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.

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.