"I love painting in a loose style. These skaven were painted for Mark Evans. I mixed up a rich brown colour from cheap acrylics to use as the main shading colour, metal and the bases. I then did the other base colours, so skin, clothes etc. I washed this with a brown/black mix. Then I used the brown mix to carefully shade around the edges of parts and other shadows. After this is put some of the black/brown wash mix into crevices that needed a bit more contrast. After that I painted the edges of the metal in silver, very messily. Then I sprayed the models using the brown mix and a toothbrush! After that I did highlights where they were needed. "
Curtis Fell's Skaven army came to my attention with his posts on the Skaven Facebook group. A mix of classic Goodwin Skaven with modern models circa The Isle of Blood, these blend together perfectly with Fell's unique and dynamic colour scheme.
What stands out immediately is the juxtaposition of rich turquoises. greens, and reds set out a base of washed-out neutral colours with chalky highlights relating an almost "industrial" look to the army.
This is most apparent in what is perhaps the standout aspect of Fell's painting: his astounding talent for worn and rusted armour. This likely comes as no surprise for any who recognize Curtis Fell as the fellow behind Ramshackle Games
I asked Curtis about his painting and he was good enough to provide the following overview of his technique:
"I love painting in a loose style. These skaven were painted for Mark Evans. I mixed up a rich brown colour from cheap acrylics to use as the main shading colour, metal and the bases. I then did the other base colours, so skin, clothes etc. I washed this with a brown/black mix. Then I used the brown mix to carefully shade around the edges of parts and other shadows. After this is put some of the black/brown wash mix into crevices that needed a bit more contrast. After that I painted the edges of the metal in silver, very messily. Then I sprayed the models using the brown mix and a toothbrush! After that I did highlights where they were needed. "
"The final details included the eyes, which I paint plain white. I then uses some blood effect paint to give them all weeping blood eyes. This really helps as the gloss finish sparkles in the light and makes the model look alive with wet eyes. As I said, I keep it loose and am pretty messy. The mess adds visual texture, and each step of the paint job lets you cover the mistakes on the last step. I had a lot of fun doing the painting on these!"
"The plants on the bases are all common moss I picked and dried out. Its very strong even though its dainty!"
From Fell's description of his style and a perusal of his other works at Ramshackle, I'm tempted to dub his approach "Industrial Impressionism" (if only out of a love for alliteration). It seems to me the mid-point between a 90's Tool music video and the cityscapes of LS Lowry or Hayward Veal.
As a parting thought, what occurs to me putting together this entry into the series more than anything else is that these miniatures, works of art in and of themselves, are such a potent canvas for the spirit of a painter to shine through. It is this unique capacity to take the same foundation and use it to express a highly individual vision that transforms the hobby from a paint-by-numbers exercise into a collaborative expression of fantasy that transcends the sum of it's parts.
Cult of the Four-Armed Emperor was the Oldhammer painting blog of one Archae Opteryx , who in July of 2014 unleashed their Skaven army upon the underworld. Again, while the Chambers influence is obvious, Archae adds his own unique spin.
The blend of a muted yet rich colour palette with a masterful use of washes creates an appropriately "filthy" look. Yet this doesn't detract from the clean and controlled linework, with some amazing free hand.
Archae offered the following insight into his approach to painting his Skaven on the Oldhammer forum
"I can try to describe the way I paint my Skaven.
I spent countless hours over the years studying the handful of pictures of Andy Chamber's Skaven army in White Dwarf 137 and experimenting with different ways to try to capture the feel of it. I never managed to replicate it, despite trying, and would love to hear in detail his technique and see it in the flesh or at least some better photos. I really envy the more loose expressionistic style of painting that some can pull off, but my personal style is too controlled and for some reason I can't shake it. So what you see is the result of this process of experimentation with many different techniques used, the army was painted over many years and is still being slowly added to.
The process I have currently settled on for the skaven is I prime the figures white, then give them a black wash to bring out the details.
Next I apply thin glazes of colour, starting with the metals, then the flesh, fur, clothes, straps and other details. The colours for the most part are quite random, whatever browns happen to be close at hand, apart from the cloth which I use a khaki drab colour that I mix differently for each batch to give a bit of variety. I think I use varying ratios of Vallejo Khaki, English Uniform, Russian Uniform, and Olive Drab
At this point the figure looks like a washed out pastel version of itself.
The next step is a bit hard to describe- I then deepen and darken certain areas by using layers of citadel washes Sepia, Devlan Mud, badab black, and ogryn flesh until it looks "right" ie there is adequate contrast and tone to the different areas of the mini. Before these washes came out I used oil washes, and in some ways I like the effect more but the citadel washes are way more convenient.
Generally the fur and metals receive more layers of the darker washes, and some areas receive no washes.
The metals I tend to leave as is at this stage. The numerous black and brown washes have given a used, rusty patina. I stipple on a watered down jade green wash to any bronze areas.
Then I drybrush the fur with a random lighter brown then the base, and then a very light selective drybrush with bleached bone.
Sometimes the other areas require to be highlighted by the base colour, then a final highlight layer of the base + bleached bone/white.
The last thing I do is paint designs on the shields, and some war paint on the fur by first painting the design in black, then going over it in white or bleached bone."
Unfortunately, the Cult of the Four Armed Empire plog hasn't updated since 2015, but these things happen online, at least it still remains for our viewing pleasure.
When last we left Zweihander…
We had braved the character creation rules, and come out on the other side with a flavourful gem that I wouldn't mind playing in a game, and seems appropriate to the setting. So I guess ace in the whole, even if it could shave off a bit of chafe so it doesn’t take too long. I have this weird superstitious thing about long chargen processes, because it seems like 9 out of 10 times I’ve tried that “we’ll spend the first session just making characters” thing, it doesn’t end up leading to a game. Best to jump right into playing as quickly as possible is my current approach.
Anyways, with all the foreplay out of the way so it’s on to...
The original combat system of WFRP is a thing of simple and brutal beauty. A percentile roll vs your Skill rating, on a success you flip the numbers and find the hit location. If the damage surpasses that hit location's Armour and the character's Toughness, a Critical Hit effect is rolled. The descriptions of these critical hits were entertainingly over the top and gory.
It is effective, deadly, and perfectly captures the tone of the setting.
Zweihander has mixed things up a bit, so let's see how it compares.
On a character's Turn, they have a reserve of Action Points that must be "spent" to engage in whatever their chosen activity. Action Points don't carry over from one Turn to the next. Turns are equivalent to about ten seconds in time. Character's take their turns following an "Initiative ladder" established at the beginning of Combat, with each combatant roll a d10 and adding the Initiative bonus (one of the calculated Attributes from Part I). This part is weird:
"The end results are tracked from highest to lowest,
displayed openly for everyone to refer to."
So I guess this is meant to be an actual chart, a visual ladder that anyone can see who is going to act when? What does this add to the game?
Zweihander combat has a number of "conditional effects" that are applied during combat. These sort of remind me of CCG Keywords or "Aspects" of the Fate family of RPGs.
We then get a chart of actions that can be taken in combat , their associated AP costs, and short descriptions of how the effects are handled. There's a group of them on the chart called "Perilous Stunts" that I have s sinking feeling are D20 Feats by another name.
You always start each turn with 3 AP. Most combat actions are 1 AP, so theoretically you can make three Melee Attacks in one round, but the implication is you may want to save some for Dodging or Parrying attacks on your opponent's turn. But I guess having the Initiative ladder chart out in the open to reference means you'll know if that's going to happen and how many AP you should save. But that means if two people facing each other in combat, one could take 3 attacks every turn, one could parry 3 attacks ech turn, but if you do anything except defend yourself you wont be able to defend against every attack. OK, I guess that makes sense, though it paints a far more rigid picture in my head of combat than I'm used to. What's strange to me, however, is the AP costs for Movement actions. Walking costs 1 AP, so you can walk up to opponent and then hit them twice. But running costs 3 AP, so, you can run up to an opponent and...do nothing. I'm trying to picture how charges in combat would work according to this. Isn't most moving and attacking simultaneous in actual combat? I'm not talking about drilled army combat between regiments of infantry, just a brawl on a street. Isn't running up and hitting someone then trying to move out of the way before they can retaliate like Tactic #1 of most melees?
