Zweihänder Read Through – Introduction and How To Play

This is the first in a short series of articles on Zweihänder. If you missed the introductory post you can find it here

NOTE: I find that when I start out on these sorts of read throughs I can quite negative. I have preconceptions of how I think things should be and then when I don’t find it it is discomforting. Then as I get through the book and I see how things all hang together and I am more familiar I get more comfortable and consequently more positive. Just bear that in mind if this comes off as a bit negative.

So, a little background… When I was at school the role players in my year fell into two distinct camps. I was in the DnD camp and we played a wide range of games from DnD to Boothill to Bushido, Runequest and Call of Cthulhu, Champions to Rolemaster and in pretty much that order. The other group played Warhammer. I have no idea what happened to them as there was virtually no crossover between the social circles. I don’t know why.

Today I want to look at the Introduction and How to Play chapters. The books proper starts with a monologue from a character called Danziger Eckhardt, who tries to set the scene and this does a fair job of holding up the Grim and Perilous motif.

I have intentionally referred to Zweihänder as Rules Dense rather than rules heavy. The reason for my distinction comes from my first impression of the game. The Table of Contents is five pages long. That isn’t actually true, it is six pages long if you include the abridged version. In the contents you will find two, three and sometimes four entries for every page. The entries are vertiably packed in.

ZWEIHÄNDER is built with modularity baked into the
rules and able to be modified without upsetting the inherent
balance of the system.

as Rules Dense rather than rules heavy. The reason for my distinction comes from my first impression of the game. The Table of Contents is five pages long. That isn’t actually true, it is six pages long if you include the abridged version. In the contents you will find two, three and sometimes four entries for every page. The entries are vertiably packed in.

Now the book really starts. There is a personal bugbear of mine that crops up at the start of many RPG manuals. I have strong opinions on this and it just so happens that Zweihänder is the first game I have written about since I have been looking at since I have tried to address the issue myself. The bugbear is How to Roleplay.

Some games are not intended to be beginner games. If you are not a beginner game then you don’t really need a primer on how to role play and what an RPG is. If on the other hand you are pitching your game at entirely new role players then you do need a decent tutorial section to help people get into and fall in love with our hobby.

I am just going to refer to Zweihänder as Z from now on as I am going to use the games name so often that typing that umlaut on the a is just a pain in the arse.

Z does the usual thing of a couple of paragraphs on what is a GM, what is a Player and what is an RPG. What this tells me is that Z is a cannibal game. It is not really committed to bringing in new players into the hobby but is going to get its audience from existing gamers, most probably the existing Warhammer world.

This is not a criticism of Z specifically, I recently realised this about so many games and how it can be addressed and how incredibly hard work it is to do right. You cannot blame people for not seeing something you have seen.

The opening texts are topped off with some GM advice about keeping play moving and about creating house rules. This is the exact text that completes the section on house rules.

ZWEIHÄNDER is built with modularity baked into the rules and able to be modified without upsetting the inherent balance of the system.

This is of note, as one of the common refrains from the RM community is that RM is modular and one can swap in any of the hundreds of optional rules or alternative methods and the game doesn’t break. I read this as another shot across Rolemaster’s bows.

The real conclusion of this opening chapter is about setting or lack thereof. In my circles the lack of an official setting is seen as a weakness but Z dodges that bullet. The thing is that Z is a retroclone of Warhammer FRP and as such all the previous settings are perfectly in tune. The germanic flavour of Zweihänder is obvious in its very name but look at the names of previous warhammer settings Stromdorf, from The Gathering Storm; Reikland; Marienburg and Middenheim. Z appears to have perfectly aligned itself with the previous Warhammer settings. It will be interesting to see later if the bestiary reflects the denizens of these previous settings. If they do then Z is not without a setting at all, it just doesn’t own the rights to its setting.

Chapter 2 is much more interesting.

How to play Zweihänder

Chapter two is a compact eight pages, less if you strip out the art, that cover how skills tests are made, difficulty factors, types of skill test (unopposed, opposed, secret) and fate points (good and bad). It comes at you thick and fast. At first glance it looks like Z is a d100 roll under system until you get to the opposed tests when suddenly it becomes obvious that it is a blackjack system.

So most of the time you have to roll under your skill on a D100. Skill values seem to be around the 50 to 70 mark so a Z character seems to be about the competency of a 4th to 7th level RM character. If you just added the skill to the d100 then you can use Z characters in RM easily enough or roll under your RM skills to use your favourite RM character in a Z adventure. I will return to this later in a different post to see if I can refine these rules.

So at this point it looks like a basic roll under system. With opposed tests we get a mechanic called Degrees of Success and Degrees of Failure.

You calculate Degrees Of Success by adding together the tens die (a result between 1 to 10) and the relevant Primary Attribute Bonus the Skill is derived from. For example, if your Character has a Primary Attribute of 45%, your Primary Attribute Bonus is ‘4’. Whoever succeeds at their Skill Test and has the highest Degrees Of Success automatically wins the Opposed Test.

