The Three Laws of Rune Magic

Design notes on dwarf Rune Magic in Black Fire Pass

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Melt the bryn-gold in a crucible of dragon’s scales, pouring it into the rune's shape in a single motion while invoking the name of Hroki the ancestor Quench the blade in an unopened keg of the best ale Drink the ale –Translated from the notes of Kalvir the Red-nosed

Few cultures in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay are richer or more storied than that of the dwarfs. Fans of these stoic warriors will find a comprehensive wealth of information in the upcoming Black Fire Pass expansion. This is the first expansion to focus on one specific race, and players will find information on the hold of Karak Azgaraz, details on the history and geography of Black Fire Pass, a complete adventure set, and rules for dwarf careers, dwarf engineering, and runesmithing.

Our design team provided insight into the creation of a new form of magic for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay.

Notes from the Design Team

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (WFRP) is a large and ambitious project, based on an enormous setting with a wealth of source material, so the publication of expansions was an obvious choice–both to enrich flavor and setting information and create mechanics to support those elements.

Every day we work on WFRP, we challenge ourselves to provide as many exciting new ideas as we can, but we know we need to do so without complicating mechanics past their breaking point. This is the battle we wage against the daemon we call “bloat”: how do we do something new and interesting without introducing too many confusing new rules? Perhaps more accurately, we ask ourselves how much bloat is acceptable for any innovation. Our biggest success thus far in the battle against bloat came in Omens of War, with the introduction of Severe Injuries. Very early in the design of Severe Injuries, we knew for them to work seamlessly at the table, they needed to fold into an existing system and an existing deck of cards.

When we looked at designing new systems for Black Fire Pass, we again confronted the spectre of “bloat.” Since this was likely the only time we would explore dwarfs in depth, we knew this was our only chance to do justice to several key components of the Warhammer Fantasy setting. It would be simple to dash off a few pages that would tuck such dwarf concepts as engineering or rune magic into the background of the setting, but we strive to do something more with our games. We wanted to give the players the opportunity to experience these facets of the setting within the scope of the game–and within the scope of the game’s mechanics. Rune Magic had to make the cut, and it had to be mechanically supported.

No problem, right? We already have a magic system that’s quite robust. Adding a few new spell cards to the game would cause very little bloat. They would add no new rules to remember, and the new components are only relevant to players who actually use them. Unfortunately, though the action card system is quite robust, it’s not ideally suited to Rune Magic, which is mainly about crafting permanent magical effects into items. Runic items are fundamentally different than spells: once crafted, runic items can be wielded by anyone.

Rune Magic

Fortunately, we found another existing component well-suited to ongoing, permanent, often-passive effects, and it’s one to which every character has access and players already understand: Talent cards. By making our Runes broadly similar to Talents, we cut back on bloat. Players will understand the similarities to Talents and will quickly and intuitively adapt to Runes.

As you can see, Rune cards are similar to Talents in many respects, including their overall layout. A Runesmith or Apprentice Runesmith can learn a new Rune in lieu of a Talent, and Runes attach to items much like Talents attach to a career sheet. Like Talents, Runes generally feature small but significant ongoing effects that modify their “parents”–except they modify items, rather than characters. Characters share Talents via the Party Sheet, as one character lends his wisdom and tutelage to the rest of the party. Characters share Runes simply by handing the runic item to a friend.

Of course, there are a number of profound differences between Runes and Talents. A Rune reflects a physical mark on a physical item in the world of Warhammer Fantasy. A runesmith can’t simply spend a manoeuvre to swap out one Rune with another! No, Rune Magic is an ancient and guarded secret of the dwarfs, and anyone who would strike a Rune must do so in accordance with the Three Laws (pdf, 1.1 MB).

The design team set several goals before developing Rune Magic for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. We wanted to capture the flavour of Rune Magic in the Warhammer Fantasy setting, with its deep connections to dwarf stubbornness, secrecy, and conservatism. We wanted to avoid unnecessary clutter and complication in our larger game system. Most importantly, we wanted to engender fun play experiences for anyone interested in playing a runesmith, and enough firm groundwork to allow creative players to extrapolate and design their own content for games of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. How successful we’ve been at achieving these goals is for you to judge. Black Fire Pass will be here in a few short months!

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