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TristramEvans

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This thread is an archive for Reviews posted on the Pub.

(for now this first post is a placeholder - at some point I'll do an index)
 

noman

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PART-TIME GODS


This is a review of Part-Time Gods, by Third Eye Games. This review covers the PDF version of the main rulebook and touches upon the PDF versions of several Part-Time Gods supplements. It does not cover the Fate version of the game.

This review is family friendly, safe for work, and gluten free.

I have bought and read every title in this gameline, and am currently in the process of building a campaign. I haven't yet run the game, nor have I played it.

What is Part-Time Gods?

Part-Time Gods (PTG) is a rule-light, urban fantasy Table-Top RPG (TTRPG) where the players take on the role of newly empowered gods. Players typically begin as fledgling deities such as the god of love, the goddess of ravens, the god of aircraft, etc. The players must contend with both external threats to their survival and power such as supernatural monsters (called 'outsiders' in the game) and other, hostile gods, as well as deal with the personal challenges relating to the realities of their divine status.

Anyone familiar with Godbound, Exalted, or Cypher System's Gods of the Fall, will immediately be familiar some of the themes presented in PTG. Likewise, anyone who's read Neil Gaiman's American Gods will find familiar ground here.

I've seen some limited discussion on other forums about how to emulate the American Gods television series using Godbound or Exalted. PTG takes much of its inspiration from Gaimain's original novel; the game is literally made to emulate the American Gods setting.

PTG stands alone among demigod-level games in that it forces the players to deal with the grounded, day-to-day realities of modern life. The deities in PTG are almost all normal joes who suddenly attained divine power. They have families and friends. They have jobs, ambitions, and mundane struggles. They have to pay taxes, go to PTA meetings, suck up to bosses, and otherwise deal with the humdrum stresses of everyday reality while somehow juggling the responsibilities of their divine authority. Think Godbound as a slice-of-life campaign.

There are the personal struggles of making it through life, suddenly complicated by the injection of divine power. This forces the players to make some very interesting tactical and ethical decisions regarding how to best apply that power. It gets more complicated as various supernatural entities are drawn to the fledgling god. There's also the very real threat presented by outsiders and hostile gods seeking to exploit, murder, or literally consume the new deity.

PTG is about balancing the divine with the everyday. These day-to-day, mundane connections are as critical as the divine power the god commands. They serve to keep the god grounded and sane. Without them, his humanity is overwhelmed by the divine power he holds, and he essentially becomes a powermad sociopath. Think Vampire: The Masquerade (V:TM) and humanity loss.

Game mechanics

PTG is a light-medium game system that uses a single d20. Task resolution is resolved by attributes + relevant skills (if any) + d20 + modifiers. Success requires rolling over a difficulty number, usually 10, 20, or 30. Contested tasks are the same, with competing characters trying for the higher number. Characters get 'boosts' where they receive a benefit of some kind for every five they roll over the difficulty number. In the case of contested rolls, one gets a boost for every five over his opponent's roll. Rolls of natural 1 or natural twenty result in a critical success or critical failure, respectively.

PTG is a skill-based game, with a decent selection of broad skills similar in nature to Savage Worlds. Fists covers all empty-hand fighting, Melee covers all weapon combat, and Marksmanship covers everything from pistols to archery. Crafts can cover anything from cooking to pottery. Technology deals with intermediate computer use, hacking, hardware, etc. Both attributes are rated on a simple scale of one to ten, with higher numbers being possible.

It's also a fairly handwavy system. Simply put, if the GM thinks a player can accomplish a task, it's an auto success without the need for a roll. Rolls are only made when it really matters.

Combat is simple. Initiative rolls are followed by players choosing combat 'maneuvers', then contested rolls between combatants. Maneuvers are exactly what they sound like: combat moves that modify to-hit and damage. Example include light strikes (high bonus to hit but low damage), heavy strikes (the opposite of that), grappling, dodging, parrying, etc. Damage varies by type of weapon and maneuver used. It seems like a nice, little system. It runs smoothly and quickly in the simulations I've run.

The only significant gripe I have with the combat system is weapon damage. Damage values are, in my opinion, a hot mess. A glance over the weapons chart, and the min-maxer in me starts looking to pump all of my skill points into firearms. Their weapon damage is too high at the expense of other damage types, and their range is too low. Knives might as well be rotten eggs for all the damage they do. Dunno. This is something I haven't worked out yet. I'm noting it here for any potential GMs to look at and consider for themselves.

The importance of a god's connection to the everyday is simulated by PTG's bond system. Bonds represent mortal connections to people, places, or groups that provide a grounded, human sense of meaning to the character. These are rated by bond points that represent the measure of emotional investment the god has with a particular bond. Actions taken within the context of a bond, such as protecting a loved one, receive bonuses. Bonds can decay and be lost through various means such as mismanagement or the death or destruction of the bond itself. Once lost, a bond becomes a failing and results in pretty severe psychological penalties on the character.

End of part one
 
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noman

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Part two.

Powers

There are no magic or psionics systems in PTG. Powers are either (A) hardwired into certain classes of outsiders or special NPC antagonists, or (B) a byproduct of divine powers.

In the case of (A) creatures like giants, gorgons, and near-human divine champions all have their powerset as part of their build, independent of any real, coherent system. This is bad if you like system-wide power mechanics, but good if you don't care. It means I can stat a new monster however I want without fearing I'll breaks something.

There are two types of divine powers: entitlements and manifestations.

Entitlements are abilities that are independent of a god's chosen dominion (dominion being the subject of the god's power, such as fire, wind, love, war, etc.) Most new gods get one or two entitlements at character creation. Examples include regeneration, supernatural strength, astral projection, etc. They serve to round out a character or support a character concept. A weak combat character might choose something like regeneration to help keep him alive, or a god of the sea would likely take an entitlement that allows for breathing underwater.

Manifestations are the skills the god uses to express their domain. A god can pick any domain, even if another gods shares the same domain (such as two gods of storms). But they can't really do anything with that domain without manifestations. There are seven manifestation skills, each one granting the god a broad skillset of divine powers within the theme of the manifestation skill. For example, the ruin manifestation skill is the offensive skill, allowing the god to curse, blast people with his dominion, and boost his combat skills. The oracle manifestation skill, by contrast, is the information gathering skill. Each manifestation skill is flexible enough to give the player a lot of options while not intruding on other manifestations' territory. I've also found no gaps in the manifestation skills, meaning each one covers what I'd need in the game, and I don't see anything lacking.

One can only use a manifestation within the limitations of one's dominion. For example, a god of fire with the ruin skill can happily blast folks with fire all day long. A god of love, cooking, or gardens may have a hard time justifying how their dominion could be used offensively. Another example is the aegis manifestation skill. It covers various forms of defense, but its applications aren't total. Aegis can only be used to defend against attacks related to one's dominion. For example, a god of love could use it to bind someone trying to murder a former lover that spurned him, or a god of animals could use aegis to become invulnerable to any type of animal attack. For this reason, it's important to understand that not all manifestation skill are equally effective with every dominion.

Min-maxers would immediately think the best dominion would be one that allows for the most flexibility with the use of manifestation skills, such as choosing to be a goddess of war rather than a patron of soldiers, or animals instead of wolves. And here is one of PTG's more interesting features: the power system is set up in such away as to reward the use of manifestations specific to the chosen dominion, and assigns penalties for seeking to move outside that specificity. A goddess of war could use a manifestation to affect soldiers, as that is technically part of her dominion, but it's not war, specifically. She'd suffer a penalty in the attempt. Same with the goddess of animals trying to control a pack of wolves. A god of actual soldiers or wolves could do this without penalty.

I like this limitation, as it forces players to plan what powers to choose and how to best use them. It balances out the usefulness of various dominions and puts a cap on attempts to exploit the system.
The actual use of manifestations is extremely freeform. The manifestation skills serve as frameworks, explain what can and can't be done with the skill, but leaves the player to determine how that manifestation is actually used. Given the infinite possible dominions, this allows each GM and player to tailor each effect to fit the character and situation at hand.

Overall, I really like this system. It's balanced, interesting, and give the players a lot of toys to play with.

Character creation

It's a point-buy creation system, with each section (attributes, skills, entitlements, etc.) being assigned a set pool of points for each section to be spent as desired.

Anyone familiar with the original Word of Darkness games will recognize some of the design elements.

Bonus points are the currency of character advancement, grown from earning experience in a way that's very similar to what I remember from V:TM. There are gifts and disadvantages (merits and flaws) with a good catalog of both.

Character creation is straightforward: come up with a concept, pick a mortal occupation which provides skill bonuses and extra bonus points, spend points on attributes and skills, and pick your bonds. After the mortal life of the character is laid out, begin selecting the divine aspects of the characters.

Fledgling gods have to chose a theology -- the philosophical foundation that their power is based upon. With this comes a special ability and limitation native to the theology, as well as two manifestation skills (with the player picking the third). Think clans in V:TM. The theologies are pretty well balanced, with three strongest possibly being the Ascendants ("Goku's a punk"), the Puck-Eaters ("I hide under the monsters' beds") and Nanuk's Outlanders ("Monster Musume is a how-to"), but each of these come with some pretty heavy limitations to balance them out. I think there are enough theologies to satisfy most players, and if you have to, it wouldn't be hard to hack together a new one.

Players pick their theology, assign their manifestation skills, and pick their entitlements. After that, spend the extra bonus points from the character's occupation and any disadvantages that were taken. Pretty easy and quick.

I tend to look at character creation with an eye for min-maxing, seeking exploits. There aren't that many in PTG. As the game is as much sneaky and social as it is combat, there's plenty of roles to play beyond punching things. Every player and every theology should have a fair stake in the game.

Props for game balance, overall.

Setting

Modern, urban fantasy. The twist is gods and monsters are real, they've been asleep for ages, and now they're coming back. The PCs enter the scene during this surge of active rebirth.

There's lore, of course, which I won't go into for the sake of space and time. The backstory of how the setting got to this point is explained. There's a bit of a metaplot in the "Coming Storm", an endtimes event involving a massive influx of outsiders and old gods. It's lightly done, sits quietly in the background, and can easily be ignored. Later supplements flesh this out and help the GM decide how to manage the metaplot, if they want to make use of it at all.

There are no setting details beyond this. Descriptions of cities, organizations outside of the theologies, etc. aren't present, leaving the GM to worldbuild as she sees fit.

Supplements

There are five supplements published for PTG as of this review.

Angels Among Us deals with the Nephilium (human/angel hybrids), as well as rules for playing them.

Divine Instruments is a must-have that covers the various aspects of godhood, including worshipers, divine territory, and prayers. It also provides three new theologies.

Harder they Fall is all giants, all the time. What they are, the various types, and player options for playing them.

Minions of the Source is a useful resource full of new outsiders and touched. It also provides three more theologies.

Return of dragons is not a supplement about Bruce Lee clones. It covers rules for bringing dragons into the game, though not as PCs. There's also an additional theology of dragon slayers, because why not.

Most of these supplements come with small adventures, extra lore, and a few new artifacts. They're all cheap, and worth getting if you plan on running the game.

Miscellaneous

Layout, art, writing for all books in this line are adequate by my standards. Not stunning, by any measure, but not bad either. The bigger rulebooks have color covers while all of them have black and white art on the interior. Most of it is pretty good, some of it, well, not so much. None of it detracts from the rules, and the art does a good job in capturing the spirit of the game.

That's it. Feel free to ask questions if you have any. I'll answer them as best I can.

Hope you enjoyed the review.
 
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noman

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Some art:

iu


Ah, Penelope. You are my waifu.

iu


PTG comes with a group of NPCs already formed into a pantheon. They're represented above.

Oh, yeah. A crowbar, Victor? Really?

iu


Same as above.

iu


Dr. Ali. The only sane one of the bunch.

iu


Call of Cthulhu can go call on somebody else.
 
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Dan Davenport

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VICTORIOUS

Introduction

The name's Davenport. I review games.

So the other day there's a knock at my office door, and it's Sherlock Holmes. That's right, the Sherlock Holmes. Deerstalker hat, pipe, the works.

I ask him what brings him by today.

"Elementary!" he says. "I've come by today for a review of Victorious!"

"Okay," I says. "So what's Victorious?"

"Elementary!" he says. "Victorious is a roleplaying game about Victorian superheroes!"

"Victorian superheroes?" I says. "So why'd they send you by with this gig? You ain't exactly a superhero."

"Elementary!" he says. "Why, with my exceptional mind and extraordinary skills, not to mention the fact that I am a remarkable physical specimen, I am easily a match for that bat fellow you Colonials are so fond of."

"Uh-huh," I says. "And where'd you get to be such an all-around amazing guy?"

"In elementary school, of course!"

victorious.jpg


Substance

Setting

Victorious deals with superheroes — “SuperMankind”, to use the game’s parlance — in a fictional Victorian era. The question of just how fictional depends upon the “alignment” of the setting chosen by the GM, with Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic serving as one axis and Grand, Gilded, and Grim serving as the other. The former axis determines the moral absolutism/relativism of the setting, while the other determines the amount of “weirdness” that exists.

In Lawful settings, good and evil are cut-and-dried, in Neutral settings there are some shades of grey in between, and in Chaotic settings “good” and “evil” are purely relative. In Grand settings, the supernatural and super-science are part of everyday life (like your typical steampunk RPG setting); in Gilded settings, such things are in the shadows (as in Dracula and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea); and in Grim settings, the heroes are mostly normal humans facing off against hidden, overwhelming supernatural evil (as in your typical H.P. Lovecraft tale).

This is a nice setting shorthand. My only problem with it is the fact that the rules don’t really cover a Grand setting at all. They allow for it, but that’s not the same thing. If you want a full-blown steampunk setting, you’re on your own when it comes to the accouterments — the airships, the steam devices, the clockwork limbs, and what have you.

What the book does very well is cover the historical Victorian age. Everyday life gets plenty of attention, and the text doesn’t shy away from the darker aspects of that life, be it racism, sexism, social Darwinism, etc. (It does get a bit confused on the former subject, however, listing Japanese oppression of Koreans as an example of Europeans oppressing non-Europeans.)

The setting includes an extensive timeline of the late Victorian era. It covers political, cultural, and scientific milestones and includes literary events as well as events unique to the Victorious timeline. Unfortunately, the timeline doesn’t actually include the promised literary events aside from the initial detection of the Martian invasion — it apparently never actually occurs in this timeline — and the Victorious events are limited to the unsolved crimes of terrorists known as the Dynamiters. (And, to be honest, given the formatting errors involved, I’m not 100% certain if the Dynamiters were historical or fictional.) More to the point, the timeline doesn’t include the influence of weirdness in general or SuperHumanity in particular.

Speaking of timelines, I should also mention that a number of the setting’s superhumans hail from an alternate timeline’s 21st century, stranded in an unfamiliar Victorian period by a process that’s never explained in the book. I wouldn’t have included these heroes, personally, as I feel that they dilute the Victorian feel of the setting. Victorian superheroes are enough of a tough sell as it is without bringing in superheroes who aren’t Victorian at all to muddy the waters.

The book does feature an excellent listing of Victorian-era organizations from around the world, both governmental and non-governmental and both historical and fictional. Like settings, these receive alignments of Law, Neutral, or Chaos to indicate their goals relative to the established order.

It also boasts an impressive bestiary of creatures both normal and paranormal, including dinosaurs, morlocks, yetis, various forms of undead, werewolves, and the Jersey Devil. (The book could have featured an even more impressive assortment of creatures if it didn’t spend a lot of space on historical flavor text.) Also featured are a large number of superhumans of all sorts, including characters from literature and folklore like John Henry, Sherlock Holmes, and Dracula.

System

Victorious uses a modified version of the SIEGE Engine that was introduced in Castles & Crusades, itself a streamlined version of Dungeons & Dragons. The core mechanic involves taking a modifier from a character’s relevant attribute and adding it to the roll of 1d20. Ordinarily, the target number is 18, but when using the Prime skill, the target number becomes 12. (The use of the Prime skill becomes apparent only through examples, sadly, and I’m not sure that I’d have picked up on it had I not already been familiar with the mechanic from Castles & Crusades.) I don’t really see why the skill doesn’t just add a +6 to the attempt, but that’s a matter of taste.

In a big departure from Castles & Crusades, Victorious adds a full-blown skill system, albeit not in a very transparent manner. Buying one level of a skill allows the hero to add his character level to the attribute bonus. Rank 2 in a skill adds +3 to this score, Rank 3 adds +2, and any further ranks add +1. I’d rather not have to stop and think this much when I see a character’s skill rank. I’m used to seeing three skill ranks add +3. Still, I appreciate the extra level of depth the skill system adds to characters.

Character Creation

Characters have the standard D&D attributes: strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, wisdom, and charisma. Players generate scores for these by rolling 4d6 and dropping the lowest die. The text doesn’t specify, so I’m not sure if the rolled scores are taken in sequence or assigned by the player. I’d hope for the latter.

Characters then receive one instance of the Prime skill plus a number of skill ranks equal to 1 plus their intelligence bonus. That seems a bit low, although thankfully, the skills are fairly broad (e.g., Melee for all hand-to-hand weapons).

Of course, there are the all-important superpowers. Starting heroes get power slots equal to 3 plus their Charisma bonus — a nice way of ensuring that Charisma isn’t a dump stat, although it would seem to penalize Hulk types. Powers are purchased “cafeteria” fashion rather than “effects-based” fashion; i.e., the powers are purchased pre-built rather than created based upon their effects. However, the system allows for bundling powers into packages in the form of battle suits, gadgets, inventions, magick, and themes. For example, a fiery hero could define such powers as Blast, Force Screen, and Super Movement as being fire-based and could purchase them at a discount.

As an aside, I’m very pleased to see the Invulnerability power, which reduces damage rather than increases AC.

PCs can gain access to more skills or powers by taking shortcomings.

Victorious uses a class/level system and features eight classes: Contraptionist, Hypnotist, Inquiry Agent, Magician, Paragon, Radiant, Strongarm, and Vigilante. These are much more like archetypes than classes, really — they specify where the top three attributes should go, the hit points, power slots, and experience points per level, then offer default powers, skills, shortcomings, and equipment. This speeds up character creation considerably… if the classes as written fit the player’s concept. If not, they require a bit of rejiggering to work. It seems to me that if rejiggering is allowed, however, an unscrupulous player could take the class with the best hit points and simply alter it to fit any concept.

Victory Points

The game features a sort of Drama/Hero/Fate Point mechanic in the form of Victory Points. These can be used to ensure success on a hero’s roll or failure on a villain’s roll, or they can be exchanged for experience points. In an interesting touch, only Good characters automatically gain a Victory Point at the end of a session. Good or Neutral characters can gain a Victory Point at the beginning of a session by party vote, but Evil characters cannot gain Victory Points at all. This enforces a sort of moral clarity that fits the setting but that may not be palatable to players who prefer to keep things morally grey.

Adventure

The book includes a very brief adventure pitting the heroes against an arsonist-set fire, armed thugs, and the Hulk-like form of Mr. Hyde, allowing for some investigation along the way. There’s enough here to put the heroes through their paces and get the feel of the system, but I suspect that it would be a bit of a let-down if it weren’t treated as the opening of a much larger adventure.