Also, moving out of combat instigates an "Opportunity Attack".
I head to reread that sentence a few times, then I had to check the cover of the book I was reading.
Dan, you added "Attacks of Opportunity" to Warhammer? Seriously, you just loved them that much from 3rd edition?
Well, not exactly Attacks of Opportunity, and as a fellow poster on the Pub where I originally typed up this review pointed out, there's precedent in the original rules for this, but regardless. here's a proper British man to tell you why you are wrong:
Each of the Table's contents is then explained individually in-depth, with clear instructions on how to resolve them mechanically. This is all very in-depth, for example:
There are also "Movement Subtype modifiers" if you are mounted, riding, or trying to be sneaky. These are so specific as to list the difference if you are mounted on one of 5 different types of horses, or a stage coach vs a "fancy coach".
OK, section on Perilous Stunts. I guess they have one over on Feats, in that they seem to be usable by anyone willing to try them, not special powers a character earns. If a Perilous Feat is successful, it cannot be Dodged or Parried, only "Resisted".
Attacks are actually resolved in much the same manner as the basics of the system laid out in Part I with "Skill Checks". The "Chance for Success" is determined by taking the Base Chance (the Combat Primary Attribute plus any applicable skill Ranks). The game reminds us here that a character's Peril track sets the maximum skill ranks that can be applied. Most attacks then have a fixed Difficulty Rating that is applied as a bonus or penalty to the Base Chance.The GM adjusts/adds the Difficulty Rating based on the specific conditions of the Attack. Tallying all this together gives the TOTAL Chance for Success that is rolled against.
Again, slight bit of weirdness. The game insists that the GM must always announce out loud the Total Chance for Success for any NPCs. I don't understand the reasoning here, and again like the Initiative Ladder, it seems intent on giving players information they wouldn't have?
I'm getting the impression this game may have been intended for a more ..."tactical" style of gameplay than I'm accustomed to, which may link back to seeing Gygaxianisms leak into the design.
Anyways once the Total /Chance is calculated, the combatant rolls percentile dice, trying to beat it. If you roll a Critical Success, this may have some additional effect, and if you roll a Critical Failure, you lose (or gain, depending how you look at it) Fatigue, equal to 2D10 +2 "Physical Peril".
If an Attack is successful, and the opponent isn't Dodging or Parrying (which requires their own Skill Check and Total Chance calculation), a Damage Roll is made. Damage is based on the attacker's Combat Attribute Bonus plus a Fury Dice roll. Meanwhile, the Defender/victim calculates their Damage Threshold, based on their Brawn Bonus plus Armour.
The degree to which the Damage Total exceeds the Damage Threshold determines the severity of the wound, expressed as how many steps down the Character moves their "Damage Condition Track", and if they take Damage totalling 18+ their Damage Threshold, they are instantly Slain. Likewise, when the Character's Damage Condition Track passes several Thresholds, they may trigger an "Injury". Players roll a number of Chaos dice and any result of 6 indicates an injury which the GM assigns, presumably based on Zweihander's version of the Critical Hit charts. I say presumably because these have been hidden away in the GM section. Besides the fact that just as a resource during play this seems like it would be annoying not to have all in one section, I question this decision. In general I guess I wouldn't have any problem with it but it seems so...inconsistent. As I specifically remarked regarding other design decisions, it seems like the intent was to provide players with as much information as possible, to a point that for me crosses the line into metagame. So while I can conceptually see why Critical Hit Results would be Gamemaster only information (to be a surprise for players), it doesn't seem consistent with the game design choices up to this point.
If you receive an Injury and you have no armour, you begin Bleeding. The mechanics for this are apparently in another chapter.
There's some discussion about spending Fate points to stave off death, and then the final notes of the chapter declare the intention of the system is to be "exciting, riveting, and brutal".
So with the caveat that these goals are largely dependent on playstyle and personal perception, what comes to my mind first off is a section from Rick Priestly and John Lambshead's Tabletop Wargames: A Designers' and Writers' Handbook wherein they describe the role of "widgets" in the game. Basically, the concept is that in certain situtions, the outcome of a basic rule will trigger a conditional advanced rule. The engagement with this advanced rule after meeting certain preconditions is meant to increase player involvement by raising the stakes. An easy example would be in Warhammer Fantasy Battle's 8th edition magic system. A player casting a spell would roll a number of dice, the maximum defined by the magical skill or power level of the caster. Rolling double 6s on any two of these dice indicates the spell is cast with "Irresistible Force", indicating the caster succeeds in the casting attempt (which cannot be opposed), but must also roll on a separate effects chart to determine if their are further consequences (up to and including the caster accidentally opening a gate to the Warp and getting sucked in). This potential, for a spell to backfire or carry with it a heavy toll creates a "Risk vs Reward" choice on the part of the player. They may have access to 7 dice to put towards casting a spell, but is it worth rolling all 7 to statistically improve the chances of the spell succeeding vs the corresponding increased chance of rolling "Irresistible Force"?
I'm bringing all of this up because I think it's possibly the best approach to take to objectively evaluate Zweihander's combat system, specifically the additional "crunch" in comparison to the WFRP system.
Does the addition of the majority of rules for combat increase player involvement (ie make them "exciting, riveting"), and does the Risk vs Reward nature of the rules convey the intended "Brutality"?
My answer is a mixed bag. I don't know that the Action Point system adds any benefit to the experience of combat, even beyond the conceptual nitpicks I made regarding pricing. But that may just be me. The increased meta-game time implied by the method of executing Skill Checks bothers me from the PoV of a player/GM who prefers speed and abstraction for maintaining the tension and pacing of combat over complexity and definition.
I think ultimately my impression is that the original, streamlined combat system of WFRP achieves the same goals that Zweihander's combat rules set for themselves, but did it with significantly less steps. The reader will from that need to infer for themselves whether the interaction with the game mechanics proposed provides enough enjoyment for them to compensate for the additional rules crunch.
Following Combat, we get a chapter on Injuries and healing and whatnot, as expected.
Further explanations of the Damage and Peril Tracks, one ending in Death, the other incompacitation. It took me a bit to Grok what Peril was meant to represent, the term seems so...external. But it's effectively like a Sanity/Psyche/Willpower pool, "Mental Hit Points" instead of physical ones. But not exactly, because there's inconsistencies. Usually it seems internal to the character, but in other rules it's less so. I find it helps to view from a Tolkien/religious perspective: "Your soul is in Peril." that sort of thing. In that manner it could be compared to the Doom mechanic in The One Ring.
I guess because it's a "grim world of perilous adventure?"
I never took that phrase so literally.
This chapter has some real gems though, in the form of Diseases and Poisons. Excessive detail is given to both categories with all the love and attention of some morbid Addams Family version of an Audubon Society handbook. Papa Nurgle would be proud.
There is a good amount of creativity in the form of new diseases, and old favourites such as Tomb Rot, as well as addressing more common "real world" maladies up to and including those of the venereal variety (thankfully not much detail here, that's what the internet is for kids!). Poisons are divided into deliriants, toxins and venoms. Which is sensible.
Pretty much every other form of mortal injury is dealt with as well, including frostbite, heatstroke, falling (or, more accurately, landing), burning, suffocation, starvation, etc. Maybe not 100 ways to leave your lover, but pretty close.
There is also info on intoxicants and alcoholism, I assume to make dealing with the rest a bit easier.
Speaking of, next up is the section on healing. This is one of the most in-depth looks at the subject I've ever seen not hidden away in a random supplement from a third party. It's complex, but only in the degree to which it covers pre-modern medical practices. Infection, Bloodletting, Bleeding, and Surgery are all among the section headings.
So yeah, it's as crunchy as any other part of the system, but here I find (for myself anyways), the crunch justified. I think it works with the horribleness being dealt with to up the tension. Dying is mostly slow and brutal, in the same way I think that combat should be brutal and quick.
