Review: Zweihänder Grim & Perilous RPG
For a game that revels in being dark, dingy and blood-spattered there’s something strangely charming about Zweihander. It manages to be old-school without being hostile, gritty without being exploitative and violent without being sadistic, and though the grim tone won’t be to everyone’s tastes the system is surprisingly slick once it hits the table.
Of course, when you say ‘old-school’ most people naturally think of games designed to capture the feel of classic D&D, but that isn’t quite the case with Zweihander. Instead, it draws inspiration from the madcap, mud-and-blood filled world of the Warhammer Fantasy RPG, and with that comes a deliberate move away from the tropes of dungeons, classes and on-tap magic.
No, when you sit down to a game of Zweihander you step into the shoes of wanderers, desperate renegades and rogues eking out their heroics in a world of violence, disease and superstition. Though there’s no fixed setting for your games, you’ll almost always find yourself in a realm where every fight might be your last, where power is something to be feared as much as coveted and where chaos and corruption lurk around every corner.
This is, perhaps, the first hurdle to enjoying the game. Having a good time a world bathed in twitching horror isn’t always the easiest thing out there and when you sit down to play you’re placing a pretty substantial degree of trust in your GM to keep things grim and perilous rather than nasty and hopeless. However, there’s something wonderfully appealing about the stories these ideas seem to conjure up, and few moments in roleplaying are quite as satisfying as those when a party manages to conjure something genuinely good and wholesome within the murky gloom.
Rolling the Bones
While it wouldn’t be quite fair to describe Zweihander as a clone of the classic WFRPG you’d probably be forgiven for confusing them in a police line-up. This doesn’t just to apply to their approaches to story or tone, either, but also to the ruleset. Two main systems lie at the heart of this, the first of which is the simple, percentage-based core mechanic.
This works by having all a character’s abilities and skills rated as percentages. When the time comes to sneak past a guard, summon a demon or punch a bandit in the face they toss a d100 and if the result is under their score in their stealth skill, for example, they pull it off without too much difficulty. It’s not wildly nuanced, but this is balanced out by the fact that it’s incredibly easy for players to grasp exactly what’s happening and why.
Even combat flows nicely thanks to a clever Action Point (AP) system that feels both flexible and intuitive. The range of options in battle is decent enough to give mechanically inclined players room for tinkering and moment-to-moment decision making, but not so huge that it’ll paralyse the party with too many choices. In any case, the sheer lethality of combat means that most battles shouldn’t last too long.
In fact, while the core rulebook is an absolute slab of a thing, coming in at almost 700 pages, the actual amount of rules you need to explain before getting a game going is minimal. If nobody’s playing a spellcaster you can probably get things cracking in only five minutes or so.
Professions & Peasants
Of course, something needs to be filling the rest of those pages, and a decent chunk of that is the other major mechanic Zweihander has pulled from its predecessors – the professions.
There are almost 120 of these in the core book, ranging from archmages to rat catchers, and are the closest thing the game has to traditional classes. Rather than being the core of your character, however, they act more as a guide your skills and abilities. As a Man-at-Arms for example, you get one special ability that helps out in combat and a list of skills and talents you can boost as you gain experience.
It’s a neat system that allows for an incredible combination of potential characters, but there are a handful of annoyances. Chief among these is the fact that moving on from a profession requires you to first buy out every possible advance on your list, so most of the time the only real control you have over progression is the order in which you move through 20 mandatory options. This isn’t too bad at first but having to spend valuable points hoovering up those last few skills – regardless of how well they fit your current vision for your character – can feel rather restrictive.
Indeed, if you’re heavily invested in trying to optimise and build powerful characters, you’ll soon find that Zweihander isn’t particularly accommodating to that style of play. The entire system has a deep, abiding love of random tables and chaos that make a mockery of anything as crude and human as a ‘build’ or a levelling plan.
Embracing the Chaos
Whether this is a good or a bad thing will depend heavily on your outlook, and a lot of it has to do with attitude. If you decide to embrace the hands of fate and forge a story out of whatever comes your way it’s a recipe for incredibly tales that defy the easy clichés so many of us fall into when faced with a blank piece of paper. We’ve all heard about the adventures starring a warrior, a mage and a thief, but how about a graverobber, an anarchist and a gambler?
The flipside of this coin, however, is that sometimes the material is going to be a little trickier to weave than you might like. Some players – myself included, if I’m being honest – are just going to find it hard to get excited when blind chance presents them with a party full of peasants, clerks and servants, especially when they remain tied to those professions for the first half-dozen sessions.
For every person that nodded their head at that last sentence, though, there’s probably another who felt a grin creep across their face at the thought of adventuring with such unlikely heroes. If you can feel that happening right now, there’s a good chance you’ll fall deeply in love with Zweihander and owe it to yourself to check it out as soon as possible.
Zweihander – or, to give it its proper, umlaut-laden name, Zweihänder – is a bucketful of dark, bloody fun. For all the doom on display its tone is welcoming and friendly, especially when compared to other old-school games that can feel more than a little hostile to newcomers, and if you’re looking for something with a classical feel there are few things that really compare.
Do you think it’d be awesome if a handful of bad rolls and a random table might result in your character’s nose being chopped off? If so, you’re probably going to love Zweihander.