Sunday, 8 October 2017

ZWEIHÄNDER Session #1: Night of Blood

We had our first ZWEIHÄNDER session on the 16th of September. I ran the classic module from White Dwarf and Apocrypha Now called Night of Blood for six players. Our protagonists were:
  • Agonia Gimdinasdotr, a dwarf adherent of Valaya with a troubled past.
  • Blitzkrieg, a dwarf slayer, and sworn enemy of skaven.
  • Odger Tobold, a halfing pugilist armed with a stool, a tabletop, and no testicles.
  • Johann von Immelscheld, a human squire who hates Chaos with a passion.
  • Päether von Sternwart, a human diabolist who wants to join the Colleges of Magic.
  • Sternchen, an ogre hedgewise who has a living stump in place of his right leg.
Things that go bump in the night.
This unlikely group left Wittgendorf for Nuln on the Geheimnisnacht of 2502, thinking they can reach the next inn before nightfall. Thanks to the pouring rain, the ogre's slowness, and bad directions from locals they didn't succeed. Their advance on the muddy roads of the Nattern-forest was suddenly halted when a wounded deer burst out of the woods and stumbled. Their hopes for free meat were crushed when the hunters followed: a hound-like beastmen, a mutant with snail-like eyes, another with tentacles, and a pair of furries. Johann and Blitzkrieg charged without hesitation. After the first furry beast fell the leader, a scaly bovine beastman emerged from the wood to start a lengthy melée with Blitzkrieg. The battle only ended when Päether cast Subdue on the gor. He also saved Johann's hide with the spell, who held the ground against the other furry, and the canine beastman. Sternchen called forth the winds of magick to disarm and blast his foes, crapping himself in the process thanks to a Chaos Manifestation. Agonia took her splitting hammer and tried to help wherever she could. Odger pursued the snail-eyed freak into the forest, and took him down with a chokehold. A bit later the ogre attived, and took some of the mutant's meat with him for tasting.

Blitzkrieg got an infected wound, so finding a clean inn became even more important. After a while lightning illuminated an inn the distance. The gate was closed, but light came out of the windows, so Johann and Blitzkrieg climbed in through the wall. Odger meanwhile visited the ferry, where he found bloodstains, broken furniture, and some crowns in a bag. The ogre saw him, so they split the loot. From the stables disturbed neighs could be heard, so while the angry Johann kept banging on the door, Agonia, Odger, and Sternchen examined it. Opening the gate the horses ran out, nearly knocking the ogre down. Within the corpse of a boy was found, with a huge bitemark on his arm.

After a while the grossly fat innkeeper opened the bar room's door. His sole guest was a roadwarden, and a boy with bulbous eyes was washing up the floor behind the bar. The roadwarden  Hans Jinkerst was distrustful towards the new guests, just as the innkeeper Otto. They told there was a bandit attack recently, and accused the party with being criminals too. Otto said the house was full, but in the end Hans convinced him to rent the common rooms to the new guests. Odger also tried to cook the venison he cut from the deer, but without any skills in cooking he only burned it. In the meantime Agonia cleaned Blitzkrieg's wound. Otto was shocked to learn the doom of his stablehand, but Hans said that's another good reason to keep the inn closed for the night.

After getting thier room our heroes realized that Otto locked their door, and their food was spiked, which wore them down a bit. Looking out the window Johann saw Otto leading a three legged monster into the building. The party hacked the door down, while Sternchen started jumping in the room until the floor broke down, and he fell into the kitchen with the ogre. Following a chanting the adventurers arrived in the cellar, where Odger fell and hurt his head thanks to a tripwire. In his anger he retreated to the kitchen.