Finally we get into alchemical powders and compositions, some more or less of medical value (or at least use), but also including gunpowder, the making of bottle rockets, quicksilver, Royal Water, and antivenoms.
All in all I'd say so far this is the best chapter of the book. It's the first time I think that Zweihander has managed to supercede WFRP.
The next chapter is...
So this is the "Winds of Magic" colour-coded concept of magic that was a late addition to the Warhammer RPG, coming from a revision in the WFB wargame. And quite literally, the section on magic theory is practically a rephrasing without any copyright terms. So I probably won't have a lot to say on it.
I think in the introduction to Part I you'll find the reasons I preferred the original magic system, clunky as it was, but I've got nothing against the Winds of Magic concept. It does feel a little more "Middlehammer" than "Oldhammer" to me, though.
So for the Nine Winds of Magic they went with the Sefirot, from Kabbalistic magical theories. Kudos on that, it's a clever corollary. At the same time we also get the Gods of this "settingless" RPG (look for more ranting on that topic in Part III). Here I'm seeing a George R. Martin influence, with the gods defined as Archetypes rather than individual personalities. I mean, that may come from somewhere besides Game of Thrones in fantasy fiction, but that's where I encountered the concept, and one of Zweihander's "Archetypal Deities" is called The Winter King, with the symbol of a wolf's head, sooo....yeah.
I guess one could say then any Deity particular to a setting could be "slotted into" one of these Archetypes, but real life Gods tended to be much messier in their manifestations and domains of influence.
Casting a spell is once again based upon the same Skill Check universal resolution system we're familiar with. The bells and whistles are mostly what you'd expect. The spell list does have ingredients (or, in most cases it seems, an ingredient), so there's that.
I guess what it comes down to, as you might have surmised by my tone up to this point, is that this chapter just doesn't interest me very much. I've got no real complaints, it seems fine as a magic system. It just doesn't inspire me at all, it's no leap in innovation. I mean, it doesn't has to be, it's solid enough. Gets the job done.
There's a section on "Wytchstone", Zweihander's answer to Warpstone, and a section on Runestones...
...Finishing up with a bit on creating Talismans.
And now we are onto the Game Mastering Section. This, more than any other part of the game, I expect to be the most illuminating in regards to the games' intentions and the approaches behind the design. It could make or break this review.
And the first sentence is a doozy:
"Unlike other tabletop role-playing games,
ZWEIHANDER doesn't have an implied setting."
OK, I was holding off until Part III, but I guess we're doing this rant now...
No. No, after the Bestiary. Just to really drive my point home.
Moving on then. According to the game, instead of an implied setting, Zweihander instead "focuses upon a number of thematic elements to underpin the narrative and mechanics." We have have a rather in-depth, or at least wordy, explanation of the tropes of grim worlds with perilous adventures. we've been here before, at the beginning. While I can see re-iterating it here I suppose, I feel like all the various sections dealing with tropes and themes could have been combined into one.
We come across an interesting statement here though: "In some tabletop role-playing games , optional systems are provided to make the game deadlier and more 'realistic.' More often than not, a GM will ignore these rules because they are often unwieldy or perhaps too time-consuming. ZWEIHANDER also contains these rules, but instead of being optional, they are considered integral to the entire experience."
This actually explains a LOT about the design choices. As I interpret this, it seems that the author equates mechanical crunch with "grittiness." I'd honestly not ever considered this PoV. I don't think I share it, I've run incredibly deadly and gritty games with streamlined FASERIP rules (the REAL FASERIP, not the clone going by that name - it's annoying that I have to constantly reiterate that, but I refuse to stop using the acronym, it was ours first). For those unfamiliar, this is an incredibly (mechanically) 'rules-lite' system, somewhere in between Risus and WEG's Ghostbusters. I did not add rules crunch to make the system deadlier or more realistic, this was handled completely with some tweaks of the resource management system underlying the game and the way I ran it as a GM.
But I can at least see where Daniel & Co. are coming from on this one. It's mechanic design choices based on aesthetics. Even if I don't have the same evaluation, I can appreciate it from a game design perspective. Essentially Zweihander is "justifying its crunch" based on aesthetics.
Then we get some setting information.
(still not ranting yet)
Stuff about social class relations, bureaucracy, and education.
And then back into genre and trope discussion. I think I get it, Zweihander is treating basically the Warhammer Fantasy Old World setting, or their equivalent of it, as part of "The Genre." Hm, well I can see the validity of the attempt from a legal standpoint, but does it hold up? Warhammer Fantasy is one of the largest fantasy IPs in gamedom, but can it be said to be it's own genre? And to what degree?
Anyways, this section overall is pretty expansive, taking up the first 7 pages of the chapter, before we go onto "Your Role as a GM."
We start with a list of the responsibilities of the GM
There's a lot of ...story in there. It seems to be pushing a particularly Narrative approach to running the game. But it becomes nebulous with phrases like "you must maintain an immersive atmosphere." Overall it seems like an"everything and the kitchen sink" list.
The book goes on to compare the GM to a writer, and then a film director, and then talks about lots of techniques for "ensuring immersion" that there isn't space to shre. I was rather put off by this. I think we could of sacrificed some space for these techniques, would rather like to know at least an example so I can suss how they are actually intending the term "immersion," because my rather old fashioned idea of immersive play doesn't mesh well with the "GM as writer" approach.
"The Three Golden Rules"
Sounds like a fairy tale. These are apparently:
I."Change rules that don't work"
Really? Nothing about the game up to this point has given me a "Rulings not Rules" vibe.
Again, I'm a bit taken a back. This is what I would expect to encounter in a classic RPG, more like what the original WFRP had to say on the matter. A bit of a change from "the GM works with the players to create a 'House Rule'."
II. Focus on the Characters
Well, yes, naturally. No objection, but is this even necessary to iterate?
III. When in Doubt, Say Yes!
We get another brief discussion of the difference from Narrative vs Structured Time in the game as a prelude to talking about Pacing an Adventure. That's good, a lot of GM sections don't address this topic. But Zweihander doesn't either, really. It just talks about knowing when to switch between Narrative and Structured Time. I mean, you use "Structured Time" as this game puts it when it's necessary, it's not really a pacing issue.
There's some general advice/recaps regarding rules upkeep before a new game, adjudicating Difficulty Ratings (for as important as this topic is to the system overall, seems like it could have gotten more attention than a few paragraphs that amount to "consider what's going on from several angles"), and applying Skill Tests.
In the section "People, Places, and Things" about half a page is devoted to the suggestion that players keep index card records of important NPCs they encounter. They're encouraged to take these notes in character. Should this be in the GM section? It seems to be aimed at the players.
Combat rules are next. It's here we find Zweihander's equivalent of the legendary WFRP Critical Hit Charts.
I've already talked about the Critical Hit charts in WFRP, but just to review, the attacker rolls percentile die to determine if a strike hits, flips those percentile dice to determine the location of the hit, and if the damage exceeds the Armour or hit points of the location, a roll is made on a Critical Hit chart corresponding to that location. The results range from flesh wounds to debilitating injuries to instant death, each described in graphic detail. It's a gory splash of flavour on the combat system.
Zweihander, on the other hand, abandoning the hit location element of resolution and with the degree of injury determined by the progress along the Damage tract instead divides the Critical Hit charts based on severity with one for Moderate, Serious, and Grievous injuries, and then a series of Slain! charts divided by the type of weapon used, describing the gruesome details of a combatant's demise.
This isn't an improvement or a decline really, it's just different. I suppose it comes down to personal aesthetics regarding which one prefers.
In amongst these are rules regarding flying creatures and larger creatures, and advice on when to end a combat.
And then we get to Risk Factor.
This is a concept I've encountered in several other RPGs, but I primarily associate it with 4th edition D&D. The idea is that "challenges" (in the form of monsters) should be tailored to the competency of the player character group. Zweihander doesn't go so far as to specifically advocate this, but does suggest using Risk Factor and Notches as benchmarks when "crafting encounters."
