Warhammer Fantasy is the name of both a miniatures game published by Games Workshop, and an RPG originally published by Games Workshop (but licensed to a variety of other publishers over the years). The two games roughly share a common world, though the miniatures game tends to be somewhat more "epic" and "high fantasy" than the RPG.
The Role-Playing Game
Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play is one of the darkest, grimmest, grittiest RPGs ever. It starts with a standard fantasy setting, and cranks the nobs far into the "cynical" end of the Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism. Then it throws in a bit of vaguely cthulhoid body horror and insidious cults, gory critical wounds, rulebook-mandated perpetual poverty for the PCs, and Deliberate Values Dissonance. But it's fun, and funny, like a bleak British comedy. You laugh at how cruel the world is to your characters. On some forum somewhere, I once read roughly the following description, and I think it sums it up pretty well:
D&D: You're surrounded by Orcs, and down to your last hitpoint.
Warhammer: You're surrounded by Orks, and your left hand is missing. Just to make it worse, it's raining.
It's a heck of a game.
One noteworthy aspect common to all the editions is the multitudes of "interesting" (read: surprisingly mundane) character classes. You could be a peasant, ratcatcher, rag-and-bone-man, or just about anything else on the List of Medieval European Professions. And remember, you roll up your career randomly.
Edition Wars are common anytime an RPG gets revised and updated. Warhammer Fantasy is no exception, and rocked the boat more than most even, by entirely revamping the core mechanics between the 2nd and 3rd editions (going from a percentile system to a dice pool). Despite having been out for nearly a year, the "which edition is better" meme is still a frequent spotlight at all the various Warhammer forums.
The first two editions are pretty math-intensive percentile-based systems. You roll on random charts to determine every aspect of your character, including race, class, and eye color. Combat involves a lot of missed attacks, punctuated by absolutely devastating critical hits. It's very bloody, and I've heard fans say that even "a goblin with a wooden spoon" has a chance of scoring a TPK.
The newer third edition is pretty unique. It has a lot of ground-breaking narrative-gaming / story-gaming concepts and tools, but with a level of mechanical crunch usually reserved for strictly gamist systems. The game is so innovative, it has a hard time finding an audience. One of the neat mechanics is that die rolls are not binary, nor measured on a single axis. Regardless of whether a roll succeeds or fails, it can still trigger one or more positive or negative side-effects. You can fail but still get a silver lining, or succeed brilliantly while still triggering some tangential disaster in the same roll. The result is a more cinematic game, and the PCs feel a bit more heroic than in the previous editions. There's fewer missed attacks, but still plenty of interesting things to go wrong in the middle of a fight. And it's got these weird colorful dice with completely unique symbols and affects that essentially removed all the math out of fight scenes.
The Miniatures Game
The miniatures game has a decidedly more High Fantasy feel. Whereas the RPG is all about the tenacious little guy who blunders into a bad situation, the macabre humor, and a richly layered tapestry of conspiracies; the tabletop game focuses more on the battlefield magic, the heroic champions, and the constant state of war besieging the Empire. In the minis game, a big deal is made about the Emperor riding into battle on his griffin - in the RPG he's colored more like a traditional medieval monarch spending most of his time in court. In the minis game, it's common for officers in an army to carry magic weapons, but in the RPG such items are quite rare. Both games are set in the same world, but viewed through very different lenses.
List of Races
Here's a list of the official armies you can wield in the Warhammer Fantasy Battles miniatures game. These races exist in quantity enough for armies of them to march across the continent and engage each other. This is somewhat different from what's presented in the RPG, where most of the non-human races are presented as rare.
- Beastmen - a horned mutant race
- Chaos - Corrupted humans, and the Daemons they serve
- Humans - Organized into The Empire and several outlying kingdoms
- Orcs and Goblins
- Skaven - ratmen
- Tomb Kings - Egyptian-themed undead
- Vampire Counts - a thanotocracy of necromancers ruling other undead
There's also a MMORPG based on (roughly) the same setting. This arcanist hasn't played it, but what I've seen online suggests it's closer in tone to the minis game than to the RPG.