This final installment in my longest review ever will cover the introductory adventure A Bitter Harvest and then wrap everything up with a nice and tidy conclusion.
Introductory adventures are a special and arguably quite challenging subspecies of the Adventure genus, having to balance the introduction of foreign or obscure game mechanics as well as themes with entertainment. While there are some stellar examples that manage to run you through most of the basics while conveying exactly what the game is/should be about AND be entertaining (The Oldentaller Contract, In Search of the Unknown, Tower of the Stargazer), most introductory adventures end up being average (Edge of Darkness (Dark Heresy), Numenera corebook adventures) or downright terrible (the excrable Warhammer Fantasy 2e adventure). While A Bitter Harvest is no Oldentaller Contract and it does suffer from some problems, it at least manages to convey a singular vision and theme, for better or for worse.
A Bitter Harvest was written by a mysterious entity named Ovid for 3 to 6 characters of Basic Tier. There is mention of adapting the adventure for Intermediate or Advanced Tier characters but no aid is given and many of the obstacles that would bewilder or vex starting characters would be comparatively trivial to those of advanced rank, rendering the whole somewhat pointless. It is conceived as an investigatory adventure with a substantial amount of roleplaying and only a single instance of mandatory combat, which is a commendable breath of fresh air. The adventure takes place in the house-brand grimdark world of Goth Moran and could conceivably be adapted to Warhammer Fantasy (purists like myself may rest assured that the half-orc is in fact canon, albeit it extremely obscure). Note also that this is a somewhat prep-heavy adventure and the GM is advised to read through the adventure carefully so he may have a firm grasp on what is going on.
The adventure starts out with the characters attending a wedding in some godforsaken backwater (complete with silly rural customs like a footrace where you carry a woman on your back and fling cabbages at your opponents), where they are tasked with retrieving the bride token of an influential merchant so he can marry his new wife. Perfect street level rural nonsense (the bride token is a cargo of hemp). The plot thickens as mysterious ‘ bandits’ attack the caravan and village in question and the characters presumably come face to face with a great evil performed many decades ago. The game ends with a moral dilemma with no fixed answer.
My first double spit take came when I read about the theme of the adventure being about ‘ how women, in a society where men have the power, are treated like tools to be used and discarded’ blah blah blah standard gender studies textbook gobbledygook. Whenever an adventure has themes stated outright I am always reminded of Blood Bond, the worst adventure of all time made for Vampire the Masquerade, a not-terrible game for little girls, fans of the movie Frozen and sensitive young men wanting to explore their sexuality.
Roleplaying sessions are generally a chaotic mess of interactions, four different unpredictable variables with their own agency and goals, random chance, emergent phenomena carrying over multiple sessions and a GM’s inconsistent and by no means singular vision. I’d say that while it is certainly possible to have recurring elements within your campaign world that your players will eventually pick up on, to state what the adventure will be about sort of assumes the players are just passengers or consumers rather then active participants in the enfolding story, which is not generally the way I run or play my games. While it is possible to drive home a recurring theme this is generally in service to the atmosphere of the game and thus the enjoyment of the players.
Add to this the first NPC I came across having a same-sex relationship with the mayor’s son (which barely affects the outcome of the adventure) and thus followed several minutes of perturbed and confused paging through the Zweihander corebook in search of a Green Ronin Logo or the mention of the maternal surname ‘ Rein*Hagen’ somewhere in Daniel Fox’s biography before I had calmed down enough to continue on.
It is all an elaborate ruse. There are no cringeworthy monologues, forced decisions, ham-handed social commentaries or implicit value judgements in A Bitter Harvest, it is a perfectly playable adventure meant to provide the players with a scenario that requires a difficult moral decision. It even reminded me somewhat of the Witcher, with its use of fully fleshed out NPCs, lack of stock characters and moral ambiguity. The core is functional, but the adventure suffers from a lot of padding and some bad design choices.
Anyway, after 6 pages of introduction, timetable of events, overview of all significant NPCs (which feel very grounded and have credible motivations) and a list of possible motivations for the player characters, we may now begin the game at the Wedding. Maximillian, hemp merchant regional big cheese, is marrying Helena Raffke for financial reasons! Beer is on the house! In addition to getting shitfaced, the characters may participate in local activities such as ‘ find the bride’ and ‘test Zweihanders chase mechanics by a silly footrace with cabbage throwing mechanics’ but the rewards for doing so are slim (a keg of good ale or a night with a local village bint) beyond some vague roleplaying credits so you can chum up with Maximillian. The cabbage chase is fully fleshed out, complete with complications and a ruse by the local village men to get you plastered. While it adds colour, the consequences are so inconsequential as to function as filler, and that is not good design. The wedding itself does have nine bazillion skill tests to get information on the nature of the wedding or the motivations of some of the participants but the problem here is that very little of the information is relevant to the dilemma later on. Knowing why the marriage is important to Maximillian or Helena’s dad beyond ‘ financial hemp reasons’ is mostly superfluous. The adventure then proceeds to commit a second sin, having the characters roll some Eavesdrop skill to find something out that will inevitably be revealed later anyway. Maximillian and Franz Raffke (helena’s dad) are having an altercation about the bride token not being delivered on time. The PCs must now play peacemaker and figure out some sort of deal that involves getting the Bride Token (since they are available after all), but the Interaction is only relevant in determining the disposition of both NPCs towards the characters, they will be hired in any case since they are the last hope of both characters (isn’t that depressing). If the players are hungover from all the free booze Andre (the gay mercenary who has a crush on Maximillian’s son) gives them a herbal concoction to remove any ill-effects. What fuckery is this? Zweihander is a game of meaningful decisions and consequences, one should think the opening reflects that.