Might be a joke in the wargame, but here this guy would
have massacred the party with ease.
Under the cellar there was an ancient shrine built from cyclopean stones. Hans was chanting in front of a blasphemous idol of Tzeentch. Without his clothes the many eyes growing on his shoulder and breast were visible. He was with the fake innkeeper Otto, the kid with the huge eyes, the three legged freak, and an elegant noble with a skullface. In one corner the murdered staff and guests were thrown, in the other those who were only asleep from drugs.  Hans asked whether his visitors are willing to talk, but Johann and Blitzkrieg charged, so the sorcerer answered by summoning the Flames of Tzeentch. Agonia silenced him by casting Hush, so for the rest of the battle he had to rely on his pistol. Blitzkrieg was knocked out when Otto released all the gas in his body through a huge fart unto the him, while the skullface wounded Agonia with his sword. Agonia cast Aeagis to protect herself, but her Channeling produced a Chaos Manifestation that made her hair stand up. Päether used Subdue again to great effect. During the battle Odger returned drugged, and after a charge he beat Hans to death with his stool. When all the cultists were slaughtered the party started knocking down an idol. After the first hit a Daemon started manifesting above it. The process was hindered by Johann feinting because of all the Peril he suffered, and the statue barely taking any damage from the weapons, but luckily they managed to break it into pieces before the Daemon could materialize.

After the battle the hostages were woken up. There was a lengthy argument about what should be the fate of the whole place. In the end they didn't burn it down, and Agonia consecrated it with a ritual. In the morning a group of roadwardens arrived who asked the adventurers to follow them to Nuln, where they will have to help them write a report about what happened.

I ran the adventure mostly as written, but I spiced the mutants up a bit because originally most of them was too generic for my taste. The session was rough and bumpy. Not only did we have to get used to a new ruleset, we also had players without any former WFRP experience, and there plenty of arguments about who does what. Having two arcane spellcasters and a trigger-happy Witch Hunter-wannabe didn't help either. The first battle was tedious (mostly because of using too tough monsters), but by the end the game ran much smoother. Still, I ended up implementing some house rules starting the second session to speed things up. They helped a lot, but I'll leave the details to my next report.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Christmas in September

It feels so good to find a package on your office desk after an exhausting meeting! The long anticipated ZWEIHÄNDER rulebook has finally arrived, and it's just as magnificent as it was promised. It's heavy, sturdy, and beautiful. The tome happened to arrive just in time: Saturday will be the first session of my new campaign in Warhemmer's Old World, using the ZWEIHÄNDER ruleset. The only question is whether I should call this blasphemous union Zweihammer, or Warhänder.

You will really need two hands to wield it.

Speaking of first session, I've spent far less time on preparations than I expected. Character creation went quickly for everyone so far, and converting the old module I'm going to use didn't take much effort either. This is also my first campaign where I'm going to heavily use miniatures and tokens. One of my players is still working on his one-legged ogre hedgewise, while the other spent a few hours on sculpting himself a hobbit tavern brawler from greenstuff. Hopefully their characters will survive, and their work were not in vain.

If he can't beat the crap out of someone with a stool, he is going to call
his Spess Mehreen drink buddies.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

[Review] ZWEIHÄNDER Grim and Perilous RPG Part V: The End is Nigh

This is the final part of my ZWEIHÄNDER core book review. Similar to most other RPG rulebooks ZWEIHÄNDER leaves the Game Master's stuff to the back of the book, besides the appendices.

Chapter 11: Game Mastery

How the GM imagines himself before he starts
preparing for the next session.
This is a thick chapter, on par with professions. I will go through step by step all the sections, so I can point out a serious issue with not only this part, but the whole rulebook.

The chapter starts by explaining the tropes of grim and perilous campaigns, and what harrowing tasks a GM must face to make it work. It's a dense section, but useful for those new to the genre.

