[Review] Zweihander (WFR OSR) Pt. VIII; Matters of Governance

Reviewing the GMing section of Zweihander is hard because it covers so many different topics and it is so fucking long. Anything from the underlying themes of a grimdark fantasy game to overland travel and even optional hit location rules are covered. It is by far the most impressive section of the book from an innovative standpoint. Besides the new rules, the GM section essentially tries to tell you how to run a game of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying without ever referring to Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying, which is an oddly potent way of treating the source material. Without the crutch of several libraries worth of lore, Zweihander is forced to ask the question: “What Even Is a Grimdark?” and get to the bottom of the underlying themes that make it interesting, yielding us with all the information we need to run a Grimdark, even if we don’t know what it is yet. The end result ends up being far more useful then fifty pages about how Dax von Langenswert and his proud nine-headed steed faced off against the rainbow-haired orcs of the Tower of Rage or something.

The GM section begins with an examination of the underlying themes of what should drive a campaign of Zweihander and it risks slipping into WoD territory with its first sentence “This is not a story of good versus evil, but about truth and consequences” which is very vague and immediately sparked an anxiety attack. Has Daniel Fox written a WFR retroclone with the sole purpose with the sole purpose of making us read 120 pages worth of philosophical navelgazing in the GM section and charging money for it? Will I need to start drinking again? Is this actually a cunning ploy to release a storygame to a wider audience instead and get them to crave the forbidden delight of an innocent young boy’s buttocks?

My fears are unfounded. The GM section, lays out, with admirable brevity, the themes driving Zweihander; the nature of its protagonists (scared everyday dudes), the reasons for its rather serious take on injuries, what everyone knows, a thematic nod to old fairy tales to keep monsters mysterious and wreathed in legend, a primer on how to keep shit all low fantasy and low magick like a boss (along with notes on how the general populace views wizardry and priests) and a final section how to handle the all-pervasive influence of chaos. I like this section because it manages to capture what WFRP is about without ever mentioning characters, locations or events from WFRP. Added to this are three golden rules of GMing: Focus on characters, when in doubt say Yes! and change rules if they do not work for you. I would agree with the first two but experience teaches me that most GM’s put considerably less time into figuring out why rules exist and how best to change them then game designers put into making them and fitting them into an existing framework in the first place and Zweihander does gently dissuade you from changing either the corruption rules and the injury/disease rules so I suspect the last one is there solely so the GM doesn’t throw a shitfit, barricade himself inside the toilet and refuse to come out until everyone admits he could make a far better setting then Daniel Fox ever could. What the fuck is up with games feeling the need to reassure the emotionally fragile and easily triggered GM that it’s okay if he changes the encumberance rule so you can wear dual katana’s on your back or whatever. I get that today’s youth has been brainwashed to mindlessly accept everything anyone tells them but fucking hell.

There are the obligatory (yet absolutely helpful) notes on things like timekeeping, narrative and structured time, adjucating skill checks and even a note about using scorecards to write down important NPC’s, locations and events. I tend to use the back of my charactersheets (or the front, my charactersheet tends to look like part shit, part therapeutic artwork after about 10 sessions) but this is actually a pretty effective means of keeping score. If you want something to blow your mind, you should recommend your players to use a table in Excel with a day by day record of their expenses and activities instead (vital for a proper Star Without Numbers game btw).

There is some elaboration on the combat rules, some of which I have already covered in the combat section. I was thrilled to see the Flying Combat rules made a return, and actually included a provision for climbing onto Downed flying creatures and even crashlanding them into the floor while you sit ontop (or get hilariously thrown to plummet to your death). I was also pleasantly surpised to see that ZH does at least give you the option of using different damage for different weaponry, as well as rules for piecemail armour (as one gentle reader from the Border Princes already pointed out). While I appreciate it that they are included, as written the Injury system doesn’t mesh very well with them, meaning one has to resort to the dreaded GM’s discretion system when determining what type of horrific injury you will suffer. What does deserve credit is the alternative Encumberance system, which simply provides slots for body, belt, head, boot and so on and leaves one to choose between a backpack with some small items or an additional weapon, with everything else counting as overweight. Simple, neat, intuitive, I like it.