The following section, entitled "Narrative Considerations," seems to be largely advice about the use of environmental factors such as bad weather, dim lighting, exotic locations, etc. 'm not sure I would have called these "Narrative" elements of the game, but that term seems to be used more to invoke "narrating a description" rather than "fashioning a story," at least in this instance.
We also get some alternate/advanced combat rules, including a simplified weapon damage system and rules for performing multiple attacks. "Called Shots" optionally re-introduces the notion of Hit Locations into the game, with a GM advised to pick suitable Critical Hit descriptions that align. Piecemeal armour is likewise addressed, along with alternate Encumbrance rules, and "Morale checks."
We next get some rules for handling chases. I'm mostly a fan of RPGs tackling this, as beyond the classic 007 RPG from Victory Games this is an element conspicuously missing from most systems. In this case, the chase rules are a variation of the rules for Contests. Did I cover these in Part 1? Can't recall. Basically it's an extended skill test.
After deciding the distance the chase will take place over (yards, miles, or leagues), the Initiative track is configured, as per combat. The GM will set an "Escape Condition" (e.g. the pickpocket makes it to the market, the pursuers will lose them in the crowd, etc), and decide which side gets the "Head Start" (providing a movement bonus the first turn). There is a list of modifiers for chases on mounts, in vehicles, or other alternate forms of egress. At the beginning of each turn the pursued party generates an "Escape Value" equal to d10 + modifiers, representing the closing distance between them and the pursuers. From what I can tell, the action of the pursuers the previous turn don't affect this roll, which I find odd. Instead, each pursuer generates a "Pursuit Value" in the same manner. If the Pursuit Value is equal to or surpasses the Escape Value, the pursuer can attempt to grab the target (a Coordination Test). The degree of success or failure determines if the pursuit continues the next turn. There are some brief rules on Fatigue, attacking during a chase, and other complications, but that's the
Seems fine. Like the Bond rules better, but still a good effort using the pre-established system tools. And extra credit for something way too many systems gloss over.
And the kudos are not done, because that section is followed up by one on "Overland Exploration." I've been seeing this more and more recently, "travelling rules." I think the first overt ones I noticed were in The One Ring by Cubicle 7. Then the Japanese Fantasy RPG Ryuutama. At least one other in the last little while that escapes me. I wonder if this is influence form the OSR, or at least the nostalgia wing reminiscing over OD&D and the Wilderness Survival co-opted game supplement? Anyways, I like the trend, but I don't think the defining system has come along yet. The "game-changer." Unknown Armies to Sanity systems. Knighthawks to spacecraft combat. Ars Magica to, well, ars magic.
Sorry, that' not me criticizing Zweihander's system, I think it's very well done. It's basically an expanded variation on the Contest rules, as exampled for Chases. Yet also backed up by a lot of practical information regarding travel and GM advice, and a variety of sub-systems to cover everything from Party Roles (this is not as 4th Edition as it sounds), striking camp, and wilderness encounters. I think a lot of would-be OD&D OSR folks could benefit from a read of this section.
Well, Zweihander had me hooked for the last two sections, but now we're on to "Reward points", aka "XP."
It's not Zweihander's fault, experience points have always bored me as an approach. It's a "videogamey" mechanic, before videogames. I don't have anything particularly bad to say about it, I've seen it implemented well and sometimes even very clever ways, but it induces nothing beyond apathy for me. So you'll excuse me if I pass over this rather swiftly. Players get rewards for in-game activities (some as vague as "moving the story forward"), reward points buys advances. Add careers. Toss the salad. Zweihander goes a tiny bit FASERIP though, and also has "Reputation Points".
Like MSH's "Renown", Reputation points are used for acquisitions. In this case though, you literally spend them. It's a surreal yet admittedly practical way of handling a character's ability to use their influence to find what they need.
Maybe it should be "Social GP"
There's also a "Group Reputation." I'll let you extrapolate that one in your head.
After that, sort of out of nowhere, comes a section on "breaking objects." The lack of segue to this from that just left me picturing breaking objects over people's heads when they ask if they can pay in Reputation Points...
Nothing against the section, which is surprisingly in-depth, and a nice touch to really emphasize the upkeep and repair needed to realistically maintain weapons and armour. A very on-point subsystem and I applaud it.
Washed that XP taste right out o my mouth.
OK traps. Lotsa traps. Rules for Building traps. Detecting and disabling traps. Traps for every occasion. You need traps, this game's got 'em.
A table of Chaos Manifestations. That's pretty fun.
Malignancies and Divine Punishments. Good stuff.
Lots of specific information on the practices of various religions and cults devoted to the various specific gods of this RPG that specifically does not have an implied setting.
"Magick items" and some samples.
Again, not Zweihander's fault. My aversion to magic items comes from the way so many RPGs (and now videogames and media) treat magic items as, well, just all over the goddamn place. I'm not saying this game does that, this section is actually pretty reserved, and more akin to Lamentations of the Flame Princess, with the items being rare, legendary, and unique. t does it how I prefer it, just antagonistic towards the whole subject these days. I'm sure it'll pass in a decade or two...
"Grampa, tell us about magic items"
"Oh, in my day, you couldn't walk for all the magic items spillin outta shops around town. +1 longswords for everybody."
"Is that like a d-726 Photon sabre?"
"What ?! what'd I tell you about watching that Psy Wars crap! Gonna rot your brains!"
"Yes grampa! Sorry grampa!"
"Phonton sabres, my ass. It's just a light saber by any other name. George Lucas is rollin' in his Tomb!"
"Wha? The guy who created Star Wars!"
"I thought that was Mickey Mouse"
"Why I oughtta..."
Advice on running NPCs. All solid.
Social Intrigue Rules. Sigh. Not a fan of mechanizing social interactions in games. It's not as bad as Burning Wheel's "social combat", but it's too close for my tastes.
Then, madness. If there's any rhyme or reason to the progression of these topics, I'm not seeing it. But, hey, let's check out Zweihander's Sanity system. I mean, WFRP basically just had a simplified version of Call of Cthulhu's system so it'd be hard to do worse.
Zweihander divides Madness into that caused by stress, fear, or terror, with copious examples of each tier. In each case, a character exposed to the stimuli must make a Resolve Test. The results then range from gaining a Fortune Point (how many goddamn point pools does this game need?)
...for a Critical Success, to gaining a ton of Corruption and paralysis for a Critical Failure. Luckily the next section is an in-depth looK at Corruption. Causes of Corruption ("Offenses") are divided into Minor, Middling, and Major (Daniel does love his tryptics). Accumulated Corruption increases a character's Chaos rank. This is balanced by a character's Order rank sort of like a Pendragon Passion. High ranking in Order gains a character Fate points. Higher ranking in Chaos gains you a Disorder. An extensive list of disorders follows.
While these are flavourful in and of themselves (overall, flavour-filled lists seem to be Zweihander's strongest points), I have to admit I was wrong.
This is way worse than WFRP's simplistic system.
It is just downright Byzantine. This mechanic is converted into that mechanic, is converted into that track, leads to this, ad nauseam. This isn't crunch so much as ring around the rosy.
And now, jarringly, we're suddenly onto optional rules for character advancement. Why wouldn't this come after the section on Reward Points? Was this chapter written stream of consciousness?
The next section "Slaves to Chaos" is about players playing the villains, or at least grimdark anti-heroes. I'm getting conceptual whiplash. There's some alternate character races, including not-Lizardmen, not-Skaven, and not-not-Broo.
There's now some advice on worldbuilding, which is actually mostly setting info. Dealing with demihuman inter-species relations, a simplistic overview of the feudal system, and some theology, including a list of major demons and extraplanar realms (Zweihander doesn't use the term "extraplanar," but any opportunity to make a Planescape reference...)
This is followed up (somewhat less jarringly) by "Campaign Seeds," which gives Zweihander the opportunity for the tryptic "The Enemy Within," "The Enemy Without," and "The Enemy Beyond." Cute Daniel.