The basics are followed by combat. It expands the material of Chapter 8 with some more details, and also contains the most important tables used during battle. The Injuries tables are needed when someone receives an injury, obviously. Each injury level has its own table with twelve results, including such cool sounding effects like Hyperextended Elbow, Fractured Larynx, Vitreous Hemorrhage. Unfortunately they are not ordered by locations, which makes using them with the hit location optional rules presented later a bit bumby. The Slain! tables are here to give you the gory details when someone is killed. There are four of them, one per weapon category (bladed, crushing, gunpowder, missile) containing twelve flavorful results. Barely more than a page covers encounter building and narrative considerations, then the book gets into Combat Options for those who want to add some more complexity to their game: alternative weapon damage, multiple attacks, piecemeal armor, hit locations, called shots, alternative encumberance, morale checks... Stuff that makes WFRP fans drool.

Following combat we get a sub-system for chase scenes. It is based on the contest rules explained in Chapter 1. While it isn't as complicated as it seems, it is still more detailed than required. I have yet to see someone who actually uses similarly detailed chase rules instead of a few skills rolls. Overland exploration is far more useful with its seasonal weather tables, aetheric phenomena, and general information about travel. It's followed by another detailed sub-system, this time for wilderness exploration. It involves breaking the journey into stretches, the players selecting roles á la The One Ring RPG, then rolling to succeed in their roles, while the GM rolls for random encounter (music to my ears). Like chasing, this isn't a tough nut to crack, but it's presented in a tedious and lengthy way.

Next is the explanation of reward points, which is short and simple. 100 RPs are recomended for a 4-6 hours long session, with bonus for different marks. Progression is slow by default, especially for higher tiers where advances cost 200 or 300 RP instead of 100. A new resource is also introduced for PCs, called Reputation. It's reminiscent of Fate Points, but instead of using it to avoid death the player can burn it call upon his character's connections, and ask for a favor. The bigger the requistion's level, the more time it will take, and more Reputation it will require. Players may also pool their Reputation for a common goal if they all agree.

How the GM feels himself while
preparing for the next session.
The book moves to breaking objects. I haven't seen this in a WFRP rulebook since the 1st edition's core book, so it was a pleasant surprise. It's similar to the damage system: objects have a Hardness Condition Track instead of Damage Condition Track, and Hardness Threshold instead of Damage Threshold. Plain and simple, just like the rules for repairing broken items. The next topic is far more interesting: traps! The book offers seven common examples with rules for their construction. Practical and to the point.

Just as the juicy stuff from combat was put in this chapter, so was magick. The price casters have to pay for their power, and the unpredictable nature of magick are the cornerstones of low fantasy. The Chaos Manifestations of wizardly mistakes, the Malignancies that torture black mages, and the Divinie Punishment for priests are all here. The charts are excellent, but strangely it's not the arcane magick I found most amusing, but the divine. The authors overdid themselves and wrote up minor, middling, and major Divine Punishment results for each god! The only way it would have been better if they wrote some more examples for atonements. This section ends with relics and artifacts. There are only four of them listed, but they are all intriguing enough to be worth building a whole adventures around them. My favorite is the trebuchet called Whoreson. No, not because of its name. Or, not only beacause of that... In case someone missed more common magick items, remember that in runesmithing, talismans, and potions were already covered in chapter 10.

NPCs don't get much love: there is a random chart for their alignment and motivation, and a lengthy explanation of what they mean. On the other hand we get another mini-game, this time for social intrigue. This one is now really as complicated as it seems, with lots of steps and modifiers. Even the author recommends using these to the really important interactions, but I find it and overkill for that too. The only good idea I will keep from here is writing down for your NPCs what kind of social skills are favorable or unfavorable from them, but the rest seems to only stand in the way of roleplaying and make social interaction cumbersome.

There is a section about madness. The title is a bit misleading though, it's not about insanity, but stress, fear, and terror. There are some well written lists for each one fo them, and simple rules for handling them. Corruption gets a similar treatment, we get lists about the corrupting influence of the various offenses, and some details about Order and Chaos levels. If you remember the second part of the review these have been already explained in great detail in the character creation chapter. The information provided here is redundant to some degree. Instead of repeating earlier stuff maybe the rules should have been moved here instead of chapter 3.

