D&D is the grand-daddy of role playing games. While it’s the oldest though, it’s not the best. Even after multiple revisions (officially three and a half, it’s really on it’s 6th or 7th incarnation) the rules can be clunky, overly complicated and downright inflexible. If you buy into D&D’s particular brand of fantasy it’s great; if you want to play something more in line with the style of fantasy found in books unrelated to D&D though, you’re out of luck – not without a huge stretch of imagination, anyhow. That’s why attempts to use the D&D mechanics to mimic classic settings always demand lumbering 300+ page hardback tomes. Just take a look at the Wheel of Time role-playing game, Black Company, Thieve’s World and Everquest. They’re all D&D, but not as you know it, and mangle the rules in ever-so-slightly different ways.
Despite it’s faults, D&D is far and away the most popular rpg out there. I’d suggest that’s mainly due to the amazing level of support D&D has received, especially over recent years. Opening up the license was the best thing, ever, for the game. A month doesn’t go by without another terrific adventure, supplement or whatnot coming from Wizards of the Coast or another company. While WoTC’s books arguably have the highest production quality (typos aside), it’s the third parties that have done more to enervate and maintain the game. Nothing WoTC has produced can come remotely close to Ptolus, the World’s Largest Dungeon, the Dungeon Crawl Classic series, Freeport, Fields of Blood and more.
What D&D does well is cinematic fantasy. The Player Characters are the fantasy equivalent of Obi Wan, Spider-Man or John Rambo; all-but-indestructible, packing the best gear and completely central to the plot. They are Heroes with a 40 foot-high capital H, able to fight dragons and save the world before breakfast. Even at 1st level, the heroes are stronger, tougher and more powerful than 90% of the population – and that’s right at the start of their careers. Gritty and realistic it ain’t.
If D&D is Spider-Man, Warhammer is Peter Parker before he was bitten by a spider. Down a dark alley. With bullies chasing him. And they’ve got knives. While a typical D&D character might come close to death (or even die then be resurrected) perhaps one adventure in four, in Warhammer the risk of death is a constant companion. Every combat is potentially life-threatening and life-changing, and even a battle with giant rats might leave your character missing a limb. In contrast, most D&D combats are little more than speed bumps before the battle with the Big Boss at the end of the level. D&D has more in common with Mario than Lord of the Rings in that respect.
It all has a knock-on effect on how the game is played. Because combat is so deadly in Warhammer, the players try to avoid it. This leads to interactions and (heaven forbid) role-playing instead of sword waving. And when combat does occur and the players survive, it’s a Major Event. I know at least one of my players still talked about a battle against Skaven (evil sewer-dwelling ratmen) they fought twenty years ago, yet would forget what they killed in D&D last week.
Characters in Warhammer are interesting too, in the way that real people (or their fantasy equivalents, at least) are interesting. Here’s an example starting character I’ve generated using the current edition of Warhammer:
Regnal the Black – Human Charcoal Burner. 6’1”, 160lds, black hair, pale grey eyes
- Common Knowledge (The Empire), Concealment, Haggle, Gossip (+10%), Outdoor Survival, Perception, Scale Sheer Surface, Search, Secret Signs (Ranger), Speak (Reikspeil), Marksman, Sixth Sense, Very Strong
- Common clothes, tattered cloak, dagger, backpack (blanket, tankard, cutlery), sword, leather jerkin (Body 1AP), 3 torches, tinderbox, hatchet, 6 Gold Crowns
Regnal is a charcoal burner; a dirty, filthy, sooty trade. He’s strong and tough from his years hefting wood to the burner, and has used his grandfather’s sword to defend his isolated home, but he’s certainly no fighter. He’s not particularly sociable, but with close friends and a tankard of bitter ale his tongue loosens and he loves to hear all the local gossip. In D&D terms he’s a Commoner with STR 16 DEX 14 CON 15 INT 10 WIS 12 CHA 11 – not something any self-respecting D&D player would ever want to play! Yet in Warhammer terms, it’s a great character with lots of potential.
D&D is all about what you are (a Fighter, a Wizard, a Rogue or whatever). Warhammer is about what you can become. Regnal might be a lowly charcoal burner now, but his life journey might turn him into a Scout, Knight or even Vampire Hunter before it’s over.
I’d say that Warhammer is much more in line with the fantasy genre than D&D in this respect. Few books or trilogies begin with the central character appearing fully-fledged as an all-conquering hero. Frodo, Rand al’Thor, Pug and Garion all started out at the bottom of the heap to become the stuff of legend. The only fantasy heroes (outside the ridiculous D&D novels) I can think of that buck that trend are Elric and Waylander.
I guess it all depends on what you want to play; both D&D and Warhammer are fun to play and both have their pride of place on my bookshelf. If you’ve never played Warhammer though, it comes very highly recommended