Role-playing games are in the midst of a surge in popularity and mainstream attention thanks in part to the likes of Stranger Things. There’s a wave of nostalgia for some who played in their youth. Many are returning to fantastical realms as adults (although, some like me never left) and there’s a new influx of players experiencing games for the first time. Zweihander is something that bridges the divide. Its a cracking read which manages to capture both the history of old whilst bringing a fresh look to the gaming table.
Winner of the ENnie gold Best Game and Product of the Year at Gen Con 2018, featured on Forbes.com, ranked one of the best-selling fantasy tabletop role-playing games at DriveThruRPG and having moved over 90,000 copies worldwide, ZWEIHÄNDER Grim & Perilous RPG is a bloodier, grimmer and grittier version of classical tabletop role-playing games.Excerpt from grimandperilous.com
Zweihander… not just a name!
I’ve been fortunate to receive a review copy of the hardback and boy, is it a doozy! There’s been more than a few remarks about the book’s size floating around online and they’re well deserved. Clocking in at over 650 pages, this is a truly hefty tome. Removing it from the shipping box and placing it on the dining table gave a delicious “thumph”.
Every cloud has a silver lining. So too then must every silver lining have a cloud. That initial satisfaction of holding this book and sitting down with it gave way to a creeping concern. When I ‘game’, I normally host at my home, or am fortunate to be able to drive to friends/local store/game club etc. Carting this book out and about is not going to be an easy undertaking. Ultimately, that’s something you’ll need to consider but the good news is that a pdf is available.
Having handled a lot of large text books and such, I was keen to inspect the quality. Both the paper stock and bindings were top notch. Not too shiny and not too thin. The cover is sturdy and as you can see in the pic, will look great both on the shelf and the gaming table. I’m also a fan of the ribbon marker; I’m a sucker for such things.
A little bit of history.
Physical production to one side, the book really is a joy to look at. There’s a few colour plates but essentially it’s monochrome illustrations throughout. Evocative as a word isn’t really strong enough to cover it…
I’m a child of the 80s and grew up in Thatcher’s Britain. My character influenced by the political satire of Spitting Image fused with the adventure of Fighting Fantasy. Warhammer, and the stories of the Old World, eluded me until the 90s. By then ADnD was my small group of friend’s go-to and WFRP was something I only discovered at University. Into the 90s, GW had removed all connection with the roleplaying past from their stores here in the UK so it was just minis for me. Anyways, WFRP was like finding something you didn’t know you were missing. As much as I loved the idea of playing a paladin in gleaming armour defending the weak, there’s a strange appeal by playing a grimy Baldrick-esque character (yeah Blackadder has had a lasting effect on me too).
Why is this of any import? Well, Zweihander has it’s roots in old Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play. The creator, Daniel D. Fox, originally released a large collection of mods, notes and hacks under the name Project Corehammer back in 2013. Taking on a life of its own, as projects of this nature are wont to do, the game evolved to what I now have in my hands. Anyone then who has enjoyed time exploring the Old World whether in wargames or roleplaying will then find a lot of familiarity here.
Looking grim but staying pretty.
It’s important to make it clear that Zweihander isn’t simply a WFRP clone. Sure, they share a lot of the same DNA and upbringing but they are very different beasts. Where one has undergone changes over the ages to remain tied to a specific setting, the other strongly proclaims its system agnosticism.
So as I said – evocative.
The art direction of Dejan Mandic really blew me away. I love how the black and white lines hearken back to an earlier age of roleplaying but maintain a high production quality one would expect of a more modern book. There’s nothing in here that specifies exactly how and where you set your game, but it definitely hammers home the intended tone. Sure, there are dungeons one may escape from and wondrous lands to explore. However, if the image below is anything to go by, you need high manned walls for your settlements; clearly to keep something out. Oh, and as a reminder to keep in line, perhaps? That’s where the folks strung up on crosses outside come in handy…
Being able to draw on established source material for your games is always going to be a plus. Sometimes it’s easier to appeal to new players by their knowledge of Game of Thrones for instance. Instead of donning shiny armour and jousting the best of noble Highgarden, you’ll be more likely to be hiding out from the guards in the brothels of King’s Landing. Of course, as the more fantastical elements are essentially bolt-ons, you could even run this as a purely historical game. Maybe the religious wars of Europe offer an interesting slant you wish to explore. Of course, sprinkle in some fantasy and then you could have everything from Kane to the Witcher.
