of the Zweihander Grim & Perilous Roleplaying Game
Written by Daniel Fox with additional contributions by Tanner Yea
Illustrated by Dejan Mandic
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
“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…
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
Iterum Proelium Committere
and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”
Next we have a page of opening fiction. As usual, I skip it. I may someday come back and read it, but short of a republished HP Lovecraft story, at this point in my life the only thing I’m less likely to read than gamefic is a section entitled “What is a Roleplaying Game?”
On the following page, however, we have a section entitled “Designer’s Notes,” which engenders the opposite response. I always love anything that might give me a “behind the scenes look” at the thought process and approach of an author to game design. Generally, these can be incredibly informative windows into what design choices were made and why, and though they show up quite commonly in wargames, for some reason they are rare in RPGs.
Next, we have 3 pages of a general introduction, including the requisite attempt to define role playing games for a new audience. I’ve always personally found such sections to reveal more about the author than RPGs in general. In this case, there are frequent uses of the terms “story” and “drama,” causing my spider-sense to tingle. There’s a half-hearted nod to the “low fantasy” genre with a few literary examples, but I think much more could have been said here. I’d refer anyone genuinely interested to Fantasy Literature: A Core Collection and Reference Guide by Tymm, Zahorski, and Boyer for a much better description. Then, a note about gender pronouns, because we have to appease the millennials. All in all, its okay. Doesn’t inspire me much, but overall doesn’t turn me off, but I can’t help thinking that with some editing and commodity of phrase this section could have been condensed into one page.
One thing that does interest me about this section in direct comparison to Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay is how it addresses house rules. This is what WFRP had to say on the matter:
“To help the GM decide what is possible and what is not, there are the rules you hold now. The GM will use these rules to present a balanced setting in which the fictional characters can adventure. He will make the adventure seem real. But the rules are only guidelines, and when the GM feels that he should change them, he will. “
Contrast this with Zweihander’s statement:
“...the GM and players should never let the rules prevent the story from moving forward. If a rule gets in the way, work with your GM to change it by turning it into a house rule, personalizing it for your group’s preferred style of play.”
You’ll notice that while seemingly addressing the same subject, this very much places the player’s equally in charge of rule implementation. For narrative-based play, this is fine, but it’s directly contradictory to an immersive gaming experience, which shows a fundamental disconnect from WFRP’s intent.
Now the book dumps us into the thick of things with the ‘How To Play’ rules summary. The basic mechanic is called a Skill Test, and its pretty straightforward percentile roll. First, the appropriate skill is chosen to find the base chance for success. Then, add the “Primary Attribute Value” (oh dear, Cardinal Sin of Game Writing #1 - the introduction of system specific jargon before it’s defined). Modifiers are added from character Talents and Traits, and situation. Penalties can be imposed based on the character’s “Peril Condition Track” (but apparently we won’t learn what that is until Chapter 9). And finally, the GM assigns a Difficulty Rating, which can further modify the roll on a scale from Arduous (-30%) to Trivial (+30%). I immediately ask the book why anyone would need to roll for a trivial task, but no answer is forthcoming. Nor are there any definitions to help distinguish between the terms “Routine” or “Standard,” or what makes a task “Hard” as opposed to “Challenging.” There are the usual variations for extended tasks, assisted tests, and opposed tests.
If you roll doubles, this triggers a Critical Success or Failure. Likewise, a roll of 100 always counts as a Critical Failure, even if your chance of success exceeds 100% (so even if you can’t fail, you can still majorly f--- up), and a roll of 01 is always a Critical Success.
(Just as a matter of personal aesthetic, I wish these points were reversed)
Altogether, a solid mechanic. I particularly like the criticals based on doubles, and the use of flipping the die rolls, which was an elegant part of the combat system in WFRP. However, though I’ve haven’t seen yet what starting stats look like, I’m already getting the impression that player characters in Zweihander begin the game far more competent than their Warhammer counterparts, which may affect how “gritty” the system actually ends up feeling, despite all its nice words on the subject. There are perhaps a few more modifiers involved than I’d like when it comes to calculating a roll, but I imagine it goes fast enough when players are familiar with the system. I am also a bit trepidation regarding the Difficulty Ratings, but I’ll wait and see what the GM’s section has to say on the matter.
Next, mention is made of the Fury dice, which is an exploding D6 that determines the damage of attacks, and the less clearly defined Chaos dice that determines if “something terrible may happen.”
