Tuesday, 25 July 2017

[Review] ZWEIHÄNDER Grim and Perilous RPG Part IV: Battle Metal

After character creation it's time to proceed to the crunchy heart and soul of Warhammer games, and thus ZWEIHÄNDER too: killing things with steel and magic, and getting hurt by them.

Chapter 8: Combat

Your character on ZWEIHÄNDER.
The combat system of the percentile Warhammer RPGs are near and dear to me. It aims for some degree of realism mixed with ludicrous brutality, while still remaining completely playable. It hits the sweet spot in complexity for me. Of course it has its warts too: it is a very swingy system thanks to the low hit chances, the defense rolls, and the explosive damage dice. Sometimes you fell a huge ass monster with a single blow, other times you enter an endless loop of misses, parries, dodges with a snotling. Still, I consider WFRP battles immensely fun and engaging.

ZWEIHÄNDER's combat is built on the same foundation as WFRP2e and WH40K RPGs, but took a step towards WFRP3e's way with some abstraction. When combat begins you roll 1d10 + Initiative to find your character's place on the Initiative Ladder. Once it's your character's turn he gets 3 Action Points to spend on actions: attack, movement, stunts, and some other stuff. It's also possible to take reactions outside of one's turn, which cost APs as any other action - so it's a good idea to leave some in case of an incoming attack has to be dodged and parried.

As everything else in ZWEIHÄNDER, most combat actions need skill checks. The book lists 28 actions in a table with their short descriptions, then explains them in length on the following pages. The listed actions cover a lot of ground, and offer plenty of interesting combat options, like inspiring allies, threatening foes, splintering shields, or chokehold. Even if a player comes up with a headache-inducing unique maneuver, you can use the existing ones with ease as the basis to improvise rules.

Once your character lands a blow you have to roll a Fury Dice and add the weapon's Damage. ZWEIHÄNDER abandons the Wounds characteristic of WFRPs in favor of Damage Threshold and damage levels. If the Damage exceeds the Damage Threshold the target moves one step down from Unharmed towards SLAIN! on the six grade Damage Condition Track. High Damage can drop someone several steps lower on the track. If Moderately Wounded status or lower is reached, a number of Chaos Dice have to be rolled - the worse the status, the more. Sixes results in an injury, its severity depending on the current position on the track again. These injuries replace the criticals of the first two editions of WFRP. They have nasty penalties and are difficult to heal. Taking damage without wearing armor will also cause bleeding, so even a crappy armor is far more useful than it seems. Before someone starts worrying about Slayers: they get the Die Hard talent, which makes them immune to bleeding. Bullet dodged!

Unlike WFRP1e and 2e the core rules only allow a single attack per turn, and use a single soak value. Those who prefer the more complex methods from days of yore (which includes the author of this very review) will find optional rules in Game Master's chapter about multiple attacks and hit locations. The injury charts can be found there too.

Overall combat seems to be on the same complexity as WFRP 2e, with a bit more flexibility. There are even actions that can help avoiding the above mentioned loops, at the cost of more APs. I'm only worried about the new damage system a bit. It seems possible that a series of underwhelming damage rolls will be shrugged off by the foe and not hinder him in any way. This can be offset though by outnumbering foes or taking the right talents, so maybe it's not as bad as it seems to me at first glance.

Chapter 9: Hazards & Healing

After grim & perilous adventures don't forget to
wash your hands!
This is the part I usually ignore in rulebooks because it's boring and rarely comes into play. WFRPs are a bit better in this regard, thanks to the juicy diseases and insanities. How does ZWEIHÄNDER perform in this regard? I never imagined I will say this about any RPG ever, but it's one of the best chapters of the book.

Hazards & healing explains how disease, disorder, weather, falling, fire, alcohol, poisons, toxins, deliriants, fatigue, starvation, suffocation, injuries, peril affect the character. And by explain I don't mean giving only dry rules about what to roll. Hell no! For several items you get descriptions and explanations on par with the Trappings chapter. You can read not only about what effect something has on the character, but how can you dampen it, and what do you need to treat it.

It's not only entertaining, but gruesome, or downright ridiculous for some topics - especially diseases! I love them! Whether it is a simple Blood Flux that makes your stool watery and bloody, or a dire Orx-molt that mutates you into an orx, they are exciting ways to tort..., I mean challenge your players. Chemicals are also worth mentioning. There are several types of them and they cover everything you might need from combat drugs to venoms. Even some of the medicaments can have some minor harmful effects, that can lead to addiction on the long.

I have already mentioned Peril before, and the time has come to explain what it means. Peril is what doesn't kill you, but makes you weaker - stress and fatigue. Some effects cause an amount of Peril, which works the same way as Damage: if the Peril rolled is higher than the Peril Threshold the victim falls one or more steps closer from Unhindered to Incapacitated! on the six grade Peril Condition Track. Imperiled characters get a -10% to -30% penalty to their skill rolls, which can be ignored if the player has focus for that area of the skill.