We then are treated to a variety of campaign and adventure ideas. Many historical, from The 30 Years War to the Lost Colony of Roanoke.
And that wraps up the GM Chapter.
Kind of a mixed bag (with extra mixing).
Next comes The Bestiary, not only the largest chapter of the book, but also the last I'm going to cover in this review (the final chapter presents a sample adventure which I don't intend to ruin for anyone who may run it or play through it).
Zweihander classifies the contents of the Bestiary into Abyssal, Animal, Beast, Humanoid, Mutant and Supernatural, but does not define these categories except by example. Creatures use the same statistics as PCs, including Attributes, Attribute Bonuses, Skill Ranks, Attack Profiles, and any special Traits. Each is also given extensive write-ups, covering everything from ecological habits to superstitions.
There's not much "objective reviewing" I can do here. It's comprehensive, as these sorts of sections go, and full of some really fantastic art. I'll only be covering a few in detail, just airing random thoughts and opinions of a mostly personal nature.
Abyssals includes Fomorians, Higher Demons, Lower Demons, and Hellbeasts. Each "species" has numerous example "subspecies," (though these might be individuals in the case of some demons it seems).
So, let's talk about Fomorians. Or, rather, let's talk about Fimir.
When I first encountered Warhammer Fantasy, one of the things that immediately grabbed me and sold me on the setting was the unique monsters, distinct in tone and visuals from anything prior. WFRP additionally presented them in a way that evoked the sense of real creatures and cultures. Of these there were three in particular that captured my young imagination; Skaven, Zoats, and Fimir; only one of which would survive past 3rd edition in the wargame. From the contents of this blog it isn't hard to guess my favourite of these, but I was just as fascinated with the other two. And in many ways they are the embodiment of "Oldhammer" for me.
The Fimir were created by Graeme Davis (with help from Tony Ackland and Jes Goodwin) at the behest of Bryan Ansell, who apparently requested a new monster "to be as distinctive of Warhammer as the Broo are of Runequest" (according to a usenet post by Davis circa 1998, quoted from The Realm of Zhu).
Graeme's primary inspiration was a painting by Alan Lee for the cover of a book of Irish myths...
(This one, in fact)
The painting depicts Balor of the Evil Eye, a king of the Fomor or Fomorians (from the Gaelic Fomhoire). The Fomorians were a monstrous race that had conquered Ireland before the Irish psuedo-gods (the elf-like Tuatha De Dannan) invaded the land. For a time the Fomor enslaved the Tuatha de, with Balor as Tyrant king ruling from his fortress on Tory Island. He was eventually slain by his own grandson, Lugh, in one of those "you try to cheat a Fate and end up creating it" stories European myths and Rod Serling were big on, and the Fomorians were overthrown, driven into the sea.
Well , in one version of events. Sometimes the Fomor invaded sometime after the Tuatha de had shown up and kicked out the Fir Bolg (probably aborigines, but often made out as giants in legends). The Fomorians themselves were probably not originally monstrous, with historians interpreting them as everything from Norse Vikings to the displaced gods of a prehistoric religion. But Celtic traditions were passed down orally, and it wasn't until Christians got a hold of the stories that most were written down. And the Christian scribes went full Silent Hill in their interpretation of the Fomor (or, I guess, full Bosch).
Tony Ackland's first sketch of a Fimir
Unfortunately, The Fimir never acquired "Broo status," and by 4th edition they were gone, for two main reasons.
First, a miscommunication came up when Nick Bibby took over duties as sculptor of the original Fimir line of miniatures from Jes. See, originally Fimir were intended to be man-sized (or at least orc-sized), and the stats they got in the Wargame reflected this. But Bibby sculpted them as ogre-sized instead, taking the place of 4 regular soldiers in WFB's rank and file system. As such, they were horribly undervalued. Big, expensive minis with bad game stats means very little sales.
Second, in crafting the culture surrounding the Fimir, Graeme had drawn upon numerous Celtic soures, including ascribing to them the common fairytale motif that they carried off human women to be their brides (that's the nice way of putting it). With 4th edition, Ansell was reformatting the game to appeal to a younger, mainstream audience, and assumed (probably correctly, judging by recent reactions to the Goblin Slayer anime) that a group of one-eyed rape monsters wouldn't go over too well.
Anyhows, I remain as big a fan of Fimir as I am of Zoats and Skaven (and I have armies of both waiting for the paintbrush when the Great Skaven Project is finished), so I was looking forward to seeing what Zweihander did with them.
It was this...
The Fomorians in Zweihander are basically Deep Ones etsy's. That tentacled creature above is one of the matriarchs, and the boyos look like the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Yeah, I get it, it makes sense with the mythology (it's a parallel I've seen exploited before). But I was disappointed. Not just due to Lovecraft burn-out after Cthulhu successfully consumed pop culture in the last generation, but moreso in that I consider the Fimir as iconic to WFRP as Chaos and Mohawked dwarves.
Higher Demons have an Arch Cenobite, so...there's a reference. It's Slaanesh by way of Clive Barker, makes sense. The "Great Devourer" is a Great Unclean One, but also gives birth to abyssal goblins from his slime. Oh, yeah, Nurglings...
And Tzeentch's vulture-demon is here as well.
Lesser demons include a few D&Dish fiends and proxies of most of the Warhammer Chaos daemon units. Hellbeasts include a Barghest standing in for a Hell-Hound, Black Dog-type (it should be Bargheist)
We also get a Lemurian Host (kinda like a spectral blob of skulls, no idea if this is referencing something Blavatsky came up with), a Night Mare (because no game designer can resist that pun), a Pit Dragon (dragon + demon = win!), and a Shoggoth (aka "Protoplasmic Dolor").
Animals are much as the name implies. They are divided into Critters, Primevals, and Beasts.
Critters are mostly ordinary animals, classed in groups with an overall profile the GM is expected to customize. These include large animals, including everything from horses (and, apparently, unicorns) to wolves to big snakes; large insects, man eaters such as lions, tigers, and bears...
...small animals, such as cats, rats, and tiny vicious dogs; and swarms, which are....swarms.
Primevals are...well, I'll just let the book explain...
Sounds good, I guess, in theory.
The phrase "almost Shakespearean in predilection and tastes" made me laugh aloud. I have no idea what that is supposed to mean.
In practice what we have is giant spiders, giant bats, giant rats, a paleolithic boar, an owlbear, a warg, and a crocodile.
Beasts are basically monsters, most of the mythological variety. Here we find Basilisks, "Bog Behemoths" (Krakens, basically), Chimaeras [sic], Cockatrices (déjà vécu), Dragon Turtles, Fen Wyrms, "Fodderlings" (Squigs), Gryphons, Harpies, Jabberwockies, Sirens, and Wyverns.
Humanoids (thankfully not "Demihumans" in this instance) is a much more extensive section than the previous ones, and where we find the majority of Warhammer proxies.
This starts with the Aztlan, Zweihander's answer for Lizardmen. Here they follow much closer to the later Warhammer Fantasy Battles retcon of Lizardmen circa 5th edition. They are, as the name suggests, vaguely Meso-American in culture, descended from "Ancient Ones" (*cough*), and divided into castes based on the type of amphibian/reptile they most resemble, with toad-like hierophantic rulers. No Oldhammer herein, with nary a mention of pygmies or lobotomized slaves.
The Chosen of Chaos are Chaos Warriors, of course. Barely even a proxy, but then, Chaos Warriors predate Warhammer. Kudos for including Chaos Dwarves in the mix (here, Duergar, which is kinda just the Norse word for Dwarf, but that works). Dark Elves and Nephilim are also included as creatures "corrupted by Chaos."
Corrupted Souls is sort a catch-all category for human NPCs, of one or another degree of villainy.
Then out of no where we get a "Zoatar." Zweihander's answer to Zoats.
So, if you recall when I was talking about Fimir, Zoats were the third part of the trilogy with Skaven that I regard as the personifications of Oldhammer. Zoats in WFRP were an ancient race of weird turtle centuars (Testuditaurs?) who lived deep in the woods and had "Druid"-type powers.