The final part of this section deals with the “Fortune Pool.” I take it this is the equivalent to Warhammer’s Fate points. In WFRP, Fate points basically were Hail Marys that served to keep player characters alive through their first few combats, and as a balancing mechanism for the character races (I think halflings got the highest amount, elves the lowest). Basically, when you took a critical hit, a Fate point would keep you from bleeding to death or succumbing to shock. They were rare, highly valued, and there was no codified manner of getting more once spent beyond some suggestions that the GM may reward them under extraordinary circumstances.
So how does the Fortune Pool compare? Well, first off, apparently it is a shared resource for the whole game group. At the beginning of every game session (wait, that can’t be right - rereading - um, yep, every game session), one token is placed in a bowl and an additional token for every player taking part in the game session…
Apparently Fortune Points can be spent during the game for one of three effects:
To re-roll a failed Skill Test
To gain an addition Action Point in combat (um, “Action Point”?)
To get an automatic result of 6 on a Chaos or Fury die roll
Oh, and whenever a player spends a Fortune Point, the token is transferred to the GM’s “Misfortune Pool,” a mechanism disturbingly similar to Marvel Heroic Roleplaying’s “Doom Pool.”
I don’t care for this at all, and I’m hoping this mechanic can be simply discarded wholesale, or replaced with the traditional Fate points. But first I’ll need to see how integrated it is into the system overall.
It’s probably worth pointing out now that it is obvious just from initial glances through the game that Zweihander’s rulebook is not designed or formatted with the intention of being a resource manual during gameplay. This observation is not meant in and of itself as a criticism per se; many games I like take this approach; rather to point out that I understand the probable reason for placing the How to Play rule summary section here at the beginning, where it is easily accessible. However, I would have preferred it to have started with a basic overview of how characters are defined in game terms to provide some manner of context for the resolution mechanic. Moreover, multiple instances of the #1 Cardinal Sin of Game Writing spread throughout means that this section does not provide anything close to a complete understanding of the mechanics in the first read-through. One would need to come back and reread this section several times in the course of learning game after making it to the sections of the book that actually define and explain the referenced jargon. I can only imagine this would be especially burdensome to someone reading the game in pdf format (I lie, I don’t have to imagine, I first attempted to review the pdf version of Zweihander before I was sent a physical copy). At the very least page numbers could have been noted, preferably hyper-linked in the pdf.
look like a 1920’s Flapper to anyone else, or is it just me?
Like Zelda Fitzgerald stepped into a game of Warhammer?
The best way I can think of covering this section is to go ahead and generate a character. So, Step I: Begin Basic Tier. In WFRP, a character’s overall competence was defined somewhat by how many careers they’d completed, and as near as I can tell, this concept is what the “Tier” in Zweihander refers to. So, uh, this step isn’t really a “step” per se, , more of an announcement of a concept. I guess I can just declare “Starting Basic Tier!” and we are go…
Step II: Primary Attributes. WFRP’s substantial list of 14 attributes inherited from WFB is here reduced to seven: Combat, Brawn, Agility, Perception, Intelligence, Willpower, and Fellowship.
I generally like all of these except ‘Combat,” which just sounds weird
trying to be forced into an adjectival noun role. Should have gone with “Prowess”
Each Attribute has a percentile Rating and then an associated Attribute Bonus that starts as a number derived by dividing by dividing the Attribute Rating by ten, but then improves independently of your Attribute Rating.
Attribute Ratings are generated by rolling 3d10 and adding 25 to the total, for a range between 28 and 55, with an average of 40. Additionally, a player may replace one roll with 42% (that’s a rather specific number...is that a Douglas Adams reference, or am I just desperately looking for references at this point?). So yeah, previous suspicions are pretty much confirmed; Zweihander characters are quite a bit more competent than their WFRP equivalents, who typically rolled 2d10 + 20, with some variation based on race. Interestingly, here there is as yet no mention of race/species; unlike in Warhammer, everyone rolls the same for Attributes.
Rolling my d10s in order I get…
Part III is Sex and Race. So...yeah, Zweihander expects players to randomly roll for their character’s sex…
This is a bad rule and it needs to go sit in the corner and think about what its done.
Meanwhile, a black Sharpie will fix my rulebook…
Hey! Hardly any bleed over. This is good quality paper!
