Dark Astral is the new splat or chapbook for Zweihander delivering a range of setting appropriate characters, equipment, and rules. Setting appropriate you say? But isn’t Zweihander effectively setting agnostic instead focusing on grim and perilous roleplay. Well yes. But instead of this being the grim darkness of the past it’s the grim darkness of the far future!
So it’s the 40k mod then?
Where Zweihander can be seen to have its spiritual roots in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, it would not be unfair to say that Dark Astral has those roots firmly in the world of Warhammer 40000. That said, it’s much more apt to state that this looks and feels far more like the Rogue Trader (the 1987 one) setting than anything I’ve seen come out of Games Workshop and its associated licenses recently.
For the record, I’m in no way bashing any of this new stuff. I firmly enjoyed the line of 40k RPGs from FFG and the new ones coming from Cubicle 7 look highly polished affairs as always. I’d also hate to be thought of in any way as gatekeeping but I suppose I have to admit to a bit of grognard-ism in that I grew up with a certain aesthetic vision of a grim and perilous future and it feels like this newer stuff has lost some of that whilst picking up the newer flavour on the way. I could go off on a tangent about the warping of beloved franchises to ‘better’ suit and reflect the current world but that’s definitely a rambling rant for another time and place.
What kind of aesthetic I am talking about then? For those unfamiliar, consider a future where history is a murky affair that few can agree on. Technology is both wondrous and terrifying. Few know how it works and those that do are given an almost religious significance. There’s elements of Herbert’s Dune and Orwellian dystopia. It’s easy to forget how the original premise of such a galaxy came about. Words and imagery dripping with satire and bashing ideas of blind conformity and fascism are now espoused with glee from a few gamers with some, if not all, of the clever wit lost. That’s a terrible generalisation, isn’t it…
What do I get?
The book itself is a fairly compact affair coming in at forty odd pages. Within these, we’ve got some setting (let’s say flavour) blurb, six new setting appropriate professions, new rules for getting your hands on fancy gear, and then the rest, details on all of said fancy gear. As one would expect if you’ve seen Zweihander, there’s also plenty of high-quality art and the overall layout is pleasing on the eye.
It goes without saying that this is very much a supplement to Zweihander so if you haven’t had any experience of that, some of the terminology I use here might seem a bit out of place or lacking context. I’d strongly urge you to check out my review of the main game here when you get a chance.
Although I’ll be keen to get my hands on a hard copy to sit with the rest of my Zweihander collection, bear in mind that this review is based on the pdf so I can’t judge things like print quality and binding. I guess given the current circumstances though, a lot of RPG purchases in general (well maybe not new dice) are gonna be electronic anyway.
I won’t go into too much detail for each of the professions presented and instead give a bit of the flavour and what they achieve in my mind. I should give a shout out to Matt Jowett (@Jowzam3), the Twitch director for Grim & Perilous Studios who has done a pretty good video on a page by page here but I know that some of you prefer the older written form like this.
Did someone say Astral Marine!? Seriously though, this is your genetically enhanced super-soldier or mutant. These guys are pretty strong with the ability to just up one of their starting Attribute to a flat 55%! In addition, depending on what you selected, you gain an additional benefit. This can be anything from improved Damage Threshold to effectively free reloading of weapons. All of this comes at the downside of being considered a mutant for in-game effects as well as gaining the eunuch trait.
When one then considers the benefits of implants and upgrades, which I’ll mention a tad later, these are very strong character bases and probably quite ahead on the curve. Its worth noting then that there isn’t necessarily an internal ‘mechanics’ balance at play here and caution should be exercised for groups where players can become a bit competitive with each other.
The key thing for me here though is that this archetype strongly fits the bill for something like the Sardaukar. Whilst obviously heavily inspired by the RT era powered armour wearing zealots, there’s nothing stopping these also representing something more akin to the Emperor’s shock troops. Sure there’s a new Dune RPG on the way, and some of you may be lucky owners of the LUG Dune book but who doesn’t want more options to play your favourite settings or ‘inspired-by’ games right?
Religious individuals with a fanatical obsession for the secrets and intricacies of computing and machines; a tech-priest if you will. These guys gain a 3% increase to an attribute whenever they gain a new implant with the flip side of gaining corruption at an increased rate. Makes sense. You throw your lot in with the dark side of tech and you risk losing that part of you which is human. I’m not sure there are as many analogues in other dystopian dark future series but the concept of the risk/reward from augmentation is pretty well established otherwise.
