Chaos is inevitable, all you can do it kick around pebbles waiting for the end of everything” vibe out of things. I like this a lot. It’s a bit less over the top, which makes me much more comfortable engaging the setting. It’s still got all the trappings, and the lightening of tone is slight enough that I might even be imagining it, so while I think it’ll please people who like Warhammer, I’m not sure how it will appeal to the hardcore.
  • That is a big freaking box. Some part of me suspects it might be bigger than it needs to be, just for show, and if that’s true then well done. The sheer size of it is a strange kind of point in its favor. However, it’s just a big box, with a lot of space for stuff to rattle around in, and that’s a bit rough when there’s so much stuff. The box comes with no component storage, like the plastic tray you see in many boardgames, so you’re going to need to figure out how to store ans sort all the many cards and tokens yourself. FFG is a bit notorious for this, as their position is that they’d rather put in more components for the cost of the plastic tray, and I can’t fault that in theory, but I’m not sure I feel like I got a plastic tray worth of extra components, if you know what I mean.
  • That touches upon the elephant in the room: the price tag. This is a $100 game, and that’s a high price tag even for quality boardgames, so is it worth it? There’s no hard and fast right answer. Other $100 RPGs and supplements (World Largest Dungeon, Ptolus, various deluxe editions) tend to be big honking thick books, so there’s a bit of apples an oranges there, but my instinct is that it seems like a better deal than that, if only because you get so many shiny bits. Similar math comes up when you compare it to, say, the 3 core 4e books, which come in around that price tag. But compared to boardgames, which might have similar components, it seems high, and that’s hard to wrestle with[1]. In the end, I don’t feel ripped off, but I also don’t feel inclined to go “Wow”, which suggests that they probably priced it about right for business, but a bit high for marketing. That said, if you can get it for $60 or $70 through Amazon or whatnot, that’s enough to make it feel like a real deal, so maybe it wasn’t such a bad price point after all.
  • FFG has managed to surprise me with their support, which is better now than it was even a few days ago. They now have a proper errata /faq (pdf) up (thanks to Ifryt for the heads up) and seem to be providing things like an index among the online resources. While this doesn’t quite make up for the absence of one in the text, this is promising and I hope it’s a hint of things to come.
  • I hope this because, while I dig how the component model makes piracy hard and allows for commercial expansion, it also makes it really, really hard for players to add or modify things for their own games. While I’m sure FFG will eventually address this commercially (with things like blank card packs), I would really like to see them get behind the idea of helping players customize the game. PDFs of card blanks, for example, would probably be a big hit, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. As big a proponent as I am of OGL, a game doesn’t need to be open to robustly support a culture of homebrewing, and if WH3 is going to succeed, I really feel it needs to help players find a way to make it their own. If I spent $100 for a box of components which i can use just to play your game, then your success depends on my interest in that game. If I spent $100 on a toolbox of components that I can use for MY game, then you’ve got me hooked, because then each subsequent purchase is one I make for MY sake, not yours.
  • One last corollary to that: by going components based, FFG has created a game where the actual rules text is pretty secondary to the product. I hope that means they’ll be pretty liberal with it (creating reference pages and such). To my mind, they could give away the core rulebook as a free PDF and get nothing but benefit, and once a few more products are on the market, I wouldn’t be too shocked if they consider that.
  • Another big plus to the GM advice: there’s a large section on roll interpretation that talks about looking at the dice, thinking about where they came from, and coloring the outcome with that. That is to say, the rich rolling is baked right in.
  • Additionally, the GM’s book has some great “Say yes” advice, which is to be willing to just say yes but lay a bunch of misfortune dice on the roll. It’s good advice, and it works very well with the system since misfortune dice are transparent, so the player feels they got a fair shake. Compare that with trying to hit an arbitrary difficulty: you might roll well and the GM says you fail anyway, and there’s a sneaking suspicion that things aren’t quite kosher. Laying it out there works well for everyone, and players are startlingly receptive to it. They often know when they’re proposing a crazy or foolish idea, and will totally be good sports when you finish building the pool and add “and here are four misfortune dice as a stupidity tax.” Does that sound mean? It’s not, because the contract is clear: I’m making this hard, but if you pull it off, it will actually work.