Next, we have the option of either defaulting to human or random-rolling for a “demihuman” race. In WFRP you got to choose between a human, halfling, dwarf, or wood elf (I think gnomes may have shown up in the the Apocrypha Now supplement, but I’m not sure about that. But then, who would want to play a damn, dirty gnome? That's the sort of race you force your kid sister to play when your mother insists that you include her in your game).
In Zweihander, you roll a d100 and could come up with a dwarf, gnome, halfling, ogre, or elf. I can only guess that ogres in Zweihander are very different from their counterparts in WFRP, as Warhammer ogres would be completely unsuitable as player characters. I even had a difficult time justifying Wood Elves in regards to Warhammer’s default setting assumptions (I’d usually have would-be elf players come up with some reason they were banished from Elven society to explain why they were slumming it on the streets of a city of The Empire).
Anyhoo...rolling the dice…
A 28, that is a...GNOME? A Motherf---ing gnome?!
Ohhhhh….looook...I, uh, accidentally mixed up the tens and the ones dice.
It’s really an “82.” That’s an...elf. Boo-yeah.
Speaking of Dungeons & Dragons, I am slightly put off by Zweihander’s use of the word “demihuman,” a particularly Gygaxian term that doesn’t suit a Warhammer-inspired setting or game, IMO.
Let’s see, next is “Racial Traits.” According to the book: “Each race has its own set of unique features called Racial Traits. These cultural distinctions help create differences between the core races and ethnic diversity within their own species.” Hmm… “cultural distinctions” and “ethnic diversity.” Does that mean that there are no physical differences between the races? I was wondering how being a gnome might affect my 41% Brawn.
I mean, elf. I’m definitely an elf.
Wait, no, OK, I skipped a paragraph just above the section on Racial Traits that says “each race receives positive and negative modifiers to certain Primary Attribute Bonuses.”
That reminds me, I’m still unclear at this point as to the function of Attribute Ratings in the game, as the basic mechanic described in the previous chapter was clearly skill-based and only made use of the Attribute Bonus. I hope this isn't a D20-type situation where the Ratings exist solely to derive the Bonus, and are there simply as a legacy mechanic. Probably not, but between the “demihumans” and “Primary Attributes,” I’m just wary of D&Disms.
Anyways, back to Racial Traits. Each race, even humans, have an associated list of around a dozen Traits, of which you are assigned one during chargen via (you guessed it) a random roll. I notice that one of the traits for humans is “Mixed Bloodline,” so half-whatevers do exist in the game. I try not to think too hard about the implications of a half-gnome. Flipping to the section on elves, I see I get a +1 to my Agility, Perception, and Intelligence Bonuses, and a -1 to Brawn, Willpower, and Fellowship. Damn, that kinda throws a kink in my plan to focus on Perception as a weakness. OK, I’m just going to go back and assign the 42 to Perception instead and make Willpower my lowest Trait (technically, the book says this exchange can take place at the end of chargen, so I’m not really breaking any rules).
So that gives me...
(Also, kudos to the game for correctly using the singular of ‘dice,’ avoiding one of my linguistic pet peeves)
Step IV is Archetype and Profession. I roll d100 again to deduce my Archetype, which replaces the four Classes of WFRP with “Academic, Commoner, Knave, Ranger, Socialite, and Warrior.” And I roll...a 41. Which is a Knave. So, flipping to the section on Knaves, I find they are essentially Zweihander’s equivalent of the Rogue.
And...oh. Oh dear…
“Gypsies and roadside buskers fall into this same category as their line of work, although not inherently illegal, requires some measure of guile to earn an honest coin.”
My starting trappings as a Knave include Antivenom, dark clothes, Folkbane (I don’t know what that is, poison? Anyways I’ve got three of it), a gaff bag, garish or second-hand attire (is “attire” different from clothing?), a holy symbol, lock picks, mantle, soft shoes, a stiletto, and my choice of blackjack, garotte, or flintlock pistol (maybe it's the Mordheim in me, but I go with the pistol).
Incidentally, I’ve had a lifelong fascination with stilettos ever since reading Eye of the Needle among the collection of my Grandfather’s books as a wee lad. It was about a secret Nazi assassin/spy hiding out in England, known as ‘The Needle’ because of his use of a stiletto. There was even a pretty decent 1981 film adaption with Donald Sutherland.
Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, stuff. That is quite the haul for a Class that includes “Beggar” as a possible career. Speaking of, its now time for me to roll for my profession, so another d100...39. A gambler?
