Monday 26 June 2017

[Review] ZWEIHÄNDER Grim and Perilous RPG Part II: Beauty is in the Eye of Terror

"I will build a great, great wall on our
 northern border, and I will make Chaos
pay for that wall!"
In the first part of the series I revealed my secret history with WFRP and ZWEIHÄNDER. This time the actual review begins. I'm going to look into the characteristics which define the first impressions about a book for most of us: art, layout, writing.

As years and editions went by Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay's setting, mood, and art direction changed dramatically. First edition's realistic low fantasy visuals mixed with drug-fueled heavy metal boschian nightmares were slowly left behind in favor of more colorful and epic style. While I prefer WFRP1e's art, I can't call any of them inherently bad, because each edition of WFRP looked stunning, and introduced exceptionally talented artists - John Blanche, Ian Miller, Tony Ackland, Geoff Taylor, Ralph Horsley, Adrian Smith, Daarken, et al. With such impressive hall of fame it's hard to please WFRP fans visually, and impossible to please all of them.

ZWEIHÄNDER's Kickstarter offered two covers to backers: Jussi Alarauhio's default cover, and Dejan Mandic exclusive cover. Chosing between the two was no easy task. Jussi's astonishingly detailed version breaks the tradition of WFRP covers, and instead of adventurers fighting monsters it shows a company of grim figures standing in front of a razed settlement. Dejan's version is more fantastic and traditional, with a group of ne'er-do-wells facing vile ratmen in the sewers. Our heroes are quite unlikely though: the elf slayer, the ogre wizard, and the dwarf surgeon pretty much go against the familiar Warhammer stereotypes. I love both covers, but in the end I chose the latter, for reasons I will explain later.

The black & white interior is all Dejan's work, who had to create a shitload of illustrations for the book. His art evokes the feel of WFRP1e, especially Tony Ackland's work: his people are mundane and believable figures, which stands in stark contrast to his often grotesque and unreal monsters. His work is full of pop culture references, easter eggs, and visual jokes - something that was core to WFRP1e, but was forgotten in later editions. I'm not sure if it's the result of following orders or artistic freedom, but he also massacred some sacred cows and added a few unique twists to some monsters - like turning fimirs into crustacean fomorians, making the horrors look like weird many-eyed insects. He wasn't afraid to draw some naughty bits either, but the most outrageous of those pictures were removed a few release candidates ago. He could practice animals a bit more, but let that be my biggest issue with his art. He did a damn fine job both in quantity and quality.

Dejan is the best at drawing Tickle Monsters.
Having said that, I do have two small gripes with his art direction. First, the above mentioned contrast between people and monsters could have been even more evident if there were more illustrations about these two worlds colliding. Alas there are only a few of them, one being Dejan's exclusive cover. Second, because of using a single artist the art style is very homogenous. I would have been happier if there were more illustrators with different approaches to the "grim & perilous" theme.

The layout was inspired by WFRP2e's. It improved a lot since the early versions, but it's still not as aesthetically pleasing as its predecessor. There are still orphan and widow lines, it's still not obvious at first glance in several places which paragraphs belong together thanks to the inconsistent use of whitespaces, and it still bothers me that the professions didn't get a half or full page of their own. The reasons for these are rather trivial: the layout fell victim to the intended size of the book.

There is a massive amount of content within the book, which combined with the wordiness of the author resulted in an almost 700 pages long monstrosity (with art, of course). I won't complain about the size, that would be hypocrisy from someone who runs a D&D campaign using a bunch of Wilderlands of High Fantasy supplements, and plans to dust off HackMaster in the near future. Nevertheless, I do believe there is a lot of redundant, even repeated text in the book that should have been thrown out. Another round with a fiercer editor would have helped a lot in making the book even more readable and easier to lay out.

Despite the above I enjoyed reading the book, mostly because the author didn't aim for a dry and neutral voice like most RPGs nowadays. Daniel has an amusingly pretentious style, and he isn't afraid to spice things up with humor and pop culture references. While he isn't as outrageous as Gygax, Kenzer, or Raggi, he is still an opinionated fellow, which you will either like or hate.

Fun fact: the phrase "grim & perilous" appears 102 times in the rulebook.

Part I: My History With Hammers and Swords
Part III: Bring Out Your Dead!
Part IV: Battle Metal
Part V: The End is Nigh

Furry initiation rite in progress.

Tuesday 20 June 2017

[Review] ZWEIHÄNDER Grim and Perilous RPG Part I: My History With Hammers and Swords

What WFRP1e grognards will probably do to me
after reading the end of the first paragraph.
I have a confession to make. Some of you will find it shocking, even heresy. I am a huge fan of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, but I haven’t played or run the game for several years now. On top of that, I have never run The Enemy Within campaign.

I was thirteen when I read a review of the 1st edition in a torn RPG magazine from the late nineties. I fell in love with the game immediately: the heavy metal art, the mechanics, the setting, the dark humor all rang the right bells to me. However I soon had to realize that this love was just as platonic as one felt towards a cover girl. Being a dirt poor teenager in Hungary meant my only option was to visit the nearest RPG shop, where the owner bluntly told me he is unable to order the rulebook. Of course that was bullshit, he was simply unwilling to help if you wanted anything that wasn't on the shelves. I still don't understand why was it worth him to chase customers away.

My longing remained unsatisfied until the fateful day when Black Industries announced the 2nd edition. With hard work (which for a student meant eating and drinking less) I saved up enough cash to buy the core rulebook. It was a glorious full color book with an amazing smell it managed to keep even after ten years. I liked everything about it at that time. I spent my summer reading the book, running my first few playtest sessions, and devouring William King's Trollslayer, which was coincidentally released in Hungary around the same time. When I returned from vacation the best two years of high school began. We played WFRP almost every other day in the student hostel. We haven’t been so hooked on any rpg before. By the time I graduated I ran so many WFRP sessions I was burned out, and have given up on running RPGs for two years.

After I was recovered I started expanding my Warhammer library slowly again with the WFRP1e and WFRP2e books I couldn't afford earlier. I was initially enthusiastic about WFRP3e too, but as the final product began to take shape I found myself alienated from the game. I had several memorable one shots in the last five years with the first two editions, but the memory of my burnout, the lack of free time, and the shortage of grand ideas kept me from starting a new campaign up until a year ago. And just when I told my group that I'm planning to revisit the Old World, some punk announced the release of his WFRP clone...

ZWEIHÄNDER began its life on the Strike-to-Stun forums as Corehammer, a collection of WFRP rules by Daniel Fox, but over time it grew and mutated into a game of its own. I was familiar with the early previews and playtest docs, but after getting tired of the OSR and all the D&D clones I didn't have much faith in the game and forgot about it until the Kickstarter campaign was announced. I was impressed by how far they got, and since the game seemed to be what I was looking for I coughed up some money to support them.

That was almost a year ago. As expected, there were hiccups, some plans didn't work out as intended, and the print version was delayed several times. I'm not mad at them though, for two reasons. First, Daniel did an exemplary job in keeping us informed about the status quo - which is something even "professionals" often fail to achieve. Second, they have already delivered the complete digital edition. Thus I decided not to wait for the printers, and start writing my review, where you will learn whether Zweihänder is a good successor for WFRP or not, and why you should care about it in the looming shadow of Cubicle 7’s forthcoming Warhammer RPGs,

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Part II: Beauty is in the Eye of Terror
Part III: Bring Out Your Dead!
Part IV: Battle Metal
Part V: The End is Nigh

Meanwhile in the shiny splendor of  the Old World's far future, there is only war. If this is what you want, then ZWEIHÄNDER isn't the game you are looking for.