So basically you want to roll as high as possible but still under your skill total, with the exception of rolling a 01-09 as the 0 on the tens die counts as 10 not zero. So now we have a blackjack system. The net effect is that being highly but rolling badly is still better than being unskilled but rolling like a demon, most of the time.

I think the degrees of success mechanic shows how Z has evolved from house rules. I could be wrong, maybe there is a continuing theme of blackjack style rolls and checks but in this how to play chapter it sticks out like an oddity.

Fate points or to use the Z parlance pool of fortune are an intrinsic part of Z. This is no reflection on Z but I don’t like having a central physical ‘thing’ that the players have to handle. In Z you put one token into a bowl for ever player and one additional token. When players want to play a fate point then they take a token out of the bowl. In RM of course Fate points are personal to the character and are rare and precious and it seems mainly used to keep them alive when a fatal critical comes up. In Z you refresh the bowl every start of session.

Every fortune point played then goes into the GMs pool to be used to make the characters lives miserable. I am a fan of fate points as I would rather have structured and above board cheating than under the counter cheating. Even as GM I think having fate points or fortune points is better than fudging dice rolls.

Grimly Funny

On the surface Z tries to portray itself as a challenging and gritty rpg. The name suggests, at least to me, a high fatality rate amongst PCs. The opening story is bleak an uninspiring but then the actual examples of skill use are at odds with the feel of the rest of what has gone before. The general feel of them is more positive from seducing ladies in waiting to letting the player make multiple attempts to pick a magistrates pocket.

Maybe ‘funny’ is too strong a word, but still the examples are much more positive than the surrounding narrative texts. I will be interesting to see how the feel of the game proceeds.

Next time I am going to create a character using the random method described in the rules. I have already taken a bit of a sneak peek and the stat generation certainly raised an eyebrow!

Cliche Adventure Ideas?

First off, Happy New Year to the “staff” and readers of! I’ve been working on a few different blog topics and I have to keep re-adjusting whenever a new post or comment is put up.

I had a few thoughts on the starting adventures, caravan guards and Peter’s prison he just blogged about. I’m generally driven by up-ending common tropes to surprise my players and keep things fresh for people that have been gaming for decades. So a few random streams of consciousness:

Starting Level. I’ve always liked the early levels of RM; the players have to face real challenges both in terms of resources and abilities, and the grittiness of the system lends itself to low fantasy style gaming. However, we have been having a blast with our high level adventure series–my players get to use high level spells and we can ignore most of the low level book-keeping around food, money or equipment. It feels more like a Super Hero adventure within Shadow World. At this point we’ve walked away from a long term SW campaign and the group has fully embraced the a la carte adventure experience I’m providing: test Priest King adventures, play a high level tourney series, do a quick all cleric adventure etc. While we lose a fulfilling plot continuity and investment into a PC, the players get to enjoy a wider range of setting material, a more diverse experience with character types and offer better feedback once disassociated from any emotional investment in their PC.

Caravans. The whole starting adventure to Priest-King (page 79-81) was predicated on the players being caravan guards. As a plot intro to a regional setting the caravan device worked quite well. First, I’m not a fan of the Gygaxian/adventurer as a profession world. Players need an occupation and the Forgotten Realms concept of chartered adventure groups is a little to “on the nose” for me. (however, I need utilize the concept of salvage/adventure charters later in Priest-King). Having the players become guards is a plausible use of low level characters to expose them to challenges and pay their way in the world. Second, a caravan gives the group a bubble of security–the GM can use NPC’s to aid, direct and protect the PC’s while they are learning their way. Thirdly, the traverse itself provides an opportunity for world-building through NPC exposition and the geographical travelogue. In PK, the first adventure requires the players to travel over 800 miles with numerous encounters and intra party politics. It takes about one month orhan (50 days) and was a great primer for the group. I think it took 9 game sessions and by the time they reached the city of Shade they had leveled up, learned quite a bit about the area cultures and were also quite unprepared for what the saw at the end of the journey!

Prison. The second to last adventure in our 50 in 50 is the Lair of Ozymandius. I blogged about it a year or two ago and now it will be published on RPGNow as part of the RMBlog series. It’s quite a bit more involved than the 1 page adventure seeds we’ve been putting out over the last year. I also like the idea of starting low level players in unfamiliar or uncontrollable environments: prisons, on the run, slaves etc. In Lair of Ozy, not only do they start as prisoners, but they also have no memory of who they are or what their skills are!

In summary, while I tend to avoid overt fantasy tropes, there is an opportunity to put a unique spin on these set-ups. If you are not intending to run a campaign from the outset, these might be the best adventure frames for starting adventures and as an introduction to RMU or the RM ruleset as a whole. Especially with pre-gen characters designed to meet the specific challenges of the adventure.

Plan for a campaign, but design like a tourney module!