At last we come to that most fundamental of activities in a grim and perilous world; The baying of men and the pig-like squealing of the maimed. Pitted Iron piercing yielding flesh. The dry crackling of splintering bone. The pleasing crimson of arterial blood spray. Let us speak of combat.
Before I say anything else, I must compliment whoever did the art direction for the combat section. It is chock full of desperate bands of peasants fighting hopeless, desperate last stands against hordes of hideous ratmen a.k.a the meaning of life in Warhammer Fantasy. It really drives home the atmosphere and energy of combat in Zweihander and for that I applaud it, as I similarly applaud the medical ward with mutilated patients on the Chapter on Injury.
Combat in Zweihander has changed somewhat from the parry/dodge 3-attack fest of WH 2e. Each participant in the dance of death has 3 Action Points (less if they suffer from debilitating injuries) but is limited to A SINGLE ATTACK ONLY. Different actions have a different AP cost. Parrying or dodging an attack costs AP, thus there is a trade-off between going all-out or saving some actions in case an enemy gets in a hit.
In addition to the habitual attack/charge/disengage to avoid attack of opportunity, Zweihander gives you several options: The ability to deliver guarded or all-out attack has been done away with, but it is still possible to use a called shot at the cost of reduced accuracy (despite the lack a hit-locations system) in order to inflict additional damage and to prevent your opponent from parrying/dodging. Characters also have access to moves like grappling (OP as fuck, albeit it risky since the character initiating the grapple must also expend his full turn holding the foe, almost a surefire way to disable a single more powerful opponent however), throwing sand in someone’s face to blind him, strikes meant to stun, knockout punches ah la James Bond that only work on surprised or helpless foes, Shield Breaking (only effective when using a two-handed weapon) and Cow-tipping them to the ground. While you can only use a single attack action per round, it is possible to combine this with a Perilous Move (aka a kick to the groin or throwing sand into someone’s face) so the combat can be pretty dynamic. The addition of an Inspiring Speech move and a Litany of Hatred move which can be attempted once per combat was something I really appreciated (I have not seen many leadership based attacks or actions in roleplaying games), and the benefits are tangible while remaining within the realm of plausibility (a +1 to damage and peril threshold or a -1 if you are using the Litany of Hate to bully your enemies).
Regardless, the number of moves in Zweihander is sufficiently extensive to make playing a non-wizard in combat fairly exciting tactically speaking, and the AP system serves more or less the same purpose as the Guarded Attack/All-out attack bonanza of 2e. Some may frown at the lack of hit-locations in Zweihander but I say fuck it, back to motherfucking basics with this one.*
Another welcome adjustment to the old system is the system for avoiding attacks. Melee attacks may ONLY be parried and ranged attacks may ONLY BE DODGED (unless the enemy carries an iron-shield, which means he can parry ranged attacks, or if someone is using a blackpowder weapon, which cannot be dodged or parried ever). I note with fondness that a provision has been added, modifying the dodge and parry chance by the ease and skill of your opponent’s blow (i.e a Journeyman swordsman gains a +20% to hit and thus your dodge chance is at -20%, all other things being equal). No more bullshit where you get Dodge +20 and evade the 100 WS Avatar of Khaine like in Rogue Trader. If anyone is getting sick of the 40k references, fuck you filthy casual.
I was again pleasantly surprised to find a short but sweet Mounted Combat section. Characters on mounts can elect to ride over motherfuckers instead of attacking them, which cannot be parried, and all your attacks while mounted inflict an extra d6 points of damage just to show everyone who is in charge. If your mount suffers an INJURY (see below) you must succeed at a test or lose control of your horse (with a Critical meaning you get unhorsed and take damage). Simple, yet driving home the point that cavalry is a terrifying foe and you will get your shit wrecked if you face it like an idiot. I would have appreciated a sentence or two explaining the use of the Knockdown maneuver to unhorse people but whatever. Polearms are not particularly good against Horses but since they allow you to make an attack of opportunity whenever someone attempts to charge you they should suffice in a pinch. The formation shattering, one-handed reach weapon with extra chances of injury that is the Military Lance seems appropriately terrifying.
Stopping short of only having rules for hitting things, Zweihander also has lots of rules for the things that you actually do the hitting with. The equipment section provides a nice assortment of death-dealers, ranging from simple farmer’s tools like woodsman’s axes and flails to the titular Zweihanders and Warhammers beholden to the manliest of men. Also the Garrote has been retrieved from the armoury gulag and is now among the simple weapons. As previously mentioned, weaponry is divided into simple and martial category, with simple weaponry boiling down to knuckledusters, blackjacks, clubs, woodsman’s tools, daggers and the noble rapier. Cackle with glee as your knight PC hews through hordes of Ratmen whilst your non-martial buddies are forced to resort to the medieval equivalent of lead pipes and broken bottles to stand toe to toe with 7-foot high cannibal goat-mutants hungering for their flesh.