Peril Threshold is basically a character’s stress level, determining “ how much anxiety and weariness they can withstand before suffering penalties to their Skill Tests.” The Peril Threshold track on the character sheet has four “steps”, based on a base score of a character’s Willpower Bonus + 3 and any modifiers for Talents, Traits, or Magick. In my case, that means “5,”, so my Peril Threshold is (5/11/17/23). I get the sense this is pretty much the equivalent of Zweihander’s Sanity mechanic.
Damage Threshold is presented in much the same manner, this time based on a character’s Brawn Bonus plus any armour’s Damage Threshold modifier. I don’t have any armour, so my Damage Threshold track is (3/9/15/21).
Encumbrance Limit (sigh) is 3 + Brawn Bonus, so in my case “6.” Apparently any point of Encumbrance above this limit is applied as a penalty to Initiative and Movement. “Initiative determines when you take your turn on the Initiative Ladder.” Okay. This one is based on Perception Bonus, so my Initiative is 5. Finally, Movement is based on a Character’s Agility Bonus, so mine is 6.
This section is where I’m starting to feel this game could be easily streamlined further. Do we need a Secondary Attribute for Initiative based on the Perception Bonus or for Movement based on the Agility Bonus when we could just use the Perception or Agility Bonus? Encumbrance made sense in Gygax’s conception of D&D as a resource management game of dungeon exploration, but what does it add to a Warhammer-esque setting? Maybe it’s my general aversion to very crunchy systems, and admittedly I may be a bit unusual in that any system crunchier than, say, West End Games’ D6 tends to cause groans. And the thing is, the original WFRP is not a very complex system overall. It seems as if Zweihander adds a ton of complications, and I question the value that actually adds to gameplay vs the extra OOC work. But there’s certainly far more complex systems that are very popular, so these sentiments may reflect nothing more than my laissez-faire attitude towards rules when GMing.
Step VI defines a character’s Background. We first roll D100 to determine the Character’s season of birth. OK, rolled a 61...so Autumn. Then D100 to determine the character’s “Dooming,” based on the season of birth. Rolling on the Autumn column I get 81…”Do Not Fold, Always Stay.” Hahahahaha! That is surprisingly appropriate!
Now d100 for Age Group. I roll a 53, which is “Adult.” This triggers an Effect: “you have one Distinguishing Mark.” Another D100 roll...40, “Glasgow Grin.” I actually have to google that one (which causes me a brief moment of shame as a Scot)...According to Wikipedia:”A Glasgow smile (also known as a Chelsea smile, or a Glasgow, Chelsea or Cheshire grin) is a wound caused by making a cut from the corners of a victim's mouth up to the ears, leaving a scar in the shape of a smile.” So...lol, I’m the Joker.
Now to Build Type, the charts for which are divided by Race and Gender…um, so, forgot about that whole Sex having no mechanical effect and Transgender/Gender Identification thing already, huh? First roll for Build...33…”Slender,” which gives me a -10% price modifier to the cost for food, clothing, and armour.
Next, rolling on the chart for a male elf...69, so 6’2” and 138 lbs.
Another series of d100 rolls for Hair and Eye Colour...I roll an 88 for hair, “Smokey Grey”, and a 46 for eyes…”Molasses”? So I have grey hair and black eyes. That's very...anime.
And a roll for upbringing ...16, “Forgotten,” which means “you were raised outside of common society and had little opportunity to integrate until now.” This also gives me the Favoured Attribute - Agility, which means its cheaper to buy Ability-based Skills.
Now rolling for Social Class...woo! 99! That makes me..an Aristocrat! (Cue Gilbert Gottfried…). I’m not sure how that works with my Forgotten Upbringing yet, will have to think about that…But I do start the game with d10 + 1 gold crowns . Roll a... well a 3, so 4 Gold Crowns. Still not bad.
Languages thankfully don’t require a roll.
Drawbacks you aren’t required to roll, but can do so in exchange for an extra Fate point. This is reminiscent of Mythras. But wait, I need to re-read this...a Fate point? So not a Fortune point? Fate points also exist in the game?