Damage has been covered above, but this time we can also learn about infections, bleeding, and attending to wounds using bandages, surgery, bloodletting, cauterization. These delightfully medieval treatments are just as risky as they sound: a bad Heal Test can worsen the situation, and even cause permanent injury! While these details might feel unfair and unnecessary to some, they can help a lot in making a grim & perilous fantasy campaign more immersive.

The end of the chapter is every alchemist's wet dream: it explains in details how to craft alchemical and medical items, such as gunpowder, smelling salts, even royal water - ingredients included.

I have never seen such flavourful chapter about the topic. What's better, the authors managed to make hazards and healing not only detailed, but interesting. I'm feeling motivated to utilize them against the players more frequently. It wouldn't be me if I didn't have some problems of course. Fall damage seems a bit low, although it has been fixed to ignore armor in an update lately. I don't understand why fire damage is only checked every minute instead of every round. Is it an artifact from early playtests when combat rounds were one minute long? Insanities, mutations, addictions could have been handled here too, but they were moved to the GM's part. Maybe the chapter couldn't handle more awesomeness? Lastly, while we have rules about how much time injuries need to recuperate, there is no natural healing: you need medical care to move up on the Damage Condition Track. Time to house rule!

Chapter 10: Grimoire

Yup, she is definitely casting Candlelight.
The magick of ZWEIHÄNDER adheres to the lore of WFRP to some degree, but with the serial numbers filed off. It is an unpredictable energy flowing from beyond the veil into the mortal realm, where it breaks down into aethyric winds. These currents are only visible to a few. They cover different aspects of magick, and are identified by their colors - and a kaballistic name, because writing magic with "k" wasn't pretentious enough. Manipulating them can alter the reality and its user in all kinds of (often unexpected) ways.

Similar to most fantasy rpgs, there are two traditions: arcane and divine. Both have ten lores that are parallel to those known from WFRP - and just like there, a man can only become competent in one in a lifetime in ZWEIHÄNDER too. Spells are further divided into three principles (petty, lesser, greater), which basically tells you its tier. They must be recorded in arcane tomes and prayer books through an involved learning process that requires a source, experimentation, and the sacrifice of Reward Points. Fortunately you only pay for the spell if you managed to learn it, it would be a shame wasting the delicious RPs and then fail the experiments.

To cast magick a free hand, sight, voice, and reagents are required. The skill check's difficulty and AP costs depend on the spell's principle: the higher the tier, the harder and slower the casting becomes. Some spells even require concentration to remain active, which can be easily disrupted even by a fly landing on the caster's nose. To improve his chances the caster can channel power, at the cost of more AP, a few points of corruption, and rolling Chaos Dice - which may result in Chaos Manifestation or Divine Punishment on sixes. If all goes well the spell is invoked, and the only thing the victims can do about it is trying to resist, or cast a counterspell.

There are 24 generalist petty spells everyone can learn, and 9 spells for every lore (3 per each principle). Most of them will be familiar from WFRP2e, which I appreciate a lot. I liked the spell lists of WFRP2e because even with the specialized nature of lores and the small number of spells in each, they still weren't plain. The same is true about Zweihänder. Pyromancers (your old Bright Wizards) aren't just lobbing fireballs - they can also raise morale, and cauterize wounds. Priests of the Martyr (the equivalent of Shallya) aren't solely focusing on healing - they can also improve resistance, keep abyssal creatures away, and absorb the damage taken by others. The spell descriptions are quite straightforward, but the reagents and critical failures might provide some fun. It's also worth noting that ZWEIHÄNDER follows WFRP2e's tradtion by not overwhelming us with damaging battle magick: most lores have only one or two of them.

After the spells the book delves into other magic-related topics. We can read about wytchstone (aka warpstone), and it's many uses. They are required to create wytchfire, bind talismans, and brew elixirs among other things, but working with them is risky, and even carrying a shard causes corruption. Seven rituals are explained too. Besides the usual tedious ceremonial magick like awakening the dead, summoning demons, and blessing a place it also covers the inscription of magickal runes on items - an all time favorite of mine from Realms of Sorcery.

All in all this section does a good job in revamping WFRP2e's magic system, by taking the mechanics in a slightly new direction, keeping the characteristics that made me fell in love with it, and including as much as possible in the rulebook. Being jam-packed did have its cost though: sadly the ruinous powers didn't get their own lores. Their sorcerers will have to use either the Sorcery lore, or the Chaos lore spell list from the GM's chapter. For more details we will have to wait for the forthcoming Chaos expansion.

Part I: My History With Hammers and Swords
Part II: Beauty is in the Eye of Terror
Part III: Bring Out Your Dead!
Part V coming soon...

A priest of the Demiurge prepares the reagent to cast Fury of the Wildlands.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

[Review] ZWEIHÄNDER Grim and Perilous RPG Part III: Bring Out Your Dead!

The time has come to go through the book, chapter by chapter! Or at least a part of it...

Chapter 1: Introduction

This chapter is preceded by a novella and a designer's note. The introduction itself tells you everything you already know about RPGs and dark fantasy, unless you are a beginner. Not much to see here.

Chapter 2: How to Play
How the playtest of my Fortune/Misfortune
Shots idea will likely end.