There wasn't any specific reason they were excised from Warhammer come 4th edition, like Martin Short they just never "caught on." It probably didn't help that the minis weren't that great.
But, anyways, I liked them. They occupy a very special nostalgic corner in the labyrinthine pits of my cold, dark heart, for some reason just round the corner from my memories of the film Troll.
I even did a little "tribute to Oldhammer" picture once featuring Zoats vs Fimirs...
(Unfortunately, a spilled bottle of ink forced me to cut off a large section of the top left corner.
Not that it was a masterpiece to begin with, but it's a concept I'd like to revisit at some point)
Anyways, this is what Zweihander offers as "Zoatars"...
What's most baffling is that this is included in the category "Corrupted Souls", which otherwise is all just medieval human cultural stereotypes. Are these all under the sub-category of "Chosen of Chaos"? I can't tell, but the formatting makes me think so.
Either way, after that are Mutants.
The "Mutant" category doesn't have any sort of description or explanation, but I guess that's OK.
The first sub-category of Mutants is Deadly Flora, basically predatory plants
Then there's a Dragonborn Ogre. I'm pretty certain "Dragon Ogres" were a Warhammer creation, and I've always had it in my head they were basically an evil counterpart of Zoats, but no idea if that ever was cannon, because these guys stuck around in WFB
Goblins are in the Mutant category as well, which does me kind of wish there was an overall explanation of how Zweihander is defining the word. I mean, I'm pretty flexible, I grew up with X-Men comics so I can deal with any interpretation of Mutant you want to throw at me, but I don't know what connection Goblinoids supposedly have to evil plants.
If you get that reference then I'm certain you can picture the face I'm making.
But it turns out Goblins are mutated children. Specifically "ill-born babies and crippled children," mutated by demonic imps.
Subtypes of Goblins are Hobgoblins (the D&D kind) and Kobolds (the anime kind).
Grendel is the Zweihander equivalent of Beastmen, which were the Warhammer equivalent of Runequest's Broo. And the first sub-type of Grendel? Broo.
Lycanthropes are also classed as Mutants, along with Medusa (not Gorgons? Or, at least, medusae?), Orx (hipster orcs), Ravenous Ghouls(?), and Trolls.
Finally we get to Zweihander's version of Skaven, the SKRZZAK...
THE WARPSTONE MUST FLOW...
The imaginary translation of the imaginary word "Skrzzak", from an imaginary ancient language, is "The Scourge Below." The Skrzzak ("Skz" from now on, because I hate having to constantly stop typing to reconfirm the spelling) are man-sized rodent-like creatures whose existence is regarded as myth and folktale by most of the population of The-Setting-That-Doesn't-Exist.
"Chimera? Jabberwocky? Lovecraftian fish-men off the coast?
Sure, all perfectly plausible.
Rats as big as men? lol, pull the other one mate, it has bells on it!"
Anyways, so far, so Skaven.
Underempire = Great Warren
Clan = Kabal
Brood Horror - Broodmother!
Oh yeah, in case you didn't know, Forgeworld makes the following model, depicting a Skaven Warlord with a Brood Horror mount.
Which is one of the most subtly f-ed up miniatures GW has ever unleashed. Like, it's hitting Kingdom Death levels, but only in a wink-nudge way to those who know the lore. See he is literally riding on an example of the female of the species. Skaven basically turn all their females into huge, grotesque, mindless birthing beasts of burden. And this miniature's very existence suggests that the occasionally also ride them into battle as mounts. And you thought one-eyed rape monsters were bad.
And here is also where we hit Zweihander's big twist...
The Skz have a matriarchal society. The "Brood Mothers" are still huge, uh, breeding machines, but they are also in charge.
"When not issuing commands to her children,
the Broodmother is found in a Wytchstone-imbued stupor
to bring them into communion with The Thirteen, the Skrzzak rat god."
This clearly mirrors the Skaven addiction to Warpstone and references the Council of Thirteen, leaders of Skaven society whose unofficial 13th member is The Great Horned Rat.
Skaven society is of course divided into clans, with the most powerful clans each having a unique ...culture? Shtick? Theme maybe?
Clan Eshin are ninja assassins
Clan Moulder are beastmasters/eugenicists
Clan Pestilens are a disease cult
and Clan Skryre are mad scientists/boffins
There is also The Grey Seers, Skaven pope-sorcerers who operate much like a Clan, but are made up of Skaven born to any Clan with the very specific mutation of white fur and horns, marking them as full of the Skaven equivalent of midichlorians.
Zweihander retains this quadrilogy of "Kabals," but derives their titles from the Four Humours of medieval physiological theory.
The Bilious are kinda like Skryre, or at least they use a few Skryre weapons and dress like Skryre, but seem to be less inventors so much as elite shock troops...
"...new pups are shipped to the most dangerous and vile places of the Great Warren,
left alone to survive and adapt. They are conditioned through rigorous torture and administration of Wytchstone fumes...to obey their Broodmother above all else.
Few survive the harrowing ordeal, but those that do are merciless,
fanatically devoted and cruel beyond measure."
So...Skaven Sardaukar. A picture is forming, one confirmed by the first sentence in the description of Choleric SkZ...
"Broodmothers have foretold the birth of a special pup:
one who will be a 'super ratling', a Skrzzak that can go to the regions of
prescient knowledge where Broodmothers dare not enter.
Through careful (yet imprecise) manipulation of Kabal bloodlines,
the Broodmothers have attempted to create this superior being,
who they call the Skrzzak Cholerach."
Yup, it's Dune.
The Broodmothers are the Bene Gesserit sisterhood, the Bilious Kabal are the Sardaukar, the Phlegmatic SkZ are mentats, and the Sanguine SkZ are Fremen. But they also parallel the original Skaven to a wide extent. Sanguine resemble Eshin with Fremen cultural ideas. Choleric SkZ are patterned after Clan Pestilens but add in elements from the Lynch film's interpretation of House Harkonnen (and even reference the fact that Paul's mother was secretly a Harkonnen).
I mean...wow. Damn Daniel, colour me impressed. I have no idea where the inspiration came to blend these two, but it is a stroke of mad genius.
I came in expecting to be the harshest, or at least the most disappointed, regarding Zweihander's interpretation of the Skaven, especially after the Fomorians and Zoatar...
...but I'm going to come straight and say that this turned out to be my favourite interpretation of ratmen besides the Skaven themselves.
Above and beyond. If every one of the creatures in this Bestiary got this same level of clever re-interpretation and blending with pop culture reference, I'd consider this chapter a masterpiece. Alas...
Finally, we arrive at the Supernatural, largest category in the Bestiary, because it covers such a huge variety of creatures. To the point it sorta calls into question the point of these categories overall. Here we have Paracelsian Elementals (here called "Ætheric Spirits"), Defilers (Tomb King mummy-liches), Fey (faeries, continuing the weird-ass D&D tradition that these are somehow separate from Elves), Golems, Living Statues (Ushabti), Mindless Undead (Zombies and the like), Restless Spirits, and Vampires (apparently of the White Wolf variety).
Scary? Or just Anne Ricean homoeroticism?
Some British folklore makes it way into the section on Fey. The Dullahan rides in from Irish legend as a death omen. I rather liked the Facedancer, which I can' help but think also takes it's inspiration from Dune, but also is a good representation of a Faerie archetype that shows up in many older stories.
Redcaps are for some reason included here instead of with Goblins. "Sidhe Lords" get what seems to be a Twin Peaks reference as beings from "The Black Lodge." I've long made comparisons between the underlying mythos of Lynch and Frost's Twin Peaks to the Seelie/Unseelie courts of Caledonian Faerie folklore, a concept I've used in my CoC games. Unfortunately, Zweihander doesn't take this any further than the oblique references to The Black Lodge, with no mention of the corresponding White Lodge. Basically these are just more powerful elves. An Ent ("Talking Tree") and Dryad ("Woodland Nymph") finish this section off. Overall, this section just seems incredibly sparse. It barely scratches the surface of Faerie folklore, doesn't even cover many of the more common creatures or archetypes. They could even have done some customizable categories like they did with "animals"; a precedent set by RPGs such as Dark Ages: Fae and GURPS: Faeries. Oh well.