Style

The text badly needs another round of editing. The dreaded “page XX” reference rears its ugly head several times, and irritating formatting errors hamper clarity (e.g., using the typeface for a literary event for an historical event in the timeline). The art, by contrast, ranges from good to very good.

Conclusion

If you’re expecting superheroes + steampunk, you’re going to be a bit disappointed. The setting allows for that but doesn’t do much to support it. If, however, you want superheroes in a Victorian setting, this game may well be your thing. It offers a solid, workmanlike superpower system and a good coverage of the Victorian era.
 
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Jonathan Hicks

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GATEWAY - The d20 Tabletop Roleplaying Game
By Aurican's Lair

From the website: 'GATEWAY is a simple, fast-paced, rules-light and universal D20 Roleplaying Game framework that is perfect for introducing new players to tabletop RPGs. The system allows for any theme or setting, from Fantasy to Cyberpunk, from Horror to Noir, for whatever your imagination can create. The light rules and open world provide a great format for ‘One Shot’ adventures with your fellow veteran players and Game Masters.'

As I get older I find myself having less and less time to design, prep, and sometimes even run roleplaying games. As a result, I try to find games that are quick and easy to run, so that I can concentrate on what I think is important (such as the story and the unfolding plot) and less on the mechanics and statistics.

Unless it's a game system that me and my group knows well I don't usually delve into my thick, comprehensive rulebooks that much these days. I have my favoured systems to introduce new players to the hobby, and these are pretty generic, but every now and then there's a group who wants to experience the system that dominates the RPG market; the D20 system. Or, to be specific, the D&D game.

Usually I'd use the starter pack, but for those quick and easy games I've found a new and even easier system, one that emulates the D20 game and addresses some of it's key features, and yet is so stripped back that it takes no effort to set a game up.

GATEWAY is an introductory game that takes the standard D20 stats and make them the key focus of the game. At 16 pages it covers everything you'll need to run a game, and not just in the fantasy genre. It's a really good little system. What stops it from being great is that it's lacking a lot of polish and some focus, and I feel a re-write and restructuring of the layout would help immensley.

It works like this; a character has the standard D20 system abilities - Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma. Instead of being given scores, each is given one of three types of roll; Proficiency, Deficiency or Normal. Each ability is also given a selection of skills.

When called upon to make a roll, the player rolls D20s; if they have a Proficiency in the ability, they roll two D20s and keep the higher result, very much like the D&D 5th Edition advantage roll. If they have a Deficiency, they roll two D20 and use the lower result. A Normal ability is a straightforward D20 roll. The target number is determined by the GM, from 2 to 5 for really easy, up to 20 for impossible.

And that's it in a nutshell. There are small tables for working out Armour Class and Hit Points, but in general that is the entire game, and as it's simple to print off you can have a small sixteen page document, or you can download it as an app and keep it on your phone or tablet. In fact, with a form fillable sheet and a dice rolling app there's no need for any pencils or paper, and interested parties can download the rules and be ready to go in a very short period of time. And the greatest thing of all? It's free.

Now, I really like it. I like the idea of numberless abilities and using the proficiency angle as it just gives a dice roll and that's it, and even though you won't get an incredibly well-rounded character you will get a playable PC you can use for a few sessions. I like the simplicity of the rules and the idea that you can use it for anything, although I do feel it's more angled to fantasy games than any other genre, and I like the freeform feel of it all. It's a nice little system.

But what lets it down is the presentation, both in the free downloadable rules from the Aurican's Lair website and in the app itself. The rules are badly laid out in a very basic format, with some errors in the text, and the rules are spaced out in different areas which lends a little confusion, such as explaining how to roll against target numbers and then not having the target numbers explained until well into the rules section. There's also a lot of GM advice, but this is supposed to be a gateway into tabletop gaming so without a proper explanation of what tabletop RPGs are about these are somewhat superfluous. If the system is for existing GMs to use to introduce new gamers to the hobby, then this section is pretty pointless.

There's also a lot of attention on the saving throws covering incidents from being blinded to being unconcious, and this seems like a lot of wasted effort and betrays the focus of the game - to be simple and easy - and complicates things somewhat.

With some polish, some better imagery and layout, with a huge edit and much more focus on what and who the game is aimed at, GATEWAY could be an excellent introductory game, and may even be used for longer campaigns for experienced groups who just want to dive in and out of a game. It is a great little system, and it's one I have no problem in using on gamers who want to experience D&D or roleplaying in general for the first time, but the general presentation lacks finesse and may put some people off, and that's a shame because the core idea here is really quite good.

Recommended.
 

Jonathan Hicks

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FANFARE FOR THE CHOSEN

Fanfare for the Chosen includes inspiring soundtrack themes for each of the ten types of Exalted (Solars, Lunars, Sidereals, Dragon Bloodeds, Abyssals, Exigents, Getiminans, Liminals, Infernals, Alchemicals), to set the tone as you encounter these Exalted in your games or are seeking inspiration for new stories.

About the composer:

James Semple is a composer for media (tv, video games, websites and films) specialising in ultra-realistic digital orchestration. He has created soundtracks for the Trail of Cthulhu, 13th Age, Unknown Armies 3rd Edition, Esoterrorists, and now Exalted 3rd Edition RPGs.’


An epic game for an epic setting requires epic music. In the RPG Exalted, players take on the roles of powerful heroes in a world of entities with the power of gods, and the world will be shaped by their wars and whims.

Now in it’s Third Edition, Exalted is ‘the tale of a forgotten age before the seas were bent, when the world was flat and floated atop a sea of chaos. This is the tale of a decadent empire raised up on the bones of the fallen Golden Age, whose splendor it faintly echoed but could not match. This is a tale of primal frontiers, of the restless dead, of jeweled cities ruled openly by spirits in defiance of Heaven’s law. This is a tale of glorious heroes blessed by the gods, and of their passions and the wars they waged in the final era of legends.’

Using music in tabletop RPGs has been around for a long time, and I used to use music from movie soundtracks quite extensively during my sessions. If the game we were playing was licensed and I had a suitable soundtrack that could be identified with the setting then so much the better. Williams’ ‘Star Wars’ music and Goldsmith/Horner’s ‘Star Trek’ OSTs got a lot of airtime in my house.

Now there’s no need to match existing music soundtracks to the game you’re playing. Now games have their own OSTs, and one of the leading composers in this field right now is James Semple.

James Semple has given us ten pieces of music to use in our Exalted games, each one acting as an introduction to a session or a scene. While not designed for ongoing play, like background incidental music, they are perfect for the scene-setting introductions that Gms love to do. With this music playing in the background as this week’s scenario is introduced it turns each session into an episode, with the track as the title music. It helps set the scene, helps set the mood and, most importantly, it helps get the players into the adventure.

Nearly a year went into composing, arranging and producing this soundtrack and it shows – the arrangements are of a high standard, with a huge orchestral roar bellowing out to the most rousing pieces. The production standard is excellent, well produced and is a polished recording of a very high quality.

Return of the Solar Exalted : A huge orchestral piece, this track feels like the opening credits music to a huge fantasy show. Playing this as you recap the adventure is a great way to get back into the campaign. That can be said of any of the following pieces, depending on the mood you’re trying to invoke. These are the heroes of the game and deserved a rousing theme.

Rise of the Infernal Exalted : Are you looking for a darker edge to this weeks adventure? Have the players just arrived at a dangerous location, or has a NPC with evil in their heart just walked on stage? This starts dark but still has an edge of urgency to it. The demons of the world drip with dark character.

Birth of the Liminal Exalted : Although a softer track for those moments of relative peace, this piece still has a touch of mystery and danger, as if it lingers at the edges waiting to pounce. This represents the wondrous, tragic and doomed creation of these constructed golem types, complete with a heartbeat in the bass starting halfway through the track.

The Alchemical Exalted – Ex Machina : Touched with an ethereal feel, this music marches like a clock, representing the mechanical, android side. This is almost entirely metal instruments representing these clockwork Exalts and nods to their almost Eastern Bloc state with a huge Slavic brass theme.

The Getimian Exalted – War in Heaven : Quick, fast paced and steady, almost like riding a horse. This track gives us the passion and drive of these warriors. It’s more heroic than many would have expected representing their war against the gods and contrasting dark and light.

Rage of the Lunar Exalted : Deep beating drums and horns lend power to this track, and gives us an excellent tribal feel to the game.

The Abyssal Exalted – Death’s Lawgivers : Beginning with a powerful, religious tone and followed by the bell of what sounds like doom singing, this piece reflects tragedy and sorrow and, in fact, is my favourite piece.

The Sidereal Exalted – Lesser But Safe : This would suit those games with investigation, calculation and confrontation. In fact, it sounds like the opening of a TV detective show and would be perfect for those games where roleplaying takes the lead.

The Exigents – Power of the Exigence : The newest thing in Exalted gets it’s own track, and it even starts out unsure showing their humble, normal beginnings and then their true power revealing in a huge wondrous crescendo as the music grows in confidence and power.

March of the DragonBlooded : Another piece that starts out soft, with an oriental air to it, but then the drums kick in and the power is revealed, leading to another huge crescendo.

Although each of these are between 1:49 and 2:10 long they make for great introduction tracks, and they help capture different atmospheres and game types. Are you looking to run something epic? Then begin the game with track 1 Return of the Solar Exalted. Mystery and darkness? That’s Track 3 Birth of the Liminal Exalted put to good use. Action and adventure? Track 5 The Getimian Exalted – War in Heaven would make a great intro.

They may be short but they’re perfect for the game. Yes, you can probably loop them in the background and that should work out fine, and it’s a shame that they aren’t designed that way as I feel that a long, ambient background track would go a long way… however, the good news is that such a thing is in the works, so I’m looking forward to that. They are designed as short, punchy deliveries for each of the Exalts. They are designed to be inspiring, to give you that boost before play starts, or to give you inspiration when designing a game.

Fanfare for the Chosen is an excellent soundtrack for one of the most popular roleplaying games on the market, and the music is suited to the gloriousness and the darkness of the setting. It’s another worthy addition to the RPG soundtrack collection and another excellent selection of music from James Semple.

Highly recommended.
 

TristramEvans

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Just finished up the first part of my quickly-becoming massive review of Zweihander, and figured I'd share what I'd written so far. In the end, I'll probably be putting it in pdf form, as it could very likely reach upwards of 75 pages in length.

ZWEIHANDER REVIEW

Being a Review by Tristram Evans
of the Zweihander Grim & Perilous Roleplaying Game
Written by Daniel Fox with additional contributions by Tanner Yea
Illustrated by Dejan Mandic​


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Deep breath, ladies and gents, this is going to be a long one…


Before we begin, a couple of caveats. I received a review copy of Zweihander for free from Daniel Fox. I don’t believe this will colour the review in any way, but best to lay all potential biases on the table, as it were.

As a counterpoint, I am also a longstanding fan of the original Warhammer Fantasy Role-Playing Game (henceforth ‘WFRP’); in fact it was effectively my first RPG, as detailed here. I’ve played and run WFRP for the better part of almost thirty years, and it remains one of my favourite game systems.

Additionally, for clarity’s sake, lavender text will delineate those times that I indulge in criticisms based solely upon my own peculiar tastes, or individualistic niggles, and pretentious pedanticism (as is my wont), that likely will have little to no bearing on the enjoyment of the product for anyone besides myself.

According to to the Grim & Perilous Studios website:

“As featured on Forbes.com, ranked in the Platinum Seller’s list on DriveThruRPG and having sold over 21,000 physical copies worldwide, ZWEIHÄNDER Grim & Perilous RPG is a bloodier, grimmer and grittier version of classic tabletop role-playing games you may already familiar with…ZWEIHÄNDER Grim & Perilous RPG is an OSR, retro-clone spiritual successor to Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay first and second editions, an unrepentant heartbreaker released under Creative Commons License Share-Alike.”

It amuses me to no end that directly following a paragraph describing the game’s financial success, we have the author referring to it as a “Heartbreaker”, showing a complete misunderstanding of what the term means to the point of dripping with unintentional irony. In writing my own game based on an earlier game system, I coined the phrase “Retrovamp RPG” in opposition to “Retroclone.”

Zweihander began life as the online project Corehammer, native to the Strike To Stun forums, which I understand was a more direct Warhammer clone in most regards. Most of us, however, became aware of Zweihander through its author’s aggressive and unrepentant marketing campaign across various RPG forums. This has won Daniel & Co. no little amount of notoriety, and in some cases blatantly turned off a number of potential customers. Despite this, it was overall likely the largest contributing factor to the Kickstarter’s unprecedented success and exceptional pdf sales.

As they’ve made abundantly clear, Zweihander is an attempt to capture the spirit and gameplay of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay . The first edition of WFRP was a comprehensive single volume tabletop RPG that remained in print altogether for over a decade, first from Games Workshop and then under license by Hogshead Publishing. Following Hogshead’s dissolution in 2002, a second edition of the game was designed by Green Ronin Publishing and released through Black Industries, a division of GW’s Black Library publishing arm.

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The second edition made minor alterations in an attempt to “balance” the system, and bring it in line with the current fluff of the Warhammer Fantasy Battles miniature wargame. It also split the contents of the core rulebook into a series of hardback supplements, of varying quality (The Old World Bestiary and Children of the Horned Rat are particularly well regarded). Black Industries exited the roleplaying market in 2009, though their products are still available for sale as pdfs. Fantasy Flight Games then acquired the Warhammer license and published a “third edition” (in name only), using a completely different system, and we’ll disregard that as well as the announced, (but - as of this writing - unpublished), fourth edition by Cubicle 7.

So in the course of this review, in seeing how well Zweihander has met its stated goals, I’ll be comparing it based on three aspects that I believe form the core of what defined WFRP; Aesthetics, System, and Comprehensiveness. I’ll take a moment now to explore what I mean by those terms in this context.
 

TristramEvans

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AESTHETICS


If there’s one thing that Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay’s reputation is based upon, it is the unique mood of the game. Especially when juxtaposed against other fantasy RPGs of the time, most prominently the ubiquitous hobby powerhouse, Dungeons & Dragons. Whereas “Post-Tolkien Heroic Fantasy in a pseudo-medieval setting” was by the mid 80s established as the default for the Fantasy RPG genre in general, the hobby was also still recovering from The Satanic Panic and trying to present a “family-friendly” appearance. By the time AD&D 2nd edition came around, the game was essentially bowdlerized. The rise of narrative-driven campaigns such as Dragonlance also sought to cast the players in the role of heroes, destined for great adventure and rewards. Long gone was the “Dungeon SWAT-team” style of play from the hobby’s origins, instead players adopted fantasy archetypes from pop culture, and all that entails. Paladins were knights in shining armour via Mallory, whose holy weaponry spread fear into the hearts of evil. Rogues were dashing rapscallions in the vein of Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood. Barbarians were massive muscle bound Conan etsy’s whose powerful axes would lay waste to goblinoids, etcetera.


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This may sound like I’m taking the piss out of High Fantasy a bit, and in the context I sort of am. But know that I am a huge Tolkien geek, was raised on Arthurian Legends, and I’m pretty down with Errol Flynn’s opus and The Court Jester. So not only do I understand the appeal, but I’m down with it hook, line, and sinker when it comes to gaming. King’s Quest and Dirk the Daring are as much the pop culture underpinnings of my interest in fantasy as Froud & Lee.

But there’s always value in something different. And Warhammer Fantasy provided that. There’s an amusing idiom regarding WFRP that’s been floating about online for years, and that is “in Warhammer, players start the game thinking they’re playing D&D, but pretty soon they realize they’re playing Call of Cthulhu.” Warhammer was unapologetically ultra-violent. It was grimdark before grimdark was a thing (in the States at least). It embraced the occult, and peopled its world with Satanic underground cults, demons of every shape and variety, and Lovecraftian Chaos gods. It ditched the fairytale Anglo-medieval premise for a late Renaissance world steeped in Germanic flavour. And it cast the players as the scum of a corrupt and dirty human society, with “Beggar” or “Rat-Catcher” as iconic characters.

Warhammer Fantasy is a world of disease, plague, and corruption. Dilapidated towers inhabited by Necromancers, forest enclaves of foul mutated Beastmen, and cyclopean horrors from the bogs and marshes lay just outside the protective walls of a Renaissance-era Germanic Empire. Daily life is a struggle in the oppressively stratified society, where the majority eek out a meager living, corrupt officials grown fat on the labour of the poor. And just below the surface of this so-called civilization, mad priests seduced by the powers of Chaos work towards the fall of the society in the name of their Demonic patrons while humanoid rats of numbers that would drive most insane carry out their own goals of conquest in the labyrinthine sewer systems and hive like catacombs of the vast Skaven underworld.

In mountain strongholds, the proud but dying race of Dwarves desperately hold onto their once great halls as foulness beyond description assaults them from the depths. The hostile and ageless elves isolate themselves from a world they once ruled, as more and more of their number fall to the seduction of darkness. And hordes of mindless and brutal goblinoids ravage the landscape, consumed by an unquenchable lust for battle and bloodshed.

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What really made the game work, however, was an underlying very black and very British sense of humour. Warhammer was a mad mix of 2000AD anti-Thatcherism, punk fatalism, Moorcockian cynicism, and Pythonian absurdity. The visuals, largely informed by John Blanche, blended Hieronymus Bosch with Heavy Metal album covers. Pop culture references and historical in-jokes informed the text at every turn, so even to this day, rereading that early material can turn up some new clever twist of phrase or innuendo.

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SYSTEM

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay’s system was developed in tandem with the third edition of Warhammer Fantasy Battles and around the same time as the first edition of Rogue Trader, introducing the 40K universe. And so, for a short but glorious period of time, all three games were largely cross-compatible with several universe-defining sourcebooks written for all three gamelines at once. WFRP took the miniature system (which was in and of itself developed as an RPG/miniature skirmish game hybrid), and simply expanded it in certain areas to make it suitable for theatre-of-the-mind style roleplaying. The statline was kept the same, but certain attributes that were designated on a scale of 1 to 10 adopted percentile ranges, a career and skill system was added, and combat was revised to reflect the one to one scale.

The career system is likely the most memorable innovation of WFRP, taking the D&D conceit of Classes and stretching it to cover the myriad professions indicative of The Old World. The Skill system was very much in line with the “Non-Weapon Proficiencies” optional rules of D&D, a prime example of modular vs exception-based design.

Levels were discarded in exchange for characters advancing through professions as play progressed. This is largely where complaints of “play balance” came from, as certain professions naturally provided far more bonuses than others. The intention, of course, was that a character’s career path would come about organically through the events of the campaign, instead of PCs arbitrarily jumping through career exits to gather skills and attribute bonuses. This is largely not taken into account as far as such complaints go, but in general the discussion on game balance and my opinions on it is a tangent outside the scope of this review (though I reserve the right to expound upon it later if it comes up in the course of my evaluation).