When I picked up WH3, 4e was not far from my mind. My ideal hope was that it would provide me with a game that hit the notes I liked about 4e (of which there are many) without requiring that I carry all the books (or software) that 4e requires. It is not quite that, but I can see the shape of that game within it, and I feel like I could take a chisel and some time and find that game inside it. But that will definitely be no small amount of work, and I have only so much time in the day, so I hesitate to start down that path just yet. A lot of this hinges on what FFG does next – I know there will be more supplements and expansions, but I don’t yet know if they’re going to excite me, or if they’re going to be cut from the same cloth as past Warhammer RPG supplements – technically excellent, but not of any real interest to me.

And I think that’s the rub. The one thing WH3 failed to provide was any really strong inspiration for something I wanted to play. The blame for this falls squarely on the setting: the world of Warhammer is one I already know well, and this did not change or expand my understanding in any way to make me want to run something. But I’ll concede it laid the groundwork – if they put out a city book/box with the kind of quality GM advice in the core and without falling back into the old Darkety-dark-darkness of classic Warhammer, then that could be a genuinely magnificent product, and I suspect I’d eat it up with a spoon.[2]

So the ball is in FFG’s court. I’m already stealing the parts I like (the freeform combat model offers some useful tools for making better combat in other games) , but only so many of them can be pulled free of the chassis, so the big question is really how much use I will be able to make of the core of it.

I am hopeful. FFG knows what they’re doing, and my faith in them was represented by a willingness to plunk down $100 on an unknown quantity. But I also know that this is a fickle business, and that lots of things can go wrong between here and whatever future FFG has in mind. So I’ll wait and watch, and consider.

That said, if you do want to adventure in the World of Warhammer(craft), then this seems like a decent investment. The only reason I can’t totally endorse it is that, well, it’s not like WHFRP2e sucked. If you’re still playing that, it’s not like this will address some gap in the product. This is a different sort of beast entirely, and comparisons between the two games are very nearly apples and oranges. Both are delicious and good for you.

1 – The rub, apparently, is in the custom dice, which add substantially to cost, but I am not sure how much that compels me, when I look at boardgames that have them. Even a reasonably apples-to-apples comparison – FFG’s Descent – has custom dice, plus minis, plus components and it costs less. Of course, there may have been a greater expectation that a boardgame would move units (no idea – I know zilch about boardgame sales) or it might have been that because WH3 is sold as a book, it was going to have to be priced to handle Amazon-style deep discounting. As a businessman, I am intensely interested in and sympathetic to all these issues, but as a player, I admit they just muddy the water.

2 – And if there’s support for a city watch game? They already have my money, simple as that.

WH3: Combat

Ok, so combat. This is the real meat of things where WH3 is concerned.

First, I should note that it does a perfectly fine job for out-of-combat stuff. The skill list is long enough to give some sense of variety, and the stat-emphasis more or less mandates a certain amount of competence. There are good guidelines for reading the dice in useful ways out of combat, excellent advice on how to say yes with qualifiers (in the form of misfortune dice). For non-combat resolution, the game is not going to make me stand up and shout, but I have no complaints. To break out the inevitable 4e comparison, I feel like WH3 managed to provide a much more robust non-combat engine for play.

So that said, onto the fighty bits.

In a fight, you determine initiative in a classic sort of way and keep that order for the duration of the fight. Straightforward enough.[1] Each turn you also set your stance, which will either be reckless or conservative.[2] There’s a physical track to represent it, and each step on the track is also a numeric one, so if you’re three steps down the conservative track, that has a specific mechanical impact when the dice roll.[3]

When you go, you get to take and action and a maneuver, which D&D players will roughly equate with a Standard/Full action and a Move/Minor action. There’s no idea of a free action as its own thing, but things feel fast and loose enough that it doesn’t seem entirely necessary.

