Sunday 9 July 2017

[Review] ZWEIHÄNDER Grim and Perilous RPG Part III: Bring Out Your Dead!

The time has come to go through the book, chapter by chapter! Or at least a part of it...

Chapter 1: Introduction

This chapter is preceded by a novella and a designer's note. The introduction itself tells you everything you already know about RPGs and dark fantasy, unless you are a beginner. Not much to see here.

Chapter 2: How to Play
How the playtest of my Fortune/Misfortune
Shots idea will likely end.

After the introduction ZWEIHÄNDER throws you in at the deep end, and starts explaining the core rules. Everyone, including WFRP veterans should read the rules carefully, because there are plenty of changes compared to Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and the wording can be a bit ambiguous here and there. ZWEIHÄNDER uses a percentile skill test for every check, from hitting the broad side of the barn, through casting devastating battle magick on the vile gazebo, to convincing a burgher that buying your delicious meat pies won't give him the bloody flux. To figure out your chances you have to total the required Primary Attribute, the Skill Ranks, the Peril Condition Track penalties, the bonuses from talents and traits, and finally the difficulty rating. If you roll lower or equal than your total chance of success with your d100, you succeed, otherwise you fail. Simple, isn't it?

There are a few cases which will spice this simple and familiar game mechanic up - mostly by using rules borrowed from other games. Rolling a double (eg. 22 or 33) will turn your result into a critical success or failure - just like a 01, and a 00 will. This means the chance of critical success increase as you get better in a skill. I love it. ZWEIHÄNDER introduces a flip mechanic too: sometimes you have to swap your digits and choose the better or worse depending on whether you flip to succeed, or flip to fail. It's simple and elegant. In several occasions you will also have to know your degree of success, which is the value of your tens die added to your Primary Attribute Bonus. In a simple opposed test whoever has the higher degree wins, but there can be also contests where the winner has to reach a certain target number through several skill tests. There are rules for assisted tests, secret tests, extended tests, hasty tests too. These additions might seem a bewildering at first glance, but they are easy to pick up.

The chapter also explains the function of the Fury Dice and the Chaos Dice. The Fury Dice is the damage dice, which is a d6 in ZWEIHÄNDER. Like in previous incarnations of WFRP it explodes: when you roll a six on it you roll another dice, which can also explode. I have fond memories of ridiculous lucky streaks from my earlier WFRP2e campaigns, which usually ended in one shotting bosses. The Chaos Dice is another d6, where rolling sixes means something bad. They are primarily used in combat to see if someone gets an injury, and in spellcasting to see if any Chaos Manifestation is invoked. The more dangerous the situation, the more Chaos Dice you have to roll.

The chapter ends with the Fortune and Misfortune Pool mechanics. The party gets one Fortune Point in the Fortune Pool at the beginning of the session, plus one for every player present. During the session the players may expend these to reroll skill tests, gain another Action Point in combat, or turn a Chaos/Fury Dice to six. The spent Fortune Points then turns into a Misfortune Points which the GM can use to mess with players. The author recommends using tokens for tracking Fortune and Misfortune Points, but I want to give it a shot with shots.

Chapter 3: Character Creation

All your garden are belong to us!
Time to move on to character creation and its miscellanea! Like all editions of WFRP following the first, ZWEIHÄNDER changes the Primary Attributes once again. Weapon Skill and Ballistic Skill were merged, just like Strength and Toughness, and Perception from the WH40K RPGs is added, so we end up with seven characteristics: Combat, Brawn, Agility, Perception, Intelligence, Willpower, Fellowship. The Primary Attributes are percentile values, but they also have Primary Attribute Bonuses, which are the tens of your Primary Attributes. They are used to calculate Secondary Attributes like Damage Threshold, Peril Threshold, Initiative, Encumbrance, and so on. The weirdest twist is probably the permanent nature of your Primary Attribute scores: you can't change them any longer through advancement. Instead, you will increase your Secondary Attribute values by improving the Primary Attribute Bonuses, and your chance of success by buying Skill Ranks. I don't really see the point behind this change, it will only confuse those used to earlier editions. Also, having a value ending with 9 sucks even more from now on.

After writing down your starting tier you have to roll 25+3d10 to get your Primary Attribute values. Just like in WFRP2e, you can ask for Mercy and change one shitty value into mediocre. While the starting values are higher than in WFRP2e, due to the way Primary Attributes and Skill Ranks work the top values are more limited. I find both of these welcome changes.