For myself, however, the gem of the game is the combat system, which is streamlined, fast, and wonderfully evinces the grim nature of the setting. Summarized simply, an attack is made with a percentile role compared to the attacker’s Weapon Skill (Ballistic Skill for a ranged weapon). If successfully, flipping the digits of the roll gives the location of the hit. The attacker adds their Strength characteristic to their weapon’s Damage (usually D6), and the defender subtracts from this total their Toughness characteristic + applicable Armour Points. The defender can absorb an amount of Damage equal to their Wounds characteristic, but any attack that does Damage in excess of this causes a Critical Hit.

The Critical Hit charts are, in my opinion the most glorious part of the game. A percentile roll based on the location of the hit evinces any number of gruesome effects, detailed in a macabre vignette. It is deadly, brutal and bloody, and players soon learn to avoid combat as it has a tendency to leave lasting effects on those who survive. It's not uncommon for a player group to end up with eyes, ears, or limbs missing.

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The original magic system is also sometimes maligned for its byzantine nature. It largely depends on rare ingredients for spells, and merely the act of casting magic can have deleterious effects ranging from insanity to contracting arcane diseases. This was later replaced with a system based on the “Winds of Magic” that was introduced in the wargame (in the Realms of Magic supplement for the 1st edition of the game, and codified in the second edition). Again this is a case where I enjoy the system without revisions, as I find it properly evokes the eldritch nature of spellcraft and the themes of the gameworld. Perhaps it was also the many hours I spent playing King's Quest III as a kid, but I have a deep appreciation for ingredient-based spells as a sort of uncanny recipe, which also was present (but largely, it seems, ignored by most groups) in the AD&D 2nd edition spells.

COMPREHENSIVENESS

Simply put, I believe the original Warhammer Fantasy Role-Playing rulebook remains to this day the industry gold standard of single-book RPG design. It contains everything needed for a lifetime of play, and moreso. That doesn’t mean that some of the supplements aren’t excellent and full of valuable information (The Enemy Within campaign books alone largely established the fluff regarding the Empire), but none of them are necessary. And I appreciate that. After the 90s, I regard the supplement/splat treadmill style of publishing with more than a little resentment, and if I’m honest this did colour my view of WFRP 2nd edition.

So what makes WFRP comprehensive? Besides the complete rules for the game, including careers, and advanced careers, skills, equipment, a vast amount of spells, an Old World Bestiary, a well-done GM section, and a sample adventure with example PCs, you also get a gazetteer of the Old World that is short but evocative enough to capture the flavour of the various countries that make up and border the Empire. WFRP is very adept at providing enough information to springboard your imagination and evince the tone of the setting, without bogging you down with extraneous details. In short, it provides the perfect starting point for any GM’s imagination. This was before the Old World had become strictly defined after twenty years of army books and Black Library novels. Many elements that I consider defining of Warhammer would later be excised as “too silly” or “not family friendly enough” as the wargame shifted gears to appeal to adolescents, such as the turtle-centaur druid Zoats, the Celtic mythology-inspired Fimir, and the Amazon tribes.

There are other numerous small touches that really endear the book to me and speak to its completeness as a resource. Floor plans for typical buildings of the Old World, for example. Or the system for determining the sprawl of civilization and distance between cities in The Empire.

So, anyways, enough with the preamble, let's jump into Zweihander and see how it measures up.

COVER & FIRST IMPRESSIONS

A nearly 700-page hardback tome, Zweihander is a very impressive looking product. The only similar feeling I can compare to first picking it up and flipping through the pages was the DCC RPG, and frankly it dwarfs that book in quality (and nostalgia-factor, as I don’t have the same degree of fondness towards AD&D as other grognards). The binding is excellent; perfect-bound, with an included red silk bookmark. Flipping to any page, the book opens flat, without creasing the spine. The pages are a high quality paper, matte and reproducing the pencilled interior art perfectly. It's clear within a minute of holding the book in my hands that utmost care was put into the construction. There were two covers offered to backers of the Kickstarter, one by Jussi Alarauhio that features a static pose of four grim-looking characters:


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This is the “standard” cover. Its okay, a bit static, though I really like the back cover image. My book however appears to have the Kickstarter exclusive cover by Dejan Mandic:

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This cover seems more like a tribute to the iconic cover of the original WFRP. To a certain extent, though, it doesn’t seem fair to compare them. I think it would be impossible for me to divorce the nostalgic feelings that John Sibbick’s painting evokes. I’ll say this at least - I like it far better than the cover to WFRP 2nd Edition.

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I’ll let Orlygg field this one:
Sibbick's front cover is perhaps the most iconic of them all when it come to the 80's Warhammer Mythos. The crumbling underground tomb, the band of heroes (including the troll slayer, who I always assumed to be Gotrek), the Ogre Face banner with squiggles radiating out of it, the mohican with black and white chequers, the green, bandy goblins and the deep sense of inevitable doom for all of the characters involved.”

So, while I don’t think this cover will ever occupy the same iconic status (I may be wrong, who knows, maybe even as I write this some 13 year old kid is holding it in his hands right now, pouring over every detail, trying to coach out every hidden crevice, as I did for time untold with Sibbick’s cover), I do like me some Ratmen.

However, here we come to a big pet peeve on my part. Black noses on Ratmen! WTH? Can someone please show Mr. Mandic a picture of a rat? THIS is a rat…

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Rats do not have black noses! Mickey f---ing Mouse has a black nose!

Flipping through the book, each page is framed with nicely evocative border art that manages to convey mood without distracting from the text. The layout is very clear and professionally done, and the book is copiously illustrated. I can’t stress this enough. Dejan Mandic’s work graces nearly every page. I cannot imagine how many hours he put into this, but without any critique, I must just plain take my hat off to him. Very few independent RPG products ever manage this level of art design, and those that do usually rely on a team of contributors. For a single artist, this would have been an immense undertaking.

Mandic’s contribution gives the book a sense of consistency in vision that few large publishers manage. I could waffle here about wanting to see other interpretations, but that’s such a meaningless throway critique that it doesn’t do justice to the effort on display here. Which is not to say I don’t have a few criticisms of the artwork, but all of these should be tempered by the vast appreciation I have for what Mandic has achieved here.
 

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PART THE FIRST - Iterum Proelium Committere

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree,
and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”​

Zweihander opens with a pretty extensive table of contents, which is always good to see. I quickly flipped to the back of the book to make sure they hadn’t tried the old trick of trying to substitute it for an index, but luckily no, an index is there. Something tells me that's going to be an absolute necessity with this game, so I’ll see if in the course of reading I find any glaring omissions.

Next we have a page of opening fiction. As usual, I skip it. I may someday come back and read it, but short of a republished HP Lovecraft story, at this point in my life the only thing I’m less likely to read than gamefic is a section entitled “What is a Roleplaying Game?”

On the following page, however, we have a section entitled “Designer’s Notes,” which engenders the opposite response. I always love anything that might give me a “behind the scenes look” at the thought process and approach of an author to game design. Generally, these can be incredibly informative windows into what design choices were made and why, and though they show up quite commonly in wargames, for some reason they are rare in RPGs.

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Unfortunately, in this case, not much here I haven’t already covered. I’d say it's more of a “Preface” or “Introduction” than “Designer’s Note.” The full page cover art for Chapter one facing it, however, sets up a nice frame leading into the meat of the tome.

Next, we have 3 pages of a general introduction, including the requisite attempt to define role playing games for a new audience. I’ve always personally found such sections to reveal more about the author than RPGs in general. In this case, there are frequent uses of the terms “story” and “drama,” causing my spider-sense to tingle. There’s a half-hearted nod to the “low fantasy” genre with a few literary examples, but I think much more could have been said here. I’d refer anyone genuinely interested to Fantasy Literature: A Core Collection and Reference Guide by Tymm, Zahorski, and Boyer for a much better description. Then, a note about gender pronouns, because we have to appease the f---ing millennials. All in all, its okay. Doesn’t inspire me much, but overall doesn’t turn me off, but I can’t help thinking that with some editing and commodity of phrase this section could have been condensed into one page.

One thing that does interest me about this section in direct comparison to Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay is how it addresses house rules. This is what WFRP had to say on the matter:

“To help the GM decide what is possible and what is not, there are the rules you hold now. The GM will use these rules to present a balanced setting in which the fictional characters can adventure. He will make the adventure seem real. But the rules are only guidelines, and when the GM feels that he should change them, he will. “

Contrast this with Zweihander’s statement:

“...the GM and players should never let the rules prevent the story from moving forward. If a rule gets in the way, work with your GM to change it by turning it into a house rule, personalizing it for your group’s preferred style of play.”

You’ll notice that while seemingly addressing the same subject, this very much places the player’s equally in charge of rule implementation. For narrative-based play, this is fine, but it’s directly contradictory to an immersive gaming experience, which shows a fundamental disconnect from WFRP’s intent.

Now the book dumps us into the thick of things with the ‘How To Play’ rules summary. The basic mechanic is called a Skill Test, and its pretty straightforward percentile roll. First, the appropriate skill is chosen to find the base chance for success. Then, add the “Primary Attribute Value” (oh dear, Cardinal Sin of Game Writing #1 - the introduction of system specific jargon before it’s defined). Modifiers are added from character Talents and Traits, and situation. Penalties can be imposed based on the character’s “Peril Condition Track” (but apparently we won’t learn what that is until Chapter 9). And finally, the GM assigns a Difficulty Rating, which can further modify the roll on a scale from Arduous (-30%) to Trivial (+30%). I immediately ask the book why anyone would need to roll for a trivial task, but no answer is forthcoming. Nor are there any definitions to help distinguish between the terms “Routine” or “Standard,” or what makes a task “Hard” as opposed to “Challenging.” There are the usual variations for extended tasks, assisted tests, and opposed tests.

If you roll doubles, this triggers a Critical Success or Failure. Likewise, a roll of 100 always counts as a Critical Failure, even if your chance of success exceeds 100% (so even if you can’t fail, you can still majorly f--- up), and a roll of 01 is always a Critical Success.

(Just as a matter of personal aesthetic, I wish these points were reversed)

Altogether, a solid mechanic. I particularly like the criticals based on doubles, and the use of flipping the die rolls, which was an elegant part of the combat system in WFRP. However, though I’ve haven’t seen yet what starting stats look like, I’m already getting the impression that player characters in Zweihander begin the game far more competent than their Warhammer counterparts, which may affect how “gritty” the system actually ends up feeling, despite all its nice words on the subject. There are perhaps a few more modifiers involved than I’d like when it comes to calculating a roll, but I imagine it goes fast enough when players are familiar with the system. I am also a bit trepidation regarding the Difficulty Ratings, but I’ll wait and see what the GM’s section has to say on the matter.

Next, mention is made of the Fury dice, which is an exploding D6 that determines the damage of attacks, and the less clearly defined Chaos dice that determines if “something terrible may happen.”

The final part of this section deals with the “Fortune Pool.” I take it this is the equivalent to Warhammer’s Fate points. In WFRP, Fate points basically were Hail Marys that served to keep player characters alive through their first few combats, and as a balancing mechanism for the character races (I think halflings got the highest amount, elves the lowest). Basically, when you took a critical hit, a Fate point would keep you from bleeding to death or succumbing to shock. They were rare, highly valued, and there was no codified manner of getting more once spent beyond some suggestions that the GM may reward them under extraordinary circumstances.

So how does the Fortune Pool compare? Well, first off, apparently it is a shared resource for the whole game group. At the beginning of every game session (wait, that can’t be right - rereading - um, yep, every game session), one token is placed in a bowl and an additional token for every player taking part in the game session…

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This is such a purely “Because Game” mechanic that it sticks right in my craw. And now I’m wondering if my previous suspicions regarding player competency are correct. Could this simply be removed from the game entirely, or is it possible that any pretense of this system reflecting the gritty gameplay of Warhammer Fantasy has already flown out the window? Time will tell.

Apparently Fortune Points can be spent during the game for one of three effects:
  • To re-roll a failed Skill Test
  • To gain an addition Action Point in combat (um, “Action Point”?)
  • To get an automatic result of 6 on a Chaos or Fury die roll
Oh, and whenever a player spends a Fortune Point, the token is transferred to the GM’s “Misfortune Pool,” a mechanism disturbingly similar to Marvel Heroic Roleplaying’s “Doom Pool.”

I don’t care for this at all, and I’m hoping this mechanic can be simply discarded wholesale, or replaced with the traditional Fate points. But first I’ll need to see how integrated it is into the system overall.

It’s probably worth pointing out now that it is obvious just from initial glances through the game that Zweihander’s rulebook is not designed or formatted with the intention of being a resource manual during gameplay. This observation is not meant in and of itself as a criticism per se; many games I like take this approach; rather to point out that I understand the probable reason for placing the How to Play rule summary section here at the beginning, where it is easily accessible. However, I would have preferred it to have started with a basic overview of how characters are defined in game terms to provide some manner of context for the resolution mechanic. Moreover, multiple instances of the #1 Cardinal Sin of Game Writing spread throughout means that this section does not provide anything close to a complete understanding of the mechanics in the first read-through. One would need to come back and reread this section several times in the course of learning game after making it to the sections of the book that actually define and explain the referenced jargon. I can only imagine this would be especially burdensome to someone reading the game in pdf format (I lie, I don’t have to imagine, I first attempted to review the pdf version of Zweihander before I was sent a physical copy). At the very least page numbers could have been noted, preferably hyper-linked in the pdf.

29GzcnlnE9idQTgiUf5m7UdU5SyyzLsNOD3gwvHhq-YBVdGDXs9y_bmOdnfIkxKh4Kg9uskg6E2_gKqUnEe8ZN5CAfx3KkDF_MWbpBYYU8bkqf_zk9Jl62PtvBZG8seau7Z-r9PZ

Before moving on, does that picture of a “swindler” look like a 1920’s Flapper to anyone else, or is it just me?
Like Zelda Fitzgerald stepped into a game of Warhammer?

Chapter III deals with character generation. It begins with a few bullet points of “setting” information to get you in the mood. I almost think these would have been better off paired with the brief notes on the Low Fantasy genre. Together it might make for a pretty good introduction to the game. These do effectively paint a picture of a pseudo-medieval, superstitious, violent, and medically ignorant world where monsters dwell outside the relative safety of isolated communities. Note that I did say “pseudo-medieval” and not “pseudo-Renaissance.” There are, as yet, no indications of the Age of Exploration or political reactions to The Enlightenment that informed the background of early editions of Warhammer Fantasy.

The best way I can think of covering this section is to go ahead and generate a character. So, Step I: Begin Basic Tier. In WFRP, a character’s overall competence was defined somewhat by how many careers they’d completed, and as near as I can tell, this concept is what the “Tier” in Zweihander refers to. So, uh, this step isn’t really a “step” per se, , more of an announcement of a concept. I guess I can just declare “Starting Basic Tier!” and we are go…

Step II: Primary Attributes. WFRP’s substantial list of 14 attributes inherited from WFB is here reduced to seven: Combat, Brawn, Agility, Perception, Intelligence, Willpower, and Fellowship.

I generally like all of these except ‘Combat,” which just sounds weird
trying to be forced into an adjectival noun role.
Should have gone with “Prowess”

Each Attribute has a percentile Rating and then an associated Attribute Bonus that starts as a number derived by dividing by dividing the Attribute Rating by ten, but then improves independently of your Attribute Rating.

Attribute Ratings are generated by rolling 3d10 and adding 25 to the total, for a range between 28 and 55, with an average of 40. Additionally, a player may replace one roll with 42% (that’s a rather specific number...is that a Douglas Adams reference, or am I just desperately looking for references at this point?). So yeah, previous suspicions are pretty much confirmed; Zweihander characters are quite a bit more competent than their WFRP equivalents, who typically rolled 2d10 + 20, with some variation based on race. Interestingly, here there is as yet no mention of race/species; unlike in Warhammer, everyone rolls the same for Attributes.

Rolling my d10s in order I get…
9uyPJnfsyqHKQFE-jzpgtLkegzzQv2-wOuubNiIyoGB0OxzwHl_G1GAXPa5dXJL05d4zPZmDbo7NRPLe5CUFShQ4FhxZHzRdU-kRGSoqfBrQohVPBXXuVzBl5mMJiJmiDMw6ApQ_

Seem like decent scores. If this was WFRP, those would be the scores of a Wunderkind. My lowest is Perception, so my first thought is to raise that one to 42%, but on second thought, I like some sort of obvious weakness to latch onto for roleplaying inspiration, so I up Willpower instead.

Part III is Sex and Race. So...yeah, Zweihander expects players to randomly roll for their character’s sex…

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I can’t imagine any GM enforcing this, or what my reaction as a player would be if they tried. The section starts out stating that the game makes no mechanical differences between males and females. Well, good? But then what’s the f---ing purpose of rolling? Does that even need to be said, can’t the game just have no mechanical differences between male and female characters like hundreds of RPGs before it?

The reality of the situation is that many players are either uncomfortable or inept at roleplaying characters of the opposite sex. I can’t think of a better recipe for bad stereotypes and sexist humour than a group of middle-aged male roleplayers forced to play a troupe of female characters.

This is a bad rule and it needs to go sit in the corner and think about what its done.
Meanwhile, a black Sharpie will fix my rulebook…

Hey! Hardly any bleed over. This is good quality paper!​
 

TristramEvans

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Next, we have the option of either defaulting to human or random-rolling for a “demihuman” race. In WFRP you got to choose between a human, halfling, dwarf, or wood elf (I think gnomes may have shown up in the the Apocrypha Now supplement, but I’m not sure about that. But then, who would want to play a damn, dirty gnome? That's the sort of race you force your kid sister to play when your mother insists that you include her in your game).

In Zweihander, you roll a d100 and could come up with a dwarf, gnome, halfling, ogre, or elf. I can only guess that ogres in Zweihander are very different from their counterparts in WFRP, as Warhammer ogres would be completely unsuitable as player characters. I even had a difficult time justifying Wood Elves in regards to Warhammer’s default setting assumptions (I’d usually have would-be elf players come up with some reason they were banished from Elven society to explain why they were slumming it on the streets of a city of The Empire).

Anyhoo...rolling the dice…

A 28, that is a...GNOME? A Motherf---ing gnome?!

Ohhhhh….looook...I, uh, accidentally mixed up the tens and the ones dice.

It’s really an “82.” That’s an...elf. Boo-yeah.

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I dunno, even D&D let’s players choose their race (and gender). This section is the first to actually remind me of one of those myriad Heartbreakers I read in the early aughts. The best I can say is at least there’s no anal circumference table…

Speaking of Dungeons & Dragons, I am slightly put off by Zweihander’s use of the word “demihuman,” a particularly Gygaxian term that doesn’t suit a Warhammer-inspired setting or game, IMO.

Let’s see, next is “Racial Traits.” According to the book: “Each race has its own set of unique features called Racial Traits. These cultural distinctions help create differences between the core races and ethnic diversity within their own species.” Hmm… “cultural distinctions” and “ethnic diversity.” Does that mean that there are no physical differences between the races? I was wondering how being a gnome might affect my 41% Brawn.

I mean, elf. I’m definitely an elf.