During the trip to the other village we get introduced to the fail forward mechanic, a way to hamper players for failure without forcing them to pick an alternative action. It represents a sort of workaround for the age-old problem of random chance in an adventure that features copious use of railroading. Say you have an adventure where the players absolutely must find a certain clue. The fail forward mechanic means that if your players fail their skill checks they still find the clue, but they take 1d10+something peril, thereby lowering their future chances of success. The way it has been used in this adventure sometimes feels like a placeholder for more interesting design (say, an alternative route or course of action so failure does not automatically entail the adventure coming to a screeching halt).
Anyway, a point in the adventure’s favour is that you can at least talk to the NPCs, and befriending Maximillian during the journey does net you an extra reward, so there is that. You can also figure out Andre the sellsword wants to plunge his main-gauche in Waldmann’s murder hole but this is not really relevant to the rest of the adventure (beyond establishing his motivation). At this point something finally happens as the PCs find out that the caravan carrying the bride token has been overtaken, with all occupants killed (though the loot remains untouched). If the players ignore the warnings and keep dilly-dallying and investigating the remains there is a chance they might step into a gin trap and get themselves maimed, which, given ample foreshadowing, is a fair punishment. I am impressed and even somewhat suprised by the Adventure’s restraint, many other designers would have thrown some combat in here to keep the players invested, Zweihander utilizes foreshadowing and atmosphere instead. Not bad.
After all that excitement it is time for the main course, the investigation part of this investigative adventure. The town is effectively under siege, two dudes are found dead and the players are left figuring out some shit while Maximillian and Franz talk upstairs in an Inn. The idea is that you find out about what happened with the town 16 years ago and you gather enough intel to figure out its connected to Maximillian. The general idea is that 16 years ago the town was attacked by Orcs (ahem Orx), and while one priest was off getting reinforcements, Maximillian made a tough call and bargained with the Orx for clemency in exchange for giving them the location of the caverns holding their women and children. You find out in a later segment that the Witch leading the Orx horde currently attacking the village is actually Maximillian’s wife from 16 years ago, royally pissed and in charge of the Orc horde via a magical brew. That is a pretty solid and interesting premise for an adventure. Here too, the NPCs are well fleshed out, having some colour (albeit several thousand different shades of grey, this IS a grimdark world after all) and motivation. Major NPCs have been conveniently located in 4 major buildings of the town, and each building has a listed number of topics along with responses by its occupants, making it fairly easy to keep track of who knows what (vital for an information gathering segment).
Anyway, after the PCs do themselves some investigating, they are gathered together in the top room of the Cowardly Orx, and are drafted to lead a scouting party to the same caves where the women hid all this time ago. More overland travel without random encounters ensues, and finally action! An ambush takes down Waldmann (who needs to go since he knows a secret path into the hills), if you are lucky you can save his life and instead leave him grievously injured. The assassin can be chased down and if interrogated properly and the players aren’t too dimwitted they discover it is in actuality Waldman’s half-orc brother. Another good thing about the adventure, there are very little generic encounters, with even most combat encounters using named NPCs. Anyway, the recoinassance part is a bit weak, in order to prevent the adventure from turning into a straight up combat encounter or because the game expects the PCs to be pussies the idiot Kobold patrols engage the players in the most stupid fashion imaginable and will not attempt to sound the alarm or flee at the first sign, which is why you have patrols in the first place. The adventure recommends you play the Orx+goblins stupidly since they are not exactly expertly led, but I call bullshit since no marauding band survives for 16 years under such gross incompetence. To be fair, there is a pretty good chance to get discovered early by letting the half-orc assassin escape, so it’s not exactly a cakewalk.