The next step is choosing your sex and race. The available races are Human, Dwarf, Elf, Gnome, Halfling, Ogre. Yes, ZWEIHÄNDER resurrects the forgotten Gnomes, and includes the fan-favorite Ogres. Your race gives you some bonuses and penalties to Primary Attribute Bonuses, and a random Racial Trait. There are twelve traits for each race, so even if you have two Elves in the party it's highly unlikely they will be similar. The large list is also good for those who like customizing their campaigns. The typical racial features from are already there, so you will only have to cross out those you won't allow, and what you miss in the rare case it's not on the list. You might also want to customize the random race table, because it offers an equal chance to all races, despite the author's rant about humanocentric grimdark worlds.

Probably the most important step of character creation is choosing Archetype and Profession. These are the classes and careers of old. Archetype will define your starting equipment and what Professions are available, while professions will determine your characters available Advances. The character also gets an iconic trapping based on profession, but it's the GM's decision what it will be. The six Archetypes are Academic, Commoner, Knave, Ranger, Socialite, Warrior. Each one of them offers 12 different professions. There are no overlaps between them, and there are no racial limitations either - it's up to the GM whether he wants to disallow elven clerics, gnomish knights, and ogre wizards in his campaign. I'm against such limits. Just as WFRP was brave enough to go against the stereotypes of high fantasy, so am I not afraid to go against the stereotypes of ye Olde Worlde.

The rest of the character creation is all about fleshing out your character. There is a section for every minor detail you can imagine, from dooming, through upbringing, to social class. Needless to say, all of them has its own charts, which I totally love. Some of these details even give you small bonuses: your body size can influence how much clothing costs for you, your upbringing can change the cost of some skill focuses, and your social class tells you how much money you will start with.

Fate Points are mentioned here first, which are exactly the same as in the first two editions of WFRP: they can be burned to avoid death. All player characters start with one, but can earn another by taking a Drawback like Cursed, Eunuch, or Nemesis. Unlike distinguishing marks, drawbacks are nothing to joke with, some of them can downright cripple the character - like Veteran's Leg did our ogre hedgewise, who has a total of 1 Movement when unencumbered.

Alignment and Corruption take a huge chunk out of character creation, which I have a mixed feeling about. Each player character has a tracker with two sides: Chaos and Order. As the PC experiences trauma, sees weird crap, and does fucked up things, he earns Corruption Points. At 10 points the PC moves one step towards Chaos. If there are CPs at the end of session, the player rolls a d10. If it's equal or less as the current CPs, the PC moves one step towards Chaos, otherwise he moves one step towards Order. The number of CPs is reset with each session. Reaching 10 ranks in Order earns a Fate Point for the PC, while reaching 10 ranks in Chaos earns a disorder - addiction, insanity, or mutation. That's a damn fine system. My problem is with the 25 Chaos - Order alignment pairs bolted on top of it, which the game tries to put a bigger emphasis on than it deserves.

I'm not fond of alignment systems based on personality and behavior. I don't find them helpful. Quite the opposite: they shoehorn characters into stereotypes, induce players in to acting accordingly, and ask the GM to make judgement about reward and punishment based on it - which is a huge headache for a GM like me, who prefers taking a neutral stance. Even having 9 alignments can lead to endless arguments, so no wonder I find 25 an overkill. I appreciated how WFRP2e threw away alignments. I will do the same again, and let the player come up with something more on his own without being confined by two words. Besides finding alignment unnecessary, I also believe most of it should have been moved to the GM's section instead.

Once finished with the background the new characters get 1000 RPs they can spend on advances.

Chapter 4: Professions

I have come here to chew bubblegum
and burn heretics... And I'm all out of bubblegum.
ZWEIHÄNDER breaks character advancement into three tiers: Basic, Intermediate, Advanced. Tiers specify your highest Skill Ranks (Apprentice, Journeyman, Master) and how much buying an Advance costs (100, 200, 300 RP). Normally characters begin in Basic tier, but there are guides for generating higher tier characters. Since you have to buy all of your current Profession's Advances to move into another tier, and you can only take on a new Profession when you change tiers, moving between Professions is more rigid than in WFRP.

The list of Professions is impressive. There are 72 basic Professions and 46 Expert Professions that have special requirements for entry. All the old favorites are here, even if some of them was renamed. Each profession offers 10 Skill Ranks, 7 Bonus Advances, 3 Talents, and a few unique Traits and Drawbacks. Besides these mandatory Advances that are required to finish the tier the GM can allow Unique Advances, like Skill Focuses, or Talents and Skills not on the profession's list. Combined with the lack of strict career entries and exits in ZWEIHÄNDER, the number possible combinations are incredibly varied.