Wait, no, OK, I skipped a paragraph just above the section on Racial Traits that says “each race receives positive and negative modifiers to certain Primary Attribute Bonuses.”

That reminds me, I’m still unclear at this point as to the function of Attribute Ratings in the game, as the basic mechanic described in the previous chapter was clearly skill-based and only made use of the Attribute Bonus. I hope this isn't a D20-type situation where the Ratings exist solely to derive the Bonus, and are there simply as a legacy mechanic. Probably not, but between the “demihumans” and “Primary Attributes,” I’m just wary of D&Disms.

Anyways, back to Racial Traits. Each race, even humans, have an associated list of around a dozen Traits, of which you are assigned one during chargen via (you guessed it) a random roll. I notice that one of the traits for humans is “Mixed Bloodline,” so half-whatevers do exist in the game. I try not to think too hard about the implications of a half-gnome. Flipping to the section on elves, I see I get a +1 to my Agility, Perception, and Intelligence Bonuses, and a -1 to Brawn, Willpower, and Fellowship. Damn, that kinda throws a kink in my plan to focus on Perception as a weakness. OK, I’m just going to go back and assign the 42 to Perception instead and make Willpower my lowest Trait (technically, the book says this exchange can take place at the end of chargen, so I’m not really breaking any rules).

So that gives me...
X7AGzlGF2MwByUFwRNnMVQ6SkC1RXHGwVLAjP3qobKtAjFV0leAmPqWq2mRYoSTtiQoHrtQJML1p3SMmwVUfeOk2IHnBtQrtYuiUEH_Tn5K8rUHK8cuQggGGWpo2LVU5-99IjaoU


And rolling for my Trait I get… 36, Fey Treachery: “Your first successful Attack Action against a foe adds 1d6 Fury Die to your Damage results. This can be used against multiple foes during combat, taking advantage of you traitorous ways!” Well, that sounds nifty.

(Also, kudos to the game for correctly using the singular of ‘dice,’ avoiding one of my linguistic pet peeves)

Step IV is Archetype and Profession. I roll d100 again to deduce my Archetype, which replaces the four Classes of WFRP with “Academic, Commoner, Knave, Ranger, Socialite, and Warrior.” And I roll...a 41. Which is a Knave. So, flipping to the section on Knaves, I find they are essentially Zweihander’s equivalent of the Rogue.

And...oh. Oh dear…

“Gypsies and roadside buskers fall into this same category as their line of work, although not inherently illegal, requires some measure of guile to earn an honest coin.”


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The paradox of making social justice platitudes about progressive views on gender paired with casually dropping archaic racist stereotypes into a game is brain wrinkling on the level of Almost-Politically Correct Redneck.

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(Sigh), I know the author is American. And many Americans are completely unaware of the Romani as anything beyond a stereotype from Gothic Hollywood films of the 40s and 50s. The notion that “Gypsy” is considered a racial slur probably doesn’t even occur to them.

Moving on...
 

TristramEvans

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My starting trappings as a Knave include Antivenom, dark clothes, Folkbane (I don’t know what that is, poison? Anyways I’ve got three of it), a gaff bag, garish or second-hand attire (is “attire” different from clothing?), a holy symbol, lock picks, mantle, soft shoes, a stiletto, and my choice of blackjack, garotte, or flintlock pistol (maybe it's the Mordheim in me, but I go with the pistol).

Incidentally, I’ve had a lifelong fascination with stilettos ever since reading Eye of the Needle among the collection of my Grandfather’s books as a wee lad. It was about a secret Nazi assassin/spy hiding out in England, known as ‘The Needle’ because of his use of a stiletto. There was even a pretty decent 1981 film adaption with Donald Sutherland.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, stuff. That is quite the haul for a Class that includes “Beggar” as a possible career. Speaking of, its now time for me to roll for my profession, so another d100...39. A gambler?


*spontaneously bursts into song*
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Hmm, no further info on gamblers just yet, as we are now on to Secondary Attributes.

Peril Threshold is basically a character’s stress level, determining “ how much anxiety and weariness they can withstand before suffering penalties to their Skill Tests.” The Peril Threshold track on the character sheet has four “steps”, based on a base score of a character’s Willpower Bonus + 3 and any modifiers for Talents, Traits, or Magick. In my case, that means “5,”, so my Peril Threshold is (5/11/17/23). I get the sense this is pretty much the equivalent of Zweihander’s Sanity mechanic.

Damage Threshold is presented in much the same manner, this time based on a character’s Brawn Bonus plus any armour’s Damage Threshold modifier. I don’t have any armour, so my Damage Threshold track is (3/9/15/21).

Encumbrance Limit (sigh) is 3 + Brawn Bonus, so in my case “6.” Apparently any point of Encumbrance above this limit is applied as a penalty to Initiative and Movement. “Initiative determines when you take your turn on the Initiative Ladder.” Okay. This one is based on Perception Bonus, so my Initiative is 5. Finally, Movement is based on a Character’s Agility Bonus, so mine is 6.

This section is where I’m starting to feel this game could be easily streamlined further. Do we need a Secondary Attribute for Initiative based on the Perception Bonus or for Movement based on the Agility Bonus when we could just use the Perception or Agility Bonus? Encumbrance made sense in Gygax’s conception of D&D as a resource management game of dungeon exploration, but what does it add to a Warhammer-esque setting? Maybe it’s my general aversion to very crunchy systems, and admittedly I may be a bit unusual in that any system crunchier than, say, West End Games’ D6 tends to cause groans. And the thing is, the original WFRP is not a very complex system overall. It seems as if Zweihander adds a ton of complications, and I question the value that actually adds to gameplay vs the extra OOC work. But there’s certainly far more complex systems that are very popular, so these sentiments may reflect nothing more than my laissez-faire attitude towards rules when GMing.

Step VI defines a character’s Background. We first roll D100 to determine the Character’s season of birth. OK, rolled a 61...so Autumn. Then D100 to determine the character’s “Dooming,” based on the season of birth. Rolling on the Autumn column I get 81…”Do Not Fold, Always Stay.” Hahahahaha! That is surprisingly appropriate!

Now d100 for Age Group. I roll a 53, which is “Adult.” This triggers an Effect: “you have one Distinguishing Mark.” Another D100 roll...40, “Glasgow Grin.” I actually have to google that one (which causes me a brief moment of shame as a Scot)...According to Wikipedia:”A Glasgow smile (also known as a Chelsea smile, or a Glasgow, Chelsea or Cheshire grin) is a wound caused by making a cut from the corners of a victim's mouth up to the ears, leaving a scar in the shape of a smile.” So...lol, I’m the Joker.

Now to Build Type, the charts for which are divided by Race and Gender…um, so, forgot about that whole Sex having no mechanical effect and Transgender/Gender Identification thing already, huh? First roll for Build...33…”Slender,” which gives me a -10% price modifier to the cost for food, clothing, and armour.

Next, rolling on the chart for a male elf...69, so 6’2” and 138 lbs.

Another series of d100 rolls for Hair and Eye Colour...I roll an 88 for hair, “Smokey Grey”, and a 46 for eyes…”Molasses”? So I have grey hair and black eyes. That's very...anime.

And a roll for upbringing ...16, “Forgotten,” which means “you were raised outside of common society and had little opportunity to integrate until now.” This also gives me the Favoured Attribute - Agility, which means its cheaper to buy Ability-based Skills.

Now rolling for Social Class...woo! 99! That makes me..an Aristocrat! (Cue Gilbert Gottfried…). I’m not sure how that works with my Forgotten Upbringing yet, will have to think about that…But I do start the game with d10 + 1 gold crowns . Roll a... well a 3, so 4 Gold Crowns. Still not bad.

Languages thankfully don’t require a roll.

Drawbacks you aren’t required to roll, but can do so in exchange for an extra Fate point. This is reminiscent of Mythras. But wait, I need to re-read this...a Fate point? So not a Fortune point? Fate points also exist in the game?

OK, Step VII: The Hand of Fate…

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Yeah its Fate points. Pretty much as they exist in Warhammer. So the whole Fortune Point thing was added on to the game wholesale.

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Anyways, everyone starts the game with one Fate point, unless they took a previously-mentioned Drawback.

Step VIII: Alignment. These have been refashioned into Order and Chaos Alignments, similar to Changeling: The Dreaming’s Seelie and Unseelie natures. But they are also ranked as a player moves more towards one or the other, like Pendragon’s Virtues and Passions. So I roll...a 01, wow. That gives me an Order Alignment of “Adaptation” and a Chaos Alignment of “Mayhem.” That sounds fun. We actually get about 3 ½ full pages after the 3 pages of descriptions discussing Alignments. They are clearly stated as meant to be representative, not restrictive, which is good. During play you keep track of Corruption, which works kinda like Vampire: The Masquerade’s Humanity. The more Corruption, the greater a chance your ranks in your Chaos Alignment increase. When your Chaos ranks equal 10, you gain a Disorder. I can’t help but think that this and the Peril Threshold rules cover very similar ground, and it seems like these concepts should have been combined into one mechanic, instead of two, completely unrelated mental condition ratings.

Finally, for this chapter, I choose a name for my Character. So, an elven Gambler who grew up outside of society but is now an Aristocrat…

Well I want something Germanic and Fey, so I think I’m going to call him Nix Halewijn. “Nix” was the name of a mischievous male shapeshifting faery spirit in German folklore, and Halewijn comes from the folktale of Heer Halewijn:

Heer Halewijn (also known as Van Here Halewijn and in English The Song of Lord Halewijn) is a Dutch folk tale which survives in folk ballad. Although the first printed version of the song only appears in an anthology published in 1848, the ballad itself dates back to the 13th century and is one of the oldest Dutch folk songs with ancient subject matter to be recorded. The story of lord Halewijn itself is even older and contains elements going back to Carolingian times. Many of its mythemes range back to Germanic pre-Christian legends. The song's subject matter is similar in many respects to several Germanic songs circulating in the Middle Ages Europe, notably close to the English ballad May Colvin or False Sir John and its variations, Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight. The legends may have been the prototype of the Legend of Bluebeard.” - Wikipedia

At this point I’m thinking that Nix’s mother committed some horrible (as yet undefined) atrocity that caused her to be cast out from her Elven community with her young baby (maybe she was caught invoking Slaanesh?). Fleeing to the deep woods, his mother was killed defending her child from Beastmen. The Beastmen did not discover the young boy hidden in the brambles, who watched his mother cut down and carried off to some horrible sacrifice. The young boy survived as best he could alone in the wilderness, until being discovered by a human noble and his wife travelling by carriage through a woodland road. They adopted the young boy, and took him back to the city to be educated and raised as a noble. However, Nix never lost his wild streak and quickly found a taste for gambling that has estranged him from his adoptive family. A bad losing streak left him indebted to a cruel crime boss whose goons inflicted upon him a Glasgow Grin when his parents refused to bail him out of his debts for the umpteenth time.

So, all in all, a character thats interesting and I’m happy enough with. Creating a character is a pretty lengthy process, especially as someone with no prior familiarity with the system. There are a lot of rolls, and I’m not certain most of them are necessary. Zweihander pushes completely random chargen, and I think takes this a few steps too far, especially when we get to physical appearance. Moreover, the randomness is made less purposeful s the choices ultimately are largely aesthetic. I’m already seeing that Zweihander tried to “balance” all of Warhammer’s game choices. I’ll probably talk more on that point later, suffice to say that one thing that has been sticking in my head for a while now is “rules bloat.” Zweihander isn't (solely) an attempt to “clean up” WFRP’s old school rules, but rather adds a ton of rules on top. It’s not quite, but getting close, to “kitchen sink” rules design, with more than a little redundancy (two “sanity-esque mechanics, Fortune points and Fate points, etc).

All that said, in the end the rolls I made led to a quirky and unique character with many of the steps informing the backstory I ended up with. I also felt I understood the rules as they were introduced in this chapter much better, and think that just for ease of learning the system, this chapter really should have preceded the previous “How to Play.”
 

TristramEvans

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od4Ka7OtJMW_9dWvyNbK8ZBmJHyl5_V7zRwmaXz_Oqi6aG0Z_6Ao858qcQNtZFp2Aq1sV6SrpxXkMA34ABUm_wgQ3vbR5DcvCXRxcn3H2xF4NDbA6e1ct22NtccAzgYzP0dKEhVM

Chapter IV is Professions. Careers were one of the defining elements of Warhammer Fantasy, and it's probably here that Zweihander shows its greatest influence. But whereas WFRP’s careers were wildly varied in what Advances and Skills they offered a character, Zweihander has once again evened these out in an attempt at “balance.” Well, it's not like 2nd Edition Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay didn’t do the same thing.

The collection of Professions available here is going to be largely familiar to those familiar with Warhammer, and I quite like all the additions. Along with classics like the Rat-Catcher, Charlatan, and Graverobber, there are also theme-appropriate additions such as the Guttersnipe, Bonepicker and Plague Doctor.

Mandic’s art especially shines in this chapter.

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Here we also start seeing an influx of pop culture references. I’m not going to go through all these (especially as they contribute largely to the enjoyment of reading), but its interesting to compare these as the references of an early 21st-century American geek vs Warhammer’s political and historical references of an 80’s-era Brit. Pointing out this difference isn’t a criticism, but it does give Zweihander a very different underlying feel. Partly, this is also because I am older, though. First reading WFRP as a kid, 90% of the references passed right over my head. It wasn’t until much later I not only understood them, but the socio-political situation in Britain at the time that informed them. Reading Zweihander, I doubt there’s many I’m missing (in fact I could even be seeming some that were unintentional), but I’m not certain how much they contribute to the “mood” that Zweihander is going for, other than making it clear the game thankfully doesn’t take itself too seriously. I appreciate, however, that the writer didn’t attempt to “fake” British humour, which probably would have come across obvious and unnatural.

Each Profession has Advances that are purchased with “Reward Points,” of which each character starts with 1000. Advances come in 4 varieties: Professional Traits, Skill Ranks, Bonus Advances, and Talents. In addition, you may be able to purchase “Unique Advances,” which the book promises to explain to me later.

So I am in my Basic Tier and following Zweihander’s instructions, the first thing I do is spend 100 points to enter my career (Gambler), and immediately gain the associated Professional Trait. In my case that is Luck of the Draw: “When you spend Fortune points, you do not need to roll percentile dice to make a Skill Test. Instead, you automatically Critically Succeed…” Alas, this indicates that Fortune Points are integrated into the system and I can’t simply ditch that mechanic. I also acquire the Drawback: When The Dealin’s Done, which states “When you use a Fortune point for Luck of the Draw, you move one step down on the Peril Condition Track negatively.” Succeeding causes me anxiety. I suppose that’s appropriate for an addictive behaviour.

I also gain one “‘iconic’ trapping” for my character, but I’ll have to wait until Chapter 7 to figure that one out. In the meantime, I can spend my remaining 900 Fortune points on other Advances listed for my Profession. Each costs 100 pts, and there are 20 to choose from - 10 Skill ‘ranks, 7 Bonus Advances, or 3 Talents.

I purchase the “Gamble” skill rank, because, of course. “Bargain,” “Scrutinize,” and “Skullduggery” also sound good. A Bonus to Agility and Perception puts me at six out of nine spent. I don’t know what the Talents mean, but “Holdout” sounds appropriate. Two left...hmmm…a Skill rank in “Simple Melee” might extend my life expectancy a bit, and I guess I’ll go for a Bonus to my Fellowship, which could use a bit of a boost. The book states that once I’ve spent these points I’m ready for play, except I haven’t gotten to the chapter on Trappings yet, and I still don’t know what the effects of my purchased Skills or Trait are So hold your horses gamebook!

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So far, this chapter has impressed me the most. The Professions are all well described, evocative, largely unique, and fantastically illustrated. It's here that one really feels the classic Warhammer inspiration. The “setting” really comes through in the Professions in a way at once more succinct and directly focused than the prior attempts to summarize aspects of the “low fantasy” genre. I think it's mostly a “show don’t tell” predicament of RPG design. Note that there’s an unspoken issue here that I’ve been hinting at for a while, but it’s not the time to delve into yet. On the other hand, there is another point I’ve been putting off until now to bring up, and that’s more generally on the nature of game balance and random rolling, and specifically how that applies to the grim and gritty feel of WFRP 1st Edition that so many attempts have failed to either grasp or recreate, and Zweihander has fallen into that same trap.

Okay, so let's talk about “game balance”. Yes, this phrase is perpetually in quotes, largely as I think it in and of itself represents a misconception. But before we get to that, let's go back to the pre-history of RPGs, wargames. The line between wargames and RPGs is thin and blurry. While D&D is the accepted beginning of the diversion between the two hobbies, one need only read up on Bath’s Hyborean campaign or Korn’s Modern War in Miniature to see that, well before the word “Braunstein” even arrived on the scene that the elements that would define RPGs as unique were already being experimented with and executed in wargames rules. What Braunstein did formally, and several parlour games beforehand did informally, was to introduce the identification of one player with one miniature, or “game character,” and thus encourage an act that actually comes naturally to almost all human beings (even if largely forgotten in adulthood): roleplaying. Roleplaying is in fact not even close to being unique to roleplaying games.

Wargames represent a mock battle between players. It's a competitive effort, and from the earliest days of the hobby point systems were introduced to make the game’s “fair.” This is essentially the beginning of the concept of “game balance.” A competitive game isn’t much fun if the winner is predetermined. By making the game “fair”, in as much as that’s possible, it provided a means for competition between players where strategy prevailed over chance and army strength. But here also we saw the first divergence between competitive and narrative wargaming, even if these terms would not be codified until decades later.

Balance via points is a controversial subject in wargames even to this day. Many of the issues should be commonly identifiable to roleplayers: the value of any given unit within the game depends on wildly divergent circumstances. The terrain of the battle, the synergy between units, the types of enemy faced...all of this is largely unpredictable and alters the utility of any unit type.

The easiest way to describe this is to think about the direct precursor to wargames...chess. A chess game involves two identical armies. The same troops, equidistant apart, acting upon the same featureless terrain. The only variable factor is who plays white or black, and with white receiving the only game advantage - moving first - it also has an increased chance of success that some estimate as high as 40%. And yet, when computer programmers first attempted to translate chess into a video game, they ran into a very interesting problem. Invariably, the computer would start playing adeptly, but by the middle of the game it would constantly make simply mistakes. You see, initially the programmers had communicated the importance of each chess piece to the computer by assigning it a numerical value. Pawns, for example, had a value of one, while the King had a value of say, 100. The programmers eventually solved this issue by assigning variable point values to pieces depending on their position on the board, and the remaining pieces on the board. A rook, for example, is only somewhat valuable at the beginning of the game, but its value steadily increases as the game goes on and the board opens up. (this is an incredibly abbreviated account of a pretty interesting story that's worth googling. Well, ‘interesting,’ in a very specifically nerdish manner, but if you’re over two dozen pages into the review of a tabletop roleplaying game, you’re probably picking up what I’ve putting down.)

By the way, anyone else remember Battle Chess? That was my jam, man.