To take an action, you play a card. Every character gets a set of core cards by default with things that everyone can do, like make an attack or go full defense, as well a some that have stat dependencies (you need to have a decent agility to get the “dodge” action).[4] You also have a few more cards that you purchased during character creation that are hopefully full of cool and interesting things you can’t wait to do.

The action cards are double sided, and which side you use depends upon your stance: use the green side if you’re conservative, use the read side if you’re reckless. The mechanical difference between the sides can be non-existent or profound, and it quickly becomes clear that you want to pick action cards that complement your preferred stance. The card tells you what dice to roll, against what, and you scoop up those dice.

This step is a little convoluted, but I suspect it gets faster with time. Constructing your die pool basically follows this process:

1. Pick up a number of blue stat dice for the stat you’re using, and a number of purple difficulty dice based on how hard the action is (usually 1, plus 1 or two more if there are modifiers – you only get 4 purple dice, so they are far form numerous).

2. Based on your stance, swap out some blue dice for red (reckless) or green (conservative) dice. The number of dice swapped out is based on the number of steps you are into the stance, so Reckless 3 replaces 3 blue dice.

3. If you’re using a skill you’re trained in, add a yellow expertise die. If you have any talents or other bonuses going into them, add some number of white fortune dice to represent them

4. If there are any things working against you, like enemy skill or situational penalties, the GM adds them as black misfortune dice.

So, that all sounds a little complicated, and it is. The player should be able to build most of his pool of stat, stance and expertise dice on his own, and some fortune dice may come from known sources, like talents or training. The GM contributes the number of difficulty dice, and fortune and misfortune dice as appropriate.[5] I think it takes time and familiarity for the cadence of this to get as comfortable as calling out (or knowing) difficulty numbers. Initially it feels a bit like a game of its own, and that’s distracting, but it gets much easier. I wonder if it would be easier still if there was enough transparency for the player to build a pool on their own, but the ability to sprinkle fortune and misfortune dice is one of the GM’s big tools, so probably not.

The actual dice are simple: all the good dice can generate successes and boons, and some can generate critical successes, and the bad dice (purple difficulty and black misfortune) generate failures, banes and critical failures. This is only slightly muddled by stance dice, which are statistically better than the stat dice they replace, but also carry risks: red reckless dice have big rewards, but can also cause failure or penalties on a bad roll. Green conservative dice produce reliably good results, but can slow you down, which can suck[6].

Reading them is a bit more complicated. At it’s core, there are six outcomes a die can throw up: a success, a failure, a boon, a bane, a critical success or a critical failure. There are certain other special outcomes, like multiples (double success, double failure), modified successes (a success but you’re delayed, a success but you gain stress) or the symbol that indicates a critical wound, and while they’re interesting, they’re unimportant.

Success/Failures and Banes/Boons cancel out, so at the end of the roll you will only have the net value represented. In the abstract, success/failure speaks to what you’re actually doing, and bane/boon speaks to the stuff around it, so you might end a roll with some successes and some banes, and narratively that might mean “You hit, but end up in a disadvantageous position”, while a failure with boons might be “You miss, but you get a chance to catch your breath”.

The critical success and failure (Sigmar’s Comet and The Star of Chaos) are like super banes and super boons, though they don’t cancel out.

Mechanically, this is handled with result lines on the action cards. They basically list the various outcomes based on the number of results (in many cases, for example, a single bane or boon triggers nothing). The effects of the comet or star are usually listed here as well, often as something more potent than a simple bane or boon outcome.

At the table, this all resolved pretty easily. There were some issues of dice visibility, especially with the stance dice. They’re d10s, and some of the faces have 2 symbols on them, which lead to a few cases of “is that an axe (success) or an eagle (boon)?” The difference is pretty clear on the 6-sided fortune, misfortune and expertise dice, but it’s not as obvious writ small. Thankfully, this was not a huge problem, but it was a bit of a speedbump.

