[Review] Zweihander (WFRP retroclone) Pt. IV: Skullduggery and kicking people in the Face

It started as any other day. There I was, hunched over my laptop, distilling bootleg whiskey from leftover BigMacs and leaving racist comments on Kate Perry youtube videos when suddenly I heard a great thumping noise from outside, as though some mysterious book-sized object of great density had impacted with terminal velocity.
I waded through a knee-high morass of used hypodermic needles and booze-soaked anthropology textbooks, ignoring the plaster raining down from the ceiling, and cursed this interruption of my important work. For a moment I wondered timidly what agency had managed to locate me in such a short time span. Was I finally to suffer the Rune-magickal retribution I had so brazenly called upon myself when I reviewed the accursed Arrows of Indra manuscript? Wrong Bitch! Instead I received my hardcopy of ZWEIHÄNDER in the mail. Attached to it was a note and nine rounds of 14mm ammunition, with YOU KNOW WHAT DO in bright shiny red letters. Cackling, I scurried back inside, panting and grunting as I wrestled the ponderous weight of the tome into my den. I had work to do.

As to the physical copy itself, the binding seems solid (I would have to see how it holds up after years of play, my Dark Heresy manual is still fine for example), the Cover is thick (important to protect the pages inside) and the paper is thick and of fine quality. The only visible downgrade from WHF is the art style, which is not surprising given the difference in budget and operational scale. The pencil-sketch art, while serviceable and capable of conveying the atmosphere and themes of Zweihander and Warhammer Fantasy, do not hold a candle to the weathered and blood-drenched semi-paintings of 2e, and Zweihander’s daemons seem stumpy and simple compared to the hyper-detailed nightmares made flesh that are the 2e Daemons. However, since Daniel Fox does not have a budget that equals roughly 30 gold-plated cargo trucks filled with cocaine for his art, unlike GW, I am letting this one slide.

Skills in Zweihänder are handled thusly: As it was in the old games, each skill is based on an attribute. In order to pass a skill you must roll under the requisite ability score on a d100. You have three different ranks; Apprentice, Journeyman and Master. Each time you purchase a rank you gain a +10 to the test (i.e your ability score counts as 10 points higher). Skills are further divided into Common and Special Skills. You can use Common skills (like say Charm) even though you do not have training in them, using only your base ability score. You can use Special skills (like, say Alchemy) untrained, but you have to flip your rolls and take the least advantageous result (more then halving your chances of success).

The number of skills has been reduced considerably by using much broader categories but at the same time the definition of what constitutes a skill in Zweihänder has broadened. Attributes like Toughness, Resolve and Simple Melee Weapons that formally would have been attribute checks have been turned into skill checks. Since in Zweihander it is actually impossible to increase your primary attributes (it is possible to increase your bonus), this change makes sense.

As I mentioned before the skills have been broadened considerably. Things like picking locks, pickpocketing, setting/disabling traps and palming objects have been folded into a single skill, called Skullduggery. Bargain covers everything from bribery to Diplomacy, anything from shadowing to hiding in shadows is covered by the Stealth skill and so on.
The games give you the option of specializing via the Focus system, which allows you to, at the cost of a paltry 100 xp, gain a focus in a single specialization within your skill, doubling your expertise bonus for that particular use (e.g if you specialise in Blacksmithing and you are an apprentice in Tradecraft your bonus for blacksmithing becomes +10 and not +20) allowing you to ignore the penalties for accumulating high peril with that particular skill. Retardation is avoided by mandating you pick a Focus before being able to use extremely specialist skills like Tradecraft, Alchemy or Education. You are limited to a number of Foci equal to your intelligence bonus (with some classes having the ability to purchase extra Foci). The maximum bonus on any single skill check still is +30.

The descriptions of the skills themselves are kept very generalized and open, giving at most a paragraph of description and an example of anything from a Trivial task to a very hard (or Arduous) one. Descriptions are fairly terse, though many of the situations covered by the skill groups (such as Healing or Alchemy) are covered in greater detail later on in the Game Mastery section, meaning this chapter serves only as a quick overview with instant example, making it suitable for players to peruse quickly and get a general idea of the difficulty spectrum.

Your interpretation on the merits of the new skill system is going to go hand in hand with your appreciation for the changes to the class system. Since the number of available professions an adventurer has access to in his career has been tuned down considerably and the number of advances per class has similarly been reduced, it makes perfect sense that the skills themselves would have to be expanded to cover a broader range of situations. It would have been helpful if the descriptions would indicate more clearly what skill is countered by what other skill (in case of opposed tests, or whether a Stealth check can be countered with a successful Awareness test or whathaveyou) but it is by no means a dealbreaker (and I suspect the secrets to its adjudication lie buried somewhere in the Gamemastery section).