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Okay, so now imagine taking chess, replacing the board with variable terrain, and instead of set identical armies, you now had a near-infinite variety of unit combinations and sizes. Not to mention altering the yes/no binary of one piece capturing another with a probability range of effects spread across various weapons, those weapon’s interactions with different types of armour, etc. And then why not add in magic and an infinite variety of fantastical species while you’re at it? I think you can see the point I’m making (and can probably start to appreciate why I put the term “game balance” in quotes).

Incidentally, I happen to be designing a wargame at the moment, and speaking as someone who is 3 years into a degree as a Chartered Accountant at a school with a reputation as one of the most intensive in the country, my schoolwork is far easier than my hobby…

Alright, so with all that in mind, let us now consider the Roleplaying game, and an infinite number of variables restricted by nothing besides the imagination of the participants. Partially, this issue was solved by one of the elements that RPGs inherited from Wargames...the Game Master. The human mind and imagination remains far more adaptable than any computer A.I. yet constructed. A GM’s ability to make judgements facilitates the game’s infinite possibilities in a way no system nor computer could match (though that doesn’t prevent some from trying, but that’s a completely separate rant).

Yet, much more importantly, and far more relevant, what allows RPGs to function in a way distinct from wargames is by removing the inherently competitive nature of opposing players. What distinguishes RPGs from wargames, more than anything else, is that they are a co-operative game. The players are all acting towards the same goal. They are not even really competing with the GM (if they’re performing their role correctly).

With that being the case, what do roleplayers mean when they talk about “game balance?” I suggest what this actually refers to is “time in the spotlight.” For many players this is mistakenly conflated with combat efficiency. The fear, I suppose, being that one player is incredibly effective in the midst of a battle, while others are effectively sidelined. I suggest this comes from an incredibly limited view of RPGs (and, frankly, a notable lack of sportsmanship, but hey, if roleplayers were good sportsmen they would have spent their teen years on dates rather than huddled in shag-carpeted basements with polyhedrals). But consider this: what if an entire session is centred around a character learning to overcome their addictions, or come to grips with the death of a loved one? If a character’s ‘Dark Secret’ is revealed, how much of the campaign is influenced by the repercussions? And with that in mind, doesn’t that call into question the RPG design standard of characters getting bonuses for taking character flaws?

I’m not suggesting now that games should be “balanced” based on a character’s ability to hog the spotlight. Rather I’d say that regulating this aspect of the game is a large part of being an effective gamemaster. And there’s nothing that limits a system more than when it tries to compensate for the assumption of an inadequate GM. Which is not something I’m accusing Zweihander of, rather that it represents the same misunderstanding behind an attempt to balance different characters mechanically. Actually, I am sorta accusing Zweihander of that, in a way I’ll explain shortly.

I’m not even saying that creating a “balanced” chargen scenario is a bad thing Rather I would propose that Warhammer Fantasy was equally balanced and that the “fixes” made by both Zweihander, and to an extent, WFRP 2nd Edition, are diametrically opposed to Warhammer’s approach. So this criticism can be taken largely in regards to Zweihander positioning itself as a heir to the WFRP’s legacy.

Alright, enough preamble. Put plainly, Warhammer Fantasy’s approach was to provide equality of opportunity, while Zweihander’s approach is to attempt to accomplish equality of outcome. And I hate that even saying that parallels certain contemporary political arguments, but the concept remains what it is regardless of any awfulness in the outside world (and the consequences of one choice over the other as far as game design goes carries no moral implications). In WFRP everyone has an equal chance when rolling to create their characters. Any player could roll up a beggar or could roll up a Justicar, and the randomness was not only fair, but also gave the roll meaning. With Zweihander’s attempt to make every character effectively end up balanced, most of the rolls serve no real purpose beyond personal taste and aesthetics.

Thus, for example, when I fumbled the roll for race to take an elf over a gnome, I was doing nothing besides exerting my aesthetic preferences as a player (and cheaply stealing a joke from the Fear of Girls web series). It had no real mechanical impact. Just as if I’d rolled a Beggar as my profession instead of a Gambler, it would not have significantly altered the effectiveness of my character. I still would have had 20 Skills, Bonuses, and Traits to choose from and received a Professional Trait and Drawback. Even the very implementation of Attribute bonuses means the distinction between characters is incredibly reduced.

But this is significant enough for me to ramble on about because it directly pertains to the “grim and perilous” mood that Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay came to epitomize and that Zweihander has so clearly attempted to capture (they even stuck it in the name). Because a big part of that was playing the hand that one is dealt, in a world that isn’t “fair,” that is oppressive and hierarchical, and stacked against the common man. It's about making the best of bad situations, and gritting your teeth and exploiting every opportunity, and personal cleverness, to overcome the dark and dangerous world you’ve unwittingly been thrust into. WFRP’s chargen system drove that point home, Zweihander’s apologizes for it.

Moreover, Zweihander’s Tier system in and of itself strictly mechanicalizes something that in Warhammer was left largely to the judgement of the GM and the nature of events that played out in the course of a campaign. Its here that Zweihander attempts, probably unwittingly, to use the system to compensate for what was more effective and realistic left in the hands of the GM. In Warhammer, your progress through career was only partly to do with Advances and spending Experience - it was also about what opportunities presented themselves organically during the course of gameplay. Reading Zweihander’s description of the Tiers, it's clear that the player is merely presented with a variation on the concept of “levels” that pervades the RPG fantasy genre in the shadow of D&D.

Again, despite the length and breadth of this rant, this needn’t be taken as a critique of Zweihander as a game, only a comparison between Zweihander and WFRP. A comparison that Zweihander invites at every opportunity.

Rant over. Let’s continue on…
 

TristramEvans

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Chapter V is all about Skills.

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Skills in Zweihander progress in Ranks, and a character can achieve up to three Ranks in any given skill: Apprentice (10%), Journeyman (20%), and Master (30%). I like this a lot. In fact its the same ranking system with the same names even, that I used for my own game, Phaserip.

The Skill list is relatively concise, at 36 total, and all seem useful. Though I personally prefer a smaller number of broad skill categories, for the approach Zweihander takes it shows excellent restraint and this may be the first aspect of the game so far that represents a streamlining and improvement over Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay.

Each skill is associated with one of the Primary Attributes, and lo and behold, I am quite pleased to see that accompanying each skill description is a set of examples as to what constitutes a Trivial, Easy, Routine, Standard, Challenging, Hard, and Arduous use of that skill. This actually goes a long way to improving my earlier reticence regarding these Difficulty Ratings (though it also reinforces my thought that the chargen chapters should have preceded the “How To Play” section).

I don’t have much else to say on this chapter, really. It’s very well done.

Chapter VI covers Talents. These are akin to G.U.R.P.’s “Advantages”, White Wolf’s “Merits”, or Unisystem’s “Qualities;” in other words, an ubiquitous part of RPG systems since the 90s. It basically covers special abilities and aptitudes of characters above and beyond skills. I’d say this was again an addition to the system that didn’t exist in WFRP, but that’s not exactly true. Rather it’s more that Warhammer didn’t distinguish between skills and what Zweihander categorizes as “Talents.” So, on the one hand, the division represents streamlining, but as the list of Talents has clearly been expanded upon, it ends up being somewhere in-between.

It's a short chapter, the descriptions are interesting, and nothing seems drastically powerful (these are definitely not “Feats” à la WOTC D&D). For example, I looked up the Talent I purchased for Nix, Holdout:
“You always succeed at Skulduggery Tests to conceal objects no larger than a knife about your person.”

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The only real critique of this chapter I have is one of practicality. Characters at this point have accumulated Talents, Professional Traits, and Drawbacks. The listed effects of these are spread out over several chapters. This will only become more complicated as the game goes on, and each character gains more Traits with Advances. I think having all these described in one chapter would have made these effects far easier to look up during play, especially as these various special attributes will often, presumably, apply to NPCs constructed by the GM. I could see having to reference different parts of the books to look up these effects becoming a continual annoyance, when a single chapter with an alphabetic listing and descriptions seems like a much more straightforward approach.

This brings us to Chapter VII: Trappings, or more generally, “stuff.”

Nix already accumulated quite a bit of stuff via his Archetype, but I’m also supposed to receive one specific piece of gear iconic of his profession (so probably cards or dice, I’m thinking). And I also have some decent starting coinage as an Aristocrat…

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Speaking of, the chapter starts with a description of the coins of the realm:
  • The Brass Penny
  • The Silver Shilling (worth 12 brass pennies)
  • And The Gold Crown (worth 20 shillings or 240 pennies)
This is followed by a short section on trading, with rules and guidelines for haggling and selling used goods. The book then provides us with a useful chart showing the average wages for a day’s labour of various trades (‘gambler’ is conspicuously, if expectantly, absent, so it's a good thing Nix’s folks were well-to-do). Another chart presents the average cost of general services, ranging from “Burial in an Ossuary” to “Training a Hunting Dog or Falcon.” And then on to weapons, because Zweihander knows where a player’s priorities are at.

“Of course he has a knife, he always has a knife, we all have knives!
It's 1183 and we're all barbarians!” - The Lion in Winter​

Weaponry in Zweihander are defined by their Load (again, something to do with Action Points, a combination of words that is causing me to feel increasingly uneasy), Handling (how many hands you need to wield the weapon), Distance (“range” by any other name), Qualities (so you’ll never encounter a stalemate in a game of ‘Knifey-Spooney’), Type (Brawling, Crushing, Bladed, Missile, or Gunpowder), Encumbrance Value and Price.

Of these, the only one I think I need address further at this point is the “Weapon Qualities.” As you may have guessed, these are kind of like Talents or Traits for weapons. Each weapon has upwards to four of these listed as well, so they are not covering exceptional or unusual aspects of arms. For example, on the Simple Melee Weapon chart, the entry for “bare-handed” features the Qualities “Pummeling” and “Slow.”

Looking up my Stiletto, I see that it has the Qualities “Fast,” “Vicious,” and “Weak.”

FAST - “Whenever a foe is struck by a weapon of this Quality, they suffer a - 10 Base Chance to Dodge or Parry.”

VICIOUS - “Weapons of this Quality grant an additional 1d6 Chaos Die to determine whether you inflict an injury”

WEAK - “Weapons of this Quality can only inflict Moderate or Serious Injuries, never Grievous Injuries”

(Hmm, I think I know a certain Nazi spy who might disagree with that last one)

Overall, the weapon lists are about as comprehensive as anyone could ask for, even covering such exotic historical curiosities as Mortuary Swords. Yeah, that one caught my eye, so I looked up what the game had to say on them, and the description Zweihander gives is:

“The most common weapon for explorers, it is useful and evokes little fuss. Not surprisingly, it tends to cleave violently, hence its namesake.”

Um...what? Historically, a Mortuary sword was a type of Scottish basket-hilted Broadsword. After the execution of King Charles I (1649), basket-hilted swords were made which depicted the face or "death mask" of the martyred king. These came to be known as "mortuary swords", and were primarily used by Scot cavalry.

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Zweihander even includes descriptions of common siege weapons, or “war machines” as the game would have it. I’m not sure how often these would come up in a game, but its nifty nonetheless. Sadly, no Leonardo Steam Tank is included.

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From here on out we have various charts describing the costs of numerous goods and wares of various categories. In the Entertainment list I find a deck of cards. The price listed is a whopping 1 Gold Crown! What, is this the gold-illuminated Visconti-Sforza tarot deck? Because I’m pretty sure much cheaper playing cards would have been commonly available during the assumed corollary time period. Not as bad as 13 frelling Gold Crowns for a chess set! Truly, we do live in an age of plenty. Anyhoo, I figure that a card deck is the most suitable (get it?) iconic possession for my gambler.

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All in all, a very comprehensive and useful chapter. Quite well done. Again, I’m really iffy about the implied rules bloat with regards to Weapons, but it is what it is. The sections on Black market goods and the rules for crafting were particularly interesting. I do think the section on trading got a bit of a short shrift, as bartering still would have been the main form of commerce during the late medieval and Renaissance periods, especially outside of cities. Additionally, while Guilds are mentioned in the prior section on Professions, no mention is made of Guild monopolies or their influence and control over the availability and price of certain commodities. There also does not seem to be any legality regarding the purchasing of items base on social class, the implication being if you can afford it, you can buy it. History was not actually so devoted to such free market ideals. But these are pedantic nitpicks at best. I’d say that my impression of Zweihander is steadily rising as I proceed through the book.

And, as I don’t feel any drastic need to go shopping as yet, I’d also say that this ends character creation for me, and Part I of this review.
 

Jonathan Hicks

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CORIOLIS - The Third Horizon

By Tomas Härenstam, Nils Karlén, Kosta Kostulas and Christian Granath

Released by Free League Publishing/Modiphius Entertainment

Coriolis – The Third Horizon is a science fiction role playing game set in a remote cluster of star systems called The Third Horizon. It is a place ravaged by conflicts and war, but also home to proud civilisations, both new and old. Here, the so called First Come colonists of old worship the Icons, while the newly arrived Zenithians pursue an aggressive imperialistic agenda through trade and military power.

In this game, you will crew a space ship and travel the Horizon. You will explore the ancient ruins of the Portal Builders, undertake missions for the powerful factions and partake in the game of political intrigue on Coriolis station – the centre of power in the Third Horizon. You might even encounter strange beings from the Dark Between the Stars.

From the Monolith in the jungles of Kua to the floating temples of Mira, the Horizon is yours to explore. You can be traders, explorers, mercenaries, pilgrims or agents. Whatever your calling is, together you will make your own fate. In the end you might even discover the truth about the mysterious Emissaries and the threat of the Dark Between the Stars.

Coriolis – The Third Horizon was awarded the ENnies Judges’ Spotlight 2017 and is produced by the makers of critically acclaimed Mutant: Year Zero (six-time nominee and winner of a Silver ENnie for Best Rules 2015).’


When Coriolis: The Third Horizon landed on my doormat I was already intrigued about the game. I’d read about it and enjoyed the excellent artwork, and the game felt like something I’d love to play. Mysterious, dark science fiction with mystical powers and supernatural, sometimes horrific occurrences. That sounded like my kind of game.

I had no experience with Free League’s other games such as ‘Mutant: Year Zero’ or ‘Tales From the Loop’ and I knew little about the game’s system, so when I cracked open the 388-page book and started reading it I was expecting a comprehensive, detailed system so I was quite surprised by the light rules and the expansive setting.

The hardback tome is of excellent quality and the cover illustration by Martin Bergström, showing three about-to-get-into-trouble characters on a dark, forbidding world really starts the mood. In fact, the artwork throughout the book is of high quality with some shadowy, inspirational images and it’s supplied by Christian Granath, Martin Bergström, Gustaf Ekelund, Christian Granath, Magnus Fallgren, Tobias Tranell and Joakim Ericsson.

First we start with an introduction to the game; what we have here is a far-future setting in a cluster of stars far removed from Earth, and the entire setting is inspired by Middle Eastern culture, from the way religion is practised to the clothes they wear; this isn’t a straight-forward copy of any region or belief system, however, this has been designed and tailored specifically for the game. There is a short explanation about roleplaying games which gives a general overview but is pretty standard stuff. Is it new player friendly? Well, if you’re a regular GM and your players are new to it yes it is as the system is quite user-friendly and intuitive, but for a completely new group coming into the hobby cold maybe not so much.

Chapters two through to seven contain everything you need to create a character, use them in the game, crew a ship, equip them and travel the stars of The Third Horizon. The game’s premise is that the players are playing the crew of a starship and are travelling the Horizon to gather fame and fortune, with plenty of character templates to choose from to get you started - Artist, Data Spider, Fugitive, Negotiator, Operative, Pilot, Trailblazer, Preacher, Scientist, Ship Worker and Soldier – each with three of their own concepts to choose from to really help you individualize your character.

Each character has four attributes; Strength, Agility, Wits and Empathy. These are numbered between 1 and 5 – the higher the better – and also affect the skills each character has. There are General skills which everyone can do and Advanced skills that can only be performed if the character has training in them. You can also choose Talents, in-game abilities to help with rolls or situations.

There is a large focus on a character’s background; the game encourages talking about personal problems, their relationships with the other players, where the character comes from and their upbringing. Some of this has no real mechanical effect on the game and serves to give the character impetus, a reason for travelling the stars and a great starting point for roleplaying. There are hints and choices as to what kind of problems and backgrounds to consider but the game does encourage creativity and allows for players to create their own histories and issues. It’s a nice little addition that really pushes you to think a little deeper about the character.

This extra detail may be because the game system itself is really simple and easy to explain. When you want to perform an action you take a number of six-sided dice equal to the Skill score added to the Attribute score it’s associated with. Once you have a number of dice you roll them and any die that rolls a six equals a success. Just one six will succeed, but the more sixes you roll the better the level of success. The number of dice rolled is modified up or down by equipment, the situation and any other factors but as long as a six is rolled it’s a success, and if you get extra sixes then the success may have other benefits, such as a bonus effect that aids the group or a critical hit in combat.

So, for example, the Skill ‘Infiltration’ is an Agility-based Skill, so with an Infiltration score of 1 and an Agility score of 3, I get to roll 4 dice. If I roll any sixes it’s a success. The system is really easy to grasp, and the character sheet is simple and good to use. But what happens when things go awry and the players need help?

Well, then they can pray to the Icons, the religion of The Third Horizon. The Icons are a supernatural force that can help – or hinder – the players and if they fail a roll they can ‘Pray to the Icons’. This gets them a re-roll and increases their chances of success, or even add to existing successes, but beware; invoking the Icons results in a Darkness Point that goes to the GM, who can play this point at any time in the game to foul up the players; a NPC can re-roll, a clip empties, or a personal problem comes back to haunt the PC. So beware on calling for the powers for help – that can come back to haunt you. These Darkness Points can also be generated by using Mystic Powers; yes, players can also play characters with mental powers that can see through time, read minds and move objects… at a price.

I’m a big fan of the game system. It’s quick and easy to use, the rolls and their effects can be decided upon quickly and the combat is fun. There’s a critical chart for major damage which helps decide the severity of wounds and the chances of death, and I do think that this could have been stripped down to something a little less complicated to reflect the rest of the simple system. It can slow down the pace of an exciting encounter a little, but overall it’s still a great mechanic and it’s light enough to allow players to concentrate more on the actual character rather than the numbers on the page.

Continuing with character creation, the players then get to design a ship and then they decide who mans which role on the vessel; a Captain, an Engineer, a Pilot, a Sensor Operator and a Gunner. This helps to define their position on a vessel as the game revolves around their adventures on their own starship. There’s plenty of detail here, with rules for flying a starship across the Horizon to combat and everything in between but I can’t help but feel that, as with the combat critical chart, there’s a level of complication here that can slow down the game. Starship encounters revolve around a sequence of events that allows a Captain to issue orders and the players then have a pool of points allocated to them to enact those orders. There’s the Order Phase, the Engineer Phase, the Pilot Phase, the Sensor Phase and the Attack Phase. These phases give each player a chance to perform their designated ship duty – for example they can pilot out of trouble, divert power, and fire a weapon. As the players decide what to do the action can slow, and once again this felt out of place as the rest of the system flows so quickly. However, the nature of this aspect of the game calls for crew positions and the rules being split into phases really helps to highlight that as it gives a chance for everyone to be involved, with space combat being less about quick barrel-rolling dogfights and more about tactics and planning.