Anyway, once you take your action, you resolve it based on the outcome of the dice and the effects listed on the card. No problem. This probably results in some damage to the target. While the system is incredibly familiar (weapon establishes base damage, armor reduces it), the damage itself is handled quite cleverly. “Wounds” are cards handed to the person hit. In the case of a critical (or in certain situations where your wounds can be exacerbated), you simply flip over a random wound card, and the rules for whatever critical it is are on the card. For example, our Wizard took a “Blow to the Head”, so he had to roll an extra misfortune die when rolling intelligence.

The other thing you can do, your maneuver, is where some of the interesting stuff lives. Most of the uses of a maneuver are predictable – draw a weapon, pick something up and so on – but it also covers movement, and that is very curious indeed.

Combat in WH3 is gridless, but it does use miniatures. Specifically it uses cardboard standups, but you could just as easily use D&D minis to the same effect. A lot of the ideas are going to be familiar, but they’re tied together nicely. The basics are pretty simple.

If Bob is fighting a skaven, then we establish how far apart they are. They might be at extreme range (just within sight), Long range (close enough to shout), medium range (a couple dozen paces), Close (just a few steps away) or Engaged (Close enough to fight or otherwise interact. Once we establish that, they can use maneuvers to change that distance, though it takes more maneuvers to traverse longer distance.[7] You place a token between the two people or groups for each increment of distance.

If you add more people, then entire knots of people can be engaged. If Sarah and a Goblin join the fight, then Bob, Sarah and the Skaven might all be engaged, while the Goblin is at Medium distance from the engagement[8], peppering things with his bow. The distance is represented by 2 tokens between the goblin and the engagement – if he was further out, it’d be 3 or 4 token.

Now, there’s an obvious problem with this, which will probably jump out at anyone whose done engagement-based design (it’s not an uncommon idea). If Sarah disengages (takes one maneuver, puts her close to the engagement) and then moves further away to medium distance, how far is she from the goblin? The game doesn’t really address this.

This is not a dealbreaker, but it would be nice to have more guidance form the text. Still, one joy of approximating things with minis is that its not hard to adjudicate. If Sarah’s mini was slid away from the goblin, then she moved away from him, putting him at relative long range to her. If she moves towards him, then maybe she’s close. It’s just something to keep track of, and it’s likely to be problematic in more complicated melees.[9]

Whew. Ok, lots more tidbits and impressions, but they can wait until tomorrow, where this hopefully wraps up.

1 – You are expected to track this with one of the jigsaw puzzle tracks and some tokens. This works poorly, and is one of the areas where the philosophy of “components for everything!” shows some holes.

2 – It could technically be neutral, but that seems to be a terrible, terrible idea. I’m not even use you can use actions in a neutral stance.

3 – The stance system is pretty cool, and it’s an interesting class differentiator, since certain classes are more reckless or conservative than others, represented by how many steps they’re allowed. A balanced class has 2 of each, but some are 3 and 1 or 1 and 3. This is also greatly helped by the fact that advancement allows you to purchase more “steps” over the course of your career.

4 – One of the brilliant things of the game is hidden in here, and it’s something 4E badly needs to mimic (and I’ll testify that I do something similar, and it works). One of the cards is “Perform a Stunt”, which is to say, to do something not covered by the cards. Obviously, characters should always be able to do such things, but by explicitly calling it out as an option, it makes it much more likely that its an option players will take. All 4E needs is a power block for “Do Something Awesome” on the character sheet or among the cards, and it could gain the same benefit.

5 – In a bit of genius, fortune and misfortune dice don’t cancel out. So if you’ve got superior position (and gain a fortune die) but bad visibility (gain a misfortune die) the GM gives you both dice. This is wonderful, at leas to me, because more dice == more fun. It would be far more dull if the dice canceled out and it was a wash.

