Tuesday 25 July 2017

[Review] ZWEIHÄNDER Grim and Perilous RPG Part IV: Battle Metal

After character creation it's time to proceed to the crunchy heart and soul of Warhammer games, and thus ZWEIHÄNDER too: killing things with steel and magic, and getting hurt by them.

Chapter 8: Combat

Your character on ZWEIHÄNDER.
The combat system of the percentile Warhammer RPGs are near and dear to me. It aims for some degree of realism mixed with ludicrous brutality, while still remaining completely playable. It hits the sweet spot in complexity for me. Of course it has its warts too: it is a very swingy system thanks to the low hit chances, the defense rolls, and the explosive damage dice. Sometimes you fell a huge ass monster with a single blow, other times you enter an endless loop of misses, parries, dodges with a snotling. Still, I consider WFRP battles immensely fun and engaging.

ZWEIHÄNDER's combat is built on the same foundation as WFRP2e and WH40K RPGs, but took a step towards WFRP3e's way with some abstraction. When combat begins you roll 1d10 + Initiative to find your character's place on the Initiative Ladder. Once it's your character's turn he gets 3 Action Points to spend on actions: attack, movement, stunts, and some other stuff. It's also possible to take reactions outside of one's turn, which cost APs as any other action - so it's a good idea to leave some in case of an incoming attack has to be dodged and parried.

As everything else in ZWEIHÄNDER, most combat actions need skill checks. The book lists 28 actions in a table with their short descriptions, then explains them in length on the following pages. The listed actions cover a lot of ground, and offer plenty of interesting combat options, like inspiring allies, threatening foes, splintering shields, or chokehold. Even if a player comes up with a headache-inducing unique maneuver, you can use the existing ones with ease as the basis to improvise rules.

Once your character lands a blow you have to roll a Fury Dice and add the weapon's Damage. ZWEIHÄNDER abandons the Wounds characteristic of WFRPs in favor of Damage Threshold and damage levels. If the Damage exceeds the Damage Threshold the target moves one step down from Unharmed towards SLAIN! on the six grade Damage Condition Track. High Damage can drop someone several steps lower on the track. If Moderately Wounded status or lower is reached, a number of Chaos Dice have to be rolled - the worse the status, the more. Sixes results in an injury, its severity depending on the current position on the track again. These injuries replace the criticals of the first two editions of WFRP. They have nasty penalties and are difficult to heal. Taking damage without wearing armor will also cause bleeding, so even a crappy armor is far more useful than it seems. Before someone starts worrying about Slayers: they get the Die Hard talent, which makes them immune to bleeding. Bullet dodged!

Unlike WFRP1e and 2e the core rules only allow a single attack per turn, and use a single soak value. Those who prefer the more complex methods from days of yore (which includes the author of this very review) will find optional rules in Game Master's chapter about multiple attacks and hit locations. The injury charts can be found there too.

Overall combat seems to be on the same complexity as WFRP 2e, with a bit more flexibility. There are even actions that can help avoiding the above mentioned loops, at the cost of more APs. I'm only worried about the new damage system a bit. It seems possible that a series of underwhelming damage rolls will be shrugged off by the foe and not hinder him in any way. This can be offset though by outnumbering foes or taking the right talents, so maybe it's not as bad as it seems to me at first glance.

Chapter 9: Hazards & Healing

After grim & perilous adventures don't forget to
wash your hands!
This is the part I usually ignore in rulebooks because it's boring and rarely comes into play. WFRPs are a bit better in this regard, thanks to the juicy diseases and insanities. How does ZWEIHÄNDER perform in this regard? I never imagined I will say this about any RPG ever, but it's one of the best chapters of the book.

Hazards & healing explains how disease, disorder, weather, falling, fire, alcohol, poisons, toxins, deliriants, fatigue, starvation, suffocation, injuries, peril affect the character. And by explain I don't mean giving only dry rules about what to roll. Hell no! For several items you get descriptions and explanations on par with the Trappings chapter. You can read not only about what effect something has on the character, but how can you dampen it, and what do you need to treat it.

It's not only entertaining, but gruesome, or downright ridiculous for some topics - especially diseases! I love them! Whether it is a simple Blood Flux that makes your stool watery and bloody, or a dire Orx-molt that mutates you into an orx, they are exciting ways to tort..., I mean challenge your players. Chemicals are also worth mentioning. There are several types of them and they cover everything you might need from combat drugs to venoms. Even some of the medicaments can have some minor harmful effects, that can lead to addiction on the long.

I have already mentioned Peril before, and the time has come to explain what it means. Peril is what doesn't kill you, but makes you weaker - stress and fatigue. Some effects cause an amount of Peril, which works the same way as Damage: if the Peril rolled is higher than the Peril Threshold the victim falls one or more steps closer from Unhindered to Incapacitated! on the six grade Peril Condition Track. Imperiled characters get a -10% to -30% penalty to their skill rolls, which can be ignored if the player has focus for that area of the skill.

Damage has been covered above, but this time we can also learn about infections, bleeding, and attending to wounds using bandages, surgery, bloodletting, cauterization. These delightfully medieval treatments are just as risky as they sound: a bad Heal Test can worsen the situation, and even cause permanent injury! While these details might feel unfair and unnecessary to some, they can help a lot in making a grim & perilous fantasy campaign more immersive.