OK, Step VII: The Hand of Fate…
Step VIII: Alignment. These have been refashioned into Order and Chaos Alignments, similar to Changeling: The Dreaming’s Seelie and Unseelie natures. But they are also ranked as a player moves more towards one or the other, like Pendragon’s Virtues and Passions. So I roll...a 01, wow. That gives me an Order Alignment of “Adaptation” and a Chaos Alignment of “Mayhem.” That sounds fun. We actually get about 3 ½ full pages after the 3 pages of descriptions discussing Alignments. They are clearly stated as meant to be representative, not restrictive, which is good. During play you keep track of Corruption, which works kinda like Vampire: The Masquerade’s Humanity. The more Corruption, the greater a chance your ranks in your Chaos Alignment increase. When your Chaos ranks equal 10, you gain a Disorder. I can’t help but think that this and the Peril Threshold rules cover very similar ground, and it seems like these concepts should have been combined into one mechanic, instead of two, completely unrelated mental condition ratings.
Finally, for this chapter, I choose a name for my Character. So, an elven Gambler who grew up outside of society but is now an Aristocrat…
Well I want something Germanic and Fey, so I think I’m going to call him Nix Halewijn. “Nix” was the name of a mischievous male shapeshifting faery spirit in German folklore, and Halewijn comes from the folktale of Heer Halewijn:
“Heer Halewijn (also known as Van Here Halewijn and in English The Song of Lord Halewijn) is a Dutch folk tale which survives in folk ballad. Although the first printed version of the song only appears in an anthology published in 1848, the ballad itself dates back to the 13th century and is one of the oldest Dutch folk songs with ancient subject matter to be recorded. The story of lord Halewijn itself is even older and contains elements going back to Carolingian times. Many of its mythemes range back to Germanic pre-Christian legends. The song's subject matter is similar in many respects to several Germanic songs circulating in the Middle Ages Europe, notably close to the English ballad May Colvin or False Sir John and its variations, Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight. The legends may have been the prototype of the Legend of Bluebeard.” - Wikipedia
At this point I’m thinking that Nix’s mother committed some horrible (as yet undefined) atrocity that caused her to be cast out from her Elven community with her young baby (maybe she was caught invoking Slaanesh?). Fleeing to the deep woods, his mother was killed defending her child from Beastmen. The Beastmen did not discover the young boy hidden in the brambles, who watched his mother cut down and carried off to some horrible sacrifice. The young boy survived as best he could alone in the wilderness, until being discovered by a human noble and his wife travelling by carriage through a woodland road. They adopted the young boy, and took him back to the city to be educated and raised as a noble. However, Nix never lost his wild streak and quickly found a taste for gambling that has estranged him from his adoptive family. A bad losing streak left him indebted to a cruel crime boss whose goons inflicted upon him a Glasgow Grin when his parents refused to bail him out of his debts for the umpteenth time.
So, all in all, a character that's interesting and I’m happy enough with. Creating a character is a pretty lengthy process, especially as someone with no prior familiarity with the system. There are a lot of rolls, and I’m not certain most of them are necessary. Zweihander pushes completely random chargen, and I think takes this a few steps too far, especially when we get to physical appearance. Moreover, the randomness is made less purposeful s the choices ultimately are largely aesthetic. I’m already seeing that Zweihander tried to “balance” all of Warhammer’s game choices. I’ll probably talk more on that point later, suffice to say that one thing that has been sticking in my head for a while now is “rules bloat.” Zweihander isn't (solely) an attempt to “clean up” WFRP’s old school rules, but rather adds a ton of rules on top. It’s not quite, but getting close, to “kitchen sink” rules design, with more than a little redundancy (two “sanity-esque mechanics, Fortune points and Fate points, etc).
All that said, in the end the rolls I made led to a quirky and unique character with many of the steps informing the backstory I ended up with. I also felt I understood the rules as they were introduced in this chapter much better, and think that just for ease of learning the system, this chapter really should have preceded the previous “How to Play.”
The collection of Professions available here is going to be largely familiar to those familiar with Warhammer, and I quite like all the additions. Along with classics like the Rat-Catcher, Charlatan, and Graverobber, there are also theme-appropriate additions such as the Guttersnipe, Bonepicker and Plague Doctor.
Mandic’s art especially shines in this chapter.
Each Profession has Advances that are purchased with “Reward Points,” of which each character starts with 1000. Advances come in 4 varieties: Professional Traits, Skill Ranks, Bonus Advances, and Talents. In addition, you may be able to purchase “Unique Advances,” which the book promises to explain to me later.
