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!

7 Replies to “Zweihänder Read Through – Introduction and How To Play”

  1. I think How to Roleplay/What is an RPG bugs a lot of people. I’d never really been able to decide what sort of games should have them and what shouldn’t, only they tended to annoy me. I think your option of only having them in introductory games works.

    Umlauts and other annoyances – I don’t type them, I use copy & paste for the entire word.

    For me, for writing community content, I do like a setting that’s definitely attached to the game. That’s because I am more likely to create a supplement about the setting than about the game. It’s just what I prefer to do (my first community content is 100 Rumours to Hear on Urth). However, if I was writing for the Miskatonic Repository I’d create Mythos tomes – because for one thing I already have. Once I have actually got around to reading Zweihänder I’ll have a better idea as to what inspires me.

    I do have some experience with WFRP, perhaps more than with anything but D&D games. We played The Enemy Within campaign originally.

    1. I have signed up to that discord server. I will see if I can find any consensus on setting. Ah, as have you, so I see.

      1. Yes, signed up, looked at it, got confused…

        I need to set aside some time to look at it. Not the sort of thing I tend to use.

  2. I’ve also got experience with Warhammer, both FRP and the original miniature stuff. Their setting is basically a reimagined Earth, but it’s also a constantly developing one. If Z’s trying to copy that it will be hard to keep up.

    I tend to bury any “how to role-play” stuff in a GM’s section, especially when I’m working on something that might be different (modern espionage as opposed to fantasy) and requires some different techniques. If the GM has a clue, they can (or should) impart said clue to the players. If they don’t have a clue, the players are doomed in my view. I guess on the whole I don’t mind those kind of sections, but they should be reasonably short. Not all are…

    1. Sometimes a potential player will grab a game manual and suggest it to a potential GM to direct it for them (same about modules/campaigns). In that case, better not to bury those things, but put them at the beginning. It is the game pitch. Tone, gameplay, what will be this like?

  3. Talking about a cannibal game sounds harsh. A short description of what a RPG is, so that the casual reader can make sense of the book in a library seems mandatory. But in the times of internet, anyone might find more about roleplay games rather easily.

    That said, an example scene detailing dialogue and the actions of players can be very useful to give a hint of the tone that the game is aiming at, or at least showing possibilities.

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