The time has arrived to cover 163 pages worth of bestiary in a post fit for easy consumption in between lunchbreaks or huffing paint or when the GM is telling you about this NPC that the PCs are going to help save the world or whatever it is that gamers do in their pasttimes. Throughout this review I will offer minor gripes and objections to distract you from the fact that overall it pretty much accompanies what it sets out to do: give you a bestiary that is extensive enough to emulate just about any Warhammer Fantasy scenario your drug-addled mind can come up with.
It has it all folks! Skaven, Lizardmen, Daemons, the Restless Dead, fucking Zoats, fucking Formorians, Dragon Ogres and Hobgoblins galore. The entire population of the Warhammer Fantasy universe has been trotted out across the pages, sometimes in a thin coating of varnish and drag to avoid the Lords of Law, of this massive and very long bestiary. Despite it kicking ass and being overal everything we hoped and dreamed it would be, it nevertheless has some problems, problems that I shall gladly dig into before we (somehow) cover 163 pages worth of updated creatures, with some interesting new additions or the odd twist as well!
Before I start griping like an old rheumy woman after a particularly wet monsoon, let me begin by pointing out that I absolutely love the layout of the monster stats. Everything is clear, the attacks, hit chance and damage is clearly given and special abilities are categorized and described tersely and succinctly, avoiding either vagueness or 3.5e style 3 page statblocks. It is exactly the kind of shit you can quickly skim over before combat happens, especially because of the use of universal abilities. When a creature has, say, the Accursed trait, that means it can only be hit by magical weaponry. In time you won’t even have to read what comes after, you will know enough from just the title. Same with the strength of the monsters. Each one gets a rating from Basic to Advanced (and after that Elite for what are essentially Boss Monsters), along with a rank in parentheses letting you know the appropriate rank (Oldskool Gm’s may now skoff) to encounter them and the difficulty such a creature is likely to pose. Now that that is out of the way and everyone knows I am jumping up and down with member-berry induced zeal, let’s talk shit.
The first problem the bestiary overal suffers from is its length. Each creature is given at least three paragraphs worth of descriptive text. This is certainly okay when describing relatively obscure or complex creatures like the Formorians (Fimir) or major antagonists like the Slaan (uh I mean Tlaloc) but three paragraphs to describe a skeleton or an UnGor Beastman is a bit indulgent, and I feel these extra paragraphs could have used more adventure hooks to prop them up a bit. It’s nowhere crippling or terrible, it just gets long winded, an effect I suspect will dissapear entirely if you take your anti-pyschotics like Doctor Manfeld recommended and simply read the bestiary a few entries at a time.
The second one is a more serious inconvenience. Zweihander has explicit rules for handling larger creatures and includes options for making them easier to hit, harder to parry and increasing their damage dice. If they are twice the size of an ogre, they get an extra d6, if they are more then three times their size they get two extra d6 (and you will die screaming). The problem? Nowhere is the size of creatures stated unambiguously.
You can get from abilities like Ungainly or Fearsome Blow that you aren’t dealing with midgets and it is possible to tease out their size from the description but how hard would it have been to slap on an extra Towering ability for twice ogre sized and Brobdignagian for three+ in the ability section? Everything else is pretty easy to figure out. If they have an incantation skill they can cast spells, and they generally have a grimoire stating how many spells they have. Shit isn’t rocket science.
And now, to assure this post will reach truly epic heights of tedium and pedantry, I shall go over each entry with exacting detail. I have added confusing headlines so it is easy to skip over parts you do not care about.
Point 1: Fimir are Back
The First entry is the Formorians. We start off on an excellent note. The origin of the Formorians, long held obscure, has been fleshed out and actually woven into the lore of Zweihander. The Ogres, fresh from the cataclysmic collapse of their empire and despairing and undergoing hideous mutation (like post-colonial Great Britain), were shit out of luck until the Witch-Queen (Malekith’s Mom) came along and offered them salvation. Being extremely dense, the Ogres quickly accepted, and thus became the hideous semi-lovecraftian coral-dwelling monsters we know and love. The art is an improvement on the original, the look has a more pelagic feel to it and the use of human females as means of reproduction has been replaced, now with fully fertile Witch-Queen things. Re-imagining well done, Daniel Fox takes the prize, everyone else gets to eat a dick!