The end of the chapter is every alchemist's wet dream: it explains in details how to craft alchemical and medical items, such as gunpowder, smelling salts, even royal water - ingredients included.

I have never seen such flavourful chapter about the topic. What's better, the authors managed to make hazards and healing not only detailed, but interesting. I'm feeling motivated to utilize them against the players more frequently. It wouldn't be me if I didn't have some problems of course. Fall damage seems a bit low, although it has been fixed to ignore armor in an update lately. I don't understand why fire damage is only checked every minute instead of every round. Is it an artifact from early playtests when combat rounds were one minute long? Insanities, mutations, addictions could have been handled here too, but they were moved to the GM's part. Maybe the chapter couldn't handle more awesomeness? Lastly, while we have rules about how much time injuries need to recuperate, there is no natural healing: you need medical care to move up on the Damage Condition Track. Time to house rule!

Chapter 10: Grimoire

Yup, she is definitely casting Candlelight.
The magick of ZWEIHÄNDER adheres to the lore of WFRP to some degree, but with the serial numbers filed off. It is an unpredictable energy flowing from beyond the veil into the mortal realm, where it breaks down into aethyric winds. These currents are only visible to a few. They cover different aspects of magick, and are identified by their colors - and a kaballistic name, because writing magic with "k" wasn't pretentious enough. Manipulating them can alter the reality and its user in all kinds of (often unexpected) ways.

Similar to most fantasy rpgs, there are two traditions: arcane and divine. Both have ten lores that are parallel to those known from WFRP - and just like there, a man can only become competent in one in a lifetime in ZWEIHÄNDER too. Spells are further divided into three principles (petty, lesser, greater), which basically tells you its tier. They must be recorded in arcane tomes and prayer books through an involved learning process that requires a source, experimentation, and the sacrifice of Reward Points. Fortunately you only pay for the spell if you managed to learn it, it would be a shame wasting the delicious RPs and then fail the experiments.

To cast magick a free hand, sight, voice, and reagents are required. The skill check's difficulty and AP costs depend on the spell's principle: the higher the tier, the harder and slower the casting becomes. Some spells even require concentration to remain active, which can be easily disrupted even by a fly landing on the caster's nose. To improve his chances the caster can channel power, at the cost of more AP, a few points of corruption, and rolling Chaos Dice - which may result in Chaos Manifestation or Divine Punishment on sixes. If all goes well the spell is invoked, and the only thing the victims can do about it is trying to resist, or cast a counterspell.

There are 24 generalist petty spells everyone can learn, and 9 spells for every lore (3 per each principle). Most of them will be familiar from WFRP2e, which I appreciate a lot. I liked the spell lists of WFRP2e because even with the specialized nature of lores and the small number of spells in each, they still weren't plain. The same is true about Zweihänder. Pyromancers (your old Bright Wizards) aren't just lobbing fireballs - they can also raise morale, and cauterize wounds. Priests of the Martyr (the equivalent of Shallya) aren't solely focusing on healing - they can also improve resistance, keep abyssal creatures away, and absorb the damage taken by others. The spell descriptions are quite straightforward, but the reagents and critical failures might provide some fun. It's also worth noting that ZWEIHÄNDER follows WFRP2e's tradtion by not overwhelming us with damaging battle magick: most lores have only one or two of them.

After the spells the book delves into other magic-related topics. We can read about wytchstone (aka warpstone), and it's many uses. They are required to create wytchfire, bind talismans, and brew elixirs among other things, but working with them is risky, and even carrying a shard causes corruption. Seven rituals are explained too. Besides the usual tedious ceremonial magick like awakening the dead, summoning demons, and blessing a place it also covers the inscription of magickal runes on items - an all time favorite of mine from Realms of Sorcery.

All in all this section does a good job in revamping WFRP2e's magic system, by taking the mechanics in a slightly new direction, keeping the characteristics that made me fell in love with it, and including as much as possible in the rulebook. Being jam-packed did have its cost though: sadly the ruinous powers didn't get their own lores. Their sorcerers will have to use either the Sorcery lore, or the Chaos lore spell list from the GM's chapter. For more details we will have to wait for the forthcoming Chaos expansion.

Part I: My History With Hammers and Swords
Part II: Beauty is in the Eye of Terror
Part III: Bring Out Your Dead!
Part V: The End is Nigh

A priest of the Demiurge prepares the reagent to cast Fury of the Wildlands.


  1. Thank you for another informative section about Zweihander. The combat sounds fun until you take one or two hits from your enemies... then it's time to experience all of the wonderful ways your injury may develop. Yow, my players would not want to dwell on that part. Definitely a good idea to bring a priest with healing spells or have some alchemical healing! Otherwise those dungeons won't have anyone healthy reaching the end of them. Heh.

    1. Truth to be told, neither WFRP, nor ZH was meant to be a dungeon crawler RPG for the above reasons. There were some dungeons released of course, but they need a different approach from "kick in door, slay monsters, loot". Careful planning and lot of running is recommended.