I do have two small gripes. First, the number of Expert Professions is a bit less impressive than it seems, for the different wizardly orders and religions are handled as separate Professions. I would have been happier if there were more martial, social, and roguish expert Professions - their second and third tier options are lacking. Second, there are Professions that can only be taken in Advanced Tier. Unfortunately they are listed among the Expert Professions without any differentiation or highlighting. It would have been useful if they got their own section.

Chapter 5: Skills

There are 36 Skills, which cover everything an adventurer might need in a grim & perilous world. As mentioned earlier, everything is a Skill in ZWEIHÄNDER, including fighting, magic, resistances. Even Attribute tests are Skills Tests: each Attribute has a Skill of its own that covers its use for general tasks, and can be improved.

Each Skill has a Primary Attribute it is based on, but the GM might overrule this if he sees fit. The character's expertise in a Skill is measured in Skill Ranks. Up to three Skill Ranks can be taken in a Skill (Apprentice, Journeyman, Master), each one of them adding a cumulative +10 bonus to the Skill Test. The skills are divided into Common and Special categories. Both can be used by anyone, but in case of Special skills if you lack Skill Ranks you have to flip your roll to fail.

Each Skill has several Skill Focuses listed, although these are just examples, and the GM is free to come up with focuses of his own. Focuses are special fields within a skill. The character can take as many of them as his Intelligence Bonus. Each Skill Focus costs 100 RP, or half as much if it's related to your upbringing. Focuses don't give any kind of bonus to your Skill Test, but they allow you to ignore the Peril Condition Track penalty for the relevant test.

Chapter 6: Talents

There are 72 talents. They are innate abilities that add some kind of bonus to the actions the PC takes. They offer new abilities, resistances, situational bonuses, and so on. Hard to tell more about them, they are each unique and I don't intend to analyze all of them.

Chapter 7: Trappings

It seems Daniel knew about my fetish.
Trappings is a well written and an exhaustive chapter. You can find here everything you want about equipment. There are rules for haggling, selling scavenged stuff, and crafting items. There are prices for... everything? I can't name a single thing that you might need during a campaign, and isn't here. Even the cost of services, the wages of common folk, and property prices are there. Heck, there is a box about skinning creatures and using their hides! It's such a common issue, it boggles my mind why most rpgs ignore to treat it. Of course the most often referenced sections will be weapons and armor.

Instead of generic weapon categories with generic names ZWEIHÄNDER's arsenal has generic weapon categories with specific names. Seeing names like estoc, stiletto, mortuary sword was surprisingly refreshing. By default each weapon other than siege equipment does the same damage (Fury Dice + Combat Bonus), and are distinguished by their qualities. While the qualities do make a huge difference, some people might find this unsatisfactory. They don't need to worry: the GM's chapter has optional rules for varied weapon damage.

Armors also have a list with actual historical names. Armor increases overall Damage Threshold by default, but those who like piecemeal armor will find optional rules for that, and hit locations too in the GM's chapter. It's nice to see that ZWEIHÄNDER has something to offer for fans of both simplicity, and complexity.

Talking about simplicity, ZWEIHÄNDER‘s encumbrance system is refreshengly lightweight. It only cares about weapons, armor, the rest is up to common sense. Every character has an Encumbrance Limit. For every point the carried encumbrance exceeds the Encumbrance Limit the character gets a point of penalty to Initiative and Movement. Plain and simple.


  1. Great writeup so far, Tamas. Thank you very much and please notify of an update!

    1. Hopefully I can finish it by Monday. Stay tuned!

  2. Excellent analysis of the Zweihander RPG - with all the detail on attributes, archtypes, professions, skills, talents and trappings. It looks 50% more complicated than Pathfinder to me. ^_^; When making a starting character (for example a warrior), what is the usual skill percent/level in their fighting? I'm curious to see if 40% is considered good for a beginner. I look forward to seeing how you find combat. Thank you for your work on this so far, you write VERY well, Tamas.

    1. It's a medium-weight game, just like WFRP was. It isn't as complicated as it seems. Character creation went much faster as I expected, and my players were picky. The average starting attribute score is 42%. With basic training this means 52%, but that can go even higher with situational modifier - and believe me, you will want as much tactical advantage as you can. More about this in the next episode.

    2. Thank you for the information!