A rule is given for adjudicating chase scenes. Chase scenes tend to be given quick and dirty house rules in the adventures where they pop up in but ZH comes frontloaded so you’ll see them here. Other then the inclusion of stamina as a factor in determining the outcome of the chase, this stuff is pretty basic.

The two most notable sub-systems introduced in the GM section (that I have not covered yet in previous posts, seriously, this section is huge) are the Overland travel rules and the Social combat rules. The insistance on keeping travel time somewhat abstract and divides a wilderness journey into different stretches, each with a difficulty modifier, a length and a threat level. Length and difficulty determine the number and difficulty of the Toughness tests you must make (you get Peril otherwise) and the threat level determines the chance of a random encounter. While it is possible to set up camp to recover from peril, this takes up valuable supplies and while you are on the road, you can never fully recover. Skills like navigation, survival and stealth have been incorporated into the process, making the characters active participants and allowing them to contribute. There is no reason you could not make a pointcrawl with different stretches of journey or mix up a journey towards a single location with multiple pathways. An interesting and thorough take on wilderness adventure. Nice.

I liked the social combat mechanics also. Before I cover it I must briefly go over an additional subsystem introduced earlier called Reputation points that serves as an abstract way of keeping track of a character’s network of contacts, favours and allies in the form of Reputation points. Characters obtain reputation points by exceptional roleplaying and forgeing alliances while they may spend them on anything from requisitioned equipment to favours of a more general kind (say, to get the location of a black marketeer or arms dealer). A list of sample favours is provided with a reputation point cost so the GM has something to work from. Reputation points can also be burned to automatically critically succeed at negotiations (see below).

Social “combat” in ZH is generally divided into Simple and Complex situations. In the case of a simple situation (i.e Bob wants to buy a sword from Blacksmith Tom), a single diceroll along with some situational modifiers suffices. Differences in Social Class and Alignment (determined by comparing Chaos and Order ranks for players) are tallied up and the end result is resolved with a single roll. It gets interesting with more complex interactions (i.e any interaction with far larger stakes, say, Friedrich wants to convince Graff Panzerfaust to lend him the service of three picked men to investigate the strange dissapearances among the ratcatchers on the northern banks). The Players figure out what they want to get done and pick a suitable interaction skill (any social skill can be used, from Intimidate to Guile). The GM secretely notes down a method of persuasion that is particularly effective (e.g all successes will be treated as critical successes) and one that is particularly ineffective (Interrogation might not be the best skill to use when convincing the Elector Count to send the Knights of Sigmar to relieve the garrison at Wurzdorf). Alignment and social class are again taken into account and the result of the roll determines the DISPOSITION of the NPC. The attitude of the NPC and thus the tone of the interaction is determined by the roll, but the encounter itself is resolved through roleplaying. It is possible to succeed at a critically failed negotiation and to bungle up a critically succeeded seduction attempt. Rather then having the roleplaying add some sort of modifier to the interaction dice roll, the game switches it up by having the dice determine what the NPC’s initial response to your interaction will be. A drawback of this method seems to be that every NPC needs to have both an alignment and a Social Class but the game does provide you with random tables in case you need to generate these attributes on the fly.

Zweihander handles Madness, corruption and disorders in a fairly traditional way, all things considered. Some creatures and events represent such an assault on the sanity and mental fortitude of the character in question that they trigger a resolve test. Failing such a test inflicts both mental Peril and Corruption points. Minor forms of stress can be triggered by anything from your lantern going while exploring a dark cavern or having your reputation publicly questioned in a forum, while the most extreme forms are reserved for demonic manifestation or being coerced into torturing your loved ones.

Other then doing one too many dangerous things, characters can also gain corruption points from performing particularly heinous or callous acts. I actually like this mechanic because nothing detracts from a grimdark setting then amoral murderhobo characters that remain utterly insulated from the consequences of their actions. Predictably, acts like sadistic torture, premeditated murder, rape and delving into forbidden secrets generates a shitload of corruption points, whereas acts like grave robbing, threats of violence upon the innocent and even Bigotry towards other races can get you corruption (though I assume it is acceptable to hate and loathe creatures like the Skrazzak or the Orx or the hated Kislevite since they are essentially monsters that cannot coexist with humankind and should therefore be eradicated). Anyway, once Heinrich has one too many lagers and lets the party and the rest of the inn know what he REALLY thinks about halflings it is time for him to gain a Chaos rank.