Anyway, by the time the characters come closer (should they choose to do so), they can check out the camp and gather information about it’s occupants, at the risk of detection (critical failure only) or mental peril from the stress. I think it might actually be possible to knock yourself out during the stealth section, which is rather goofy. Regardless, you figure out the Mayor’s bitch wife is actually in charge of the Orc/Goblin mob, her spellcaster daughter is also in cahoots with team Orx, and they plan on getting vengeance for the horrors they suffered because of Maximillian. After that the adventure, very admirably, becomes open-ended, and several possibilities are discussed, from handing over Maximillian to the Witch (which is fucking hard to do actually, since the villagers are not liable to believe horrible accusations without evidence), to taking out the horde w. Guerilla Warfare, sabotaging the magical witches Brew (‘ Mother knows best’ ) Joanna uses to control the horde, to fighting off the invasion with the help of the village. Each option is given abundant support and this is by far the strongest part of the adventure, everything leads up to this dilemma and there are many different options for resolving it. The adventure ends by covering possible consequences of resolving the adventure, from the lasting enmity of Maximillian in case they accuse him but are not believed to a rampaging Orc Waaagh! under the command of ‘ Joan of Orx’ laying waste to all of Baltdorf.
A Bitter Harvest is a decent introductory adventure, and manages to convey the underlying themes of Zweihander and Warhammer Fantasy pretty well. It is fairly low fantasy even for Warhammer standards, and I rather missed the often over-the-top grimdarkness of its parent setting (e.g one of the villagers, Klaus von Slechtmensch is actually a member of the Amethyst Hand, servants of the Demon Prince Tzarikainen the Nine-fold Bane, and is digging in the old cornfields for the body of his fallen prophet, Gynophax the Purple, Despoiler of Ludenburg etc. etc.). The adventure is also rather too long and offers a lot of superfluous detail and thus I heartily recommend speeding through the wedding so you can get to the good part (investigating the Orx camp, finding out what the fuck is up with the village). The oh shit moment is a pretty good reveal and the multiple options for resolving the situation are given sufficient support to help you run the game. The NPCs are mundane but fully fleshed out, lending the entire adventure a sort of versimilitude which is a neccesity when you are going for a moral dilemma (the players should at the very least be invested neh?). Though I feel the wilderness sections are superfluous (there is no danger and no time limit) and the failing forward mechanic is overused, I do see the merit in at times doling out a punishment that does not involve automatic failure and the stealth section would become rather too unforgiving without it. I’d give the adventure about a 6, good enough to cut your teeth on, but not likely to become a fan favourite any time soon. Needs to be shorter for what it sets out to do. I might give it an actual playtest before long.
Fuck it, it is verdict time. Since boiling down a fucking 10 page review novel into a few short sentences is tricksy at the best of times I beg the Jury’s indulgence. Zweihander is dense, rich with options and complete and fully playable as a standalone game. It differs significantly from its spiritual liege but retains and even magnifies the underlying themes that made us like the old games and it even surpasses the old game in terms of system. The combat system is lethal as all hell, the injury system ensures even the victors are not liable to leave combat unscathed The question thus becomes, is it worth sinking the time into a new system? I would answer, simply, yes.
In short form:
Can I run my Warhammer game with this and will it still feel like Warhammer? Yes.
Is it a complete game? Yes.
Is the combat gritty and are the injuries lasting? Yes.
Are blackpowder weapons finally worth it? Yes.
Is the knockoff brand setting seed any good? Ditch it and rip off the Witcher or Berserk or the Broken Empire if you are going to do your own thing.
I want to raise my kids with a fixed gender and I have forbidden them to dye their hair at all costs, also, I do not approve of the practice of observing my wife during intercourse with one or more afro-american men. Can I still enjoy Zweihander? Yes you can. I understand some concessions have been made to appeal to a broad audience but there is nothing glaringly politically correct or SJW about this book. There is a big thing about people injecting their political philosophy in media or games nowadays but Zweihander doesn’t appear to suffer from it. The adventure might skew that way (only a wee bit) but nowhere is the game sacrificed for the ideology, and that is the most important thing.
Did I Just Pass out from failing a Blacksmithing check? You did son.
What has two thumbs, gorgeous blue eyes and an unhealthy commitment to reviewing elfgames? This guy.
Should I ask for this game on 4chan? For all the talk that Tarnowski is a rune-wizard I am starting to become more and more convinced it is in fact Daniel Fox that has mastered the art of troll summoning and the rune-drone DMCA. Avoid unless you want to get rune-drop kicked out of a helicopter that looks like Karl Franz’s personal Griffon mount (Deathclaw).
Zweihander kicks ass and that’s as simple as that. A psychotically dedicated review for a psychotically dedicated retroclone. If you are enough of an elfgame toughguy to brave the challenge of wading through 690+ pages of slightly more awesome Warhammer with some decent art, innovative new rules, the completest fucking bestiary I have ever seen, a ho hum starting adventure, even more random and fun character creation and a tight as fuck combat and social interaction system then look no further. This, ladies and gentlemen, is how you retroclone. With devotion, reverence, passion and fucking boldness. Get if you can handle complex elfgames. 8.5 out of 10. Great job.