So I am in my Basic Tier and following Zweihander’s instructions, the first thing I do is spend 100 points to enter my career (Gambler), and immediately gain the associated Professional Trait. In my case that is Luck of the Draw: “When you spend Fortune points, you do not need to roll percentile dice to make a Skill Test. Instead, you automatically Critically Succeed…” Alas, this indicates that Fortune Points are integrated into the system and I can’t simply ditch that mechanic. I also acquire the Drawback: When The Dealin’s Done, which states “When you use a Fortune point for Luck of the Draw, you move one step down on the Peril Condition Track negatively.” Succeeding causes me anxiety. I suppose that’s appropriate for an addictive behaviour.
I also gain one “‘iconic’ trapping” for my character, but I’ll have to wait until Chapter 7 to figure that one out. In the meantime, I can spend my remaining 900 Fortune points on other Advances listed for my Profession. Each costs 100 pts, and there are 20 to choose from - 10 Skill ‘ranks, 7 Bonus Advances, or 3 Talents.
I purchase the “Gamble” skill rank, because, of course. “Bargain,” “Scrutinize,” and “Skullduggery” also sound good. A Bonus to Agility and Perception puts me at six out of nine spent. I don’t know what the Talents mean, but “Holdout” sounds appropriate. Two left...hmmm…a Skill rank in “Simple Melee” might extend my life expectancy a bit, and I guess I’ll go for a Bonus to my Fellowship, which could use a bit of a boost. The book states that once I’ve spent these points I’m ready for play, except I haven’t gotten to the chapter on Trappings yet, and I still don’t know what the effects of my purchased Skills or Trait are. So hold your damn horses gamebook!
Okay, so let's talk about “game balance”. Yes, this phrase is perpetually in quotes, largely as I think it in and of itself represents a misconception. But before we get to that, let's go back to the pre-history of RPGs, wargames. The line between wargames and RPGs is thin and blurry. While D&D is the accepted beginning of the diversion between the two hobbies, one need only read up on Bath’s Hyborean campaign or Korn’s Modern War in Miniature to see that, well before the word “Braunstein” even arrived on the scene that the elements that would define RPGs as unique were already being experimented with and executed in wargames rules. What Braunstein did formally, and several parlour games beforehand did informally, was to introduce the identification of one player with one miniature, or “game character,” and thus encourage an act that actually comes naturally to almost all human beings (even if largely forgotten in adulthood): roleplaying. Roleplaying is in fact not even close to being unique to roleplaying games.
Wargames represent a mock battle between players. It's a competitive effort, and from the earliest days of the hobby point systems were introduced to make the game’s “fair.” This is essentially the beginning of the concept of “game balance.” A competitive game isn’t much fun if the winner is predetermined. By making the game “fair”, in as much as that’s possible, it provided a means for competition between players where strategy prevailed over chance and army strength. But here also we saw the first divergence between competitive and narrative wargaming, even if these terms would not be codified until decades later.
Balance via points is a controversial subject in wargames even to this day. Many of the issues should be commonly identifiable to roleplayers: the value of any given unit within the game depends on wildly divergent circumstances. The terrain of the battle, the synergy between units, the types of enemy faced...all of this is largely unpredictable and alters the utility of any unit type.
The easiest way to describe this is to think about the direct precursor to wargames...chess. A chess game involves two identical armies. The same troops, equidistant apart, acting upon the same featureless terrain. The only variable factor is who plays white or black, and with white receiving the only game advantage - moving first - it also has an increased chance of success that some estimate as high as 40%. And yet, when computer programmers first attempted to translate chess into a video game, they ran into a very interesting problem. Invariably, the computer would start playing adeptly, but by the middle of the game it would constantly make simply mistakes. You see, initially the programmers had communicated the importance of each chess piece to the computer by assigning it a numerical value. Pawns, for example, had a value of one, while the King had a value of say, 100. The programmers eventually solved this issue by assigning variable point values to pieces depending on their position on the board, and the remaining pieces on the board. A rook, for example, is only somewhat valuable at the beginning of the game, but its value steadily increases as the game goes on and the board opens up. (this is an incredibly abbreviated account of a pretty interesting story that's worth googling. Well, ‘interesting,’ in a very specifically nerdish manner, but if you’re over two dozen pages into the review of a tabletop roleplaying game, you’re probably picking up what I’ve putting down.)
By the way, anyone else remember Battle Chess? That was my jam, man.