After the introduction ZWEIHÄNDER throws you in at the deep end, and starts explaining the core rules. Everyone, including WFRP veterans should read the rules carefully, because there are plenty of changes compared to Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and the wording can be a bit ambiguous here and there. ZWEIHÄNDER uses a percentile skill test for every check, from hitting the broad side of the barn, through casting devastating battle magick on the vile gazebo, to convincing a burgher that buying your delicious meat pies won't give him the bloody flux. To figure out your chances you have to total the required Primary Attribute, the Skill Ranks, the Peril Condition Track penalties, the bonuses from talents and traits, and finally the difficulty rating. If you roll lower or equal than your total chance of success with your d100, you succeed, otherwise you fail. Simple, isn't it?

There are a few cases which will spice this simple and familiar game mechanic up - mostly by using rules borrowed from other games. Rolling a double (eg. 22 or 33) will turn your result into a critical success or failure - just like a 01, and a 00 will. This means the chance of critical success increase as you get better in a skill. I love it. ZWEIHÄNDER introduces a flip mechanic too: sometimes you have to swap your digits and choose the better or worse depending on whether you flip to succeed, or flip to fail. It's simple and elegant. In several occasions you will also have to know your degree of success, which is the value of your tens die added to your Primary Attribute Bonus. In a simple opposed test whoever has the higher degree wins, but there can be also contests where the winner has to reach a certain target number through several skill tests. There are rules for assisted tests, secret tests, extended tests, hasty tests too. These additions might seem a bewildering at first glance, but they are easy to pick up.

The chapter also explains the function of the Fury Dice and the Chaos Dice. The Fury Dice is the damage dice, which is a d6 in ZWEIHÄNDER. Like in previous incarnations of WFRP it explodes: when you roll a six on it you roll another dice, which can also explode. I have fond memories of ridiculous lucky streaks from my earlier WFRP2e campaigns, which usually ended in one shotting bosses. The Chaos Dice is another d6, where rolling sixes means something bad. They are primarily used in combat to see if someone gets an injury, and in spellcasting to see if any Chaos Manifestation is invoked. The more dangerous the situation, the more Chaos Dice you have to roll.

The chapter ends with the Fortune and Misfortune Pool mechanics. The party gets one Fortune Point in the Fortune Pool at the beginning of the session, plus one for every player present. During the session the players may expend these to reroll skill tests, gain another Action Point in combat, or turn a Chaos/Fury Dice to six. The spent Fortune Points then turns into a Misfortune Points which the GM can use to mess with players. The author recommends using tokens for tracking Fortune and Misfortune Points, but I want to give it a shot with shots.

Chapter 3: Character Creation

All your garden are belong to us!
Time to move on to character creation and its miscellanea! Like all editions of WFRP following the first, ZWEIHÄNDER changes the Primary Attributes once again. Weapon Skill and Ballistic Skill were merged, just like Strength and Toughness, and Perception from the WH40K RPGs is added, so we end up with seven characteristics: Combat, Brawn, Agility, Perception, Intelligence, Willpower, Fellowship. The Primary Attributes are percentile values, but they also have Primary Attribute Bonuses, which are the tens of your Primary Attributes. They are used to calculate Secondary Attributes like Damage Threshold, Peril Threshold, Initiative, Encumbrance, and so on. The weirdest twist is probably the permanent nature of your Primary Attribute scores: you can't change them any longer through advancement. Instead, you will increase your Secondary Attribute values by improving the Primary Attribute Bonuses, and your chance of success by buying Skill Ranks. I don't really see the point behind this change, it will only confuse those used to earlier editions. Also, having a value ending with 9 sucks even more from now on.

After writing down your starting tier you have to roll 25+3d10 to get your Primary Attribute values. Just like in WFRP2e, you can ask for Mercy and change one shitty value into mediocre. While the starting values are higher than in WFRP2e, due to the way Primary Attributes and Skill Ranks work the top values are more limited. I find both of these welcome changes.

The next step is choosing your sex and race. The available races are Human, Dwarf, Elf, Gnome, Halfling, Ogre. Yes, ZWEIHÄNDER resurrects the forgotten Gnomes, and includes the fan-favorite Ogres. Your race gives you some bonuses and penalties to Primary Attribute Bonuses, and a random Racial Trait. There are twelve traits for each race, so even if you have two Elves in the party it's highly unlikely they will be similar. The large list is also good for those who like customizing their campaigns. The typical racial features from are already there, so you will only have to cross out those you won't allow, and what you miss in the rare case it's not on the list. You might also want to customize the random race table, because it offers an equal chance to all races, despite the author's rant about humanocentric grimdark worlds.

Probably the most important step of character creation is choosing Archetype and Profession. These are the classes and careers of old. Archetype will define your starting equipment and what Professions are available, while professions will determine your characters available Advances. The character also gets an iconic trapping based on profession, but it's the GM's decision what it will be. The six Archetypes are Academic, Commoner, Knave, Ranger, Socialite, Warrior. Each one of them offers 12 different professions. There are no overlaps between them, and there are no racial limitations either - it's up to the GM whether he wants to disallow elven clerics, gnomish knights, and ogre wizards in his campaign. I'm against such limits. Just as WFRP was brave enough to go against the stereotypes of high fantasy, so am I not afraid to go against the stereotypes of ye Olde Worlde.