Fate Points are haphazardly mentioned, then we reach Disorders. There are three categories: Addictions, Insanities, Mutations. These are the "rewards" one gets when he gives in to Corruption too often. Interestingly, they aren't one-sided raw punishments. Besides their negative effect they all have a cool little bonus that can be invoked, at the cost of earning more Corruption. Thus moving towards Chaos has its rewards too, but using them will throw the character into a downward spiral and shorten his path to damnation. Probably the high point of this chapter: great flavor, great mechanics.

Of course we are still not at the end. There are optional rules for character advancement, including staying at the same career for higher tier, starting at a higher tier, and using character stables like many do in their OSR campaigns. This should have been put right after the reward section.

With the GM' approval you can play
pest exterminators other than rat catchers!
The Slaves to Chaos section adds more races for those who want to run a campaign on the other side. There are rules for playing aztlan (slann/lizardmen), grendel (beastmen), orx (or orxes?), and skrzzak (skaven). Cool stuff, and useful for building NPCs too, but I wonder why weren't these included in the Bestiary instead, right after the stats for the corresponding creatures.

Forming a frame to the whole chapter, the last part returns to talking about what makes grimdark roleplaying click. Racial issues, rulerships, daemons are the topic this time, culuminating in actual campaign seeds. While their core themes are different, their tone is very similar. They all felt too mundane for me, none of them had any exceptional qualities that would have made me pick one over the Old World.

And that's it. All in all this chapter is a mixed bag. Good and straightforward explanation of commonly used elements are balanced with dull and overcomplicated rules about stuff most will ignore. The latter should have been streamlined and simplified, because their involved nature will alienate even those who are looking for such mechanics, essentially turning these into deadweight no one will ever use.

While the chapter covers a lot of ground, it does lack something that way too many RPGs ignore, and surprisingly, WFRP3e did well. There is no guide about how to build an adventure. WFRP3e offered some solid advice about how to start with an idea, turn it into scenes, connect them into an adventure, and develop the whole thing into a campaign. It might not have been a comprehensive guide for every playstyle (eg. it wasn't good for sandbox campaigns), but it was an exceptionally helpful tutorial that could give the kickstart many beginning GMs need. Most rulebooks lack this kind of handholding.

Time to talk about my gripe I mentioned at the beginning. The whole book is a chaotic mess. Information about the same topic is spread out all over the book, and the order in which matters are presented feels random. Why were the combat tables not included in the Combat chapter? It's not a secret that should be hidden from players, plus it's in the same book so they can look it up anyhow. Who thought it's a good idea to interrupt the Character Creation with explanation of how Alignments work during play? It's totally unrelated to the process. Why isn't the optional advancement after the explanation of rewards? I would start looking for it there, not between disorders and monstrous player characters. And I could go on. Bookmarks and handouts will be needed, otherwise browsing the book during sessions will be a headache.

Chapter 12: Bestiary

Even fans of Malal get something to rejoice over!
The bestiary offers an exhaustive selection of monsters, including most of the iconic creatures from WFRP. They did get new names, and often a small twist that can be easily ignored if you want to stay faithful for the original game. We have demons, greenskins, skavens, and even some rare, or downright forgotten blasts from the past here! Zoatars are the good old zoats whom only a handful people have ever utilized, but this time with fur. Fomorians are the fimirs everyone loved, now turned into crustaceans. Aztlan were already mentioned above, it's an umbrella term collecting both old slanns and the newer lizardmen. And the howlbear is cute. I chuckled when I saw it, it's one of my all-time favorite D&D monsters.

The stat blocks themselves are short, but the details following them are long, because they include the description of every ability a creature has. While it doesn't look nice, it has a huge boon: less page flipping during combat. Maybe cutting out the less meaningful abilities would have helped a bit, but the situation isn't bad at all.