Incidentally, I happen to be designing a wargame at the moment, and speaking as someone who is 3 years into a degree as a Chartered Accountant at a school with a reputation as one of the most intensive in the country, my schoolwork is far easier than my hobby…
Alright, so with all that in mind, let us now consider the Roleplaying game, and an infinite number of variables restricted by nothing besides the imagination of the participants. Partially, this issue was solved by one of the elements that RPGs inherited from Wargames...the Game Master. The human mind and imagination remains far more adaptable than any computer A.I. yet constructed. A GM’s ability to make judgements facilitates the game’s infinite possibilities in a way no system nor computer could match (though that doesn’t prevent some from trying, but that’s a completely separate rant).
Yet, much more importantly, and far more relevant, what allows RPGs to function in a way distinct from wargames is by removing the inherently competitive nature of opposing players. What distinguishes RPGs from wargames, more than anything else, is that they are a co-operative game. The players are all acting towards the same goal. They are not even really competing with the GM (if they’re performing their role correctly).
With that being the case, what do roleplayers mean when they talk about “game balance?” I suggest what this actually refers to is “time in the spotlight.” For many players this is mistakenly conflated with combat efficiency. The fear, I suppose, being that one player is incredibly effective in the midst of a battle, while others are effectively sidelined. I suggest this comes from an incredibly limited view of RPGs (and, frankly, a notable lack of sportsmanship, but hey, if roleplayers were good sportsmen they would have spent their teen years on dates rather than huddled in shag-carpeted basements with polyhedrals). But consider this: what if an entire session is centred around a character learning to overcome their addictions, or come to grips with the death of a loved one? If a character’s ‘Dark Secret’ is revealed, how much of the campaign is influenced by the repercussions? And with that in mind, doesn’t that call into question the RPG design standard of characters getting bonuses for taking character flaws?
I’m not suggesting now that games should be “balanced” based on a character’s ability to hog the spotlight. Rather I’d say that regulating this aspect of the game is a large part of being an effective gamemaster. And there’s nothing that limits a system more than when it tries to compensate for the assumption of an inadequate GM. Which is not something I’m accusing Zweihander of, rather that it represents the same misunderstanding behind an attempt to balance different characters mechanically. Actually, I am sorta accusing Zweihander of that, in a way I’ll explain shortly.
I’m not even saying that creating a “balanced” chargen scenario is a bad thing Rather I would propose that Warhammer Fantasy was equally balanced and that the “fixes” made by both Zweihander, and to an extent, WFRP 2nd Edition, are diametrically opposed to Warhammer’s approach. So this criticism can be taken largely in regards to Zweihander positioning itself as a heir to the WFRP’s legacy.
Alright, enough preamble. Put plainly, Warhammer Fantasy’s approach was to provide equality of opportunity, while Zweihander’s approach is to attempt to accomplish equality of outcome. And I hate that even saying that parallels certain contemporary political arguments, but the concept remains what it is regardless of any awfulness in the outside world (and the consequences of one choice over the other as far as game design goes carries no moral implications). In WFRP everyone has an equal chance when rolling to create their characters. Any player could roll up a beggar or could roll up a Justicar, and the randomness was not only fair, but also gave the roll meaning. With Zweihander’s attempt to make every character effectively end up balanced, most of the rolls serve no real purpose beyond personal taste and aesthetics.
Thus, for example, when I fumbled the roll for race to take an elf over a gnome, I was doing nothing besides exerting my aesthetic preferences as a player (and cheaply stealing a joke from the Fear of Girls web series). It had no real mechanical impact. Just as if I’d rolled a Beggar as my profession instead of a Gambler, it would not have significantly altered the effectiveness of my character. I still would have had 20 Skills, Bonuses, and Traits to choose from and received a Professional Trait and Drawback. Even the very implementation of Attribute bonuses means the distinction between characters is incredibly reduced.
But this is significant enough for me to ramble on about because it directly pertains to the “grim and perilous” mood that Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay came to epitomize and that Zweihander has so clearly attempted to capture (they even stuck it in the name). Because a big part of that was playing the hand that one is dealt, in a world that isn’t “fair,” that is oppressive and hierarchical, and stacked against the common man. It's about making the best of bad situations, and gritting your teeth and exploiting every opportunity, and personal cleverness, to overcome the dark and dangerous world you’ve unwittingly been thrust into. WFRP’s chargen system drove that point home, Zweihander’s apologizes for it.