Part II: Warhammer Demons are the best and if you disagree you are a traitor.
After that we arrive at the Daemon or Demon section. Like any bestiary worth its salt it starts with the Greater Demons, called Higher demons in this version. I can gripe about the names being slightly dumber then they were in the original game (a Bloodthirster is now a Brass Primarch) and the art of some of the demons being a little sub-par (though I find the Great Unclean One and the Keeper of Secrets capture the essence very well) but fuck that, let’s get into the meat and bones. Higher Demons are still unstoppable walking death machines, capable of decimating infantry companies and completely impervious from anything but sorcery and enchanted steel. The Bloodthirster/Brass Primarch in particular is a fucking nightmare, as liable to drive companies of men insane by merely gazing upon it as it is capable of chewing through companies of knights.
One addition that I LOVE is the True Name ability, which means these creatures are IMPERVIOUS to magic unless you learn their True Name first, which is fucking hard AND ALSO PROVIDES A PLOT HOOK AND CREATES ENCOUNTERS THAT ARE NOT SIMPLY ABOUT EVERYONE ROLLING A LOT OF DAMAGE DICE. Nailed it. A bit of a drawback is the lack of unique Chaos magic for each of the gods but that’s nothing you can’t get over (and I am sure it will be fixed in the expansion hint hint wink wink). As we bask in the afterglow of a succesful greater demon section we discover that the gift train has not left yet. Zweihander has given Malal a sort of Greater Demon, the Numina, a non-euclidean horror composed of the bodies of his exiled worshippers, dwelling in strange outer realms and appearing at times to fight Chaos with more Chaos. Mad props for writing that one back in without fucking with the established Canon of Non-Chaos gods being virtually unable to directly interfere in Mortal Realms.
Lower demons are up next. For some reason Zweihander’s alternate canon is hellbent on labelling them with vague, kaballistic titles but they are still essentially the demons we know and love, with the addition of the Butler Demon deserving of an approving nod. Everything else is as we know em; Succubi have a musk, Bloodletters cut things, Plague dudes cause Aids and Tzeentch guys gibber and throw multicoloured fireworks everywhere (I would guess having them cause corruption or mutation with attacks does not work very well within the framework of the game, but at least we may console ourselves that they have a chance to split into two horrors upon death. Furies, Juggernauts, Demonic Steeds, hosts of minor demonic spirits, Chaos Spawn and the Pit Dragon (or Chaos Dragon for muggles). The latter solely in case you need something ELSE to kill your Advanced Ranks players with before they encounter the big boss. As written, I don’t see you taking these out with anything but a Canon but then I believe that is the idea.
Part III: This section describes critters and is therefore uninteresting to talk about.
The book also briefly covers animals but goes over it in about as much detail as you or I would for which I offer thanks to the God-Emperor. Here is a critter template, here is a large predator template, here is a large animal template, figure out whether or not the Infected Wounds ability is proper, there you go you are good. Done. A Horse is a Horse.
The first odd twist comes with the entry on Primevals or as I like to call it Magic Animals. They are described as these ancient terrors that predate all the old races, with near human intelligence and somehow linked to the seven sins which I guess is an interesting take on what would otherwise be boring old Giant Boar, Giant Spider from Lord of the Rings, Dire Rat, Super Wolf, Giant Crocodile entries etc. etc. but the thematic linkage gets a little strained at times. I can see how a super boar would probably be linked to Wrath but how is the Owlbear (named the Howlbear) linked to Pride. It’s good they are set apart from normal animals but why the fuck is the Owlbear in there?
Part IV: Things to kill players with.