The rest of the character creation is all about fleshing out your character. There is a section for every minor detail you can imagine, from dooming, through upbringing, to social class. Needless to say, all of them has its own charts, which I totally love. Some of these details even give you small bonuses: your body size can influence how much clothing costs for you, your upbringing can change the cost of some skill focuses, and your social class tells you how much money you will start with.

Fate Points are mentioned here first, which are exactly the same as in the first two editions of WFRP: they can be burned to avoid death. All player characters start with one, but can earn another by taking a Drawback like Cursed, Eunuch, or Nemesis. Unlike distinguishing marks, drawbacks are nothing to joke with, some of them can downright cripple the character - like Veteran's Leg did our ogre hedgewise, who has a total of 1 Movement when unencumbered.

Alignment and Corruption take a huge chunk out of character creation, which I have a mixed feeling about. Each player character has a tracker with two sides: Chaos and Order. As the PC experiences trauma, sees weird crap, and does fucked up things, he earns Corruption Points. At 10 points the PC moves one step towards Chaos. If there are CPs at the end of session, the player rolls a d10. If it's equal or less as the current CPs, the PC moves one step towards Chaos, otherwise he moves one step towards Order. The number of CPs is reset with each session. Reaching 10 ranks in Order earns a Fate Point for the PC, while reaching 10 ranks in Chaos earns a disorder - addiction, insanity, or mutation. That's a damn fine system. My problem is with the 25 Chaos - Order alignment pairs bolted on top of it, which the game tries to put a bigger emphasis on than it deserves.

I'm not fond of alignment systems based on personality and behavior. I don't find them helpful. Quite the opposite: they shoehorn characters into stereotypes, induce players in to acting accordingly, and ask the GM to make judgement about reward and punishment based on it - which is a huge headache for a GM like me, who prefers taking a neutral stance. Even having 9 alignments can lead to endless arguments, so no wonder I find 25 an overkill. I appreciated how WFRP2e threw away alignments. I will do the same again, and let the player come up with something more on his own without being confined by two words. Besides finding alignment unnecessary, I also believe most of it should have been moved to the GM's section instead.

Once finished with the background the new characters get 1000 RPs they can spend on advances.

Chapter 4: Professions

I have come here to chew bubblegum
and burn heretics... And I'm all out of bubblegum.
ZWEIHÄNDER breaks character advancement into three tiers: Basic, Intermediate, Advanced. Tiers specify your highest Skill Ranks (Apprentice, Journeyman, Master) and how much buying an Advance costs (100, 200, 300 RP). Normally characters begin in Basic tier, but there are guides for generating higher tier characters. Since you have to buy all of your current Profession's Advances to move into another tier, and you can only take on a new Profession when you change tiers, moving between Professions is more rigid than in WFRP.

The list of Professions is impressive. There are 72 basic Professions and 46 Expert Professions that have special requirements for entry. All the old favorites are here, even if some of them was renamed. Each profession offers 10 Skill Ranks, 7 Bonus Advances, 3 Talents, and a few unique Traits and Drawbacks. Besides these mandatory Advances that are required to finish the tier the GM can allow Unique Advances, like Skill Focuses, or Talents and Skills not on the profession's list. Combined with the lack of strict career entries and exits in ZWEIHÄNDER, the number possible combinations are incredibly varied.

I do have two small gripes. First, the number of Expert Professions is a bit less impressive than it seems, for the different wizardly orders and religions are handled as separate Professions. I would have been happier if there were more martial, social, and roguish expert Professions - their second and third tier options are lacking. Second, there are Professions that can only be taken in Advanced Tier. Unfortunately they are listed among the Expert Professions without any differentiation or highlighting. It would have been useful if they got their own section.

Chapter 5: Skills

There are 36 Skills, which cover everything an adventurer might need in a grim & perilous world. As mentioned earlier, everything is a Skill in ZWEIHÄNDER, including fighting, magic, resistances. Even Attribute tests are Skills Tests: each Attribute has a Skill of its own that covers its use for general tasks, and can be improved.

Each Skill has a Primary Attribute it is based on, but the GM might overrule this if he sees fit. The character's expertise in a Skill is measured in Skill Ranks. Up to three Skill Ranks can be taken in a Skill (Apprentice, Journeyman, Master), each one of them adding a cumulative +10 bonus to the Skill Test. The skills are divided into Common and Special categories. Both can be used by anyone, but in case of Special skills if you lack Skill Ranks you have to flip your roll to fail.

Each Skill has several Skill Focuses listed, although these are just examples, and the GM is free to come up with focuses of his own. Focuses are special fields within a skill. The character can take as many of them as his Intelligence Bonus. Each Skill Focus costs 100 RP, or half as much if it's related to your upbringing. Focuses don't give any kind of bonus to your Skill Test, but they allow you to ignore the Peril Condition Track penalty for the relevant test.

Chapter 6: Talents

There are 72 talents. They are innate abilities that add some kind of bonus to the actions the PC takes. They offer new abilities, resistances, situational bonuses, and so on. Hard to tell more about them, they are each unique and I don't intend to analyze all of them.