The Golden Rule
One rule above all others is held in the highest regard around the gaming table – have a good time!Daniel D. Fox
As expected the book opens with a short section on the role of the games master and how a group should approach the game. All good advice which, for a seasoned gamer, may seem old hat, but it does bear repeating. There’s a small cutaway explaining the use of gender neutrality throughout before a list of questions implying the tone and intended themes of the game. I’ve encountered a variety of pronoun usage ideas recently from alternating between the male and female form between chapters or sections or simply defaulting to one throughout. Personally, I prefer this general approach of referring to the player in a neutral form. Consisted and free from confusion.
There’s a bit of dichotomy in here depending on how you approach the themes. As much as the game fosters inclusivity, grimdark settings won’t be for everyone. The books posits whether your story will be a survival horror about staving off madness or even a dark meditation on real world ethnic cleansing and land grabs but with fantastical races! Ultimately, the overall idea is simple. No one who wants to explore these themes should feel hindered in doing so. For me, I tend to play with folks with whom I would consider to know relatively well. Even so, there’s always differences of opinion which means you won’t go wrong with keeping the golden rule in mind.
There’s probably a whole other article in the exploration of the world of dark fantasy themes but that’s definitely for another time…
Yeah yeah but how does it work!?
Where the vogue is normally to front load the character creation and then follow up with rules, combat, and so on, Zweihander gets stuck right in. From its gnarled roots, the system maintains the use of d10s and a percentile system. Thank goodness for that. At its core, it’s simple, straightforward, and importantly easy to explain and understand. Even the most inexperienced gamer should ‘get it’ when you say you’ve got a 50% chance of doing something, right?
Essentially, one will be given a skill to test against by the GM. You want to try and use the fallen log to cross the river? Well, that seems straightforward enough; let’s also presume that you’ve got a relevant skill. Take your base chance from your stat and add any bonuses from having skill ranks. The total will be your base chance. Of course, there are always complications or other factors to consider. You may be injured or suffering penalties from the Peril Condition. The GM might have decided that its been raining or the log is rotten. Either way, you’ll end up with bonuses and penalties that result in a final base chance.
Although it’s pretty clear from the nomenclature what the system is referring to here, as this is the start of the book, certain things haven’t been explained yet. There’s an argument to be had that there could have been some shuffling of sections to prevent using key words before they’ve been properly introduced, but I can see why you’d make the decision not to. Given the size of the book, it’s not easy to flick through. It’s not a system which I believe will require a lot of in-game referencing, but I like having the core rules front and centre to find easily if needs be. For someone completely new to the concepts of roleplaying this could be daunting. For anyone who has even a small inkling, it’s very easy to follow the gist.
Let’s get critical.
What would a skill test be without the chance to succeed beyond your initial expectations. Or indeed to fail beyond your worst fears!? When rolling your percentile dice, if the numbers ‘match’ and its a successful roll, then its a critical success. Of course the flip side of that coin is that if you roll a match and fail, then it’s a critical failure with added complications. Honestly, I’m not sure I like this.
If there’s a 1 in 10 chance of a critical success or failure it seems to me that this will be happening too often. I appreciate though that Zweihander has had a lot of playtest hours so maybe I’m just being overly cautious. Indeed, at this stage in the rules, it just alludes to the presence of unforeseen benefits or complications. If we can drive the story along by the use of these then I might be forced to reconsider my position.