As I explained previously, each session ends with the players rolling a d10. If it is above your corruption points, you get an Order Rank. If it’s equal or below, you get a chaos rank. IF you get 10 ranks in Order you get a Fate point and both ranks reset to 0. If you get a 10 in Chaos you gain a Disorder (madness) and everything resets. You can only get a number of Disorders equal to your Willpower Bonus, anything more means you are hopelessly corrupted. By my calculations, even if you start off each session by letting the whole town know what you think of ‘dem longears’ and proceed to publically molest every farm animal you come across, the chances of ever having to retire your character this way are fairly slim. Assuming an average Willpower of 30 and at least a single WB advancement, one would need a minimum of 50 sessions to reach this level of corruption, and that assumes you do not seek any type of treatment.

The Disorders themselves are well-described and written so they should not only serve as roleplaying directions for the GM to interpret but also directly interpret gameplay in a mechanical fashion. If you are a Pyromaniac and you reach a certain step in the Peril condition track, you must immediately set fire to something nearby or suffer 1 corruption (this is a fairly mild one). What I found interesting is that each Disorder does give characters a special ability that they may trigger at the cost of gaining corruption. The Pyromaniac can gain an extra AP per round at the cost of 3 corruption, the Alcoholic increases his Damage threshold to +6 when he becomes intoxicated (again for 3 corruption) and if you suffer from The Hunger you can inflict serious injuries with bare-hands for 3 corruption.

The Disorders themselves are seperated into three categories. Addictions can be as mundane as gambling or drinking or as esoteric as compulsive delusions of grandeur or mana channeling or something. Insanities are more severe, running the gamut from obsessions, murderous impulses, a conviction of the impending apocalypse or hearing the voices of murdered innocents wherever you go. Mutations represent the worst of the corruptive influences of chaos, from demonic possession to lycanthropy to a ghoulish hunger for human flesh. The mutations are by far the most severe and very likely to lead to one visiting the nearest stake for a punitive burning. If I was a nitpicker I would mutter that as written you can use Mercury to supress your lycanthropy or go to the Doctor to get him to lobotomize your demonic possesion away but the game already points you should use common sense to adjudicate an appropriate cure so no biggy. Corruption and madness are inextricably linked to chaos in this game, for which I say god bless! In a suprisingly merciful twist, Disorders are not progressive and do not increase in intensity as time goes on, although they do vastly increase the chance of gaining further corruption points, which serves a similar function.

Two last important sections need to be covered. The GM section gives you the option to play as an Aztlan (Lizardman), Skrazzak (Skaven), Grendel (Beastman) or Orx (Kislevite   Ork). In order to render these races somewhat more playable, Zweihander has altered the lore behind the Grendel somewhat, drawing on their faun-like aspects to give them a rather more Dionysian nature, while the Skrazzak have been given a code of honour for some inconceivable reason. I must protest! Skaven were already playable in the bestest monster sourcebook of all time: Children of the Horned Rat, and it was made abundantly clear Skaven were cowardly tyrants coerced into service by their superiors and possessed of a voracious survival instinct. The Zweihänder variant retains most of that, but gets a hive-mind esque loyalty to their clan and a code of honour to go along with that. Whatever. The new races are all nicely distinct with very fun abilities, with some of my favourites being the Orxish BigBoss’s Law ability (you never gain corruption for killing others but you do gain 6 corruption for sparing a life), Fungus Amongst Us (on your death there is a chance you will burst open 1 week later with a different profession) and the Skaven Do’Urden Syndrome, which I shall copy here for our mutual entertainment.