The second half of the book is chapters 8 through to 15, which detail the setting and it’s history, The Third Horizon, creatures and finally an adventure. This is the real meat of the book and it’s what gives the whole game it’s power.

The setting of Coriolis is one of mysticism, darkness, exploration, intrigue and adventure. This section will give you background about the setting, the Factions that live there and their political, sociological and spiritual leanings and influence, and a basic rundown as to what they’re like which can also help during character creation. There are ten major Factions and a selection of smaller groups that have great power in different areas, and then there are darker, more mysterious organizations that hide in the shadows. All of these Factions work with or against each other, openly or by subterfuge, and create all kinds of trouble across the Horizon. Throw in the Emissaries and reportedly dead Factions and you’ve got some serious political tension that can make for an amazing gaming backdrop.

However, there was a part of me that felt that there was more to the details presented, that we had been given a large chunk of data about the setting and the Factions but there was more below the surface, with some details being mere teasers. I imagine that this will be expanded upon in later supplements and adventures, but for now there’s plenty to be going on with.

The setting itself, as explained earlier, has a Middle Eastern influence. The dress, the names, the design, the whole aesthetic is of an Arabian style, and the artwork reflects this. The whole game, from the way people practice their beliefs to the writing on the hulls of starships, has an ethereal quality that really helps to enhance the atmosphere. Do you need to follow this theme? Not at all. The game allows for any ethnicity and you can easily change this aspect of it but I think this would take something away from the setting itself. The game literally oozes the Middle East vibe and that, I think, is one of it’s strengths.

This is then followed by a more detailed look at a star system, Kua, and the Coriolis, the space station that is there, and then an atlas of the Third Horizon as a whole. Beasts of both the normal and more exotic versions are then presented; there isn’t much here and more illustrations would have served it well, but there’s enough to be going on with. The book is then rounded out by an adventure and then a much-needed index.

So… how did I get on with it?

I’m not going to beat around the bush. I loved it.

At first I wasn’t sure how to sell this to my group. It was a little removed from the type of things we’d played before and the setting and system was new to me, but it was an easy sell in the end. I just told them that the game was a combination of the TV show ‘The Expanse’ and Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’. You see, I’d just come out the other side of a Frank Herbert book session when Coriolis reached me and it couldn’t have hit at a better time. I was pumped up on the spiritual aspects of the classic novel and the ideas of religious fervour and misguided hero worship, and I’m also a huge fan of ‘The Expanse’ and the political turmoil it presents, not just on the solar system but on the little people, too. Once I sat down, gave that analogy, and then explained the setting of the game and the basics of the system we were ready to go.

Explaining the system to the players was easy. Add Attribute and Skill, roll, and I want to see sixes. None of them had any experience with the system and they took to it quickly, with hisses when no sixes showed and smiles when they did. I was on hand to explain extra effects and the only slowdown and page-turning occurred during combat, but that’s to be expected with any game. The first combat was a simple firefight, four players against four bad guys, and it was resolved in perhaps fifteen to twenty minutes.

However, the starship combat really slowed things down, and it was agreed (after a forty minute vessel encounter) that we’d leave the starship rules for a while until we were totally okay with the rules at large. When we did come back to the next starship combat we were ready for it and it worked out much better, but it was still long and felt out of place with the rest of the system. It wasn’t a bad thing; in fact, the players appreciated the chance to have ship positions where they were able to have a hand in the entire proceedings. Some game systems allow players to blast across the cosmos while the groundpounders have to pick their nails, but this game gets everyone involved.

The setting is where the game shined. The mystical science fiction Middle East really helped set the tone as not only was it science fiction, with all the tech and space travel trappings that comes with it, but it also had an exotic quality to it that gave it an edge of unreality. The players really got their teeth into it and had fun with it, and by the end of the session we had (badly reproduced) accents and web surfing looking for Arabian clothing and designs. It made for a great game, and the game designers should be applauded for their design choice.

I think I clicked with Coriolis straight away because of my ‘Dune’ stint and the frame of mind I was in at the time, but don’t let design choices put you off. If the setting isn’t your thing then change it; there is nothing in the setting that affects the game mechanically. Don’t like the choice of setting? Then change it to something else, maybe Far Eastern or African. If you don’t like the mysticism then drop that, too, and then you’ve got a perfectly useable science fiction roleplaying game that you can use in quite a few different settings, including settings such as ‘The Expanse’ and ‘Dune’. It makes for a pretty decent science fiction roleplaying game as it is, and the detailed setting is a huge bonus.

It was an excellent experience with the easy to use system, the wonderful setting and the way the player characters are encouraged to have a depth and an important role in the game. It really gets everyone involved from character creation, through starship design and crew designation, and through to the game itself. Players can have an influence on the fate of their characters and the story with the Icons, and suffer problems as a result, and this in itself creates a high level of drama that is only accentuated by the mysterious, powerful setting. It allows you to play games filled with adventure, mystery, spirituality, investigation, horror and exploration. It not only allows you to travel The Third Horizon, it allows you to experience it with a character you care about because they, too, have histories, dreams and goals. And for the GM it’s quick to set up a game as the system is easy to use and NPCs easy to create, so you can focus on the story and the plot and really create a saga for players to grab hold of and dive in to.

I have my issues – the slowing of gameplay during combat encounters, the complexity of starship creation and combat, and the somewhat incomplete feeling I got from the setting – but these are far outweighed by the positives of the game and I’m sure that these issues will smooth out over time and experience with the game and the inevitable expansions and supplements.

Coriolis: The Third Horizon is one of the best games I’ve come across in years, both in setting and mechanics design. It’s wonderfully presented and it’s a great read, and if there was such a thing as a ‘Farsight Blogger Seal of Approval’ then this game would be getting it.

Highly recommended.
 

Jonathan Hicks

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TALES FROM THE LOOP

By Nils Hintze and Simon Stålenhag

Published by Free League

‘In 1954, the Swedish government ordered the construction of the world’s largest particle accelerator. The facility was complete in 1969, located deep below the pastoral countryside of Mälaröarna. The local population called this marvel of technology The Loop.

Acclaimed scifi artist Simon Stålenhag’s paintings of Swedish 1980s suburbia, populated by fantastic machines and strange beasts, have spread like wildfire on the Internet. Stålenhag’s portrayal of a childhood against a backdrop of old Volvo cars and coveralls, combined with strange and mystical machines, creates a unique atmosphere that is both instantly recognizable and utterly alien.

Now, for the first time, you will get the chance to step into the amazing world of the Loop.

In this game, you play teenagers in the late Eighties, solving Mysteries connected to the Loop. Choose between character Types such as the Bookworm, the Troublemaker, the Popular Kid and the Weirdo. Everyday Life is full of nagging parents, never-ending homework and classmates bullying and being bullied.

The Mysteries let the characters encounter the strange machines and weird creatures that have come to haunt the countryside after the Loop was built. The kids get to escape their everyday problems and be part of something meaningful and magical – but also dangerous.’


This game is about me.

I was born in 1971 so my formative years, the age range and era that this game represents, are perfect. My memories and experiences are the things that this game evokes, and I clearly remember the style, fashion, music and games of the 1980s with nostalgia and extreme fondness.

The 1980s were my teenage years so everything that happened in that decade made a huge impression on me, with tabletop games, the emerging computer game market and the amazing adventure movies the era had to offer. Casting a shadow over all of this was the ongoing Cold War, a conflict that I had been born into and knew little about. However, the ever-present threat of nuclear conflagaration and the ongoing troubles in neighbouring countries were always pushed to the side, out of sight and out of mind. I was a teenager, so I had other, more important things to worry about such as the next school disco, or if I could get to the games shop in the next city to get hold of the newest roleplaying book I needed.

The Loop universe is the game form of artist Simon Stålenhag’s paintings of surburban Sweden in the 1980s, fantastic images of a normal landscape inhabited by robots, strange towers and peculiar wrecks. The images themselves are an amazing thing, and they not only create the atmosphere they give the visual style that’s prevalent throught the book. The 192 page hardcover has an excellent cover and the layout throughout is crisp, easy on the eye and easy to follow. One thing Free League always does well is presentation, and this book looks great.

The game is set on Mälaröarna, west of Stockholm, and concerns the ‘The Loop’, a particle accelerator created by the government agency Riksenergi. There’s another facility in America at Boulder City in Nevada, but you can create a Loop pretty much anywhere in the world. I’ve already made notes on one in the Peak District in England, hidden under the rolling hills with the towers rising high over Mam Tor. The book gives plenty of scope for your own adventures in your own part of the world, so no matter where you’re from the townyou’ve created, or even your home town, could have a Loop underneath. With robots working in all civilian sectors, magnetrine vessels floating through the air like cargo ships and liners, and strange creatures and incidents popping into existence because of the Loop, there’s plenty going on.

Players take the roles of Kids aged between ten and fifteen. The templates on offer are Bookworm, Computer Geek, Hick, Jock, Popular Kid, Rocker, Troublemaker, and Weirdo, although these are easily adaptable to other types of Kid the player may want to portray. They have normal lives with school and family troubles – elements that the game reflects really well – but they also go on adventures and experience the stranger things the Loop produces. Think ‘Stranger Things’ meets ‘The Goonies’ meets ‘Super 8’ meets ‘E.T.’ meets ‘The Explorers’ meets ‘Chocky’s Children’ meets just about any other child-focused adventure movie or TV show you can think of… kids on hair-raising adventures that grown-ups won’t ever believe, and they can only rely on themselves and each other to get through it.

The game encourages the player to create elements of the character that create something more than just some goofy teenager out of their depth; possible home troubles, their social circle, bullying, teacher trouble, hobbies and their relationships with the other Kids all make for some excellent story elements as well as some amazing roleplaying opportunities.

Players choose a Kid aged between ten and fifteen years, the older they are the more experienced they are but the less luck they have. They divide points between Attributes – Body, Tech, Heart and Mind – and these have relevant Skills. Rolls are dice pools of D6s, adding Attributes and Skills together to create a number of dice, and any that score a six garners a single success. They’re the same mechanics found in Free League’s previous games ‘Coriolis’ and ‘Mutant: Year Zero’ and they work just as well here. Low dice pools can be extremely frustrating with continued failed rolls, but that just makes the single six that sometimes appears all the more exhilirating.

Failing a task can hurt a Kid, but the children will never die. They can be hurt which results in a Condition, which can be emotional as well as a physical injury. To negate these Conditions, a Kid can be helped out by friends but can also turn to a supportive adult – a parent or a teacher or a kind relative – for help. This reduces the Condition and gets the Kid back on track for another adventure.

The Kids themselves get involved in Mysteries that are created by the Loop, Mysteries that the Kids become embroiled in whether it’s their fault or not, adventures that will introduce something that a child would find fantastical and possibly change them forever.

All said, the book is an excellent example of a collaborative storytelling game done right. There’s plenty of scope in here for the GM to create hair-raising adventures and play a traditional RPG where the player’s interact with the story the GM has created, but the game positively pushes for a more group-focused creative approach, where the players have a hand in the setting and the dynamics of the group. The relationships between the Kids and their peers are encouraged to help drive the narative and the roleplaying opportunities, so when the Kids reach their final goal or uncover the mystery the emotional impact is so much more intense.

So, how did we get on with it?

The Loop created under the Peak District is owned by Oxford Age, a government-sponsored firm that has just been privatised. The three towers, as seen on the front cover of the book, dominate the landscape and the small village of Stuttabury (a made up place) sits in their shadow. We created Stuttabury as it was something that we all had in common; we had all spent holidays as Kids in the Peak District or places like it so we knew it well.

One evening during summer holiday, as the Kids are playing in a stream, one of them sees something crawling down the side of the tower. Human-sized but with multiple legs, the shadow creeps down and disappears into the woods. The next day, sheep are found killed but not eaten across several fields…

The mix of Kids gave the game an immediate sense of reality beyond the real-world location we were playing in. A Bookworm, a Computer Geek and a Troublemaker made up the group and to give a sense of a ‘Stranger Things’ mystery (I asked the players to watch at least one of the seasons before we played) I introduced an NPC friend, a Weirdo. Inevitably, this NPC friend who lived on one of the farms that had their sheep killed, the first Kid to see the thing crawl down the tower, goes missing and the Kids, after failing to convince the adults that they saw this thing, have to find him themselves.

Straight away we were not only involved in the game’s plot but we were emotionally connected to it, as well. We had spent an hour creating the characters and deciding their relationships with each other, and we even ran through the last day of school before the holidays, with problems from uninterested teachers, bullies and social awkwardness. It wasn’t played as some kind of ‘this is how I wish I was at school’ angle, but in a more muted, ‘this is why I hated school’ way with no glorification and no ‘defeating the bully to the cheers of classmates’ revenge fantasy. The rules called out for an emotional reflection on not only how the Kid was at school but also gave enough hints to remind you what life, and the world, was like back then. Playing the Kids as normal children just trying to get by was incredibly rewarding and the connection that they had to each other drove the narrative. The players really felt they were involved.

Being a teenager of the 1980s was a huge advantage in the game for sure; the book explains the era but actually living it made it much easier for me as GM to evoke the period. The music, movies, fashion and the gloom of a Britain under Thatcher was easy to recreate, with references to the miner’s strike in the form of radio and television broadcasts, Live Aid, and the Kids getting excited about the new James Bond film ‘A View to a Kill’, which is what they were playing when they saw the thing crawling down the tower. In fact, the missing Kid was playing James Bond, so when they finally faced off with the thing it would not let him go and kept referring to the Kid as ‘my friend Bond’. It added a whole new level of reality to the game and paid off exceptionally well.

In truth, there’s nothing stopping you from setting the game in any other era; with a little tweaking it could be set earlier, or later, in the 1990s or the 2000s. However, the game’s heart is set firmly in the 1980s and the political, cultural and social framework are well represented by the setting. In fact, with the lack of mobile telephones, computers and all the gadgets we rely on these days ot makes for a much more intense world as you can’t rely on a text message or GPS to get you out of the predicament you’re in.

There’s also a cut-off point in the game; when a Kid reaches the age of 16 they retire from the adventuring lark. However, I see no reason why a group couldn’t create older characters and just cap the character creation points at the age of 16, and even go on to create adult characters for more mature stories. After the game we discussed what the Kids would be like all grown up, especially after experiencing the thing on the tower, and what would happen if they found evidence that would prove their stories were true after being disbelieved their whole lives. That’s a great concept, and it’s a story for another time.

But that’s what Tales from the Loop does, it pulls this story out of you. It recreates an age I love and miss dearly, and it takes you back to thinking and acting as a Kid, reckless and ignorant, and it gives you a three dimensional character with heart and drive, which is something that is sometimes sadly lacking in other RPGs.

Tales from the Loop is easily one of the best roleplaying games I’ve come across in many years. It offers a wonderful setting and concept that allows you to be as creative as you please but grounds it in a reality that everyone can identify with, one way or another. The setting of the book is most emotionally resonant with myself, being a child of the 1980s, but it can work as a straight forward adventure game for anyone of any age, and can even be moved to another decade with very few tweaks. I’m already having ideas of a game set in the 1960s.

If you’re looking for a crunchy simulation you’ll not find it here; the rules system is simple and light and focuses more on the story rather than the stats. If, however, you’re looking for a game that is not only rewarding on a storytelling level but an emotional one, too, you can’t go wrong with Tales from the Loop.

Highly recommended.
 

Dan Davenport

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The Hardboiled GMshoe Reviews: Torg Eternity


Introduction

The name's Davenport. I review games.

So the other day I answer a knock on my office door, and I see an elf, a ninja, a masked mystery man, a werewolf, a cyberpunk, and a lizard man.

Which meant just one thing: Torg was back in town.

Now, I'll be the first to tell ya: I loved me some Torg and its multi-genre gonzo craziness... but it always had its problems. Don't you worry, though. I got right on the case.

"So!" I says to the ninja. "You still got a glass jaw?"

"Nope!" he says, givin' himself a little sock to the jaw. "Solid as a rock. That's been fixed in Torg Eternity."

"'Torg Eternity', eh?" I says. "Interesting... So, lizard man, is there anything to do in your home turf besides getting lost in a fog?"

"Oh, yes!" he says. "That's been fixed, too. Now there are any number of wonders to discover in the Living Land!"

"Huh," I says. Maybe there was somethin' to this Torg Eternity.

I couldn't help but imagine the Possibilities.




Substance

Setting

The setting for Torg Eternity is "our" Earth... sort of. It's the Earth of action movies, where Die Hard and Rambo could actually happen. Mix in some psychic powers and cryptids, and you have the right idea.

To this Earth -- "Core Earth," as the game calls it -- come seven invading realities, each with its own villainous High Lord and each roughly corresponding to a genre of fiction:
  • Aysle (U.K. and Scandinavia): Fantasy
  • The Cyberpapacy (France): Cyberpunk in an oppressive religious setting
  • The Living Land (North America): Prehistoric
  • The Nile Empire (North Africa): Two-fisted pulp adventure (Doc Savage, the Shadow, Indiana Jones)
  • Orrorsh (India): Gothic horror
  • Pan-Pacifica (Asia): High-tech espionage and martial arts action mixed with Resident Evil
  • Tharkold (Russia): Techno-horror and post-apocalypse -- an odd mix of Hellraiser, Terminator, and The Road Warrior.
Each reality brings with it its own magical, social, spiritual, and technological axioms that determine what works and what doesn't; for example, powerful spells function in Aysle, modern technology fails in the Living Land, and miracles are scarce in soulless Tharkold. In addition, each reality includes three world laws that govern how the world operates. In Orrorsh, for example, the Law of Fear makes terror pervasive, and in the Cyberpapacy, the Law of Suspicion makes paranoia a way of life.

But Earth isn't defenseless. While the majority of the population is helpless before the changes in reality, a small minority known as Storm Knights can maintain their connection to their home reality.

The result is a multi-genre setting that isn't quite full-on multi-genre, and that's a good thing. Orrorsh feels like a Victorian-era horror setting, for example. There aren't hordes of laser-armed cyborgs stomping around slaying vampires and werewolves... but there are a small number of individuals who could pull that off. I'll get to the reason behind that in just a bit. For now, I'll just mention that invaded areas are either Mixed, Dominant, or Pure, in order of how strongly one reality holds sway. In a Mixed zone, two realities are in balance; in a Dominant zone, one reality's axioms are in place; and in a Pure zone, one reality is almost exclusively in power.

Aylse is a decent all-purpose fantasy setting, although the combination of everything from the Renaissance to Vikings -- and magical powered armor-wearing Dwarves, of all things -- is a bit hard to swallow.

The Cyberpapacy in this edition ramps up the paranoia to new heights. The GodNet, the realm's cyperspace, is self-aware and infiltrates everything technological that isn't clandestinely stripped of its presence. Players wishing to use the place as a quick and easy one-stop-shop for high-tech goodies will be disappointed.