Chapter 7: Trappings

It seems Daniel knew about my fetish.
Trappings is a well written and an exhaustive chapter. You can find here everything you want about equipment. There are rules for haggling, selling scavenged stuff, and crafting items. There are prices for... everything? I can't name a single thing that you might need during a campaign, and isn't here. Even the cost of services, the wages of common folk, and property prices are there. Heck, there is a box about skinning creatures and using their hides! It's such a common issue, it boggles my mind why most rpgs ignore to treat it. Of course the most often referenced sections will be weapons and armor.

Instead of generic weapon categories with generic names ZWEIHÄNDER's arsenal has generic weapon categories with specific names. Seeing names like estoc, stiletto, mortuary sword was surprisingly refreshing. By default each weapon other than siege equipment does the same damage (Fury Dice + Combat Bonus), and are distinguished by their qualities. While the qualities do make a huge difference, some people might find this unsatisfactory. They don't need to worry: the GM's chapter has optional rules for varied weapon damage.

Armors also have a list with actual historical names. Armor increases overall Damage Threshold by default, but those who like piecemeal armor will find optional rules for that, and hit locations too in the GM's chapter. It's nice to see that ZWEIHÄNDER has something to offer for fans of both simplicity, and complexity.

Talking about simplicity, ZWEIHÄNDER‘s encumbrance system is refreshengly lightweight. It only cares about weapons, armor, the rest is up to common sense. Every character has an Encumbrance Limit. For every point the carried encumbrance exceeds the Encumbrance Limit the character gets a point of penalty to Initiative and Movement. Plain and simple.

Monday, 26 June 2017

[Review] ZWEIHÄNDER Grim and Perilous RPG Part II: Beauty is in the Eye of Terror

"I will build a great, great wall on our
 northern border, and I will make Chaos
pay for that wall!"
In the first part of the series I revealed my secret history with WFRP and ZWEIHÄNDER. This time the actual review begins. I'm going to look into the characteristics which define the first impressions about a book for most of us: art, layout, writing.

As years and editions went by Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay's setting, mood, and art direction changed dramatically. First edition's realistic low fantasy visuals mixed with drug-fueled heavy metal boschian nightmares were slowly left behind in favor of more colorful and epic style. While I prefer WFRP1e's art, I can't call any of them inherently bad, because each edition of WFRP looked stunning, and introduced exceptionally talented artists - John Blanche, Ian Miller, Tony Ackland, Geoff Taylor, Ralph Horsley, Adrian Smith, Daarken, et al. With such impressive hall of fame it's hard to please WFRP fans visually, and impossible to please all of them.

ZWEIHÄNDER's Kickstarter offered two covers to backers: Jussi Alarauhio's default cover, and Dejan Mandic exclusive cover. Chosing between the two was no easy task. Jussi's astonishingly detailed version breaks the tradition of WFRP covers, and instead of adventurers fighting monsters it shows a company of grim figures standing in front of a razed settlement. Dejan's version is more fantastic and traditional, with a group of ne'er-do-wells facing vile ratmen in the sewers. Our heroes are quite unlikely though: the elf slayer, the ogre wizard, and the dwarf surgeon pretty much go against the familiar Warhammer stereotypes. I love both covers, but in the end I chose the latter, for reasons I will explain later.

The black & white interior is all Dejan's work, who had to create a shitload of illustrations for the book. His art evokes the feel of WFRP1e, especially Tony Ackland's work: his people are mundane and believable figures, which stands in stark contrast to his often grotesque and unreal monsters. His work is full of pop culture references, easter eggs, and visual jokes - something that was core to WFRP1e, but was forgotten in later editions. I'm not sure if it's the result of following orders or artistic freedom, but he also massacred some sacred cows and added a few unique twists to some monsters - like turning fimirs into crustacean fomorians, making the horrors look like weird many-eyed insects. He wasn't afraid to draw some naughty bits either, but the most outrageous of those pictures were removed a few release candidates ago. He could practice animals a bit more, but let that be my biggest issue with his art. He did a damn fine job both in quantity and quality.

Dejan is the best at drawing Tickle Monsters.
Having said that, I do have two small gripes with his art direction. First, the above mentioned contrast between people and monsters could have been even more evident if there were more illustrations about these two worlds colliding. Alas there are only a few of them, one being Dejan's exclusive cover. Second, because of using a single artist the art style is very homogenous. I would have been happier if there were more illustrators with different approaches to the "grim & perilous" theme.

The layout was inspired by WFRP2e's. It improved a lot since the early versions, but it's still not as aesthetically pleasing as its predecessor. There are still orphan and widow lines, it's still not obvious at first glance in several places which paragraphs belong together thanks to the inconsistent use of whitespaces, and it still bothers me that the professions didn't get a half or full page of their own. The reasons for these are rather trivial: the layout fell victim to the intended size of the book.