Unlike your shadowy brethren, you have elected to live amongst the surface dwellers. Considered a dishonorable traitor by the Kabal, you’re not accepted by people above, either. As an edgy, gritty ‘antihero’, your name may have inspired a number of false tales in testament to your greatness as a warrior (much to the chagrin of better qualified swordsmen).
Effect: When wielding any 2 one-handed melee weapons, you may add 3 Damage to any melee attack. However, you are unable to Parry attacks while wielding 2 one-handed
melee weapons

There is a fairly large section on building your world and systems of governance but nothing we have not seen before. I did like it that they finally covered alternative deities and demihuman religion. The age-old question of halfling religion has finally been answered with a non-sequitor: halflings worship a rather vague deity named Mother, with the religion lacking both churches and clerics. Dwarf religion has been turned from the traditional Smith, Stoneworker, Axe-guy to a kickass sort of ancestor worship that involves trapping the souls of their Elders into Effigies so that they may never pass away and Elves worship their still living Immortal ancestors (each a mask-bearing personification of a single aspect of Elf society). Both very metal, and a much needed high fantasy spike on the at times almost flatlining EEG of a Grim and Perilous World. I get the game is most effective against a mundane backdrop but there will always be a part of me that wants to see an elfking on a three headed dragon blow up a horde of ratmen with magic spacerock lightning cannons.

Anyway, it makes sense to offer varieties on the tried and true pantheon of WF since anyone who is going to use ZH to run Warhammer is probably going to use the official source material anyway, and you want your game to be fully playable for everyone who buys it, including filthy casuals.. This continues on into the Daemons (or alternative pantheon) section. White-washed vershions of Nagash, the Old Ones and Gork (or possibly Mork) make their appearance, and there is some welcome innovation here. The Horned Rat has been replaced with the Thirteen, a sort of hive-mind of the best of the Skrazzak Race, the Dark Elves (I mean Siabra) now worship the Witch Queen (whom I believe to be based off Morathi and the mysterious Black Lodge, a pantheon of dead and forgotten gods worshipped exclusively by the Faerie makes its appearance.
The Gods of Chaos naturally make their appearance in the Grim and Perilous World of Zweihander, pretty much unchanged although it is made clear they are the abyssal princes and their power is not explicitly made greater then that of the Gods. The Gods remain mostly unchanged, being given titles like the Prince of Decay or the Prince of Violence (clearly a lesser synonym). What IS a welcome change is the (alleged and only possible) return of Malal, Chaos God of Fighting Chaos, the Bernie Sanders of the Warp if you will, complete with a weird triangular symbol and an incomplete and vague description that is tantalizing and makes me want to know more.

The (otherwise great) Chapter ends on a somewhat low note, with 4 campaign seeds in different settings for you to get the general idea of a Grim and Perilous game. Each Seed is given about 3 pages of description, with a setting overview, enemies within, without and beyond and some adventure Ideas. One is set during the 30 years war and arguably works the best because we have access to plenty of supplementary material via the internet or a library (hahahaha) so we can flesh the world out further. It also helps that the Seeds are good because the real world history makes the places come alive and instantly sparks your imagination. The re-appearance of supernatural elements can feel like something of a cop-out and you will probably end up not using half the book because it is too goofy for a historical game but this is still the strongest setting. The second campaign seed is set in some sort of Game of Thrones-esque ethnic conflict between different nationalities but 3 pages is not enough to make the places and people mentioned anything more then blank namedrops and the sole supernatural player (the Nameless), while awesome, are left too mysterious to be a credible threat. A third seed takes place in the same setting but is a riff on the Warriors and presents a sort of city campaign. I thought the sample gangs were mostly very strong, with the Nine Men being the most terrifying for sure, but the rest of the seed is not very strong and the adventure ideas are mostly a bust (even the ones based on The Warriors). The last seed is for a campaign in Jamestown new America and this one too suffers from the problem that you would have to do away with a lot of the traditional trappings of the Grimdark Fantasy in favour of weak-ass colonial supernatural Indian fighting, which might be fun if you get sick of the Grimdark stuff. I like a little variety and I see how ZH can also be used for those types of games, I just don’t think it is neccesarily the strongest candidate for a game of Zweihander but it does illustrate that you don’t have to go for GoT or Warhammer Fantasy automatically, it just doesn’t do it that well.

Though we end on a lesser note, let me recap by saying the GM section is thus far the best section of the book, when it comes to innovation, inspiration and creepy Hiernonymous Bosch inspired paintings of death. It gives a GM ample tools to bring the Grimdark that are very useable in a pinch and it’s kind enough to FINALLY give us a social interaction system that doesn’t feel like either a collossal waste of time or a copout. There you go. My fingers are fucking bleeding. I leave for Canada in december so pepare for a glorious death march to the finish as I take a look at the largest and most complete motherfucking Bestiary of all time and cover the sample adventure. Till then!


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