[Review] Zweihander (WFRP retroclone) Pt. II; The anatomy of grim heroics

Character creation in Zweihander is more involved then that of its predecessors, but the number of steps do not widely exceed that of something like Dark Heresy (and in the case of games like Rogue Trader and Only War, might actually be less). If you like your characters fully fleshed out with an abundance of both crunch and fluff then this might just be the game for you.

Before the game delves right in, the chapter is prefaced with a number of bullet points, allowing you to grasp the thematic/ purpose of the various steps of character creation. This page is very effective in providing a set of guidelines for the players to create their character and manages to nail the themes of a Grimdark fantasy game in a number of easily digestible bullet points, allowing even dimwitted players to make suitable characters. The world of Zweihander is a violent, superstitious and corrupt mess, divided by ethnic, religious, social and existential conflict and beset by hideous monsters from without and within. The game boils down its purpose in one or two sweet ass sentences that I already referenced previously:

Grim & perilous role-playing is not a story about people who change the world. It is instead a story of a world that changes the people within it.

Nailed it, moving on.

So what has changed? Each character has stats equal to 3d10 + 25, rolled in order, meaning ability scores range from 28 to 55. A curious departure from the standard 2d10 + 20, meaning an overall increase in the power of starting characters (or at least on average characters in Zweihander will be more successful in their exploits then their Old World counterparts). In addition, Zweihander offers you the option of replacing any one stat with a 42%, preventing any one character from being completely crippled or useless at his starting career. The first questionable decision is in streamlining the ability scores themselves.

Scores now consist of Combat, Brawn, Agility, Intelligence, Perception, Willpower and Fellowship. The biggest departure from the old Warhammer is the fusing of both WS and BS and arguably a component of Strength into a single attribute (Combat) that governs all hit rolls and whose bonus is added to all damage rolls. I like streamlining as much as the next guy, but I feel this boils down combat ability into a single binary variable, rather then the mixture of attributes generating weaknesses in the older games. You can longer be a crack shot that falls apart the moment you close to melee range, now everyone is either John Rambo or Neville Longbottom. Brawn is merely an amalgamation of Toughness and some elements of strength, and therefore does not greatly piss me off.

The next major decision in character creation is mired in a minefield of confusion and modern-day controversy, and thus should not be attempted lightly: Sex and Race. Since taking any stance on this topic is sure to alienate almost half if not 90% of today’s increasingly fractious and sensitive audience, we can hardly fault Zweihander for its choice of just taking the decision to not differentiate between men and women (and  trans-gendered characters for anyone who cares), throw the responsibility for the portrayal of societal roles directly into the lap of the GM and quickly rush on to the elves/humans parts before things get too awkward, leaving the GM with the thankless task of using thrown d20s to fend off a lynchmob of screeching, blue-haired and tattooed landwhales from behind his GM screen after an accidental omission of the native Cherokee perspective in describing the imaginary economy of his make-pretend grimdark renaissance fantasy world.

Race is handled really well. Zweihander takes pains to point out that, like its predecessor, it is humanocentric in nature but offers the option of playing dwarves, elves, gnomes, ogres and halflings. Like almost any other game, races still have bonuses and penalties to ability scores (strangely enough, humans are not the default, getting bonuses and penalties to ability scores like any of the other species), but they also have one randomly generated racial trait from a racial trait table, meaning even two humans can be fairly distinct.

The traits themselves are fairly interesting, and often include flavor text that gives more background on the race in question. The grim atmosphere of Zweihander persists in the description of the various species, and each race has both noble and detestable traits (except for gnomes, who have only detestable traits). At times the flavortext departs from the dourness of the rest of the game to deliver text with wink and a nudge, which can be viewed as either a welcome departure from the norm or a lack of confidence in the tone.

Intricate knots of indigo ink are painted or tattooed upon the bodies of Elven warriors, symbols of their might and prowess. Elves revel in this heritage, empowered by the victories they tell. But these same symbols make it incredibly difficult to get job in a respectable winesink, as everyone knows the tattooed cannot be trusted with the cash till

Contrast with:
Favored above all others, Humans are the living instruments of the gods. A thankless few are granted an inkling of their might. To those born beneath the right stars, a great blessing is bestowed. (A trait that allows you to start with one stat on 55%)

Traits are often more complex then a simple bonus on a roll, and can involve total immunity to a certain peril, a new ability, the ability to use Fortune Points for certain effects or drastic changes in stature.