The game continues on sensibly to the Beast section, which contains the magical menagerie we know and love with all the lethality of a nitro-boosted combine harvester driving into a packed stadium. Another fucking awesome addition here is the take on Petrification. Petrification can only be cured by the alchemically mixed heartsblood of the creature that petrified you. Neat. I can gripe about the omission of the Manticore, but everything else seems to be in their proper thematic place. A few suprising additions like the Fen Wyrm (a palette swapped Salamander), Fodderling (Squig) and even a Siren (which I believe might be all new and looks kickass btw, great art) meet with my approval. They kept out all the Goldworms and the Giant Clams but they saved the Jabberwock, a truly ridiculous and borderline immortal threat your players will be embaressed to die against. Its description, while still grimdark, retains the delightful sillyness and whimsey that should make it all the more terrifying should anyone actually encounter it (i.e into riddles, lives in a cave decorated with obscene graffiti etc.). The one slightly akward omission is the Dragon (though there is a Wyvern entry), but I suspect even Zweihander had issues with space and figured it was easier to just print the Pit Dragon and let the GM file off the serial numbers should he desire to do so.
As an aside: How often are Jabberwocks used in any game? I know for a fact 2e, Pathfinder and Old Warhammer (and now this thing) have Jabberwocks and they are always stupid tough. Make it happen Gm’s reading this! The breaking of men amidst the Whiffling and the Burbling and the swords that went Snicker-Snack! I was there when the Jabberwock came to Tyrenstadt.
Part V: Leasure Suit Lounge Lizardmen
The Lizardmen are back! Now titled the Aztlan, they are more or less the same, only now with even more embarassing Lizard-sounding names for the different types of lizardmen. If you can stomach ‘Gekkota’ and ‘Iguania’ what you have here is essentially your standard caste-system super frog-magician led warrior elite. The Lizardmen in Zweihander have been given a bit more of a darker aspect by having the Tlaloc (Slaad) bathe in the blood of sacrifices to retain their immortality. Every Aztlan has an ability where they can seperate their Tail to ignore a blow that would slay them and allows them to remain grievously wounded instead, along with a free movement, a neat ability that doens’t really make sense for the tailless Tlaloc but who cares, the point is they suffer a Grievous injury so there is no reason you can’t make it work as a GM.
Part VI: Dudes of Chaos
Unrelated sketch of Kent’s campaign (unconfirmed)
The Lost and the Damned are handled tastefully and with admirable gusto. Everything from your friendly Nordling marauders to your Daemon Princes (I mean Dread Count), Sorcerers and Knights of Chaos (e.g Fell Knights and Havoc Conjurers) have been statted out to beat the shit out of your unknowing players. The origin story of the Dread Count is kind of weird and out there, more of a throwback to the weirdness of Oldhammer or Stormbringer then in keeping with the current Grimdark aesthetic. A Dreadcount is a bizarre amalgamation of a Champion of Chaos and a Sorcerer, fused together with a profane ritual and dedicated to one of the Four. The Duergar represent Chaos Dwarves and I appreciate the reappropriation of the old trope of ‘the dwarves dug too deep,’ this time having found not a Balrog but a treasure trove of Wychstone. The inclusion of the Siabra (Druchii) and the Nephilim (giants) is something of a headscratcher, as one is affiliated but seperate from Chaos whilst the other one seems almost unrelated. Regardless, the Siabra are still your loveable raiders dressed in sea-serpent cloaks and out for payback whilst the Giants are still the drunken degenerate remnants of a once glorious civilisation (insert your own topical real world example here for fun and profit). I love it that your average giant has a 5 out of 6 chance of being drunk when encountered but I lament the loss of a Giant’s bag to stuff people in.
Part VII: Miscellanious tossers.
Of course, no low fantasy bestiary would be complete without a wide assortment of human beings to murder and Zweihander is more then willing to provide. Deserters, mobs of angry peasants, fanatical knights templar, deranged zealots, corrupt occultists and the go-to nemesis of low-level adventuring parties: The Brigand (not to be confused with the Thug). I feel the descriptions here tend to drag on for a bit, though I do appreciate the pointers on the driving force behind the real Zealot: A lack of inner conviction driving them on to ever greater extremes in search of something they cannot or do not truly believe. The Witch is a nice counterpoint to the more urban Occultist (which has tasteful boobs, always a plus), and the art puts me in mind of the Hag from Darkest Dungeon (another automatic plus).
This thing right here only before she got married and put on weight.
