Are you a Butt-Kicker, a Specialist, or a Story-Teller? There is a huge world of games out there to satisfy every player’s and group’s style. And while there are academic discussions in every corner of the internet, sometimes it’s best to start at level one. Join the Level One Wonk in exploring the possibilities that RPGs have to offer, from Aberrant to Zorcerer of Zo. Today we go to the end of the alphabet and the top of the Kickstarter releases list to look at a grim and gritty retro-clone, Zweihander!
Let’s have a brief discussion about two terms used widely in the role-playing hobby in reference to common game design practices: “Heartbreaker” and “Retro-Clone”. A “Retro-Clone” is a game built on the structure of an older game (retro), and designed to update it with some tweaks, improvements or rules modernizations that still capture the feel of the original game (clone). A Heartbreaker is a game based on the author’s vision of how to improve an existing game or genre, and typically is used in a negative way. The term was coined, in essence, because it originally described the “heartbreaking” trend of bolting what could have been interesting mechanical decisions onto an old game (D&D 95% of the time) without any consideration to why that core structure was useful in the first place. If you find a game from between 1980 and 2000 which uses 6 stats that range from 3 to 18, and yet it isn’t called Dungeons and Dragons . . . it may be a heartbreaker.
This brings us to Zweihander. The author describes the game as a “heartbreaker” of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 2nd edition, and it indeed started out in the same way many heartbreakers do: a collection of house rules which evolved into a unique version of the game. However, the gamers behind Zweihander went further, and after the Warhammer Fantasy system took an abrupt turn with Third Edition they began playtesting their game, originally titled “Corehammer”. After years of iteration, the game now known as Zweihander was brought to Kickstarter where it successfully funded. Last week, the fully illustrated version of the book was released to backers, including myself. After reading, I can say that Zweihander has successfully transcended the “heartbreaker” title and is a fully realized “retro-clone” of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. As good as it is, it’s still built on a rules scaffold that’s over 30 years old, which comes through clearly in its old-school sensibilities.
This book is a big one at 688 pages long. That’s smaller than the Fifth Edition book trio at roughly 990, but larger than the GURPS Basic Set at roughly 580. Similar to both of those examples, Zweihander is a fully contained game, including both a bestiary and a solid GM’s section with structure and advice on how to run the game. Despite the length, a first read doesn’t indicate that the system is particularly dense or difficult. However, there are concepts introduced which are then referred to dozens and sometimes hundreds of pages later without any referencing, which makes things tricky. I had fewer flip-back situations than I did when first reading 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons, but it’s still fair to say that newer digest-sized games like Fate Core are better layout-wise than most of the old-style hardcovers, Zweihander included.
Onto the rules. Character creation is by default all random rolls. This is a very old-school approach, but looking at how it’s done here I like it for the most part. The one exception is rolling for key statistics. A system that allows characters variations in starting power often feels unfair, and subtly encourages dice cheating as well. I had this same issue with Dark Heresy, though from what I’ve seen the rolling range for d100-based Warhammer games is a little tighter than the 3d6 or 4d6-based characteristic rolls in D&D. Moving on from stats, I enjoy the other random rolls a lot more. Randomly rolling careers and upbringings and everything else gives a rich set of starting points from which to better develop a character; entirely narrative traits like the “dooming” and “distinguishing marks” are fun and flavorful. While some may insist on being given control over who their prospective character is I often enjoy good random generation, provided it’s what I signed up for.
As you create your character, you’ll find you are now tied into a profession with a sequence of attribute bonuses, talents, and skill advances. You can take them in any order, but must take them all and take no others before moving into a new profession. The result of this is that all Zweihander characters, no matter the profession, are going to be fairly limited in what they’re really good at. In order to get a +30% skill modifier, you will need to take three professions which all have that skill as one of the advances. Incidentally, three professions is the typical length of the Zweihander character arc, the game’s equivalent of reaching 20th level. Like random rolls for character generation, this design decision very deliberately makes character progress a very narrow affair, with only a small handful of materially important decisions.
The basic mechanics of the game are relatively simple, though there is complexity bolted on through the combat system. Skill checks involve rolling under your attribute value plus your skill value, with untrained skill checks having different rules for common and special skills. In one interesting decision, advancement at no point increases your primary attributes, instead only increasing the attribute bonuses (which are initially the tens digit of the attribute). This design decision has a similar effect to the “bounded accuracy” design philosophy in 5th edition; since characteristics must sit between 0 and 100, all PCs, NPCs and monsters sit within a fairly small to-hit range. Since the bonuses affect things like damage, though, a big monster is still going to be more of a threat. This keeps the game mathematically constrained, though it also limits advancement options further still by keeping the only way to improve roll targets at the specific level of skills or the very specific level of talents.
Combat is simple at its core: resolve a surprise round, determine initiative, take turns. Roll to attack, opponents can parry or dodge, then calculate damage. Each character gets 3 action points to start, which allows for some strategic thinking around attacking, leaving an action for defense, and other decisions. Ultimately, there are 28 actions outlined in Zweihander combat. This provides a level of baked-in detail larger than Fate (4 actions) and D&D (10 actions), while still being less expansive than GURPS (30+ actions including Basic Set techniques) or Mythras (50+ actions including special effects). In my opinion, this strikes a decent balance between simpler rules with tons of exceptions and trying to write out mechanics for every possible situation. Once you get into damage you do walk down the path of rolling on tables for critical effects and death descriptions, an old-school but colorful (and almost comically violent) touch. The other significant mechanical addition to the core mechanic besides combat is magic; most magical effects are purchased as a result of profession traits and resolve like skills (plus having their own combat actions). The one thing of note is that there is always the chance for some chaos manifestations, ranging from purely cinematic effects to your immediate death.
Zweihander keeps the grim and gritty alive from other Warhammer products. Characters are not particularly powerful, and those who gain access to such power find it tempered by corruption and chaos. Additionally, random character generation further reinforces the notion that characters are people foisted into positions of power and heroism by chance. It’s an interesting establishment, but for those used to more deliberate character design in games, it may not be a welcome one. Of course, any of the random charts in the game can be substituted with a choice, but between the instructions for random rolling and at least one sidebar admonition to not let players choose, it’s clear what the intended mode is. Even with the modernizations done by the Grim and Perilous team, Zweihander is very much an old-school game. That said, it is a very well-executed old-school game. Provided your group is on board with the gritty theme of the game and are willing to go with a random generation process, this game will be a lot of fun. Roll up some interesting medieval brigands and send them into the countryside, and if a character dies it’s only a dozen or so dice rolls to write another one.
Zweihander is available from DriveThruRPG, either in the deluxe illustrated version or as a pay-what-you-want PDF without art. At this time the PDF layout that will eventually go to print is still being finalized, so I’ve intentionally kept comments about layout, index, and table of contents to a minimum.