6 – Powers take a certain number of turns to recharge, and you track this by keeping tokens on the cards. Conservative dice sometimes cause you a delay, which means the GM can put two more recharge token on one of your powers. I suspect the intent may be that the powers have to be ones with recharge tokens already on them, but since it doesn’t say so, then the GM can put them on anything, including things like basic attack. This is moderately rough, but it’s hugely bad for wizards, because the GM can put it on the action that allows them to generate power for spells, and pretty much jam the wizard up entirely. Yes, they can still do basic actions, but it’s kind of anti-fun

7 – You get one free maneuver per turn, but you can take more maneuvers by accruing fatigue. The fatigue and stress (mental fatigue) rules are in the game, and they’re fine, but they’re not really interesting enough to bear much mention.

8 – And everyone in that engagement would get hit by an AoE attack. As a “dark” game, they can get away with this, since dangerous explosions are more in theme than the pinpoint blast radius of 4e.

9 – This is an area where the limit on the number of players in the core set (3) helps the rules. 3 players means the fights can only be so complicated.

WH3: General Text & Chargen

The actual rules for WH3e are pretty short. There are only 4 slim books in the box, and only one of them is primarily rules. That’s always a nice thing, especially when there are so many fun bits waiting to be rummaged through. The books aren’t flawless. A lot of the examples lack enough detail to be useful, and certain parts (most notably the sections on advancement and on the three-act-structure) are written in such a way that they end up obscuring the fairly straightforward underpinnings. I appreciate that the intent was to be more novice friendly, but sometimes it ends up just missing the mark. Thankfully, these problems are exceptions to the norm – most of the text hangs together just fine.

The one exception to this that jumped out is in the GM’s book. There are no guidelines for how tough to expect monsters to be compared to characters. Just to provide a slap in the face, monsters have a challenge rating, but it is only meaningful relative to OTHER MONSTERS. I have no kind or diplomatic ways to describe my opinion of this, so I will just leave it to say that when it came time to run my own game, I more or less took a stab in the dark at how tough the opposition should be, and very nearly bollixed it. The closest thing I had to a reference was the encounters in the sample adventure, but that’s a thin thread to cling to.

For good or ill, there are only a handful of rules that you don’t reference off the cards, but it is somewhat frustrating that they aren’t gathered for ease of reference. I was constantly looking through the book for simple, stupid things like “What do I roll for initiative?” They were rough to find, and the absence of an index did not help matters.

As is typical with such things, I immediately took a swing at making a character of my own, and used the lessons form that to help with chargen for my game the next day.

The process seemed straightforward enough: choose a race, shuffle and draw 3 careers, then spend a few points on stats and things like skills and talents. There were a few surprises along the way, though no dealbreakers.

Chargen seemed simple enough that I initially figured I could jut do it on the character sheet. It turns out the is a pretty bad idea – scrap paper is a necessity. Picking a race was easy enough, since there are only 4: Humans, High Elves, Wood Elves and Dwarves (some of them have cooler names, but that’s what the are). The benefits of each race are simple enough to track, though curiously they’re not represented on cards. I worry that some of the abilities might be easy to lose track of, but that’s a bit of an aside.

I was psyched to try the career selection – I’m a big fan of drawing a set of careers randomly and picking from that set. The set I pulled was interesting and colorful, but none of them had any real fighting capability. This seemed odd, but I flipped through the other careers and discovered that Weapon Skill and Ballistic Skill (the two fighting skills) are pretty uncommon. In retrospect, it makes sense: being trained in a skill is only a small bump. The stat being used is much more important. The thing to remember is that everyone fights. The presence of fighting skills just means you fight a little bit more.

So far, so good. Now came the time to spend the points, and this is where the first real bump emerged. Basically, you get 20 points (25 for humans, who start with lower stats). You can increase your stats by spending a number of points equal to the new value, and you can also spend points on Money, Talents, Actions and Skills. You can spend between 0 and 3 points in each category, to varying payout.

For my experiment (and for the players in my game) there seemed to be no reason not to max these out, excepting wealth. You can spend less, but the payoff (especially for actions) is just too big to ignore. But this leads to an annoying mathematical glitch: if you end up with an extra point or two, you can’t spend it to improve your stats, and if you’ve already maxed out the various categories, you will either waste it, or find some place to dump it. This happened to all three of my players, and as a result, all three started with maximum wealth because they had no other choice. The advancement rules give many more options for things that might be done with a single point, and it’s a shame that a few of those are not borrowed for chargen.