The Vampire category gets a bit more cosmopolitan, with Lamashtu (named for the Mesopotamian goddess) and Rakshasha (the tiger-headed man-eating spirits from Hindu myth). Succubi are also included here, rather than among the demons, not the first time these categorizations have seemed entirely random to me. It's harder and harder pill for me to swallow that Zweihander is trying to be a generic, or at least settingless, RPG when they're interpretation o mythology seems to owe more to Gyga than the actual real-world legends, but that rant is coming up.
The Bestiary chapter finishes up with a guide to customizing creatures, including creating "underlings" and "Bosses," if you like some videogame in your RPGs. And several pages of "Loot Tables." These are flavourful, if a bit bizarre.
"Look! This Salamander I just killed was carrying a barrel of linseed oil!"
To be fair, there's nothing in the text directly tying the loot to the creatures in the Bestiary, so that would completely be at a GM's discretion, but why is this section even included in the Bestiary if not because of the obvious Gygaxian association?
OK (whew) that'll do it for Part II of this review. There is a handy Appendix collating the various charts needed for play, and a pretty comprehensive index, which is no doubt invaluable during play, which I'll find out (spoilers: I already found out, as I'm typing all this up a long while after I first wrote it) in Part III - The Playtest Session and Final Thoughts.
Being a Review by Tristram Evans
of the Zweihander Grim & Perilous Roleplaying Game
Written by Daniel Fox with additional contributions by Tanner Yea
Illustrated by Dejan Mandic
Deep breath, ladies and gents, this is going to be a long one…
Before we begin, a couple of caveats. I received a review copy of Zweihander for free from Daniel Fox. I don’t believe this will colour the review in any way, but best to lay all potential biases on the table, as it were.
As a counterpoint, I am also a longstanding fan of the original Warhammer Fantasy Role-Playing Game (‘WFRP’); in fact it was effectively my first RPG, as detailed here. I’ve played and run WFRP for the better part of almost thirty years, and it remains one of my favourite game systems.
According to to the Grim & Perilous Studios website:
“As featured on Forbes.com, ranked in the Platinum Seller’s list on DriveThruRPG and having sold over 21,000 physical copies worldwide, ZWEIHÄNDER Grim & Perilous RPG is a bloodier, grimmer and grittier version of classic tabletop role-playing games you may already familiar with…ZWEIHÄNDER Grim & Perilous RPG is an OSR, retro-clone spiritual successor to Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay first and second editions, an unrepentant heartbreaker released under Creative Commons License Share-Alike.”
It amuses me to no end that directly following a paragraph describing the game’s financial success, we have the author referring to it as a “Heartbreaker”, showing a complete misunderstanding of what the term means to the point of dripping with unintentional irony. In writing my own game based on an earlier game system, I coined the phrase “Retrovamp RPG” in opposition to “Retroclone.”
Zweihander began life as the online project Corehammer, native to the Strike To Stun forums, which I understand was a more direct Warhammer clone in most regards. Most of us, however, became aware of Zweihander through its author’s aggressive and unrepentant marketing campaign across various RPG forums. This has won Daniel & Co. no little amount of notoriety, and in some cases blatantly turned off a number of potential customers. Despite this, it was overall likely the largest contributing factor to the Kickstarter’s unprecedented success and exceptional pdf sales.
As they’ve made abundantly clear, Zweihander is an attempt to capture the spirit and gameplay of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay.
The first edition of WFRP was a comprehensive single volume tabletop RPG that remained in print altogether for over a decade, first from Games Workshop and then under license by Hogshead Publishing. Following Hogshead’s dissolution in 2002, a second edition of the game was designed by Green Ronin Publishing and released through Black Industries, a division of GW’s Black Library publishing arm.
The second edition made minor alterations in an attempt to “balance” the system, and bring it in line with the current fluff of the Warhammer Fantasy Battles miniature wargame. It also split the contents of the core rulebook into a series of hardback supplements, of varying quality (The Old World Bestiary and Children of the Horned Rat are particularly well regarded). Black Industries exited the roleplaying market in 2009, though their products are still available for sale as pdfs. Fantasy Flight Games then acquired the Warhammer license and published a “third edition” (in name only), using a completely different system, and we’ll disregard that as well as the recently released fourth edition by Cubicle 7.
Over the course of this review, in seeing how well Zweihander has met its stated goals, I’ll be comparing it based on three aspects that I believe form the core of what defined WFRP; Aesthetics, System, and Comprehensiveness. I’ll take a moment now to explore what I mean by those terms in this context.
If there’s one thing that Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay’s reputation is based upon, it is the unique mood of the game. Especially when juxtaposed against other fantasy RPGs of the time, most prominently the ubiquitous hobby powerhouse, Dungeons & Dragons. Whereas “Post-Tolkien Heroic Fantasy in a pseudo-medieval setting” was by the mid 80s established as the default for the Fantasy RPG genre in general, the hobby was also still recovering from The Satanic Panic and trying to present a “family-friendly” appearance. By the time AD&D 2nd edition came around, the game was essentially bowdlerized. The rise of narrative-driven campaigns such as Dragonlance also sought to cast the players in the role of heroes, destined for great adventure and rewards. Long gone was the “Dungeon SWAT-team” style of play from the hobby’s origins, instead players adopted fantasy archetypes from pop culture, and all that entails. Paladins were knights in shining armour via Mallory, whose holy weaponry spread fear into the hearts of evil. Rogues were dashing rapscallions in the vein of Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood. Barbarians were massive muscle bound Conan etsy’s whose powerful axes would lay waste to goblinoids, etcetera.
This may sound like I’m taking the piss out of High Fantasy a bit, and in the context I sort of am. But know that I am a huge Tolkien geek, was raised on Arthurian Legends, and I’m pretty down with Errol Flynn’s opus and The Court Jester. So not only do I understand the appeal, but I’m down with it hook, line, and sinker when it comes to gaming. King’s Quest and Dirk the Daring are as much the pop culture underpinnings of my interest in fantasy as Froud & Lee.
But there’s always value in something different. And Warhammer Fantasy provided that. There’s an amusing idiom regarding WFRP that’s been floating about online for years, and that is “in Warhammer, players start the game thinking they’re playing D&D, but pretty soon they realize they’re playing Call of Cthulhu.” Warhammer was unapologetically ultra-violent. It was grimdark before grimdark was a thing (in the States at least). It embraced the occult, and peopled its world with Satanic underground cults, demons of every shape and variety, and Lovecraftian Chaos gods. It ditched the fairytale Anglo-medieval premise for a late Renaissance world steeped in Germanic flavour. And it cast the players as the scum of a corrupt and dirty human society, with “Beggar” or “Rat-Catcher” as iconic characters.
Warhammer Fantasy is a world of disease, plague, and corruption. Dilapidated towers inhabited by Necromancers, forest enclaves of foul mutated Beastmen, and cyclopean horrors from the bogs and marshes lay just outside the protective walls of a Renaissance-era Germanic Empire. Daily life is a struggle in the oppressively stratified society, where the majority eek out a meager living, corrupt officials grown fat on the labour of the poor. And just below the surface of this so-called civilization, mad priests seduced by the powers of Chaos work towards the fall of the society in the name of their Demonic patrons while humanoid rats of numbers that would drive most insane carry out their own goals of conquest in the labyrinthine sewer systems and hive like catacombs of the vast Skaven underworld.
In mountain strongholds, the proud but dying race of Dwarves desperately hold onto their once great halls as foulness beyond description assaults them from the depths. The hostile and ageless elves isolate themselves from a world they once ruled, as more and more of their number fall to the seduction of darkness. And hordes of mindless and brutal goblinoids ravage the landscape, consumed by an unquenchable lust for battle and bloodshed.