Following on, we have descriptions of how skills can be used for instantaneous results or how some may require preparation and planning as well as execution. Jumping a ravine takes far less time than forging a wanted poster for example. How to handle opposed tests, where players may be pitting there abilities against each other or the machinations of GM NPCs, are detailed succinctly. Then we have the secret rolls where your success or failure as a player might not be immediately known.
I’ve always found it a trifle odd in games when as a player I’ve looked for traps or secret doors and the GM has asked me to roll. If I get a really shocking result and with a wry smile am told there’s definitely nothing to worry about that locked chest, it kind of spoils the immersion. Simply, the GM will work with you to get your base chance, roll, and tell you what you think happens. Easy and helps to keep the suspension of disbelief going, as well as potentially helping to ramp up the tension.
Flipping for victory!
Whilst the rules appear pretty robust as is, something I find very appealing is the added complications of flipping. Okay, so you’ve got your head round rolling percentile dice and the core mechanics but you still feel a task should be easier or harder. Simply reducing or increasing the percentage chance isn’t really cutting it for you. Well, how about you flip off?
In certain circumstances you may be required to flip for success or flip for failure. Either way, the premise is very similar. After rolling your percentile dice flip the digits. If you rolled a 34, you’d now have a 43. Roll a 19, well now that’s a 91. In the case of flipping for success you take the higher of the two. And no prizes for guessing then that flipping for failure means you take the lower of the two.
Two sides of the same coin.
Although combat is far greater detail further in the book, the concept of the Fury and Chaos dice are explained here. When rolling damage, one may also roll a fury die (d6). If a ‘6’ is rolled then you may roll again and continue to add the total. In the main, I feel that exploding mechanics need to be controlled to prevent overly swingy occurrences, but for damage in a gritty game I can accept it.
Similarly, the chaos die is rolled for things like injuries and where the GM feels necessary. This is your bad news die and if this thing ‘explodes’ I’m going to assume it’s not just a black eye you end up with…
By this stage you’ll have grasped that Zweihander has a lot of symmetry; both in mechanics and in setting. There’s a real balance of law and chaos, strength and weakness, power and futility. Some may miss it and some critical, keen-eyed folks might see it all too obvious. I think it’s very in keeping with the original source inspiration and has twang of callback to the likes of Moorcock. You’ll see in further articles how this threads itself throughout the whole book.
Misery and Misfortune
Rounding out the core rules section is the introduction of the fortune pool. At the start of each session, the GM would place a single token into the pot and then one for each player. During the course of the game, an individual character might then use a fortune point to gain an action or to re-roll a failed skill test. Whilst I don’t mind this type of mechanic, I feel there is always the problem that the points just get left to the last minutes of the session. It should be noted that these don’t accumulate over games, you always start with x+1 where x is your player numbers.
What then adds further complication is that when you spend a fortune point, it becomes a misfortune point. These are identical in nature but can be spent by the GM to boost an NPC. Without testing round the table I’ll have to reserve judgement about how this effects the game experience overall.
Barely even started!
With that, we end the core rules and find ourselves venturing into character creation where great adventure awaits. Although, adventure is perhaps too optimistic a word, it sounds somewhat imbued with hope. We won’t be having any of that here. Fun? Yes, loads of fun though.
You’ll no doubt have realised my enthusiasm for Zweihander RPG by now. I’ve been on the hunt for a system that suited my needs both in rules and tone. I’m not adverse to derring-do, fantastical high magic worlds and wonder, but to get mud on your boots and blood on your knife? Sometimes that’s just the ticket. I’ll be back very soon with more on what looks set to become one of my strong go-to games. (So much so I’ve had to go out and pre-order Main Gauche!) Next up is character creation and combat. If you want fast and brutal where every action counts then you’re in for a treat!
Have you had a chance to pick up Zweihander yet? Maybe it’s on your wants list? Either way, we’d love to hear your comments below or to join in with the discussions over on our Facebook page. Be sure to check out the Grim and Perilous webpage for even more ways to join in.