Part VII: Plants and Orcs (included because they are technically fungus)
The Deadly flora section represents some of the more dangerous plantlife of a Grimdark world, but besides a blooddrinking rose that will actually spare lovers if one of them plucks a rose from its bush, this section is fine but not particularly noteworthy.
I actually kind of like the take on Orcs as spawning from the fungus-infested corpses of their fallen foes but I find their use of human females to create Snotlings, a self-professed useless and abominable pest, to be somewhat questionable. I am all about tasteful forced intercourse but it seems tacked on, and would be more in place with something like the Beastmen (which it is, coincidentally). The take on Goblins as cursed orphans and wandering children cursed by Chaos MIGHT work for some people, though I imagine they threaten the thematic niche of the Redcap and other Fey. Credit where it is due, the fanatic does come equipped with a giant, reach Flail, which sadly does not include a provision to murder his fellow goblins.
Part IX: It is like a murderous anthropomorphic goat only sexier
Another major twist is the take on the Beastmen, called the Grendel in this edition. I actually kind of like the alternative takes as long as the stat blocks aren’t overly affected, it makes more sense to do an alternative flavour text if you assume a large percentage of your audience is going to want to emulate Warhammer Fantasy and draw on that lore anyway. The Grendel have been given a more dyonisian twist, with perpetual revelry and weird human sex cults growing up around them. Still savage and mostly inimical to mankind, they have been made a distinct faction by dedicating them to the Outsider, a curious twist. If you like your beastmen to be sensual and to weird out your cousins then these might be the Beastmen you are looking for.
I personally prefer the misshapen monstrosities living out a cursed existence but at the same time the novelty is somewhat refreshing. You can scratch out the perpetual drunkeness and instead stat up Morghur the Corruptor or Khazak-One Eye if you are sick and tired of this nuanced take. Otherwise they are still the monstrous, horned deathbringers that you know and love, this time with a bacchanalian twist.
Other mutant creatures like the Lycanthrope, the Medusa (was that one even in WHF? It is in the 8th edition but its more grimdark), the Dragon Ogre, the Troll and the Ravenous Ghoul. If I may zoom in on another sub-system here, I like it that some monsters have vulnerabilities in certain parts only, requiring called shots, and some monsters with gaze attacks may have these gazes disabled with a called shot to the eyes. It’s the little details that count. Also Petrified Troll penises are an important component in Druidic Rituals.
Part X: Skaven
A brief explanation for the uninitiated. Skaven are basically hideous evil ratmen that live under the earth and multiply ceaselessly whose numbers outnumber mankind and who threaten to surge forth at any moment in an unstoppable tide of fangs, plague-ridden fur, diseases, Strange Warpstone-punk technology, Gigantic Rat-Ogres and giant Bells. They are basically the coolest thing ever and the Empire officially denies their existance to avoid the spread of panic so there is no one coming. Man Skaven rock.
The Skaven are back bitch! From Rat Ogres to Assasins to Clan Skyre warlocks. The alternative background has changed their females from near mindless birthing chambers to spellcasting matriarchs and the clans are now essentially bloodlines that issue forth from the queens after copious amounts of experimentation. Mechanically that doesn’t matter one bit, however, and you can always repurpose them as Grey Seers. There is a bit of an eye-roller here with mention of creating a precognitive ‘Skrazzak Haderach’ and Wychstone Trance revered mother Skrazzak and I wept a silent, nerdly tear at the lack of a Two-handed warpfire thrower that does d+8 or 10 and is unstable but fuck it, poison wind globadiers and Rat Ogres and Wychstone coated shuriken and Plague monks etc. etc. etc. Skaven rule.
Part XI: Elementals and The Fey/Athel Loren dudes
Elementals I mean Aetheric Spirits are the WHF Go Too for when you need to summon something that can beat the shit out of people without magical weapons but you do not want to risk tearing down all of creation to do it. Each has been given a distinctive appearance, from strange aerial sylphs to salamanders made of fire to avoid the tired old ‘man made of [element].’ While not quite as powerful as the walking nuclear deterrents of the first edition they remain of suitable strength.
