Zweihänder Read Through – Hazards and the Grimoire


This is a very impressive part of Zweihander. What the writers have done is define eight rather atmosphere, and I would say setting specific, diseases and afflictions. Each has a difficulty factor to resist infection, a description of the symptoms and of the treatment.

That bit isn’t particularly outstanding, but it is cool in its own way. What makes it stand out is that this is followed by some really simple but equally atmospheric rules of treating disorders and diseases and even surgery in the default sort of medieval European setting that is beloved of most fantasy RPGs.

Basic treatments just prevent the disease from progressing on a week by week basis. Some diseases have a natural duration during which time they run their course. Real treatment requires either a magical draft called Panacea or surgery to address them. Of course there is the option of bloodletting to treat infections, just to give you the idea of the sort of medical skill we are dealing with.

I am pretty sure you will not be surprised if I tell you that surgery is not without its risks. A critical failure can kill a character which is not good.

Diseases are not the only hazards. This chapter goes on to describe extreme weather from frostbite to heatstroke. Falls are split into falls on to hard surfaces and those into water. That last one is not something I think I have ever seen rules for before which is odd as I have thrown PCs off cliffs hundreds of times I reckon in the past.

The hazards covered here are diseases, falls, fire, intoxication, poisons, sleep deprivation, starvation and suffocation. Each has details of the effects and treatments if applicable. Resistance Rolls as we know them are called Toughness checks. Each hazard has a the modifiers to the Toughness check for different conditions, the effects of failed Toughness checks and where needed the treatment for the different hazards from dealing with venoms to giving the kiss of life.


Zwei has a condition called Peril it is pretty much a game mechanic for modelling stress. The way it works is that the greater the level of Peril the more your skill bonuses are cancelled out. The logic being the more stressed you are the more likely you are to make a mistake and that stressed people do not perform at their best. The best analogy to Rolemaster that I can think of is if you stripped out all the minuses from the criticals and the penalties from being at 25% or 50% of hits and put them into a single mechanic rolling them into a single penalty.

In Zwei a skill bonus of +30 is the absolute maximum and that is three ranks at +10 each. Once you are in Peril the five steps of Peril go from no penalty, -10, -20, -30, automatic fail due to mental incapacitation.

Recovery from Peril is rather like Rolemaster’s cinematic healing. Resting in a nice warm safe place removes the Peril penalties, Resting in rough conditions from sleeping in the gutter to on a dungeon can remove most but not all Peril.

Harking back to the surgery rules, you can use smelling salts to recover one step on the Peril scale but at a physical cost to the body.


There are no hit points in Zwei. There is a scale, called a track from Unharmed to Slain with lightly, moderately, seriously and grievously wounded in between. Each time you are hit the random damage is converted into ‘levels’ of damage and they knock you further down the track towards death.

The healing skill can be used once per day and will recover you one level up the track. The further down the track you are the bigger the difficulty penalty to the healing roll. A critical failure of the healing skill causes the wound to become infected which circles us right back to the top of the chapter and all those horrible diseases. That is going to make its way into my RM game. I think I have been under playing illness and infection.

Recovery times are slightly faster than in RM but still are enough to keep a seriously hurt character in bed for weeks. Moderate injuries, with medical help recover in 1d10+1 days, serious injuries 2d10+2 days and so on.

The Grimoire

Apart from the professions and a few talents I have read in the early part of the rules, this is first real taste of Zweihander magic.

So just to make it painfully plain how Zwei sees magic I think these four words sum up Zweihander magic.

Magick is cancerously malignant

Magick, with a k of course, comes in two flavour, chocolate and strawberry whoops, Arcane and Divine.


Arcane magic is split into twelve different schools, or ‘winds’. Interestingly the Animist who we see as Channeling is not Divine in Zwei but rather an Arcanist. Other Arcanists include the Pyromancer, Necromancer and the Astromancer or Astrologer.

Sanctioned and Unsanctioned Magick

So although Zwei says it is setting neutral it does go on to lay down the rules regarding how magick users are perceived by the public…

“arcanists are most likely in league with demons, and if not, the temptation is there, so why not kill them?”

