I’m not generally a fan of heartbreaker roleplaying games. When I’ve sat down to read them I’ve always had this little voice in the back of my head telling me that what I’m about to experience is, quite simply, the game I already own with material added by some house rules, and some changes or additions to address the writer’s vision of how the game should have been. It’s not a fair way to approach books such as these, I know, but it’s always a nagging doubt that sits there and skews my view of the game.
In all honesty, I pretty much ignored ZWEIHÄNDER when it first came up on my Warhammer radar. It was a few changes by gamers who loved the old-school Warhammer RPG, a fan edit of the game, nothing more than a few house rules thrown out into the ether to attract attention. However, the more it hung around the more it intrigued me, and when the Kickstarter began I then began to give it more than casual attention.
Actually, I was probably even more purposefully ignorant of this project than I have been with any other OSR-style game of this type. You see, I’m a huge Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 1st Edition fan. Huge. It is, without doubt, my favourite roleplaying game of them all. I bought the re-released softback in the late 1980s and I have had countless hours of adventures in this world. Even after 2nd Edition came out, with much cleaner and balanced rules, I still went back to the 1st Edition. It was unbalanced, with arguably the worst and most unmanageble magic system ever put into a rulebook, and it took quite a bit of work to get a handle on the rules (for myself, at any rate).
It was clunky and annoying at times, but, by the Blood God, I loved it. It wasn’t my first gaming system, and there have been better ones since then, but it’s the one that made the biggest impact on me creatively. And this was because the rulebook not only oozed atmosphere, it had everything I needed to run roleplaying games for years. The book had a wonderful dark-but-fun feel to it that was very me, and it contained full rules for everything, world details, a full bestiary and an adventure. It was everything I could have wanted in a single, weighty volume.
So, when someone on the internet has a go at creating their own version of it and not not only aims to redo what has come before but also create a full game in the ‘spirit’ of old Warhammer? Well… they’d better bring their A-game, because for 30 years I’ve not needed anything else for my Warhammer FRP games but that 1st Edition rulebook.
The more I read about ZWEIHÄNDER the more intrigued I became. I didn’t know much about the changes, but the artwork that started to appear was wonderful and really evocative of the setting as well as the original rulebook. Still, that wasn’t enough to sway me – after all, all they could do was emulate the Warhammer rules, so it wasn’t really Warhammer, was it? Unless I could travel the Reik avoiding that death, have a beer in Altdorf and headbutt mutants in the face in the Border Princes then what was the point?
But then I read more, and then I started to read the feedback from the early access Beta version of the rules. And my curiosity turned into suprise, then excitement. Then I started asking questions and before I knew what was happening a copy was being winged to me and it landed on my desk with an almighty thump. And I stared at it long and hard. Then I slowly opened the book and, with a deep nervous breath, I got stuck in.
The damn thing is huge! Huge I tell you! A single volume of almost 700 pages, hardback, with a full-colour cover and a black-and-white interior. It was so heavy the delivery man who dropped it off has been sending me his physiotherapy bills. Calling it ZWEIHÄNDER is accurate; you could wield this tome with two hands and beat someone to death with it.
It’s a gorgeous book, with a nice red page-marking ribbon that just about sticks out at the bottom. This is the version with the Kickstarter edition cover; in the dank sewers of some dark place, a mage summons fire, a hammer-wielding warrior takes a swing at some rat-men, a scarred elf attacks a larger rat, a soldier aims a musket and a dwarf attends to a wounded fellow, all while being guarded by a small but vicious dog. It’s action packed and a lot of fun, really getting across the action-packed darkness of the setting.
The Drivethrurpg print-on-demand has a different cover depicting four grim soldiers posing, as if for a photograph, all watching you, the reader, with accusing eyes. In all honesty, I prefer the Drivethrurpg print-on-demand cover. As fun as the Kickstarter one is, I feel the POD cover is much more atmospheric and it appeals to me more. Either way, each cover has wonderful art, the Kickstarter cover is by Dejan Mandic (who also does the interior art) and the POD is by Jussi Alarauhio.
And the interior art – wow. Dejan Mandic has produced some amazing work that captures the atmosphere of the game wonderfully. The number of illustrations is staggering, from small page-fillers to depictions of races, monsters and careers, to full-page chapter introductions and images. It’s all done in an old-fashioned way and it suits the book perfectly, meeting the design halfway between old-school 1980s goodness and modern design choices with evocative borders and layout. It’s fully black-and-white but that only adds to the grimness. It’s excellent stuff and throughout it looks great, and the use of a single artist keeps the atmosphere constant.
It’s a wonderful book, and it’s bound so that it can be left open where you need it without any fear of pages falling out or the spine cracking open.