There is a massive amount of content within the book, which combined with the wordiness of the author resulted in an almost 700 pages long monstrosity (with art, of course). I won't complain about the size, that would be hypocrisy from someone who runs a D&D campaign using a bunch of Wilderlands of High Fantasy supplements, and plans to dust off HackMaster in the near future. Nevertheless, I do believe there is a lot of redundant, even repeated text in the book that should have been thrown out. Another round with a fiercer editor would have helped a lot in making the book even more readable and easier to lay out.

Despite the above I enjoyed reading the book, mostly because the author didn't aim for a dry and neutral voice like most RPGs nowadays. Daniel has an amusingly pretentious style, and he isn't afraid to spice things up with humor and pop culture references. While he isn't as outrageous as Gygax, Kenzer, or Raggi, he is still an opinionated fellow, which you will either like or hate.

Fun fact: the phrase "grim & perilous" appears 102 times in the rulebook.

Part I: My History With Hammers and Swords
Part III: Bring Out Your Dead!
Part IV: Battle Metal

Furry initiation rite in progress.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

[Review] ZWEIHÄNDER Grim and Perilous RPG Part I: My History With Hammers and Swords

What WFRP1e grognards will probably do to me
after reading the end of the first paragraph.
I have a confession to make. Some of you will find it shocking, even heresy. I am a huge fan of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, but I haven’t played or run the game for several years now. On top of that, I have never run The Enemy Within campaign.

I was thirteen when I read a review of the 1st edition in a torn RPG magazine from the late nineties. I fell in love with the game immediately: the heavy metal art, the mechanics, the setting, the dark humor all rang the right bells to me. However I soon had to realize that this love was just as platonic as one felt towards a cover girl. Being a dirt poor teenager in Hungary meant my only option was to visit the nearest RPG shop, where the owner bluntly told me he is unable to order the rulebook. Of course that was bullshit, he was simply unwilling to help if you wanted anything that wasn't on the shelves. I still don't understand why was it worth him to chase customers away.

My longing remained unsatisfied until the fateful day when Black Industries announced the 2nd edition. With hard work (which for a student meant eating and drinking less) I saved up enough cash to buy the core rulebook. It was a glorious full color book with an amazing smell it managed to keep even after ten years. I liked everything about it at that time. I spent my summer reading the book, running my first few playtest sessions, and devouring William King's Trollslayer, which was coincidentally released in Hungary around the same time. When I returned from vacation the best two years of high school began. We played WFRP almost every other day in the student hostel. We haven’t been so hooked on any rpg before. By the time I graduated I ran so many WFRP sessions I was burned out, and have given up on running RPGs for two years.

After I was recovered I started expanding my Warhammer library slowly again with the WFRP1e and WFRP2e books I couldn't afford earlier. I was initially enthusiastic about WFRP3e too, but as the final product began to take shape I found myself alienated from the game. I had several memorable one shots in the last five years with the first two editions, but the memory of my burnout, the lack of free time, and the shortage of grand ideas kept me from starting a new campaign up until a year ago. And just when I told my group that I'm planning to revisit the Old World, some punk announced the release of his WFRP clone...

ZWEIHÄNDER began its life on the Strike-to-Stun forums as Corehammer, a collection of WFRP rules by Daniel Fox, but over time it grew and mutated into a game of its own. I was familiar with the early previews and playtest docs, but after getting tired of the OSR and all the D&D clones I didn't have much faith in the game and forgot about it until the Kickstarter campaign was announced. I was impressed by how far they got, and since the game seemed to be what I was looking for I coughed up some money to support them.

That was almost a year ago. As expected, there were hiccups, some plans didn't work out as intended, and the print version was delayed several times. I'm not mad at them though, for two reasons. First, Daniel did an exemplary job in keeping us informed about the status quo - which is something even "professionals" often fail to achieve. Second, they have already delivered the complete digital edition. Thus I decided not to wait for the printers, and start writing my review, where you will learn whether Zweihänder is a good successor for WFRP or not, and why you should care about it in the looming shadow of Cubicle 7’s forthcoming Warhammer RPGs,

Part II: Beauty is in the Eye of Terror
Part III: Bring Out Your Dead!
Part IV: Battle Metal

Meanwhile in the shiny splendor of  the Old World's far future, there is only war. If this is what you want, then ZWEIHÄNDER isn't the game you are looking for.

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Zweihänder Character Sheets

A WFRP which isn't WFRP?
Must be Malal's work!
Last week saw the arrival of the illustrated rulebook for Zweihänder, which I have already talked about when its KickStarter campaign launched. It might be six months late, but it's finally here, sitting on my hardrive in all its grim and perilous glory. I haven't been this excited for an rpg for years! I love Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. I love the Old World. A game that modernizes the system and captures the mood of the original setting sounded like a dream come true. Can a small team accomplish that? Was it worth waiting for Zweihänder? Will it become my go-to rpg for grimdark adventures?

I will answer the above questions in a review. I did waste four afternoons to create a character sheet for the game though, which probably tells something. I tried to combine my favorite elements from all the WFRP character sheets I like, while also trying to make the sheet as cartridge-friendly as possible. I hope you will find it useful! Form-fillable version is coming soon.

A4 landscape character sheet for Zweihänder
A4 landscape form fillable character sheet for Zweihänder

Update #1: Rumor and Warfare skills have been added, and Movement's calculation is now AB+3 as it should be. The former means less space for skill focuses.