While weapon choice can make a difference, it should be noted that damage is the same for every weapon**. Withold the double spit-take for now, it is not quite so bad. Some weapons are far more likely to inflict a debilitating injury, the Zweihander can inflict an extra d6 points of damage if you spend the AP, while other weapons knock people out of melee, are easier/harder to parry with or have a chance to set people on fire (If you are hitting someone with, say a Torch). Since you get only one attack, two weapon fighting is treated as a single attack and therefore not advantageous, unless you use weapons particularly suitable for it, which adds an extra +1 to your damage.
In flagrant defiance of established custom and law, Daniel Fox has collapsed all possible pole-weaponry into the Pole Cleaver, noting wryly the ‘Gygaxian’ musings of the footsoldier in considering the merits and demerits of various armaments. In case anyone was wondering, only morons take the expensive Mortuary Sword when the atrociously powerful yet surprisingly affordable Morgenstern remains the armament of choice for discerning powergamers everywhere.
The ranged arsenal is similarly broad, and runs the gamut from slings to the Dragon Pistol (a one handed medieval shotgun) and Three-barrel pistol for when you absolutely must fuck up the person on the other side of the fence. Some favorites like the Hochland Longrifle might be absent but overall the ranged weapon section is comprehensive and Blackpowder weapons remain a viable choice.
A very important question becomes: Did they finally get the Black Powder Weapon rules right? Answer: Sort of. While they do not get any particular advantage against armored opponents (which is kind of silly if you think about it), Blackpowder weaponry cannot be dodged or parried, you can make Called Shots with it for extra damage (unique for a ranged weapon for some reason) and you can fire pistols into melee. The reload times are a bit on the short side (3-4 AP translates into roughly 10 seconds), the range is appropriately short (several yards) and some weapons might blow up in your face, as god intended.
Blackpowder weaponry in Zweihander is somewhere in between the effeminate tossfiddlery of 1e and the monstrously powerful man-reapers of 2e. The addition of a Vicious Quality or some sort of Armour Piercing ability would have added to their potency, in lieu of the extra damage.
Armour rules continue the trend of KEEP IT SIMPLE STUPID and thus the piecemail armor rules of the olden games have been cast aside to languish in the ‘nice but unnecessarily complex for our gritty elfgame’ bin***. Not wearing armor to a fight in Zweihander is extremely foolish and will virtually guarantee that every injury you take turning into a bleeding wound that requires either skilled and quick application of bandages or the Silvester Stallone option for the manly men who consider the healing arts the purview of NPCs and little girls (yes there is a rule for cauterizing your bleeding wounds with a hot poker and yes it is very likely you will pass out from the pain).
Armor increases your damage threshold (meaning it essentially reduces the damage you take), and runs the full gamut from Hide to Fucking full plate (i.e 179 gc or the lifetime earnings of several peasants combined). In a welcome bugfix of the original rules, armor rules finally make sense, and armor above a certain category is heavy, meaning you cannot dodge or spellcast in it.
Full plate finally gets an upgrade and by increases your damage threshold by a spunkgargling 6 points it essentially provides you with what would be virtual immunity from most weapons, had it not been for the exploding damage dice mechanic of Zweihander.
Oh yes bitches. 1e style exploding death dice are back! All weapons do d6 damage (some have rules for additional d6s or a circumstantial bonus, but this is extremely rare). If you roll a 6, you may roll again, adding the results. If you roll another 6, keep going. None of that confirm your Crit bullshit. All (actually most) damage in ZH is thus a d6 + your Combat Bonus modifier.
I might as well explain the hit point system now, since it is a major departure from the old games (but it does resemble something Dark Heresy 2nd edition toyed with for 10 seconds before going back to wholesome Wounds after it completely fucked up the system in the Beta).
Everyone in ZH has the same amount of health, but a different damage threshold. Damage must exceed the threshold of someone’s Brawn bonus + Armor modifier. All things in Zweihander have a damage track, consisting of 5 states: uninjured, lightly wounded, moderately wounded, seriously wounded, grievously wounded and Slain! If damage exceeds your threshold you move one step down the damage track. Every 6 points by which the damage roll exceeds your threshold means you move an additional step down the track. To make things extra shit, starting from the moderately wounded state, each time you go down a track you must roll d6s in order to determine whether you sustain a debilitating injury. As you move down the track the chance of sustaining such an injury increases and the severity of the injuries thus sustained increases likewise (Grievous injuries require a trained surgeon to attend to and mean lasting permanent harm to the character if the surgery is unsuccessful). Some weapons are unable to cause grievous injuries because they are weak, and others are more likely to cause an Injury. In short, combat in Zweihander will fuck you up, quickly, even before you are dead.
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).