The Fey are back in force, and some of the best alternative lore may be found here. The invention of the Black Lodge helps embed the mysterious, otherworldly and capricious Fey into the sort-of-setting of Zweihander. Oberon is represented here as merely one of multiple Sidhe Lords, the Fey have been divvied up into Seelie (horrific and hate humans but think elves make good slaves) and Unseelee (hate elves too). The Wild Hunt has been frightfully recast and has the most obscure condition for stopping its regeneration that I have seen thus far (will regenerate until their eyes have been pierced with a golden pin or a gold coin has been placed under their tongue, ten points for Griffindor!), banging Nymphs (standin for Dryads) now means you get yourself a Redcap son that haunts your steps and will attempt murder, Treemen are just kind of there and the Doppelganger is now a fey creature that literally needs to steal faces and can wear them until the next moon. Easily the best re-imagining I have seen thus far. If you are going to do flavour text for a retroclone this is how you fill in that flavourtext.
Part XII: The Undead
Some nice attempts at innovation. Many corporeal undead have a re-animator trait that keeps going until a certain condition is met. In the case of skeletons it is sufficient to scatter the bones while the superpowerful Defiler (Liche Priests) has to have all its canoptic jars shattered whilst it bombards you with Necromancy and presumably scares the shit out of everyone with its salted open-chest heart. Even the incorporeal undead tend to have a singular trait or vulnerability that makes it possible to defeat them. This makes undead in Zweihander into a sort of puzzle monsters where finding what exactly kills what type of undead creature. In the case of the 30 foot high Living Statue monster, the anwer is NOTHING.
The re-imagining, while certainly interesting, does radically alter the nature and balance of power for skeletons and especially zombies (which can be killed only by the destruction of their phylactery, which seems counterintuitive), and represents a major departure from their power in the original game, where they were essentially the weakest of arrow fodder.
I like the addition of new Restless spirits, a stand out entry being the eternally burning innocent victims of an Inquisitor’s wrath. The addition of five different Vampire types brings a smile to my heart, but again two entries deviate considerably from the norm, with the Rakshasa and the child-eating Lammashtu being only tangentially related to the Strigoi and the Necrarchs of the old game.
As a companion to this gigantic bestiary, the game provides you with sufficient guidelines to downgrade some monsters into underlings (instantly slain if they suffer from an injury, can’t use misfortune points), upgrade them to Bosses and even create magicians. While it is unfeasible to expect the game to add unique spell lists for each monster faction, I like it that they went to the trouble of adding a spell list made up of multiple thematically appropriate disciplines for each “Faction.” The game ends on a good note, loot tables are provided for all to see and to enjoy.
So what do I think about the bestiary section. Is it good, complete and will it allow you to run your Warhammer Fantasy game without having to pony up 30 bucks for an Old World Bestiary? Yes. The monster selection is virtually complete, the creatures are well statted out and the occasional new ability brings much needed innovation to some of the critters. My only gripe is the at times uneven quality of the flavour-text, and some of the reskinning decisions (particularly for the Vampires).
I leave for Frost-ridden Canada soon, but expect part X, a review of the adventure and the final verdict soon. Until next time!
4 thoughts on “[Review] Zwëihander (WFRP OSR) Pt. IX: Bestiary section”
Hey, Tanner the co-author here. For vampires, the Lamashtu is our Manticore stand-in which is actually closer to actual Manticore folklore. The Rakshasha is kind of like the Strigoi at least in motive and ability. The Necrarchs are not in the core, but we haven’t forgotten about them, or Chaos magic (wink wink nudge nudge)
Hi Tanner, great to hear from you and thanks for the clarification. I of course understand both the need for novelty and the clarification. I figured additional spells would be a great item to cover in the mentioned pole-arm related expansion, as well as a sort of sweep and clean. For the record, though I am not on board with ALL of the re-imaginings, I think you guys did a very thorough job and most of the innovation is actually really well thought out.
The giant’s Bag of Abduction is covered by the Swallow Whole trait. It’s a bit unclear in the description, but it could mean two things: they eat your ass, or they toss you in a damn dirty sack over their shoulder.
Dang it now you got me using my imagination and adjusting things in my mind n’shit. I agree the system is open-ended and abstract enough to interpret things in this fashion.