… and how some magick users are organised into self governing schools and how others are self taught and half mad with the corruption of it all. Now that sounds very much like setting specific colour to me.


Zwei then describes divine magic and there are no surprises here but then goes on to describe 10 Gods with descriptions of their churches, priesthood and commandments. There are pages on faith and worship, heresy and fanaticism. This is all setting specific. I have said so many times before that you cannot have magic and setting neutrality as the former has such a huge impact on the world that contains it.

So, rant aside.

We have rules for acquiring spells which is research based, there doesn’t seem to be any form of automatic gaining spells, this isn’t a levelled game after all.

Spell casting has a few of the old clichés, you cannot wear armour or excessively heavy clothing. It inhibits the arm waving and flapping about required for spells apparently. We do have verbal, somantic and material components for spells here, which for me is a blast from the past.

Once you have everything you need for the spell there is a spell casting roll just like any skill. Casting spells takes AP in the combat round. Remember that there are 3 AP in a round.

Petty magick takes 1AP, lesser spells take 2AP and greater 3AP. Durations are generally minutes in length so they will out last most combats. Spells do need to be maintained and this is a 1AP action each turn (rounds are called turns in Zwei).

The first really cool thing is that Zwei uses Counterspell. It is pretty much like parrying that I talked about last time. You use your Incantation skill and spend an AP. Critically failing a Counterspell is not nice! You also cannot Counterspell magic that is more powerful than the magic you can cast yourself.

Every spell causes you to roll chaos dies, these are d6s and rolling a 6 means bad shit happens. I will do an entire post on Chaos and Chaos dice later to wrap up all of these.


The spells are really very good. No, that is an understatement, the spells are brilliant. Over the years I have read a great many magic systems and there are a few standouts. The absolute best is the one from 7th Sea. My only complain about 7ths magic was that there was not enough of it. I believe that there are supplements that expand the range of magical effects but I don’t own them so I cannot say. HARP is a wonderfully flexible magic system but lacks colour and excitement. I know that has been expanded in College of Magics but I don’t own CoM so I cannot say. As you all know I have never been really comfortable with RM spell lists and realms

My only complaint about Zwei magic is that there is not enough of it. Here is a spell as an example.


With a burst of feathers, you turn into one of the most noble of jackdaws.

Distance: Yourself

Reagents: Three feathers of a crow or raven, held aloft (expended)

Duration: 3+[WB] in hours

Effect: After successfully casting this spell, both you and all the trappings upon yourself take shape of a Small Animal, such as a jackdaw, crow or raven. You retain your mental attributes (Intelligence, Perception and Willpower) and Damage Threshold, but cannot communicate nor use Magick while in this form. If you suffer an Injury during this time, the spell ends immediately.

Critical Success: As above, but triple the Duration.

Critical Failure: Your transformation goes terribly awry. Your body covered in feathers, you take on the form of a crow-like amalgamation that resembles a demon from the depths of the Abyss. You maintain this form for the spell’s Duration, unable to communicate or use Magick. Those who witness this transformation must succeed at a Resolve Test or be subjected to Stress.

I find the magic evocative and colourful. I like the use of built in critical successes and failures. There are general spells, just as in HARP or the Open lists in RM and profession specific spells just like our Base lists.

That particular spell comes from the Arcana of Aninism, it is a lesser magick so a 2AP spell. The list of spells for each profession there are three petty, three lesser and three greater magicks. It looks to me like there is one offensive, defensive and one utilitarian spell at each ‘level’. I know magick is intended to be extremely rare but that does seem to be extremely limited in repertoire. I am guessing that several things will happen.

  1. Official supplements will expand the number of available spells.
  2. The Community Content Programme will expand the number of spells.

I think both of these will happen and that the limited number of spells is more a function of limited page count in the print version than a limitation of the magic system.

But there is more…

The next section in the Grimoire is all about creating magic items from healing cure-alls, the Panacea to enchanted items. The world of Zwei, which of course doesn’t exist, says that ever magic items is unique and enchanted items are incredibly rare. The cornerstone of magic item creation is Wytchstone(s) which are parts of an asteroid that hit the planet.