Update #2: The bottom line of the Grimoire was longer than should be, it has been shortened. Form fillable version has been uploaded.

Update #3: Links removed from form fillable pdf.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Review: DCC #89: Chaos Rising

Every now and then a perplexed newbie appears on the DCC boards looking for guidance on the official adventures. Their confusion is unsurprising: not only the early DCC adventures were written for several game systems, but there are modules with fractional numbering, and unnumbered adventures hidden within other products. These are usually short sidequests, limited runs, or conversions of older D&D modules. Chaos Rising is a compilation of seven such adventures.

The booklet is 56 pages long and follows the iconic format of the current DCC line: eye-catching cardboard cover, sweet black and white interior, meticulously decorated maps, clear layout. I fell in love with their format the first time I got Doom of the Savage Kings in my hands, and consider it a gold standard for modules ever since. Inspired by Melan's post I checked if playtesters are credited, and I was glad to see that except for the last adventure they weren't forgotten.

The seven adventures within the booklet cover levels 1 to 5. They are all independent one shots that can be easily inserted into any campaign. Surprisingly there is no character funnel, and no level 4 adventure either. Let's see what else the book has to offer!

Elzemon and the Blood-Drinking Box

A level 1 adventure by Terry Olson, from the DCC RPG/Xcrawl Free RPG Day 2014 release. Elzemon the Quasit is bound by the wizard Nekros to guard and feed the titular box. He finds a hole in his contract, and convinces the wizard Rhalabhast that he really wants that box, so he should hire a bunch of ne'er-do-wells to steal it. If they fail, the demon had some entertainment. If they succeed, the demon will be free. It's a win-win situation for Elzemon - but not for the PCs. Obtaining the relic is no cakewalk: climb down the spiraling stairs for two days, get through an acid lake, find the entrance into the secret study under a pile of guano, then return to the surface with the box, which requires a healthy dose of lawful blood every day to keep its mysterious prisoner from escaping. In the meantime the group will be harassed by the sadistic quasit, colossal leeches, mongrel bats, and hairless vomiting cats that barf in the PC's mouth on a critical. Wicked! Then when the PCs think they can finally rest another NPC looking for the box is thrown in, and the players will have to decide whom they will piss off: a powerful wizard, or a whole church. It's a linear adventure, but it's full of delightfully fucked up ideas, and provides an ending ideal to become the starting point of a campaign.

The Imperishable Sorceress

A level 1 adventure by Daniel J. Bishop, from the DCC RPG/Xcrawl Free RPG Day 2013 release. Before the age of dinosaurs sentient sea scorpions called the Builders crafted imperishable bodies, but got trapped in them. Eons later Ivrian the sorceress found their secret, and tried to create an eternally youthful body for herself. She didn't succeed though, but managed to awaken the Builders, get killed, and become a ghost. Eventually her spirit managed to reach out to a blood realtive - one of the PCs, who is suddenly teleported along with his comrades to the cold mountains. After climbing the mountain and fighting savages the PCs can reach the old city, where Ivrian's ghost will ask them to finish the procedure she started. This will require the star stone held by a demon, who wants to be killed by the sword Nightraker, so he can leave this godforsaken place behind. Naturally the Builders are still alive, and will send ectoplasmic filaments to stop the intruders. The rooms also hold natural gas traps, poison gas traps, and invincible ghost fishes. Despite its small size The Imperishable Sorceress offers a few loops, branches, and multiple endings. If the sorceress gets her body and Nightraker back she will turn against the PCs. It's also possible her relative realizes the true power of the star stone and usurps the imperishable body from of the sorceress. Of course the Builders can circumvent both plans. Once done or in need of escape, the players can do it through a tunneling metal mole, or a portal at the peak, where a stone circle has the exact ritual of creating imperishable bodies written on it. This adventure is a real can of worms that deserves to be opened.

Glipkerio's Gambit

A level 2 adventure by Jobe Bittman, originally released as DCC #80.5. The party's wizard is visited by his patron(s) personally (The Three Fates as written, but can be easily changed to anyone else), who ask(s) him to clear out a temple invaded by the time traveling wizard Glipkerio, and his army of younger selves. As help the wizard is given a thread which makes him invisible to the forces of chaos, until the number 7 appears. The adventurers will have to ascend the mountain, where they will meet a cat-headed corrupt giant, wounded monks, stealing devilkin, hairy apes, and some evocative random encounters. After figuring out a puzzle the PCs will reach the temple grounds, which offer some more combat and exploration before the epic confrontation with all the Glipkerios hanging around. Some of them will travel back in time in the midst of the battle, and return later in a shape depending on what the PCs did to the wounded monks they've met during their ascent. At the end the elder Glipkerio turns into a cat-headed mutant giant, and travels to the past to stop the party. Glipkerio's Gambit is a fun and eventful one shot, albeit mighty linear. The premise is cool, the battles are interesting, the loot is good, and it has a simple, yet effective twist.