Next came choosing the things I’d bought. Skills were reasonably simple, though I stumbled a bit over my first advanced skill. You have a list of skills you might be trained in: pick some of them. It’s not rocket science.

Talents and Actions required going through the decks, and this was a little more clunky. Cards have certain strengths – they’re easy to reference in small numbers and great for randomization, but man they’re a pain in the ass for reference.

So, Talents are minor abilities represented by small cards, roughly akin to feats. Every career has two “slots” for talents which have a keyword (like “Tactics” or “Focus”) and you need to pick a talent of that type for that slot. While you can only have two talents slotted, there’s good reason to have more than two talents. First, you can swap talents in and out as a maneuver and second, you can contribute them to the party sheet (more on that in a bit).

Actions are more akin to powers, and are also represented by cards. They are pretty straightforward, though their double-sided nature adds an interesting twist (one side is conservative, one is reckless, the character uses the side that matches his stance, which I’ll talk about in a bit).

Buying gear was about as old school as could be possible. There are weapons and armor and stuff, with fairly precise prices and very detailed haggling rules. Total time warp. When we did group chargen, we discovered that the encumbrance rules are really harsh (and also a bit of a pain to find), especially if you left your strength at 2. Our archer could carry his longbow, some arrows and not a lot more (certainly not any kind of armor). We rolled with it because we were playing by the book, but man, that was pretty lame.[1]

The book has a nice bit at the end of chargen about fleshing out your character, with 10 useful questions. It’s nice enough, but putting it at the end, after you’re done, seems a bit like putting the horse behind the cart. However, I concede that this may just be the dirty hippy in me talking.

Anyway, once we finished chargen, we had our Human Messenger, Human Wizard and Dwarf Soldier, ready to go. Tomorrow, we’ll get to the lessons of the fight that followed.

1 – Also, this revealed the first real rule problem. Weapons with the “Quick” keyword have an ability that makes no sense. They reduce the recharge times of actions by 1 when you miss. The problem is that you don’t need to recharge a power that misses. So, um, what? I checked the FFG FAQ, but it’s a marketing document, not a rules ref.

WH3: Product vs. Game

I have a hard time talking about Magic: the Gathering. It is a fantastic game, and I can say that without reservation. It is one of the best thought out, best designed games out there. I have said on numerous occasions that if you want to understand how to create game mechanics, especially RPG mechanics, M:tG is like a masters class in exception based design. It’s fun to play, fast, colorful and fun. I bought into it when it first came out, when it was so novel that we tried to play with the decks we’d bought, and the Craw Wurm was terrifying. I’ve gotten rid of other CCGs over the years, but my Magic cards hang around [1].


I don’t play it these days. Every now and again I am struck by a strong desire to bust it out, but it always withers on the vine as I stop and try to catch up on the state of the art. I’m uncomfortable with the pay-to-play model, and it gets you coming and going. If you follow the rules and limit yourself to current sets, you need to pay to stay current as they come out. If you go with one of the broader rulesets, then you can use more cards, but so can the guy who has spent thousands of dollars on his rares and cheesy combos.

This used to bug me a lot, especially when I was younger and much more broke. I’m less broke these days, and I’m less troubled by the idea of being able to use money to make up for a lack of time[2], but I still can’t quite buy into the model. So I end up very torn on the topic[3]. I love the game, but I’m uncomfortable with the product.

Historically, M:tG was the only game that really presented me with this problem. 4e had some elements of it, but once you realize that you really don’t need anything but a DDI subscription[4], it becomes entirely manageable.

I should not have been surprised when the problem raised its head again in the shape of WFRP 3e. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying 3e is a monstrously large box, full of components with the kind of production values that only a company like FFG can bring to the table.

It’s a fun game, full of good ideas, lightly using a well loved setting. I enjoyed it a lot as a game, but I’m not yet sure how I feel about it as a product.