Moreover, Zweihander’s Tier system in and of itself strictly mechanicalizes something that in Warhammer was left largely to the judgement of the GM and the nature of events that played out in the course of a campaign. Its here that Zweihander attempts, probably unwittingly, to use the system to compensate for what was more effective and realistic left in the hands of the GM. In Warhammer, your progress through career was only partly to do with Advances and spending Experience - it was also about what opportunities presented themselves organically during the course of gameplay. Reading Zweihander’s description of the Tiers, it's clear that the player is merely presented with a variation on the concept of “levels” that pervades the RPG fantasy genre in the shadow of D&D.
Again, despite the length and breadth of this rant, this needn’t be taken as a critique of Zweihander as a game, only a comparison between Zweihander and WFRP. A comparison that Zweihander invites at every opportunity.
Rant over. Let’s continue on…
Chapter V is all about Skills.
The Skill list is relatively concise, at 36 total, and all seem useful. Though I personally prefer a smaller number of broad skill categories, for the approach Zweihander takes it shows excellent restraint and this may be the first aspect of the game so far that represents a streamlining and improvement over Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay.
Each skill is associated with one of the Primary Attributes, and lo and behold, I am quite pleased to see that accompanying each skill description is a set of examples as to what constitutes a Trivial, Easy, Routine, Standard, Challenging, Hard, and Arduous use of that skill. This actually goes a long way to improving my earlier reticence regarding these Difficulty Ratings (though it also reinforces my thought that the chargen chapters should have preceded the “How To Play” section).
I don’t have much else to say on this chapter, really. It’s very well done.
Chapter VI covers Talents. These are akin to G.U.R.P.’s “Advantages”, White Wolf’s “Merits”, or Unisystem’s “Qualities;” in other words, an ubiquitous part of RPG systems since the 90s. It basically covers special abilities and aptitudes of characters above and beyond skills. I’d say this was again an addition to the system that didn’t exist in WFRP, but that’s not exactly true. Rather it’s more that Warhammer didn’t distinguish between skills and what Zweihander categorizes as “Talents.” So, on the one hand, the division represents streamlining, but as the list of Talents has clearly been expanded upon, it ends up being somewhere in-between.
It's a short chapter, the descriptions are interesting, and nothing seems drastically powerful (these are definitely not “Feats” à la WOTC D&D). For example, I looked up the Talent I purchased for Nix, Holdout:
“You always succeed at Skulduggery Tests to conceal objects no larger than a knife about your person.”
This brings us to Chapter VII: Trappings, or more generally, “stuff.”
Nix already accumulated quite a bit of stuff via his Archetype, but I’m also supposed to receive one specific piece of gear iconic of his profession (so probably cards or dice, I’m thinking). And I also have some decent starting coinage as an Aristocrat…
- The Brass Penny
- The Silver Shilling (worth 12 brass pennies)
- And The Gold Crown (worth 20 shillings or 240 pennies)
It's 1183 and we're all barbarians!” - The Lion in Winter
Of these, the only one I think I need address further at this point is the “Weapon Qualities.” As you may have guessed, these are kind of like Talents or Traits for weapons. Each weapon has upwards to four of these listed as well, so they are not covering exceptional or unusual aspects of arms. For example, on the Simple Melee Weapon chart, the entry for “bare-handed” features the Qualities “Pummeling” and “Slow.”
Looking up my Stiletto, I see that it has the Qualities “Fast,” “Vicious,” and “Weak.”
FAST - “Whenever a foe is struck by a weapon of this Quality, they suffer a - 10 Base Chance to Dodge or Parry.”
VICIOUS - “Weapons of this Quality grant an additional 1d6 Chaos Die to determine whether you inflict an injury”
WEAK - “Weapons of this Quality can only inflict Moderate or Serious Injuries, never Grievous Injuries”
(Hmm, I think I know a certain Nazi spy who might disagree with that last one)
Overall, the weapon lists are about as comprehensive as anyone could ask for, even covering such exotic historical curiosities as Mortuary Swords. Yeah, that one caught my eye, so I looked up what the game had to say on them, and the description Zweihander gives is:
“The most common weapon for explorers, it is useful and evokes little fuss. Not surprisingly, it tends to cleave violently, hence its namesake.”
Um...what? Historically, a Mortuary sword was a type of Scottish basket-hilted Broadsword. After the execution of King Charles I (1649), basket-hilted swords were made which depicted the face or "death mask" of the martyred king. These came to be known as "mortuary swords", and were primarily used by Scot cavalry.
And, as I don’t feel any drastic need to go shopping as yet, I’d also say that this ends character creation for me, and Part I of this review.