The Tower Out of Time

A level 2 adventure by Michael Curtis, originally released as DCC #77.5.  I have already bought this adventure last year on DriveThruRPG, and ran it in my D&D5e Wilderlands campaign. It's a trip to a primordial swamp, where the serpent-man wizard H'lisk sends a read beam from his tower to the sky. The beam is a homing beacon for the meteor that his master S'lissak used to travel the void. While it's incredibly linear, the scenery and the encounters are memorable - even disturbing, according to some of my players. The tower itself is an organic scaly structure, which holds spitting dinosaurs, antehumans controlled by cerebral leeches, prisons full of cavemen and rodents, giant trilobites, and the grotesque blood fueled flowerlike device which generates the red beam. There is a dangerous trap too, a simple puzzle, decent treasure, so all in all it's a well rounded little adventure with varied challenges. I'm a bit disappointed though, because the editor cut the patron Serbok out, who was included in the original release. It's a shame. If there is one thing DCC RPG needs it's more patrons.

The Jeweler That Dealt In Stardust

A level 3 adventure by Harley Stroh, from the Goodman Games Gen Con 2013 Program Book. It is a heist in the house of the fence Boss Ogo, who hasn't been seen since last month. Ogo isn't dead though: he got his hands on a gem that drove him crazy and turned him into a follower of Ygiiz, the Spider-Mother. He spent most of his time and money on his studies and managed to open a portal, thus drawing the minions of Ygiiz into our realm. The party is about to raid the place, knowing nothing about what's going on between its walls. They have plenty of room for planning, there are several ways to enter the house. Once they are inside they will face devious traps, fake traps, millions of harmless spiders, and a handful of demon spiders that have a devastating three step killer attack. Meanwhile Ogo is sitting in his room connected to the mystic gem, which keeps him alive, and makes him able to summon more demon spiders. There is a rival band too, waiting on the nearby rooftops for the PCs to exit the building with their loot. Besides the gem that drove Ogo crazy (if it survives the confrontation at all), and his remaining money, the adventurers can recover some stardust. Pressed into the skin the less fortunate take damage, while the others earn some luck at the cost of being constantly watched by the Spider-Mother. The stardust can be also fused into a larger crystal focus. Cool stuff! This adventure screams Lankhmar in every possible way, which is the highest praise a heist adventure can get.

The Undulating Corruption

A level 5 adventure by Michael Curtis, also from the Goodman Games Gen Con 2013 Program Book. This is a wilderness adventure, with a map divided into squares of 15 minutes of riding. Once upon a time cultists managed to summon the Night Worm, an extraplanar beast that eats corruption. From then on they could experiment with black magic as much as they wanted without becoming freaks. One day a lawful order defeated the cult, but kept the worm alive for they thought it could be used for the lawful cause. In the end the order was destroyed by infighting for control over the worm, and the monster was left hungering under the shrine. The hook is very straightforward: someone from the party wants to get rid of his corruption and hears a rumor about the Night Worm. By the time party reaches the shrine a group of treasure hunters have accidentally released the giant worm, which is heading towards the nearest town, warping everything in its way. Following its trail the PCs can encounter ten foot long mutant catfishes, and an exhausted anchorite, and that's all... The adventure focuses heavily on the battle with the monster, with special emphasis on being devoured by the creature. The survivors earn no (or minimal) loot for their deed, but the memorable fight and the one time opportunity to cleanse someone is totally worth it. Curtis also deserves a huge pat on the back for including simple advice on handling haste and fly spells instead of saying "they don't work".

The Infernal Crucible of Sezrekan the Mad 

A level 5 adventure by Harley Stroh, which was an example adventure in the first three printings of the DCC RPG rulebook. It was replaced by The Abbot of the Woods in the fourth printing, which I don't mind at all. Crucible promises to be an example of how high level a DCC RPG adventures should look like, but fails in this regard. The PCs are trapped in a three room laboratory that is built around a gimmick: one living creature must remain there. They will meet Elzemon the Quasit (a familiar face), some magical environmental effects, spell book eating glyph worms, mildly interesting loot, and an ape with a human brain. Not only there isn't much to do, but the adventure is also too wordy for what it offers. Surprisingly for a Stroh adventure this one is forgettable. Level 5 characters deserve something more epic than this.

In spite of my above complaints I like Chaos Rising a lot. It's jam-packed with intriguing adventures that require only minimal preparation, and don't take more than a session to finish. It's perfect for those times when the Judge is burned out, or only has free time while taking a dump. I hope Goodman Games will release another collection like this in the future - one hopefully less obsessed with wizards and climbing.

Tl;dr: While not without its fault, Chaos Rising is a juicy collection of short adventures that you won't regret buying.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Status Report

Last Friday we finished the first session of my new gonzo science-fantasy DCC RPG campaign, Terminus Nova. We had an epic character funnel, one I will probably write more about in the future - after I'm done running it one more time on a small rpg convention in Budapest. Preparing for the campaign was also a good excuse to dust off one of my all-time favorite classics, the Arduin Grimoire Trilogy. Be prepared for a lengthy review!

Since some of my players have the handwriting of an epilectic doctor, I have created a form fillable version of my DCC RPG character sheet. I didn't put much effort into it because working with the form fields was a pain in the ass, but it gets the job done.