Everything I expect to find in a Warhammer RPG is here – races (Human, Dwarf, Gnome, Halfling Ogre and Elf), archetypes (Academic, Commoner, Knave, Ranger, Socialite and Warrior), and then professions which I won’t list here because, like WFRP’s careers, there’s a lot of them. It’s all well balanced and characters are much more likely to be much more equal. In original WFRP, the career system gave some players better characters than others, sometimes by a long margin. I never really cared that much for game balance – it’s part of WFRP’s appeal for me – but this makes things much more balanced and will make players feel they’re much more competent within the group.
The main attributes are Combat, Brawn, Agility, Perception, Intelligence, Willpower and Fellowship, each represented by percentile scores. These scores reflect skills, which can be increased up to three ten percent increments, so up to 30% can be added to a skill as the character advances. Different professions open up different skill opportunities, and talents give characters special abilites they can pull out if needed. The skills have been tidied up and slightly reduced in number, so there’s a huge choice to be made but they’re fairly distributed between characters and professions.
All skills are percentile based – roll under to succeed – with modifications for difficulty and with different results representing different levels and effects of success or failure. Combat is fast and brutal, as it should be in a game like this, with lasting effects. You can contract diseases, go mad, and there’s a corruption scale that determines how you lean towards order or chaos, which is adjusted as play progresses and determined by what happens to the player, how they react to certain things and how they act. Leaning too far in either direction can result in disorders or benefits. The magic system is much better, a vast improvement on 1st Edition – but, to be fair, that wouldn’t be hard. The grimoire of spells is impressive with different schools of magic to choose from, and it’s easy and quick to use, although by the nature of the game the chances are that if anyone found out that you could cast spells you’d be strung up by the neck and everything you owned would be burned.
A huge section on game mastery helps with running games, but this is more of a set of extras to help with different situations, including overland travel, rewards for players, social intrigue and campaign ideas. There’s a large section on extra combat rules in here; I’m not sure why, they would have been better served in the combat section, even if they are optional. The huge bestiary is excellent and the adventure ‘A Bitter Harvest’ is a good introduction to the game as well as the dark fantasy genre as a whole. The appendix at the back is more than welcome, especially with a book this size.
As with Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 1st Edition, everything you need to run a dark fantasy game, in the Warhammer world or any other grim setting, is here. Whether you establish your own setting or use an existing one, these rules will have you covered with minimal adjustments to the rules. The magic section may need looking at depending on the setting, but otherwise it’s a solid system that will serve a dark game exceptionally well.
So - I’ve read the book, and I’ve run some players through an adventure of my own design, with ancient devils, broken pacts, serious political problems and some straight-forward in-your-face combat. How did I get on with it? More importantly, how did the game make me feel?
What hit me square in the face with the book is the writing; the book is almost 700 pages and the text dominates the pages. It’s well written and everything is fully explained. And when I say fully explained, I mean there’s a level of detail here that some might find a little annoying. You could say that it’s overwritten, with examples and explanations of sometimes obvious things that you may have done without. It does tell me that the writers were passionate about what they were doing, and that excitement is there on the page for everyone to see, but when you’re trying to pinpoint a rule or simply get to the point it takes time. If you’re in the middle of the game that can be a problem as it slows things down, so it’s best to make sure you’ve read the book cover to cover and highlighted the areas you’ll need regularly. As it’s such a big book, that can take a lot of time. This isn’t the sort of game that you can get into quickly; from cold, learning the rules and prepping for a game will take a lot of work.
Character creation was fun but I opted to allow my players to choose from the tables. Each part of character creation, from sex to skills, has a random table and you are able to roll randomly for pretty much everything. That can make for some fun characters if you’re playing on the edge, but my players wanted to make characters they could enjoy. There are a lot of choices for players to make during generation, and this alone took us an evening’s session. I don’t mnd that; it gives the group a chance to really think about their character and we can work out a group dynamic. Like I said earlier – this is the kind of game that requires a lot of time, mainly to digest the book and prep an adventure. You can’t really hand the book to the players and say ‘crack on’, and let them create characters off their own back because that’s an entire section of the book that will have to be read by every player individually. An evening of character creation is the best route to take, I feel.
The adventure I designed was easy to set up – I didn’t have to worry about scaling the threats or designing new stats, I could take the details I need straight from the book. I just marked the page number of the creature on my design and referred to it as game progressed, and I lifted NPCs from the introductory adventure. I have had plenty of experience in adventure design so this part was easy for me, and with the level of detail in the book it was even more of a doddle.
The adventure itself was fun, but the there was a little conflict between player expectations and the game in action. There were four players, two had not played Warhammer before and the other two had experience, and it was a little easier to run the game for the new players than it was the experienced ones. During combat especially, there were assumptions made by the Warhammer players as to what rolls were made and what they meant. I had to stop play a couple of times because I went with the flow and didn’t realise that I had made judgements based on the old rulebook and not ZWEIHÄNDER. That’s not a fault of the book, but if you are an old-school Warhammer player then make sure that you’re playing ZWEIHÄNDER! It got a little confusing, but after some backtracking and corrections we were back on course; the fault was mine.