Manhunter & Shadowbroker
Lumping these in together we have the bounty hunter/assassin type in the manhunter. A lone wolf who stalks their prey wherever is needed with abilities suited for taking down their targets. The Shadowbroker, on the other hand, has strong Rogue Trader vibes. An individual with the resources and wherewithal to get a job done. The setting here describes them as privateers with letters of marque to go about their business in whatever way they see fit as long as they stay out of the way.
These characters for me emphasise the difference between in-game and rules-based bonuses. The manhunter, and more importantly the templar before them, have very good ‘rules’ which give them technical advantages in-game. On the other hand, the shadow broker has implied benefits in their fluff. Now not everyone will utilise this to the same extent but for me, status and the social aspects play heavily in any game I run – for good or ill. There’s no hard and fast way of dealing with this given but the foundations are well laid.
Pykonaut & Tecknokrat
Rounding out our selection of new character professions is the pykonaut and technocrat. The pyskonaut is pretty straightforward and very powerful at first reading. Telepaths, telekinetics, and all other manner of space wizardry abound here. With abilities that would be incredibly useful in a whole range of scenarios, these also have the interesting roleplaying drawback of gaining traits of chaos. Another risk/reward character that drips with potential for characterful play.
The technokrat is the equivalent of an astral civil servant. Someone who not only knows which cog they are in the great machine, but also which ones need greased and how to apply it. Back in 2008/9 when I played Dark Heresy, a member of the Administratum was my go-to. In a game setting where people got itchy trigger fingers around any strangers, it’s not always easy to get that social flow. As such, I’m very happy to see this here. With benefits to detecting NPC motivations, the drawback here is nice but problematic. If playing a Technokrat you are obliged to lean into your chaos alignment when dealing with people you don’t consider an ally. Whilst fine in principle, I’m often sceptical of these types of drawback; particularly when playing with a new group of for those not used to running games. I draw attention to it because its been a perennial problem I’ve observed for over twenty odd years now. As an added bonus, any gothic or baroque setting would easily provide a home for the technokrat.
Dark Astral crams in a huge selection of new ranged and close combat weaponry as well as armour and modifications. There’re new rules for firing types like semi-auto and burst, ammo types, as well as templates for weapons such as laser or esoteric. For those familiar with Zweihander, these are all presented in handy tables with all of the relevant key words. Whilst there are a lot here, once you get your head round the key words, its pretty straightforward to create or amend as you see fit for your own games.
Although I appreciate that this is a chapbook and the intent in what it aims to provide, I feel that an opportunity was missed in not giving more descriptions of some of this equipment. There are some wonderfully named weapons but aside from the rules, we aren’t treated to fluffy descriptions of how these work. For some, this might be a trivial matter as they want to create their own or lean into other established settings. At the risk or creating formatting or page count issues though I think more gravy for the meat here would have upped this release’s general readability or cross-use potential. Of course, without more art, this could have then ended up overly wordy so the balancing act of the creator comes into play and needs to be considered.
There’s plenty of gear, mods and implants to contend with too. These have a bit more description text and are all very much in keeping with tone of the rest of the book. You’ll find the right tool whether you’re assaulting a space station in high orbit from your attack craft or crawling the slag heaps in the underbelly of an industrial colony world. Working off a reputation modifier for availability rather than simply throw a credit cost on here also helps for those of us who prefer a lack of accountancy related time at the gaming table.
Dark Astral for me, ticks the boxes based on a design brief. It’s a short chap or splatbook which introduces a new setting and rules for your Zweihander games. It plants enough of that RPG seed needed to grow the creative ideas and get you excited for playing a game. Putting it into context though, as much as I love what’s presented here, if you don’t have an interest in grim and perilous science fiction, this might not necessarily be your thing. If you preferred future is all chrome and polished steel, then maybe its not going to be an ideal fit.
Whether it’s something for those looking to kickstart the nostalgia engine and return to that wonderfully grim conflict in the dark far future or present enough to hack their way into a Dune-esque story then you won’t go wrong. A must for all you Zweihander fans! And if all of this wasn’t enough, I’ve also gotten my grubby augmented fingers on an adventure specifically written with Dark Astral in mind. Up next, I’ll be giving my thoughts on The Dark Below Edessa!
Dark Astral is now available from Andrews McMeel Publishing in print at Amazon and Barnes & Noble, whereas The Dark Below Edessa is now available electronically and in print via DrivethruRPG. As always, feel free to leave your comments below or join us over on our Facebook page. You can also see more of my RPG ramblings over on Twitter (@brother_rooster)