What really made the game work, however, was an underlying very black and very British sense of humour. Warhammer was a mad mix of 2000AD anti-Thatcherism, punk fatalism, Moorcockian cynicism, and Pythonian absurdity. The visuals, largely informed by John Blanche, blended Hieronymus Bosch with Heavy Metal album covers. Pop culture references and historical in-jokes informed the text at every turn, so even to this day, rereading that early material can turn up some new clever twist of phrase or innuendo.
Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay’s system was developed in tandem with the third edition of Warhammer Fantasy Battles and around the same time as the first edition of Rogue Trader, introducing the 40K universe. And so, for a short but glorious period of time, all three games were largely cross-compatible with several universe-defining sourcebooks written for all three gamelines at once. WFRP took the miniature system (which was in and of itself developed as an RPG/miniature skirmish game hybrid), and simply expanded it in certain areas to make it suitable for theatre-of-the-mind style roleplaying. The statline was kept the same, but certain attributes that were designated on a scale of 1 to 10 adopted percentile ranges, a career and skill system was added, and combat was revised to reflect the one to one scale.
The career system is likely the most memorable innovation of WFRP, taking the D&D conceit of Classes and stretching it to cover the myriad professions indicative of The Old World. The Skill system was very much in line with the “Non-Weapon Proficiencies” optional rules of D&D, a prime example of modular vs exception-based design.
Levels were discarded in exchange for characters advancing through professions as play progressed. This is largely where complaints of “play balance” came from, as certain professions naturally provided far more bonuses than others. The intention, of course, was that a character’s career path would come about organically through the events of the campaign, instead of PCs arbitrarily jumping through career exits to gather skills and attribute bonuses. This is largely not taken into account as far as such complaints go, but in general the discussion on game balance and my opinions on it is a tangent outside the scope of this review (though I reserve the right to expound upon it later if it comes up in the course of my evaluation).
For myself, however, the gem of the game is the combat system, which is streamlined, fast, and wonderfully evinces the grim nature of the setting. Summarized simply, an attack is made with a percentile role compared to the attacker’s Weapon Skill (Ballistic Skill for a ranged weapon). If successfully, flipping the digits of the roll gives the location of the hit. The attacker adds their Strength characteristic to their weapon’s Damage (usually D6), and the defender subtracts from this total their Toughness characteristic + applicable Armour Points. The defender can absorb an amount of Damage equal to their Wounds characteristic, but any attack that does Damage in excess of this causes a Critical Hit.
The Critical Hit charts are, in my opinion the most glorious part of the game. A percentile roll based on the location of the hit evinces any number of gruesome effects, detailed in a macabre vignette. It is deadly, brutal and bloody, and players soon learn to avoid combat as it has a tendency to leave lasting effects on those who survive. It's not uncommon for a player group to end up with eyes, ears, or limbs missing.
The original magic system is also sometimes maligned for its byzantine nature. It largely depends on rare ingredients for spells, and merely the act of casting magic can have deleterious effects ranging from insanity to contracting arcane diseases. This was later replaced with a system based on the “Winds of Magic” that was introduced in the wargame (in the Realms of Magic supplement for the 1st edition of the game, and codified in the second edition). Again this is a case where I enjoy the system without revisions, as I find it properly evokes the eldritch nature of spellcraft and the themes of the gameworld. Perhaps it was also the many hours I spent playing King's Quest III as a kid, but I have a deep appreciation for ingredient-based spells as a sort of uncanny recipe, which also was present (but largely, it seems, ignored by most groups) in the AD&D 2nd edition spells.
Simply put, I believe the original Warhammer Fantasy Role-Playing rulebook remains to this day the industry gold standard of single-book RPG design. It contains everything needed for a lifetime of play, and moreso. That doesn’t mean that some of the supplements aren’t excellent and full of valuable information (The Enemy Within campaign books alone largely established the fluff regarding the Empire), but none of them are necessary. And I appreciate that. After the 90s, I regard the supplement/splat treadmill style of publishing with more than a little resentment, and if I’m honest this did colour my view of WFRP 2nd edition.
So what makes WFRP comprehensive? Besides the complete rules for the game, including careers, and advanced careers, skills, equipment, a vast amount of spells, an Old World Bestiary, a well-done GM section, and a sample adventure with example PCs, you also get a gazetteer of the Old World that is short but evocative enough to capture the flavour of the various countries that make up and border the Empire. WFRP is very adept at providing enough information to springboard your imagination and evince the tone of the setting, without bogging you down with extraneous details. In short, it provides the perfect starting point for any GM’s imagination. This was before the Old World had become strictly defined after twenty years of army books and Black Library novels. Many elements that I consider defining of Warhammer would later be excised as “too silly” or “not family friendly enough” as the wargame shifted gears to appeal to adolescents, such as the turtle-centaur druid Zoats, the Celtic mythology-inspired Fimir, and the Amazon tribes.
There are other numerous small touches that really endear the book to me and speak to its completeness as a resource. Floor plans for typical buildings of the Old World, for example. Or the system for determining the sprawl of civilization and distance between cities in The Empire.
So, anyways, enough with the preamble, let's jump into Zweihander and see how it measures up...
COVER & FIRST IMPRESSIONS
A nearly 700-page hardback tome, Zweihander is a very impressive looking product. The only similar feeling I can compare to first picking it up and flipping through the pages was the DCC RPG, and frankly it dwarfs that book in quality (and nostalgia-factor, as I don’t have the same degree of fondness towards AD&D as other grognards). The binding is excellent; perfect-bound, with an included red silk bookmark. Flipping to any page, the book opens flat, without creasing the spine. The pages are a high quality paper, matte and reproducing the pencilled interior art perfectly. It's clear within a minute of holding the book in my hands that utmost care was put into the construction. There were two covers offered to backers of the Kickstarter, one by Jussi Alarauhio that features a static pose of four grim-looking characters:
This is the “standard” cover. Its okay, a bit static, though I really like the back cover image. My book however appears to have the Kickstarter exclusive cover by Dejan Mandic:
This cover seems more like a tribute to the iconic cover of the original WFRP. To a certain extent, though, it doesn’t seem fair to compare them. I think it would be impossible for me to divorce the nostalgic feelings that John Sibbick’s painting evokes.
I’ll let Orlygg field this one:
“Sibbick's front cover is perhaps the most iconic of them all when it come to the 80's Warhammer Mythos. The crumbling underground tomb, the band of heroes (including the troll slayer, who I always assumed to be Gotrek), the Ogre Face banner with squiggles radiating out of it, the mohican with black and white chequers, the green, bandy goblins and the deep sense of inevitable doom for all of the characters involved.”
So, while I don’t think this cover will ever occupy the same iconic status (I may be wrong, who knows, maybe even as I write this some 13 year old kid is holding it in his hands right now, pouring over every detail, trying to coach out every hidden crevice, as I did for time untold with Sibbick’s cover), I do like me some Ratmen.
However, here we come to a big pet peeve on my part. Black noses on Ratmen! WTH? Can someone please show Mr. Mandic a picture of a rat? THIS is a rat…
Rats do not have black noses! Mickey f---ing Mouse has a black nose!
Flipping through the book, each page is framed with nicely evocative border art that manages to convey mood without distracting from the text. The layout is very clear and professionally done, and the book is copiously illustrated. I can’t stress this enough. Dejan Mandic’s work graces nearly every page. I cannot imagine how many hours he put into this, but without any critique, I must just plain take my hat off to him. Very few independent RPG products ever manage this level of art design, and those that do usually rely on a team of contributors. For a single artist, this would have been an immense undertaking.
Mandic’s contribution gives the book a sense of consistency in vision that few large publishers manage. I could waffle here about wanting to see other interpretations, but that’s such a meaningless throwaway critique that it doesn’t do justice to the effort on display here. Which is not to say I don’t have a few criticisms of the artwork, but all of these should be tempered by the vast appreciation I have for what Mandic has achieved.
PART THE FIRST
PLOG OF THE HORNED RAT
In which The Shadowy Mr. Evans engages his obsession for painting tiny metal figures
Chequeo de liderazgo
Full Ashtray Gaming
Mark Raley Miniatures