The new and improved Living Land is, simply put, amazing. The first edition's incarnation was easily the most boring reality, with no place interesting to go and an omnipresent fog to keep you from finding one even if there were. The new version incorporates what amounts to micro-realities -- chunks of worlds previously conquered by the Living Land -- to explore (and, of course, loot). The effect puts me in mind of Land of the Lost.

Being a big fan of all things pulp, I'm definitely the target market for the Nile Empire. Mummies, weird science, gangsters, proto-superheroes... What's not to love?

I'm glad that this edition's version of Orrorsh landed in India rather than Indonesia. It just seems like a better fit for some reason. We're assured that unlike Torg 1.0, reality sourcebooks for Torg Eternity won't contradict the core rulebook. I hope that's the case, because the new rules for horrors introduced in the original Orrorsh sourcebook made the place too scary for its own good. Players didn't want their characters to visit the Living Land for fear of boredom, but they didn't want their characters to visit Orrorsh for fear of dying.

Pan-Pacifica (formerly known as Nippon Tech)... I'm reserving judgment on this one a bit. The original version was a manifestation of the real-world fears of an ascendant ultratech Japan, which are both outdated and admittedly distasteful... but the new version's zombie plague (in the form of hopping vampires) seems like it ought to be in Orrorsh or Tharkold. And where are the ninjas??

Speaking of Tharkold, I suppose that it was inevitable that this popular late-arriving realm from the first edition made the initial roster of successful invaders this time around. On the one hand, I'm not convinced that we need a second reality with cybernetics and demons... but on the other, I love that a large swathe of the cosm is an irradiated wasteland, complete with road warriors and mutant abominations.

Bestiary

And speaking of mutant abominations, let's talk monsters.

Torg Eternity is a bit light on that front, sorry to say, offering only 3-4 entries per cosm. I totally get that space was an issue here, but to me, ready-made adversaries are a big part of what makes a game playable out of the box.

System

Torg Eternity uses a single d20 for task resolution. The die isn't read directly, however; instead, the total on the d20 is read against a simple chart that gives the roller a bonus or penalty to add to the relevant attribute and skill in an attempt to beat the target number. (For example, a roll of 9 or 10 results in a -1, a roll of 11 or 12 results in a 0, and a roll of 13 or 14 results in a 1.) Die rolls open end on 10s and 20s, creating the potential for truly cinematic results. It takes a bit of getting used to, but it gets the job done.

Possibilities

Possibilities are Torg's drama/hero/fate points, spent to roll and add (with a minimum result of 10) on challenges or to soak damage. Torg Eternity is quite a bit stingier with Possibilities than was the original Torg. In the old days, Storm Knights started with 10 Possibilities and could store them up. Now, they get a measly 3 Possibilities and reset back to 3 at the beginning of each act. I think this is a bit of a shame, as this makes players much more hesitant to use Possibilities for fear that they'll need them to soak damage.

Still, a generous GM who keeps the Possibilities flowing for good roleplaying can mitigate this issue. And there's another reason for keeping players hungry for Possibilities, which I'll address regarding Cosm Cards below...

Cards

The game uses three kinds of cards: the Drama Deck, Destiny Cards, and Cosm Cards.

The Drama Deck's main function is initiative, which individual cards assign to either the heroes or the villains for the turn. While this does simplify the initiative process, it also means that no individual character is quicker on the draw than any other. It's a wash, I suppose. Encounters can be either Standard, which favor the heroes, or Dramatic, which favor the villains.

The Drama Deck cards can also give sides advantages or disadvantages for the round, which effectively simulates the back and forth of combat. These include such things as multiple attacks, re-rolls, penalties, or even contradiction checks (see below). One that has always strained credulity with me is Inspiration, which restores two shock and wakes up all unconscious combatants at once. (When I was playing Shatterzone years ago, which uses a modified version of the original Torg rules, this led us to shoot unconscious villains just to make sure they wouldn't get back up. What would you have done after this happened twice?)

Players get a hand of four Destiny Cards at the beginning of a game session. Destiny cards offer varying benefits and can be played at any time outside of combat. In combat, they can be added to a pool one at a time at the end of a player's turn, at which point they can be used.

Now here's the clever part... The Drama Deck cards list the "approved actions" for the round. If a character succeeds at an approved action, the player can add a card to his hand of Destiny Cards. Why is this clever? Because it encourages players to use skills other than direct combat abilities, such as Intimidation, Maneuver, Taunt, and Trick. The result is combat that feels both more cinematic and less predictable.

Finally, we come to Cosm Cards, which are also rather clever. Players get one of these at the beginning of each act, and they can be played at appropriate times for either benefits or for Possibilities in exchange for negative effects. Why is this clever? Because the benefits and detriments reflect the World Laws of the current Cosm. In effect, this offloads part of the job of getting the "feel" of a Cosm right from the GM to the players.

Combat

I've already covered initiative, so I'll move on to combat resolution, which uses the same basic task resolution mechanic with some additional bits. Attackers roll their combat skill against a static target number based on the target's Dodge, Melee Weapons, or Unarmed Combat skill.

Now, this part is rather important. In original Torg, the same bonus generated in the attack was applied to the damage level of the weapon. This led to the infamous "Glass Ninja" effect: A hard-to-hit character would only be hit by an attack doing devastating damage. In Torg Eternity, the designers fixed this problem by basing bonus damage on degree of success. On a Good success (5-9 points over the difficulty number), the attacker adds 1d6 to the damage. On an Outstanding success (10+ over the difficulty number), the attacker adds 2d6 to the damage. (These dice open-end.) I've heard some grumbling about adding extra dice to the system, but in my experience, it's less distracting than the previous suggested solution of using the difference between the attack total and the defense number.

Toughness reduces damage, and armor adds to toughness. The difference between damage and toughness is read on a simple table to get the damage results in terms of wounds and shock; e.g., a result of 5-9 results in 1 wound and 2 shock. (Torg Eternity does away with the KO condition from the previous edition.) That, by the way, is the amount of damage a Colt .45 will do to an average human on a basic hit. A typical goon goes down after taking a single wound, while a Storm Knight can withstand 3 wounds before dropping, so the damage system contributes to the cinematic feel of the game.

Character Creation

Players get 40 points to divide between five attributes: Charisma, Dexterity, Mind, Spirit, and Strength. (Torg Eternity rolls Perception up into Mind and makes Toughness a function of Strength.) This makes the average score 8, which is supposed to be "high average" but is a point or two lower than in original Torg. This was done in order to allow for the lowering of the standard difficulty number down to 10, but it still leaves PCs looking and feeling less competent, because the attribute maximums haven't changed. Still, if you want more competent PCs, there's nothing stopping you from throwing them some more attribute points.

Players get 16 points to spend on skills, which are extremely broad. Boarding on insanely broad. Air Vehicles, for example, covers every form of air travel. The rules suggest that GMs impose a -2 penalty for unfamiliarity if, say, someone who's only used hot air balloons tries to fly an F-35, but that still strains credulity to the breaking point, even for a cinematic game. Likewise, we quickly realized in our game that Find is basically the all-purpose Perception skill, used for everything from searching for clues to detecting lies. I do get it, though: With a multi-genre game like this one, the alternative would be an overwhelming number of more specific skills.

The game offers three non-human races to play: Edeinos (primitive lizard men from the Living Land), Elves, and Dwarves. Each race has a few unique abilities and variable racial attribute limits, although the latter seem fairly pointless given the relatively low number of attribute points. An Elf sporting superhuman Dexterity would be just this side of crippled in all of her other attributes, for example.

Then we have one of the biggest changes to Torg Eternity: Perks.

Perks cover all special abilities: magic, miracles, pulp superpowers, ki powers, cybernetics, you name it. Characters start with just two Perks, but some Perks have multiple aspects -- the Spellcaster Perk grants a starting magician three spells, for example, and the Cyberware Implants Perk gives the character $10,000 to spend on various cyberware.

Perks aren't just important for the fact that they present a unified system for what used to be wildly different mechanics; they also give players a reason to play Core Earth characters for the first time. In the previous edition, non-Earthers got all the goodies. Now, Core Earth characters get access to their share of special abilities. Some of these are generic action movie-style powers that anyone can have, but others involve the manipulation of reality itself. In fact, some of the latter are things that any Storm Knight could do in the first edition, like sharing Possibilities. Now such powers are the exclusive purview of Core Earth characters, which is only fitting, since Core Earth is supposed to be the inter-dimensional treasure trove of Possibility Energy.

Magic, Miracles, and Psionics

The game includes four magic skills, three psionic skills, and one skill for miracles. Beyond that, the mechanics are essentially the same: A skill roll against the difficulty of the power with the risk of shock on a failure. I appreciate the simplicity, although I do find myself wishing that the three powers had the different feels they had in the original version.

Contradictions and Disconnection

One of the keys to Torg Eternity is the concept of disconnecting from one's reality.

Characters carry with them the axiom levels of their home realities. They also have to deal with the local axiom levels. If they do something that violates either their own axiom levels or the local axiom levels -- thereby causing a contradiction, as the game puts it -- they disconnect on a natural roll of 1. An example would be a magician from Aysle using a magic spell in the magic-poor Living Land. If they do something that violates both their own axioms and the local axioms, they disconnect on a natural roll of 1-4. An example would be if the aforementioned Aylish mage were using a laser pistol in the primitive Living Land.

Disconnected characters can no longer create contradictions, which is bad. They also can't spend Possibilities, including to soak damage, which is worse. Fortunately, Storm Knights can use the Reality skill to reconnect to their home realities. How difficult that is depends upon whether they're in a Mixed, Dominant, or Pure zone.

Note that Ords -- ordinary humans without the Reality skill -- can't reconnect once they've disconnected and can't even create a contradiction in a Pure zone in the first place. In this way, the game is able to offer both multi-genre and (to some degree) pure genre action in the same setting.

Style

I'd say the art in this full-color hardcover is good to very good. Perhaps more importantly, it's extremely consistent throughout, giving the book a unified feel. The layout is extremely clean. The writing clear and engaging, with many useful sidebars.

And praise God, the book has an extensive index.

Conclusion

Torg Eternity unifies and streamlines a system that had grown out of control in an effort to cover a wildly diverse multi-genre setting -- no mean feat. Along the way, it fixes some annoying system quirks and manages to make some of the formerly least appealing parts of the setting great fun. It's not a perfect adaptation, as some of the changes dial back a bit of the over-the-top feel of the original, and it only manages to give a taste of the vast setting, but it's still great gonzo fun. That being the case, I can heartily recommend the game both to fans of the original and to newcomers.
 

TristramEvans

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ZWEIHANDER REVIEW! Part Two

When last we left Zweihander…


We had braved the character creation rules, and come out on the other side with a flavourful gem that I wouldn't mind playing in a game, and seems appropriate to the setting. So I guess ace in the whole, even if it could shave off a bit of chafe so it doesn’t take too long. I have this weird superstitious thing about long chargen processes, because it seems like 9 out of 10 times I’ve tried that “we’ll spend the first session just making characters” thing, it doesn’t end up leading to a game. Best to jump right into playing as quickly as possible is my current approach.


Anyways, we went shopping, learned some new terms, and got all the foreplay out of the way so it’s on to

combat-logo.png

The original combat system of WFRP is a thing of simple and brutal beauty. A percentile roll vs your Skill rating, on a success you flip the numbers and find the hit location. If the damage surpasses that hit location's Armour, a Critical Hit effect is rolled. And the descriptions of these critical hits were entertainingly over the top and gory. It is effective, deadly, and perfectly captures the tone of the setting.

Zweihander has mixed things up a bit, so let's see how it compares.

On a character's Turn, they have a reserve of Action Points that must be "spent" to engage in whatever their chosen activity. Action Points don't carry over from one Turn to the next. Turns are equivalent to about ten seconds in time. Character's take their turns following an "Initiative ladder" established at the beginning of Combat, with each combatant roll a d10 and adding the Initiative bonus (one of the calculated Attributes from Part I). This part is weird:

"The end results are tracked from highest to lowest, displayed openly for everyone to refer to."

So I guess this is meant to be an actual chart, a visual ladder that anyone can see who is going to act when? What does this add to the game?

Zweihander combat has a number of "conditional effects" that are applied during combat. These sort of remind me of CCG Keywords or "Aspects" of the Fate family of RPGs.

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We then get a chart of actions that can be taken in combat , their associated AP costs, and short descriptions of how the effects are handled. There's a group of them on the chart called "Perilous Stunts" that I have s sinking feeling are D20 Feats by another name.
You always start each turn with 3 AP. Most combat actions are 1 AP, so theoretically you can make three Melee Attacks in one round, but the implication is you may want to save some for Dodging or Parrying attacks on your opponent's turn. But I guess having the Initiative ladder chart out in the open to reference means you'll know if that's going to happen and how many AP you should save. But that means if two people facing each other in combat, one could take 3 attacks every turn, one could parry 3 attacks ech turn, but if you do anything except defend yourself you wont be able to defend against every attack. OK, I guess that makes sense, though it paints a far more rigid picture in my head of combat than I'm used to. What's strange to me, however, is the AP costs for Movement actions. Walking costs 1 AP, so you can walk up to opponent and then hit them twice. But running costs 3 AP, so, you can run up to an opponent and...do nothing. I'm trying to picture how charges in combat would work according to this. Isn't most moving and attacking simultaneous in actual combat? I'm not talking about drilled army combat between regiments of infantry, just a brawl on a street. Isn't running up and hitting someone then trying to move out of the way before they can retaliate like Tactic #1 of most melees?

Also, moving out of combat instigates an "Opportunity Attack".

I head to reread that sentence a few times, then I had to check the cover of the book I was reading.

Dan, you added "Attacks of Opportunity" to Warhammer? Seriously, you just loved them that much from 3rd edition? It may have been a while between posts here, but I know this isn't the first D&Dism I've seen creep into this game. You need to watch that, Warhammer is a supposed to be a Gygaxianism free zone!

Here's a proper British man to tell you why you are wrong:


Each of the Table's contents is then explained individually in-depth, with clear instructions on how to resolve them mechanically. This is all very in-depth, for example:

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There are also "Movement Subtype modifiers" if you are mounted, riding, or trying to be sneaky. These are so specific as to list the difference if you are mounted on one of 5 different types of horses, or a stage coach vs a "fancy coach".

OK, section on Perilous Stunts. I guess they have one over on Feats, in that they seem to be usable by anyone willing to try them, not special powers a character earns. If a Perilous Feat is successful, it cannot be Dodged or Parried, only "Resisted".

Attacks are actually resolved in much the same manner as the basics of the system laid out in Part I with "Skill Checks". The "Chance for Success" is determined by taking the Base Chance (the Combat Primary Attribute plus any applicable skill Ranks). The game reminds us here that a character's Peril track sets the maximum skill ranks that can be applied. Most attacks then have a fixed Difficulty Rating that is applied as a bonus or penalty to the Base Chance.The GM adjusts/adds the Difficulty Rating based on the specific conditions of the Attack. Tallying all this together gives the TOTAL Chance for Success that is rolled against.

Again, slight bit of weirdness. The game insists that the GM must always announce out loud the Total Chance for Success for any NPCs. I don't understand the reasoning here, and again like the Initiative Ladder, it seems intent on giving players information they wouldn't have? I'm getting the impression this game may have been intended for a more ..."tactical" style of gameplay than I'm accustomed to, which may link back to seeing ideas from D&D 3rd edition leak into the design.

Anyways once the Total /Chance is calculated, the combatant rolls percentile dice, trying to beat it. If you roll a Critical Success, this may have some additional effect, and if you roll a Critical Failure, you lose (or gain, depending how you look at it) Fatigue, equal to 2D10 +2 "Physical Peril".

If an Attack is successful, and the opponent isn't Dodging or Parrying (which requires their own Skill Check and Total Chance calculation), a Damage Roll is made. Damage is based on the attacker's Combat Attribute Bonus plus a Fury Dice roll. Meanwhile, the Defender/victim calculates their Damage Threshold, based on their Brawn Bonus plus Armour.

The degree to which the Damage Total exceeds the Damage Threshold determines the severity of the wound, expressed as how many steps down the Character moves their "Damage Condition Track", and if they take Damage totalling 18+ their Damage Threshold, they are instantly Slain. Likewise, when the Character's Damage Condition Track passes several Thresholds, they may trigger an "Injury". Players roll a number of Chaos dice and any result of 6 indicates an injury which the GM assigns, presumably based on Zweihander's version of the Critical Hit charts. I say presumably because these have been hidden away in the GM section. Besides the fact that just as a resource during play this seems like it would be annoying not to have all in one section, I question this decision. In general I guess I wouldn't have any problem with it but it seems so...inconsistent. As I specifically remarked regarding other design decisions, it seems like the intent was to provide players with as much information as possible, to a point that for me crosses the line into metagame. So while I can conceptually see why Critical Hit Results would be Gamemaster only information (to be a surprise for players), it doesn't seem consistent with the game design choices up to this point.

If you receive an Injury and you have no armour, you begin Bleeding. The mechanics for this are apparently in another chapter.

There's some discussion about spending Fate points to stave off death, and then the final notes of the chapter declare the intention of the system is to be "exciting, riveting, and brutal".

So with the caveat that these goals are largely dependent on playstyle and personal perception, what comes to my mind first off is a section from Rick Priestly and John Lambshead's Tabletop Wargames: A Designers' and Writers' Handbook wherein they describe the role of "widgets" in the game. Basically, the concept is that in certain situtions, the outcome of a basic rule will trigger a conditional advanced rule. The engagement with this advanced rule after meeting certain preconditions is meant to increase player involvement by raising the stakes. An easy example would be in Warhammer Fantasy Battle's 8th edition magic system. A player casting a spell would roll a number of dice, the maximum defined by the magical skill or power level of the caster. Rolling double 6s on any two of these dice indicates the spell is cast with "Irresistible Force", indicating the caster succeeds in the casting attempt (which cannot be opposed), but must also roll on a separate effects chart to determine if their are further consequences (up to and including the caster accidentally opening a gate to the Warp and getting sucked in). This potential, for a spell to backfire or carry with it a heavy toll creates a "Risk vs Reward" choice on the part of the player. They may have access to 7 dice to put towards casting a spell, but is it worth rolling all 7 to statistically improve the chances of the spell succeeding vs the corresponding increased chance of rolling "Irresistible Force"?

I'm bringing all of this up because I think it's possibly the best approach to take to objectively evaluate Zweihander's combat system, specifically the additional "crunch" in comparison to the WFRP system.

Does the addition of the majority of rules for combat increase player involvement (ie make them "exciting, riveting"), and does the Risk vs Reward nature of the rules convey the intended "Brutality"?

My answer is a mixed bag. I don't know that the Action Point system adds any benefit to the experience of combat, even beyond the conceptual nitpicks I made regarding pricing. But that may just be me. The increased meta-game time implied by the method of executing Skill Checks bothers me from the PoV of a player/GM who prefers speed and abstraction for maintaining the tension and pacing of combat over complexity and definition.

I think ultimately my impression is that the original, streamlined combat system of WFRP achieves the same goals that Zweihander's combat rules set for themselves, but did it with significantly less steps. The reader will from that need to infer for themselves whether the interaction with the game mechanics proposed provides enough enjoyment for them to compensate for the additional rules crunch.
 