There were a few times I had to reference the book as we played but this didn’t impact play too much. I had already marked what I needed so, as I mentioned earlier, it’s best to make sure you’ve done your pre-game prep. In fact, I was happy with the way it played out for the new players. They were experienced gamers but new to this system, so after a few rolls and an encounter they got used to the system and the game progressed at a nice clip even with the pause for my ‘those aren’t the rules!’ gaff.
Combat was fun and suitably brutal – a little too much for one player who almost bit the big one in the first fight! - and the unpredictable nature of the system left us all a little breathless. The low chances to hit were a little frustrating and some of the combat resulted in a series of rolls that resulted in nothing at all, but that’s the nature of the system and it added to the fun, especially when a lucky hit by one of the players pretty much ended the fight with a single roll. Not so much for the player who got hit right before that roll; he lost an ear and spent the rest of the game nodding during character conversations, and then ending with a ‘What?’ He’ll live, with the Crop Ear drawback.
All in all it was a successful game, and the ZWEIHÄNDER rules handled the action really well. The players felt they had control over their character’s design and creation, and they felt they had some control over the game itself even with beginner’s stats. The book, options and the adventure itself recreated the dark fantasy genre really well – I set it in a horror version of Europe, on the border of the Ottoman Empire - so all in all it was a successful evening. Well, two evenings if you include the character creation session. With four players and an equal number of foes we managed to resolve a combat encounter in half an hour to forty minutes; the adventure had three combat encounters and the rest was social interaction and investigating, and the entire evening’s play came in at five hours. It would most likely have been less if there hadn’t been any confusion about the rules but that wasn’t the game’s fault, it was ours as a group. As the GM it was an excellent game to run, and the players enjoyed it.
So… the big question is; would I use this Warhammer heartbreaker in a Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay game?
No, I wouldn’t. That’s not a reflection on this book, it would handle a WFRP game exceptionally well as the content is simply Warhammer with adjustments. It would be easy to say it’s WFRP with the serial numbers filed off, but that would be a disservice to the game. It’s an unashamed Warhammer heartbreaker after all, so those comparisons are inevitable, but whether you want to use it for Warhammer or any other dark fantasy world it’s perfectly suited. It is, however, Warhammer at it’s heart.
I wouldn’t use it because I’ve been using Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 1st Edition for more than a quarter of a century, and that game is woven into my Old World in a way that makes it pointless in me trying to use any other system. In many ways all of the consecutive percentile rules after 1st Edition have been better; including ZWEIHÄNDER as I think that, despite the rulebook’s complexity, it’s a much more fluid and balanced system. However, as a Warhammer grognard I simply see no reason to use a new game system for my campaigns. That might seem to be a rather nostalgia-influenced blinkered view on my part, but if the shirt fits...
Would I use ZWEIHÄNDER for other dark fantasy games? Absolutely 100% without a doubt. Here I have an excellent set of rules designed for miserable, grim, down-and-dirty fantasy roleplaying. I can take out or adjust certain sections depending on the world I’m running, and the rules are familiar enough for me to be comfortable in running a game of that genre while keeping it seperate and identifiable from my WFRP games. I have tried to use the WFRP 1st Edition rules for other worlds, but they ended up being the same WFRP games in different clothing. ZWEIHÄNDER is far enough removed to help me run other games in other worlds more identifiable and unique.
ZWEIHÄNDER is now my go-to system for dark fantasy games. In fact, I’m looking at creating my own world and also using an existing one. My own world is a discussion for another time, but the established world I’m looking at is Robert E. Howard’s ‘Solomon Kane’. I do love the original stories but I was quite taken by the Michael J. Bassett movie from 2009 (I said at the time that it was the greatest Warhammer movie never made) so the imagery from that film makes for an excellent background. Adventuring across the world with rapier and flintlock would make for a great campaign, with enough dark gods and raving badguys to keep players on their toes. ZWEIHÄNDER’s system makes the game edgy, dangerous and somewhat unpredictable, so that’s perfect for a game where the players are kept on the edge of death and madness. I’m basically going to run my campaign as horror action games with a Call of Cthulhu-type angle of danger. I’m sure ZWEIHÄNDER will handle that easily.
It’s big, it’s a heavy read and prep time will take a while. It’s not new-player friendly and you’ll need to have some experience with roleplaying to get the most out of it, it’s a little disjointed in parts and, yes, it’s overwritten, but ZWEIHÄNDER is an incredibly satisfying game of excellent quality, and the sheer darkness, joy and excitement for the history of the system and the genre are literally crawling off the page to get under your skin. There is very little in this book that can’t fail to inspire GMs and gaming groups, and with some investment of time and effort the end result is a rewarding experience that, once the campaign gets going and everyone is on the same page, will result in many satisfying campaigns for many months and even years. All in this one, single volume.
And that’s the very thing I loved the most about Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 1st Edition. ZWEIHÄNDER has done the legacy proud.