As for other trappings of the Grim Dark genre, Zweihander goes in feet first with unrelenting savagery. Disease rules in ZH (from henceforth known as Z, because that is easier and sounds vaguely mysterious in an 80s type of way), make normal diseases in the Old World seem like the common cold. While occasional afflictions like The Bloody Flux, Tomb Rot and Filth Fever exist to remind players that it’s not okay to save money on lodging by camping in the sewer even if they ‘find a really clean place and make sure its above the water level’, other diseases like the Grey Plague (fantasy leprosy ah la Game of Thrones), the Red Plague (fucking vampirism), Chaotic Rot (supernatural dementia) and the extremely unpleasant Veneral Disease are there to remind you that there is no loving god but only the cruel whims of the capricious GM.
The first thing you notice about these diseases is that they last until cured AND THEY HAVE NO KNOWN NONMAGICAL CURE. You can receive treatment to stave off the effects for a week (but only once). If not you take permanent stat loss. In case of something like the Red Plague you obviously re-animate as a walking cadaver bleeding from its pores upon death and Orx-molt (caused by Ork spores, an inventive non-canon extrapolation of the Ork method of procreation) causes a hideous orc thing to sprout from your half-eaten fungus-ridden corpse and other interesting side-effects. Eeeeegh.
Now would be the appropriate time to gush over the attention to detail that was put in healing, which really works to drive home the feel of a grim dark fantasy game. No generic healing kit to be found here. In Grimdarkland, medicine is a barely understood field filled with quacks and regarded with superstitious dread by most of the populace.
In order to treat different injuries, diseases and so on, one requires different ingredients and substances, like a bottle of rotgut, bandages, laudanum, a bottle of leeches, an Ampule of Quicksilver and so on. It is even possible to treat Corruption in this game, by the noble science/art/quackery of Psychosurgery. Want to get rid of those unwanted Chaos Ranks or debilitating mental disorders? All you need is the help of a good doctor, a drill, a tap, a bottle of rotgut, an ampule of quicksilver and the possible loss of 9% Willpower or death if the surgery gets botched.
In case disease, crippling injury, madness and death were not enough, failed tests to treat injuries can result in Infected Wounds…which must be treated or you will gain a hideous wasting infection that will kill you slowly unless the Surgeon in question performs some bloodletting. I am pleasantly surprised how merciless Z is, even compared to other games. Injuries must be treated (and in the case of Grievous injuries, within a certain amount of time or their effect is permanent) before a character can recover health and peril.
In lieu of magic potions, Zweihander does offer you ways to move one step up the peril or damage track via nonmagical means. The ridiculously powerful Tinctures of 2e (which may as well have been a fucking dermal regenerator from ST: VOY) have fortunately been done away with, replaced with Laudanum and Smelling Salts. These methods are effective, but may only be used once per day and you automatically suffer 1 corruption whenever you use them. The tincture does exist, but is used to temporarily suppress the effects of an injury for 24 hours (again at the cost of 1 corruption). Thus, you can use these tools to increase your potency but always at a price. I like it.
A further intriguing way of increasing your damage threshold at great risk would be to drink until you are intoxicated, which has a very high chance of severely inhibiting your effectiveness, but if raw absorbing power is all you are going for you could do worse then the time-honored stereotype of drunk adventurers.
Approximately nine billion other types of hurt are also covered, from fire to frostbite to falling damage, and most of them are handled elegantly, briefly and with a minimum of fuss, as god intended. The poison section resembles the one in 1e to a great degree, which is good since the poison section in 1e rocked.
I’ve talked in some detail about weapons and armor and shields but the rest of the equipment section also merits mentioning. First of all, the tried and true and slightly cumbersome monetary system of pennies and guilders is baaaaaack! Crucially, Z gives you a list of wages for various professions, as well as a list of common services (ranging from bribes, lodgings, transportation to the cost of prostitutes). Even though the cost of hiring a minstrel for a day is not likely to be used very often in Z (unless your GM is Kent in which case knowing the precise tariff from day to day is a matter of survival), the prices help convey the approximate value of the coinage very effectively. I can find almost no omissions in the Equipment section. Rules for Siege weapons. Bureacratic tools. Animals. Clothing. Commodities. Entertainment (booze and gambling). Property. Various forms of illumintion. Adventuring shit. An intricate and extensive list of medical apparatus. With a bare minimum of description, thank god, since I already know what a fucking abacus is and I don’t need to know whether it gives me a + so and so to some stat or the other.
I could get into the crafting system and the handy dandy quick and dirty way of figuring out how long you spend on a single object (approx 1 day per gp value) or the almost video-game esque crafting system enabling you to make gunpowder or aqua regia but I digress. Combat in Zweihander is quick, brutal and likely to leave lasting injury. The Equipment section is among the best I have seen thus far in terms of giving a comprehensive overview of services to facilitate the internally consistent simulation of a grimdark fantasy world and the healing and trauma systems are a blast.
Prince signing off. Join us next time as we tackle the INCREDIBLY FUCKING LONG MAGIC SECTION.
* = Edit: Hit locations are optional.
** = Edit: Specific weapon damage is an optional rule
*** = Daniel Fox provides! Optional subsystem.