The chapter also has rules about turning creatures into underlings, bosses, and magicians. The magician part even has placeholder spell lists for more lores, so nothing can stand in your way using slann mage priests, skaven grey seers, or chaos sorcerers in your game.

The bestiary ends with something surprisingly D&D-ish, and very welcome: loot tables! This part answers trivial questions like what does a peasant's, burger's, or noble's coin purse hold, offers an exceptionally colorful treasure table, and even has the prices for uncut gemstones and fineries. Well done!

Overall I liked the bestiary chapter a lot, except for some of the name choices. I found several annoying for a variety of reasons. Orc isn't a copyright protected name, so seeing them written as orx is baffling. I can understand why skavens were renamed, but skrzzak is hard to pronounce and figure out at first glance what holds. It took me some time to figure out what Adversary Demon was originally. Generic names (eg. ratlings) would have been better.

Chapter 13: A Bitter Harvest

The people of Vorberg are famous for their exceptionally
realistic scarecrows.
A Bitter Harvest is a rural adventure inspired by the tragic events of the Baltic crusades. It tries to apply everything from Chapter 11, and uses the Goth Moran Divided campaign seed - not that it matters. The story begins with an orc horde invading the area of Vorberg. The leadership parleys with the orcs and offers their women to survive. Maximilain thus lives to see another day, while his wife Johanna, and daughter Katharina become orcish slaves. In the coming years Johanna ends up as the concubine of the orc boss, learns herbalism and magick, then kills his new husband. As the new leader of the warband she returns to Vorberg to take vengeance upon Maximilian, who is going to be married soon. The locals don't know anything about the coming storm, though. Even the party believes their whole job will be just finding out what happened to the lost bride token.

Of course the above is just a very short summary of the adventure - there is a lot more going on, and there are dozens of NPCs involved. They are generally well rounded personas, although there are some details that won't ever surface, or add anything to the adventure itself. The wordiness is true about the rest of the adventure too, but that's not my biggest issue with it. The adventure is very linear, and has scenes after another where the PCs take a passive role to just watch events unfold. It isn't hard to fix this, but it will require some extra work on the GM's side. Still, the adventure itself is cool, with interesting themes.

I do believe though that it should have been left on the internet as downloadable content. I don't like carrying around stuff that I use only once (if ever), and the page count was a critical issue during development.


The appendix containcs chase complications, random wilderness encounters, taints of chaos, and a bunch of ugly tracking sheets. Ugliest of them was the character sheet that stinks of Microsoft Word. Fortunately they made some changes to it. It's still ugly, but eats far less ink. I also wonder if all these cool tables were put here, then why on Earth were the frequently needed ones left in the middle of the rulebook.

Summa Summarum

Writing a thorough review of ZWEIHÄNDER was exhausting, which is exactly like the book itself. It felt much longer than it is, thanks to all the long-winded explanations and redundant information. Even the entertaining parts were overshadowed by these. A stricter editor and some streamlining could have helped in making the book more readable.

Despite its serious flaws, I love the book. It has all the content and rules one would require for many years of grim and perilous gaming. I have never felt the need for supplements while going through all the material within. If I have to compare it to Warhammer RPGs, then its closer to WFRP1e in this regard, but even that wasn't as comprehensive as ZWEIHÄNDER. It is also a flexible system, one that I'm not afraid to butcher with house rules to fit my campaign. While I'm honestly curious what Cubicle-7 will offer with the new edition of WFRP, I have a feeling that ZWEIHÄNDER will be the one weighing down my table during sessions. Speaking of tables, I might need a new one before the print version arrives...

Tl;dr: While ZWEIHÄNDER might be amateurish in presentation, it offers a solid ruleset, and an amazing amount of content. You can buy it HERE.

Part I: My History With Hammers and Swords
Part II: Beauty is in the Eye of Terror
Part III: Bring Out Your Dead!
Part IV: Battle Metal

Lucky bastard.

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.

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,

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.