On to the races themselves. Rather then the somewhat generic jacks of all trades in most d20 games, Humans are fucking badass in Zweihander, and thus have traits like Grim Resolve, Manifest Destiny, Fortune’s Wheel and Natural Selection, usually allowing them to prevail in combat or survive various hardships. A mixed bloodline trait enables a rare few to gain traits from other races. Bottom line; humans are fucking scary, do not fuck with.
Dwarves are more or less the same as their WHFRP counterparts, with traits for immobility, weapon forging, close quarters fighting and resistances to various poisons and sorcery being their forte. Elves take rather more to the Wood Elves of the latter Warhammer fantasy game or the Scoia’Tael as portrayed in Andrzej Sapokowski’s the Witcher series. Gone are the hedonistic fops of the Old World that was. Elves in Zweihander are enigmatic, inhumanly beautiful, capricious, taciturn, fatalistic or hateful and utterly, terrifyingly lethal. Halflings are still a joke, albeit one more inclined towards criminal behaviour, and their relationship with Ogres gives them some added dimension.

The two new races are surprisingly well-done. Gnomes are a cross-breed of elves and dwarves, and in general they are ugly, bitter and misanthropic bastards that hate even their own kin, but whose terrifying aptitude with tinkering and strange, fey-like powers give them a unique edge. The pencil-art here is particularly effective where in the rest of the chapter it is somewhat lackluster (the one of the elves in particular does not line up with their description very well), depicting them as stunted, evil-looking pointy-hat wearing creeps. Gnomes are an utterly wretched and bitter species and for giving them a distinct identity as something other then bargain bin dwarves or halflings with illusion magic Zweihander deserves some credit. Although their origins and abilities make them canonically incompatible with Warhammer Fantasy, thus scaring off the purists, those looking for a more generic fantasy emulation would do well to make frequent use of them.

Ogres are vicious, mercenary and cannibalistic brutes capable of staggering feats of food consumption, alcoholism and violence, though their shared love of food gives them a minor affinity with halflings. One trait allows them to belch fire if they have consumed a pint of alchohol, an ability I fucking love the shit out of and I applaud Daniel Fox for rescuing it from the trash-piles of history (fire-eater background in WF 1e). Additional Traits mostly involve beating the shit out of people with increasing effectiveness or being resistant to poisons or a beating whatever. Like gnomes, they are not canon in THAT ONE GAME but in any other setting they are a worthy take on the half-orc trope.

After races have been picked it is time for the next step. First you roll on the Archetype table. Archetype determines your starting equipment and it is really nothing more then a description of the type of role you will be playing, followed by a random table of starting professions. Archetypes consist of Academics (smarty pants/wizards), Commoners (the ultility/you are fucked), Knaves (the archetypal rogue), Ranger (wilderness experts), Socialite (Face from the A-team) and the Warrior (guess). This section is followed by half a page of vague text trying to aid you in creating a character archetype and exhorting you to step outside of your comfort zone and not just create the character you are already playing in another game but I fail to see the overall point.

It is now time to generate secondary attributes. Zweihander calculates mental and physical damage via something called a Threshold, a mechanism I will go into later, but fortunately the mechanics for determining secondary attributes are identical in almost every way (with the exception of the Damage threshold), a testament to convenient design. The Base secondary ability is usually 3 + the relevant ability score modifier. The only exception is damage, where the base is [Brawn modifier] + [Armour]. The purpose of all of these stats will be discussed later on.

As a concession to flavor that I cannot help but approve of, Zweihander endows each character with a prophesy of their doom (which is apparently so normal in the world of Zweihander each person gets one when they reach their 10th year, harsh). For some reason being born in a different season gets you different prophesies but the distinction is thematically arbitrary. I think an opportunity has been missed to attach some form of minor mechanical effect to each prophesy as the divinations in Dark Heresy but with the amount of random variables that go into character creation it’s not like it makes a huge difference. Each prophesy alludes to your doom/death, driving home the fact that in Zweihander, you will die, inevitably. It is something of a step up from the (purely cosmetic) star signs in WhF 2e, but I can’t help but compare them to the divinations from Dark Heresy.

Zweihander Dooms:
The serpent is in the garden
Your embers shall smolder
Sickness will be your downfall
Beware the toothless hound

Short and blunt, ranging from the cryptic to the utterly banal. Good but at times a bit simple. Contrast with:

Dark Heresy divinations:
The Pain of the Bullet is ecstasy compared to damnation
Even a man who has nothing can still offer his life
A mind without purpose will wander in dark places
Trust in your fear.

A superior alternative because it serves as both as a seed for the GM, a guideline for the player and a way to drive home the nature of the setting.