You must have Wytchstone to create anything and it is an extremely rare, out of reach of PCs, commodity.

The creation process, game mechanically, is very simple even if for the characters it is extremely difficult: gather the ingredients, make a skill test and bang! There you go! Fail the test critically and the Bang! There is you go is quite literal.

Next up we have rituals. I am a huge fan of ritual magic and Zwei rituals do not disappoint. The rituals come with a lot of background information and are largely based on knowing the true names of different demons. This is atmospheric stuff. It is also the only magic that is open to all characters regardless of profession and it is the most dangerous of magics to perform. Bad stuff WILL happen to your character it is not and *IF* it is a when if you start playing with rituals.


The final part of the Grimoire is about talismans. These are very personal magical items. I get the impression that this is pretty much the most common sort of item that a character will ever encounter and the in game effect of a talisman is a simple +5 to the base chance of a skill test. Each talisman is keyed to a single skill and regardless of how many talisman you own you can only employ one at once.


What is plain from these chapters is that everything in Zwei comes in threes. There are three harder difficulty levels +10 to +30, three easier difficulty levels -10 to -30. There are three levels of magic petty, lesser and greater. There are three levels of screwing things up that do 1d10+1 to 3d10+3. Wounds take 1d10+1 to 3d10+3 days to heal. Even back in character creations you rolled 3d10+25 for your stats.

I am fine with this. The first game I ever wrote was called 3Deep as I recognised that 3 parameters is just about optimal in RPGs. The game had a very different approach using 1d6 to 3d6 but you get why I feel quite tuned in to a lot of Zwei. A lot of it feels a bit déjà vu. Mine you my game was super light and I wrote it in 20 minutes in an email. Zwei is a bit more detailed than that.

What is though is super consistent. I am seeing one mechanic used again and again and virtually without exception. The few exceptions there are happen at a Talent level and so remain consistent for that individual PC or NPC. It is them that is different not the way the world is working.

So far so good.

The next chapter is 110 pages long and is on Game Mastery. I think that this will deserve a post of its own. This is possibly the longest blog post I have ever written at over 2000 words and I am mentally exhausted. Give me a day or two to recover and I will tackle the next chapter!

Background, Passions and Drive in Against the Darkmaster

One of my favorite features of Middle-Earth Role Playing is its Background Options Table. Oh, man, how fun it is to put those points into rolls on the Special Abilities and the Special Items charts. I allow my player-characters to roll only once each on these tables, but how disappointing if the player rolls something mundane like +5 to a primary skill or +15 to a secondary skill or something just weird or out of concept such as “Infravision”? Anyway, I soon learned that the real mini-game was to maximize stat increases to higher Bonus thresholds. If this process left any points left over (in other words, if the next stat bonus was out of reach), then one could drop a point into the Special Items table.

Against the Darkmaster (VsD) provides Background Options, at first glance, in a manner similar to MERP. As in MERP, the number of Background Points to be spent is determined by the character’s Kin, and they are spent according to a menu of options. Unlike MERP, however, there are no random rolls on these Background tables. In fact, they almost can’t be described as tables. At least according to the QuickStart, each option has two “Tiers.” The first Tier always costs a single point. The cost of the second Tier varies according to its in-game “power” but seems to average 3 points. A player need not spend points on both Tiers of a single option but gains the benefits of both options if he spends points on the second Tier. Here is an example of a Background Option:

I chose to share this option because it’s easy to photograph and because it’s a good example of how Background Options can inform the narrative elements of a character’s backstory. Most of the Background Options contain a narrative element that is conducive for emulating the heroic aspect of VsD’s source material, and all of these features are tied to a mechanical benefit.

I think this is where the design choices in VsD become most compelling. I love these options! They work very well in my games, both by adding “character” to the PCs and by awarding them cool toys. I could do with pages and pages of these things, and who knows, maybe I’ll get them with the full game. The QS contains just two pages of Options, more like a page and a half, really—eight Options total. But they’re very well-chosen! My players haven’t had any problems finding something attractive for them. Our only difficulty had been how the description of an important feature has been inadvertently left out of Elven Training, but the designers quickly and willingly supplied us with that missing information.