Talents are the feats of the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying game series, and in fact predated feats by aeons. Talents in Zweihander copy many of the talents in Warhammer Fantasy while adding several that feel like they should have made it into WFRP but mysteriously never did (I suspect the fell hand of Matt Ward). Many of the more redundant talents that simply give a bonus to different skills have been stripped out (you will find the occasional talent that gives you a bonus interact with people of another Social Class, however). You will not see talents allowing you to stun someone or to attempt to disarm, since all characters in Zweihander may attempt to do so, but you will find talents improving your chances to stun (Kidney Shot), kick people in the nuts when they parry your attack, Destroy shields and weapons with a critical hit from a 2-handed weapon (fucking awesome), inflict more damage when shooting people in the face at point blank range, dodge in heavy armor and so on.
The only talent that was actually missing from this whole bunch is the coveted Frenzy talent, the purvey of Norse Berserkers, Trollslayers and Flagellants. A huge improvement is the addition of some unarmed combat talents, specialist weapon talents as well as more talents for ranged combat and black powder weapons, especially pistols, something that felt a little sparse in WHF. As I lamented in 2e, no fire-belching or super-powered egg-eating talent, but at least Ogres can belch fire as a racial feature.

For now, I consider the streamlining of the skill system to be something of a reshuffling and do not hold any strong opinions about it. The Talent section offers many inspiring new ways to cut, burn and maim while keeping all the old ones (not that Warhammer Fantasy ever had super cool Talents that made you go HELLZ YEAH, like a talent that allows you to do a kickflip while shooting double uzis into someone’s face). I appreciate the talents that improve your ability to choke someone, shoot him in the face, garrote him in the face or Zweihander through his shield, through the noseguard, in the face. Why Frenzy has been removed from the list, who can say 😦

Join us next time, when we check out the HUEG Equipment section, and the even HUGER combat section.

* = I think, I have not checked thoroughly.

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4 thoughts on “[Review] Zweihander (WFRP retroclone) Pt. IV: Skullduggery and kicking people in the Face

  1. Maybe this analysis was based on an earlier version of the rules but in ZHv8, Focus of a skill only allows you to ignore the Peril track, it does not double the bonus.

    Also, the fact that skill modifiers can only be ever 30% (+/-) should be stressed a bit more because it effectively means a test at maximum bonus, neutral difficulty and no negative peril modifiers still has a minimum 16-41% chance of failure (depending on attribute value).

    Since it will often be more beneficial to be able to ignore Peril than to have several skill ranks or other modifiers which can get canceled out by Peril, skill focus (foci?) are actually quite important.

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    1. [Focus]

      My hardback also says that, so I was either mistaken or earlier editions did in fact have a different rule. I’ve altered it, thank you for that.

      [Stressed]

      Ability score range has been covered before, average chance of failure is a derivation thereof. Why is it important that it be emphasized further?

      [Importance]

      Depends on your enemy roster but since its a grim dark game and the game frequently uses Peril as part of its Fail Forward mechanic I’ll buy that if you run it in the spirit it is intended in it makes more sense to build your characters in a robust fashion then to go for peak performance. Why do you think its important?

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  2. I just think it’s worth highlighting a bit how Focus works and what role Peril plays. It is not an epiphany or something but you put so much effort in describing the mechanics, I think it would be in the same spirit to spell out limitations and advantages or disadvantages of certain advancement choices. I see that we agree on robust vs. minmax, then why not mention it in the part of the rules review where it manifests? There might be, after all, some readers new to the concept of grimdark and d100 who wish to know how Zweihänder tackles things and which character development choices are meaningful. Still, it’s your review and I am grateful that you took your time to disect ZH the way you and your friends did.

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    1. “Amusingly, stress and fatigue have been collapsed into a single stat called Peril, which operates in a manner similar to Damage, i.e with a threshold and tracks. As the character gets progressively fatigued/jittery, he becomes unable to use skill ranks (and thus loses bonuses and even the ability to use expert level skills properly) until he is eventually incapacitated. Peril and damage should not be confused with sanity, although taking injuries or becoming incapacitated does result in corruption points (as described in the previous sections).”

      I covered Peril in section V alongside health and other combat mechanics, which made the most sense to me since that is the section where it is most likely to be relevant.

      This review is written from the point of view of someone who has played the original Warhammer 1e or 2e (which is why I actually did a full multi-part review on those first), and examines it in that light.

      Pointing out that people might want to specialize to make their characters beach body ready, particularly in a campaign with a large percentage of non-humans, is a welcome contribution, for which I thank you in turn. It’s a fascinating effort, and a worthwhile successor.

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