Anyway, the random generation reaches borderline excessive proportions at some point. Here is a list of other attributes that Zweihander allows you to generate:
* age class (does not affect stats but affects number of quirks)
* quirks (anything from warts, differently coloured eyes, tattoos, scars, six-fingers etc. etc.)
* height
* build (actually affects equipment cost)
* hair and eye colour
* upbringing (reduces the xp cost for skill foci based on a single attribute relating to your upbringing, say, a cultured upbringing will reduce xp costs for fellowship based skills)
* Social status (determines your starting coins, low-born get pennies, aristocrats start with fucking gold pieces, cementing the massive fucking difference in status and wealth)

After this is done and your character is still not original enough, you can opt to give him a drawback in exchange for an extra Fortune point (you can pick more drawbacks, but you still only get one point). Drawbacks are some of the most flavorful I have seen thus far: branding, gelding, wooden limbs, cataracted eyes, a nemesis (whose mere proximity prevents you from using fate points) or a dread curse.

One the most major changes is the use of Alignment. It is back and it plays an active role. Basically, you roll randomly on a table with personality traits. Each trait has both an Order (essentially a virtuous) and a Chaos (negative or sinful) component. Examples include Zeal and Fanaticism, Skeptical and Cynicism, Pride and Arrogance and so on. These traits are meant to serve as both roleplaying guidelines but also serve a game function. Basically, at the end of each session you look at someone’s actions. Each time he engages in acts of morally reprehensible behavior, fails a stress test, sustains grievous injuries or taps into forbidden powers and so on, he gains a number of corruption points (Gm’s discretion). At the end of each session, you roll a d10 against the number of corruption points, with an equal or lower result meaning your character moves one step towards Chaos, otherwise he moves one step towards Order. If you ever gain 10 ranks in Order, you get an Fortune  actual honest to god Fate point, then the track resets. If you ever gain 10 ranks in Chaos, you gain a Disorder (i.e a mental disability, mutation or an addiction) and the track resets. This might seem overpowered as fuck but don’t forget even if you play a virtuous goody-two-shoes or you are extremely lucky it should take at least 10 sessions for you to gain an extra fate point, and it is far more likely you will gain considerably less. Edit: FATE POINTS, UNLIKE FORTUNE POINTS LIKE ANY DRUNKEN IMBECILE COULD PUZZLE OUT, ARE LIKE EXTRA LIVES WHEREAS FORTUNE POINTS ARE FOR WHEN YOUR GM IS A PASSIVE AGGRESSIVE CUNT.
This system of alignment and roleplaying feeding into mechanical advantages or drawbacks is very interesting in theory but I’d have to read the GMing section to see how these rules are best implemented. For now, all I can say it remains a very intriguing idea.

Overal character creation in Zweihander, while a tad more involved then Warhammer Fantasy, offers sufficient detail to generate interesting characters. If I had to pick one part that I really enjoyed, it would be the randomly generated racial traits. While it would not be fair to call Zweihander’s character creation deficient in any area, the 10 IMPORTANT QUESTIONS section in Warhammer Fantasy did help to flesh out characters an awful lot, and the lack of a similar concise set of guidelines in what is otherwise a very complete set of character creation rules is somewhat lamentable.

Join us next time as we cover such details as Professions and levelling up in Zweihander. And have a great week!

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12 thoughts on “[Review] Zweihander (WFRP retroclone) Pt. II; The anatomy of grim heroics

  1. Cool stuff.

    Some nitpicking: you mixed up fortune and fate points. Fortune points are for the party, and are used to reroll shitty rolls, or get some bonuses. They are refreshed every session, and overusing them is a good way to shoot yourself in the leg, because the GM can easily hoard the misfortune points he gets for each burned fortune point till some nasty creature shows up. Fate points (like those you get for drawbacks or filling the order ranks) are your classic WFRP fate points: extra lives. Our slayer already burned one after turning his back to a cultist – who happened to roll a lot of 6s next round.

    Gnomes and ogres are an interesting issue. Gnomes were introduced to WFRP in Apocrypha Now!, then quickly written out. It’s a pity, they were cool and far more interesting than any version of the D&D gnome ever. Ogres are fan favorites, but the only WFRP where we did get rules for ogre PCs is the accursed 3rd edition. I hope Cubicle-7 will have the balls and include them in the 4e core book.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. [Fate points]

      Shit! I had not realised the two were seperate and I had more or less assumed the two were linked, as they are in Wh 2e. Fortune points are fixed then, with fate points functioning as extra lives. I’ll edit this in my review. Thanks for the help.

      [Ogres/Gnomes]

      That clears shit up somewhat. I am very much a 2000s era Warhammer Fantasy battles kind of guy, so shit like this passed right by me. Good to know y’all brought em back.

      [Cubicle 7 4e]

      “A new edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay will be launched by Cubicle 7 Entertainment later this year. The new edition will return players to Warhammer’s grim world of perilous adventure, and takes its direction from the first and second editions of the game.”

      Looks like someone sure beat them to the punch.

      Like

  2. [Fortune and Fate]

    That’s in no way easy to mix up. Also, they remind me vaguely of the party morale tracker from WFRP 3e, another device by which the masturbatory GM can punish players for such crimes as “bickering over tedious shit”, “bogging down combat with tedious shit”, “asking stupid questions” or “having the audacity to enjoy themselves”. That seemed like a neat idea but ultimately bred unpleasantness of the “teacher’s being mean to me” variety.