VsD’s mechanic tying Passions to Drive likewise encourages more detailed character backgrounds and character-driven campaign play, something that pleases me. I’ve already pointed out how, at this stage in VsD’s development, the guidelines for players developing Passions are inadequate, particularly if Passions are tied to stereotypical features regarding Kin. But, when carefully chosen, Passions work well, and, so far, they have been working for all of my players.

I have been thinking of Passions as composed of three parts, but, looking again, I see that the designers describe Passions as three distinct elements: Motivation, Nature, and Allegiance. Motivation is, essentially, what the character wants to do; Nature is her demeanor or personality; Allegiance is his faction. In my games, the only Passion that has been driving the campaign is Motivation. Nature, in time, might become more important, but I tend to see character personalities emerge throughout gameplay, and my current games still are in their “Adolescence.” Finally, as a gamer said at my first tabletop session, “Allegiance might change from session to session.” I’ll explain the mechanical implications of Passions after I cover Drive.

Every PC begins play with 1 Drive Point. This, essentially, is a heroic resource with a menu of applications. Rather than going through all of them, I’ll give arguably the most common use: a Drive Point can be spent to immediately re-roll any failed roll with an automatic +10. There are explanations for how multiple spends might “stack.” A character can’t possess more than 5 Drive Points, and, if a character is fortunate enough ever to have 5 Drive Points, all 5 might be spent at once for some truly sensational effects.

At first glance, to me, it looks like just another thing to track, but I’ve seen these points get used twice already, and I think the mechanic will be an enjoyable feature. I’ve even had occasion to award a Drive Point, and now is the time to show how Passions interact with Drive Points. The QS says,

Whenever a character willingly puts himself into a dangerous situation, in a challenge, puts himself in a bad light because of one of their Passions, or makes the story change in a new and interesting direction following their Passion, they then gets to increase their Drive score by one – to a maximum of five.

p. 30

I can provide an example from my first session. A PC’s Motivation is to recover an abducted sibling. A member of a rival desert tribe, claiming to have information regarding the PC’s sister’s capture, met with the PC. Trying to determine if the NPC was trustworthy, the PC Critically Failed a roll, which caused the NPC to withdraw from the interaction. Later, desperate to learn more about his family member, the PC stepped in front of this new antagonist (who was quite dangerous, a third Level Assassin), gave him a gift, and with fancy words implored his help.

“Take a Drive Point,” I said. And, of course, the PC received his information.

A last observation is that the designers of VsD seem to hope that the Passions mechanics will knit together the PC group, writing,

Creating interesting Passions is a collective process that really must involve all the players at the table, since it’s vital for a VsD game to come alive with vibrant and interesting characters, and it’s also an excellent opportunity to tie characters to each other and to NPCs and root them to the story.

p. 29

Perhaps some groups will have the collective conversation that the QS describes, but I found myself working individually with each player to define, for that PC, a Motivation. Then, multiple PC Motivations in mind, I endeavored to give the group a shared goal, a reason to be together, that at least hinted at the possibility of everyone in the group attaining his Motivations separately. I can see new GMs having difficulty with this—weaving together the strands of individual character narratives. It’s possible that either the new GM will push the players towards one shared goal, a direction that could be intuited from the QS’s words about collective world building, or risk the PCs venturing forth in separate directions. I expect the full rules will contain thorough directions about this aspect of VsD.

Next will be Adventuring! So I will “mop up” with some final observations on Character Creation. Finishing Touches and Derived Attributes are as follows: every character has a Base Move Rate of 15m; Defense is the character’s Swiftness or 0, whichever is higher; Save Rolls are calculated from the relevant Stat, Kin and other bonuses and # character level x 5; total HP are starting HP and total Body Skill (the QS appears to erroneously leave out starting HP); and total Magic Points are the relevant Stat/10 (round down) per level + bonus MPs for Kin, Vocation and Items (such as Spell Adders). Our characters are done!