The most striking thing about the game is that you need almost nothing except what’s in the box. You’ll want a pencil and maybe some scratch paper for character creation, but you won’t need them once the game starts. Everything in the game, and I mean EVERYTHING is represented by the components. Abilities, wounds and statuses are all cards. Duration, exertion and range are tracked with tokens. There are little cardboard standups for characters representing position. Even the equivalent of skill challenges/skill ladders use tracks you build out of cardboard puzzle pieces. Almost[5] everything else is offloaded to the dice. This is brilliant to behold in action.

But it’s also a double-edged sword. Since everything can be done with the components, the components also represent the limit of what you can do. Adding new classes or abilities requires adding new components – even supporting more than 3 characters requires more components than come in the box – at least so long as you play by the rules.[6]

There is absolutely a lock-in element to the game, but there are some benefits to this as well. When new rules or items or whatever get added to the game by an adventure or the like, as long as you include the cards, those get folded into the core rules with a quick shuffle. Compared to needing to reference multiple books, that’s pretty sweet.

It’s also a pretty decent check against piracy. If the components are necessary to play, it doesn’t really matter if illicit PDFs get out on the Internet. Making cards and tokens at home is enough of a pain in the ass to make enthusiasts likely to just decide to suck up the price.[7]

I dig that, and as a business decision I understand where it came from, but it comes with a cost. There are a lot of decisions made in the design of the game that make it very hard to actually reference things. Most notably, if there is information on a card, it is not mirrored anywhere in the text. That’s a great protection against piracy, but it also means that there are no lists of talents or class abilities to consult – you need to flip through the cards.

Cards are incredibly useful for certain things, but this is not one of their strengths. It’s awkward and clunky, and it’s very clearly a decision to trade off ease of use for expandability (generously) and protection against piracy (cynically). That’s not a dealbreaker, but it colors perception of the game when you get to fuzzier decisions.

As an example, most everything I needed to reference for play as a GM could easily fit on a single page, maybe two. I’d hope for a summary page, but when I don’t get one, I normally wave it off as one of those terrible decision that people make in the name of page count, like excluding an index. Which is to say, I’d be unhappy, but I’ve got callouses over that spot. But when faced with a game where the business decisions are so apparent, it’s hard to shake the feeling that it was left out to help pimp the eventual GM’s screen.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Having had time to think, I’m quite sure that the lack of a summary really is in the same bucket as a lack of index, but it took a lot of thought and time to reach that conclusion. At the table, as we were sorting through things and I was getting frustrated, it was very easy to reach the uncharitable interpretation. That’s no good.

So thus I am back where I started. I really dig the game, but I’m uncertain whether I like the product. I’ll be chewing on it for a bit, but I hope to delve a bit more into both sides of that tomorrow, now that I’ve laid bare my biases.

1 – So do my Shadowfist ones, but that’s neither here nor there.

2 – I’m pretty easy-going about it with MMOs, for example. But they’re also a different sort of game.

3 – Yes, this could probably be several posts on its own.

4 – And that that subscription is pretty much entirely mandatory. Yes, that’s another type of “pay to play”, but it’s better for two reasons. First, there’s no real problem with getting on and off the train – if I stop playing D&D and then come back to it, I have the same resources as anyone else. Second, it’s not priced too badly, especially compared to buying a $30-$40 book every month (and in fact, the online subscription model means I don’t need to worry that I missed a book during my time away).

5 – And this is definitely an “almost”, and one I tripped over once or twice.

6 – It is entirely possible to play the game in a more traditional fashion, but it does require copying a lot of information from cards. I am genuinely uncertain how well the game would hold up under such a change. On one hand, it would lose the elegance of all-components, but on the other hand it might actually improve the experience. The all-component approach works better in some areas than others, so it might be interesting to be selective in its application.

7 – That is, until someone copies the information from the cards and comes up with the aforementioned rules for playing without components. I expect this to happen quickly, so I hope there’s not too much weight put on this particular pillar.