    [Ogres]

    I’m glad they took some of the fun bits from the Ogre Kingdoms background. There were some nice touches buried in what wasn’t, on the surface, that inspiring a concept.

    [Alignment]

    My instinct is to recoil from this as a lot of tangential tossfiddle. Is there any mechanical difference between the traits (i.e. my PC with a ‘Zealous Rejection of Corruption’ trait has a different definition of ‘morally reprehensible’ than your PC with ‘Typical Wastelander Avarice’)? Also, is there any recommended framework for distributing these points (like the recommended daily allowances of XP in White Wolf games, which save them from being a complete mess of fiat and furious fumble-tugging)? Apologies if all this is handled in the GM section. I am keen.

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    1. [Players being slow assholes]

      Fucking hell. I remember one such session where my players were actively not making decisions and being slow as fuck. I think a system like that can be good for re-enforcing proactive and in particular QUICK decision making but if you want to get them to pay attention you can always stop the game, explain to them that everyone is investing time and effort in doing this because they like the game and want to have fun and figure out WHY they are wasting their time idling.

      [Fortune and Fate]

      [Ogres]

      Fucking nerds.

      [Alignment]

      The way I read it is that the Order/Chaos shit is more roleplaying guidance and a way to fill in the general morale system, which seems to more or less function the same for everyone. Sometimes the corruption is hardwired, at other times it requires the liberal application of GM fiat (with some useful guidelines). It doesn’t seem arbitrary, but I’d be interested in the GM section aswell.

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      1. [Assholes]

        Players of first level characters who take forty-five minutes to establish a policy for removing half a dozen goblins from a cave / an order of march for moving up stairs / whether or not to demand a new location for ambushes in a con game where it’s obvious that three maps have been prepared, each to provide an hour’s play – these deserve what’s coming to them.

        [Roleplaying Guidance]

        Oh, fuck it then. Give me mechanical impact or give me death.

        Like

  3. Okay, this is losing me. Halflings and Gnomes made the cut? Fuck them both. Alignment? Geezus Kee-rist. But come on… merging WS and BS? The Bloodbowl in this world would have Dwarf Throwers and Elf Blockers without penalty, which is obviously C-R-A-Z-Y.

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    1. [Gnomes & Halflings]
      Gnomes rule, Halfling drool.

      [Blood Bowl]
      That’s not necessarily true mathematically in Zweihänder Grim & Perilous RPG. Even though Combat is now a Primary Attribute, not every Profession gets a Skill Rank in Combat-related Skills. There is Simple Melee, Martial Melee, Simple Ranged and Martial Ranged. You’ll find there is a specific lack of proficiency across all four of these Combat-related Skills, save for a small handful of Professions are designed to be ‘melee-forward’.

      [Alignment]
      This ain’t your Uncle Gary’s “Advanced Alignment & Paladin Restrictions 2e”. They’re personality temperaments – two sides of the same coin that guide a player’s roleplaying whenever they are in stressful situations.

      Want to take a closer look? Shoot me an email at daniel@grimandperilous.com, and I will send you the PDF. I had it up for free over Halloween.

      Like

      1. I picked up the free pdf already. Working my way through in reverse, so I’ll check out mechanics last. But yes, the sooner you release an adventure with a Bloodbowl scene in the middle, the better. Obviously, Dungeonbowl is stupid and we won’t go there.

        Like

    2. [Blood Bowl]

      Perhaps a far more interesting question would be to ask what prompted you to seperate WS and BS into a single core attribute with 4, for lack of a better word, tendrils?

      Like

      1. Wait, now I’m getting back on board. If anything, WFRP was short a couple attributes. If the merged combat attribute is then being drawn and quartered into other things, I might be back in…

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  4. (which is apparently so normal in the world of Zweihander each person gets one when they reach their 10th year, harsh).

    It’s all downhill after the big one-oh.

    For some reason being born in a different season gets you different prophesies but the distinction is kind of arbitrary.

    This could be expanded by an enterprsing/OCD GM into an entire horoscope table. Born under the sign of the cockatrice? You, dear fellow, have an increased poison tolerance.

    Skeptical and Cynicism

    Ahh, yes, the poles I bounce between…

    Like

    1. [Horoscopes]

      Yeah not a bad idea, Dark Heresy used a similar system where your prophecies had an actual impact on your abilities and Black Crusade used something similar with your personal philosophy. Zweihander already has pretty extensive randomization so I wouldn’t hold it against it but the basic idea is very solid for any roleplaying game where astrology or the concept of destiny is a major part of the setting (like, say, a Viking-themed rpg).

      Like

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