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Following Combat, we get a chapter on Injuries and healing and whatnot, as expected.

Further explanations of the Damage and Peril Tracks, one ending in Death, the other incompacitation. It took me a bit to Grok what Peril was meant to represent, the term seems so...external. But it's effectively like a Sanity/Psyche/Willpower pool, "Mental Hit Points" instead of physical ones. But not exactly, because there's inconsistencies. Usually it seems internal to the character, but in other rules it's less so. I find it helps to view from a Tolkien/religious perspective: "Your soul is in Peril." that sort of thing. In that manner it could be compared to the Doom mechanic in The One Ring.

I guess because it's a "grim world of perilous adventure?"
I never took that phrase so literally.

This chapter has some real gems though, in the form of Diseases and Poisons. Excessive detail is given to both categories with all the love and attention of some morbid Addams Family version of an Audubon Society handbook. Papa Nurgle would be proud.

There is a good amount of creativity in the form of new diseases, and old favourites such as Tomb Rot, as well as addressing more common "real world" maladies up to and including those of the venereal variety (thankfully not much detail here, that's what the internet is for kids!). Poisons are divided into deliriants, toxins and venoms. Which is sensible.

Pretty much every other form of mortal injury is dealt with as well, including frostbite, heatstroke, falling (or, more accurately, landing), burning, suffocation, starvation, etc. Maybe not 100 ways to leave your lover, but pretty close.

There is also info on intoxicants and alcoholism, I assume to make dealing with the rest a bit easier.

Speaking of, next up is the section on healing. This is one of the most in-depth looks at the subject I've ever seen not hidden away in a random supplement from a third party. It's complex, but only in the degree to which it covers pre-modern medical practices. Infection, Bloodletting, Bleeding, and Surgery are all among the section headings.

So yeah, it's as crunchy as any other part of the system, but here I find (for myself anyways), the crunch justified. I think it works with the horribleness being dealt with to up the tension. Dying is mostly slow and brutal, in the same way I think that combat should be brutal and quick.

Finally we get into alchemical powders and compositions, some more or less of medical value (or at least use), but also including gunpowder, the making of bottle rockets, quicksilver, Royal Water, and antivenoms.

All in all I'd say so far this is the best chapter of the book. It's the first time I think that Zweihander has managed to supercede WFRP.
 
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The next chapter is...

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So this is the "Winds of Magic" colour-coded concept of magic that was a late addition to the Warhammer RPG, coming from a revision in the WFB wargame. And quite literally, the section on magic theory is practically a rephrasing without any copyright terms. So I probably won't have a lot to say on it.

I think in the introduction to Part I you'll find the reasons I preferred the original magic system, clunky as it was, but I've got nothing against the Winds of Magic concept. It does feel a little more "Middlehammer" than "Oldhammer" to me, though.

So for the Nine Winds of Magic they went with the Sefirot, from Kabbalistic magical theories. Kudos on that, it's a clever corollary. At the same time we also get the Gods of this "settingless" RPG (look for more ranting on that topic in Part III). Here I'm seeing a George R. Martin influence, with the gods defined as Archetypes rather than individual personalities. I mean, that may come from somewhere besides Game of Thrones in fantasy fiction, but that's where I encountered the concept, and one of Zweihander's "Archetypal Deities" is called The Winter King, with the symbol of a wolf's head, sooo....yeah.

I guess one could say then any Deity particular to a setting could be "slotted into" one of these Archetypes, but real life Gods tended to be much messier in their manifestations and domains of influence.

Casting a spell is once again based upon the same Skill Check universal resolution system we're familiar with. The bells and whistles are mostly what you'd expect. The spell list does have ingredients (or, in most cases it seems, an ingredient), so there's that.

I guess what it comes down to, as you might have surmised by my tone up to this point, is that this chapter just doesn't interest me very much. I've got no real complaints, it seems fine as a magic system. It just doesn't inspire me at all, it's no leap in innovation. I mean, it doesn't has to be, it's solid enough. Gets the job done.

There's a section on "Wytchstone", Zweihander's answer to Warpstone, and a section on Runestones...

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...Finishing up with a bit on creating Talismans.
 
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And now we are onto the Gamemastering Section. This, more than any other part of the game, I expect to be the most illuminating in regards to the games' intentions and the approaches behind the design. It could make or break this review.

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And the first sentence is a doozy: "Unlike other tabletop role-playing games, ZWEIHANDER doesn't have an implied setting."​

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OK, I was holding off until Part III, but I guess we're doing this rant now.

No. No, after the Bestiary. Just to really drive my point home.
Moving on then. According to the game, instead of an implied setting, Zweihander instead "focuses upon a number of thematic elements to underpin the narrative and mechanics." We have have a rather in-depth, or at least wordy, explanation of the tropes of grim worlds with perilous adventures. we've been here before, at the beginning. While I can see re-iterating it here I suppose, I feel like all the various sections dealing with tropes and themes could have been combined into one.

We come across an interesting statement here though: "In some tabletop role-playing games , optional systems are provided to make the game deadlier and more 'realistic.' More often than not, a GM will ignore these rules because they are often unwieldy or perhaps too time-consuming. ZWEIHANDER also contains these rules, but instead of being optional, they are considered integral to the entire experience."

This actually explains a LOT about the design choices. As I interpret this, it seems that the author equates mechanical crunch with "grittiness." I'd honestly not ever considered this PoV. I don't think I share it, I've run incredibly deadly and gritty games with streamlined FASERIP rules (the REAL FASERIP, not the clone going by that name - it's annoying that I have to constantly reiterate that, but I refuse to stop using the acronym, it was ours first). For those unfamiliar, this is an incredibly (mechanically) 'rules-lite' system, somewhere in between Risus and WEG's Ghostbusters. I did not add rules crunch to make the system deadlier or more realistic, this was handled completely with some tweaks of the resource management system underlying the game and the way I ran it as a GM.

But I can at least see where Daniel & Co. are coming from on this one. It's mechanic design choices based on aesthetics. Even if I don't have the same evaluation, I can appreciate it from a game design perspective. Essentially Zweihander is "justifying its crunch" based on aesthetics.

Then we get some setting information.
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(still not ranting yet)

Stuff about social class relations, bureaucracy, and education.

And then back into genre and trope discussion. I think I get it, Zweihander is treating basically the Warhammer Fantasy Old World setting, or their equivalent of it, as part of "The Genre." Hm, well I can see the validity of the attempt from a legal standpoint, but does it hold up? Warhammer Fantasy is one of the largest fantasy IPs in gamedom, but can it be said to be it's own genre? And to what degree?

Anyways, this section overall is pretty expansive, taking up the first 7 pages of the chapter, before we go onto "Your Role as a GM."

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We start with a list of the responsibilities of the GM

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There's a lot of ...story in there. It seems to be pushing a particularly Narrative approach to running the game. But it becomes nebulous with phrases like "you must maintain an immersive atmosphere." Overall it seems like an"everything and the kitchen sink" list.

The book goes on to compare the GM to a writer, and then a film director, and then talks about lots of techniques for "ensuring immersion" that there isn't space to shre. I was rather put off by this. I think we could of sacrificed some space for these techniques, would rather like to know at least an example so I can suss how they are actually intending the term "immersion," because my rather old fashioned idea of immersive play doesn't mesh well with the "GM as writer" approach.

"The Three Golden Rules"
Sounds like a fairy tale. These are apparently:

I."Change rules that don't work" Really? Nothing about the game up to this point has given me a "Rulings not Rules" vibe.

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Again, I'm a bit taken a back. This is what I would expect to encounter in a classic RPG, more like what the original WFRP had to say on the matter. A bit of a change from "the GM works with the players to create a 'House Rule'."

II. Focus on the Characters
Well, yes, naturally. No objection, but is this even necessary to iterate?

III. When in Doubt, Say Yes!
Fair enough.

We get another brief discussion of the difference from Narrative vs Structured Time in the game as a prelude to talking about Pacing an Adventure. That's good, a lot of GM sections don't address this topic. But Zweihander doesn't either, really. It just talks about knowing when to switch between Narrative and Structured Time. I mean, you use "Structured Time" as this game puts it when it's necessary, it's not really a pacing issue.

There's some general advice/recaps regarding rules upkeep before a new game, adjudicating Difficulty Ratings (for as important as this topic is to the system overall, seems like it could have gotten more attention than a few paragraphs that amount to "consider what's going on from several angles"), and applying Skill Tests.

In the section "People, Places, and Things" about half a page is devoted to the suggestion that players keep index card records of important NPCs they encounter. They're encouraged to take these notes in character. Should this be in the GM section? It seems to be aimed at the players.

Combat rules are next. It's here we find Zweihander's equivalent of the legendary WFRP Critical Hit Charts.
 
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I've already talked about the Critical Hit charts in WFRP, but just to review, the attacker rolls percentile die to determine if a strike hits, flips those percentile dice to determine the location of the hit, and if the damage exceeds the Armour or hit points of the location, a roll is mde on a Critical Hit chart corresponding to that location. The results range from flesh wounds to debilitating injuries to instant death, each described in graphic detail. It's a gory splash of flavour on the combat system.

Zweihander, on the other hand, abandoning the hit location element of resolution and with the degree of injury determined by the progress along the Damage tract instead divides the Critical Hit charts based on severity with one for Moderate, Serious, and Grievous injuries, and then a series of Slain! charts divided by the type of weapon used, describing the gruesome details of a combatant's demise.

This isn't an improvement or a decline really, it's just different. I suppose it comes down to personal aesthetics regarding which one prefers.

In amongst these are rules regarding flying creatures and larger creatures, and advice on when to end a combat.

And then we get to Risk Factor.

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This is a concept I've encountered in several other RPGs, but I primarily associate it with 4th edition D&D. The idea is that "challenges" (in the form of monsters) should be tailored to the competency of the player character group. Zweihander doesn't go so far as to specifically advocate this, but does suggest using Risk Factor and Notches as benchmarks when "crafting encounters."

The following section, entitled "Narrative Considerations," seems to be largely advice about the use of environmental factors such as bad weather, dim lighting, exotic locations, etc. 'm not sure I would have called these "Narrative" elements of the game, but that term seems to be used more to invoke "narrating a description" rather than "fashioning a story," at least in this instance.

We also get some alternate/advanced combat rules, including a simplified weapon damage system and rules for performing multiple attacks. "Called Shots" optionally re-introduces the notion of Hit Locations into the game, with a GM advised to pick suitable Critical Hit descriptions that align. Piecemeal armour is likewise addressed, along with alternate Encumbrance rules, and "Morale checks."
 

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We next get some rules for handling chases. I'm mostly a fan of RPGs tackling this, as beyond the classic 007 RPG from Victory Games this is an element conspicuously missing from most systems. In this case, the chase rules are a variation of the rules for Contests. Did I cover these in Part 1? Can't recall. Basically it's an extended skill test.

After deciding the distance the chase will take place over (yards, miles, or leagues), the Initiative track is configured, as per combat. The GM will set an "Escape Condition" (e.g. the pickpocket makes it to the market, the pursuers will lose them in the crowd, etc), and decide which side gets the "Head Start" (providing a movement bonus the first turn). There is a list of modifiers for chases on mounts, in vehicles, or other alternate forms of egress. At the beginning of each turn the pursued party generates an "Escape Value" equal to d10 + modifiers, representing the closing distance between them and the pursuers. From what I can tell, the action of the pursuers the previous turn don't affect this roll, which I find odd. Instead, each pursuer generates a "Pursuit Value" in the same manner. If the Pursuit Value is equal to or surpasses the Escape Value, the pursuer can attempt to grab the target (a Coordination Test). The degree of success or failure determines if the pursuit continues the next turn. There are some brief rules on Fatigue, attacking during a chase, and other complications, but that's the
nutshell.

Seems fine. Like the Bond rules better, but still a good effort using the pre-established system tools. And extra credit for something way too many systems gloss over.

And the kudos are not done, because that section is followed up by one on "Overland Exploration." I've been seeing this more and more recently, "travelling rules." I think the first overt ones I noticed were in The One Ring by Cubicle 7. Then the Japanese Fantasy RPG Ryuutama. At least one other in the last little while that escapes me. I wonder if this is influence form the OSR, or at least the nostalgia wing reminiscing over OD&D and the Wilderness Survival co-opted game supplement? Anyways, I like the trend, but I don't think the defining system has come along yet. The "game-changer." Unknown Armies to Sanity systems. Knighthawks to spacecraft combat. Ars Magica to, well, ars magic.

Sorry, that' not me criticizing Zweihander's system, I think it's very well done. It's basically an expanded variation on the Contest rules, as exampled for Chases. Yet also backed up by a lot of practical information regarding travel and GM advice, and a variety of sub-systems to cover everything from Party Roles (this is not as 4th Edition as it sounds), striking camp, and wilderness encounters. I think a lot of would-be OD&D OSR folks could benefit from a read of this section.

Well, Zweihander had me hooked for the last two sections, but now we're on to "Reward points", aka "XP."

It's not Zweihander's fault, experience points have always bored me as an approach. It's a "videogamey" mechanic, before videogames. I don't have anything particularly bad to say about it, I've seen it implemented well and sometimes even very clever ways, but it induces nothing beyond apathy for me. So you'll excuse me if I pass over this rather swiftly. Players get rewards for in-game activities (some as vague as "moving the story forward"), reward points buys advances. Add careers. Toss the salad. Zeihander goes a tiny bit FASERIP though, and also has "Reputation Points".

Social XP.

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Like MSH's "Renown", Reputation points are used for acquisitions. In this case though, you literally spend them. It's a surreal yet admittedly practical way of handling a character's ability to use their influence to find what they need.

Maybe it should be "Social GP"

There's also a "Group Reputation." I'll let you extrapolate that one in your head.

After that, sort of out of nowhere, comes a section on "breaking objects." The lack of segue to this from that just left me picturing breaking objects over people's heads when they ask if they can pay in Reputation Points...

Nothing against the section, which is surprisingly in-depth, and a nice touch to really emphasize the upkeep and repair needed to realistically maintain weapons and armour. A very on-point subsystem and I applaud it.

Washed that XP taste right out o my mouth.
 

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Ok traps. Lotsa traps. Rules for Building traps. Detecting and disabling traps. Traps for every occasion. You need traps, this game's got 'em.

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A table of Chaos Manifestations. That's pretty fun.

Malignancies and Divine Punishments. Good stuff.

Lots of specific information on the practices of various religions and cults devoted to the various specific gods of this RPG that specifically does not have an implied setting.

"Magick items" and some samples.

Again, not Zweihander's fault. My aversion to maagic items comes from the way so many RPGs (and now videogames and media) treat magic items as, well, just all over the goddamn place. I'm not saying this game does that, this section is actually pretty reserved, and more akin to Lamentations of the Flame Princess, with the items being rare, legendary, and unique. t does it how I prefer it, just antagonistic towards the whole subject these days. I'm sure it'll pass in a decade or two...

"Grampa, tell us about magic items"
"Oh, in my day, you couldn't walk for all the magic items spillin outta shops around town. +1 longswords for everybody."
"Is that like a d-726 Photon sabre?"
"What ?! what'd I tell you about watching that Psy Wars crap! Gonna rot your brains!"
"Yes grampa! Sorry grampa!"
"Phonton sabres, my ass. It's just a light saber by any other name. George Lucas is rollin' in his Tomb!"
"Who grampa?"
"Wha? The guy who created Star Wars!"
"I thought that was Mickey Mouse"
"Why I oughtta..."

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Advice on running NPCs. All solid.

Social Intrigue Rules. Sigh. Not a fan of mechanizing social interactions in games. It's not as bad as Burning Wheel's "social combat", but it's too close for my tastes.

Then, madness. If there's any rhyme or reason to the progression of these topics, I'm not seeing it. But, hey, let's check out Zweihander's Sanity system. I mean, WFRP basically just had a simplified version of Call of Cthulhu's system so it'd be hard to do worse.

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Zweihander divides Madness into that caused by stress, fear, or terror, with copious examples of each tier. In each case, a character exposed to the stimuli must make a Resolve Test. The results then range from gaining a Fortune Point (how many goddamn point pools does this game need?)

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...for a Critical Success, to gaining a ton of Corruption and paralysis for a Critical Failure. Luckily the next section is an in-depth looK at Corruption. Causes of Corruption ("Offenses") are divided into Minor, Middling, and Major (Daniel does love his tryptics). Accumulated Corruption increases a character's Chaos rank. This is balanced by a character's Order rank sort of like a Pendragon Passion. High ranking in Order gains a character Fate points. Higher ranking in Chaos gains you a Disorder. An extensive list of disorders follows.

While these are flavourful in and of themselves (overall, flavour-filled lists seem to be Zweihander's strongest points), I have to admit I was wrong.

This is way worse than WFRP's simplistic system.

It is just downright Byzantine. This mechanic is converted into that mechanic, is converted into that track, leads to this, ad nauseam. This isn't crunch so much as ring around the rosy.

And now, jarringly, we're suddenly onto optional rules for character advancement. Why wouldn't this come after the section on Reward Points? Was this chapter written stream of consciousness?

The next section "Slaves to Chaos" is about players playing the villains, or at least grimdark anti-heroes. I'm getting conceptual whiplash. There's some alternate character races, including not-Lizardmen, not-Skaven, and not-not-Broo.

There's now some advice on worldbuilding, which is actually mostly setting info. Dealing with demihuman inter-species relations, a simplistic overview of the feudal system, and some theology, including a list of major demons and extraplanar realms (Zweihander doesn't use the term "extraplanar," but any opportunity to make a Planescape reference...)

This is followed up (somewhat less jarringly) by "Campaign Seeds," which gives Zweihander the opportunity for the tryptic "The Enemy Within," "The Enemy Without," and "The Enemy Beyond." Cute Daniel.

We then are treated to a variety of campaign and adventure ideas. Many historical, from The 30 Years War to the Lost Colony of Roanoke.

And that wraps up the GM Chapter.

Kind of a mixed bag (with extra mixing).

Next comes The Bestiary, not only the largest chapter of the book, but also the last I'm going to cover in this review (the final chapter presents a sample adventure which I don't intend to ruin for anyone who may run it or play through it).
 

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BEASTIARY

Zweihander classifies the contents of the Bestiary into Abyssal, Animal, Beast, Humanoid, Mutant and Supernatural, but does not define these categories except by example.

Creatures use the same statistics as PCs, including Attributes, Attribute Bonuses, Skill Ranks, Attack Profiles, and any special Traits. Each is also given extensive write-ups, covering everything from ecological habits to superstitions.

There's not much "objective reviewing" I can do here. It's comprehensive, as these sorts of sections go, and full of some really fantastic art. I'll only be covering a few in detail, just airing random thoughts and opinions of a mostly personal nature.

Abyssals includes Fomorians, Higher Demons, Lower Demons, and Hellbeasts. Each "species" has numerous example "subspecies," (though these might be individuals in the case of some demons it seems).

So, let's talk about Fomorians. Or, rather, let's talk about Fimir.

When I first encountered Warhammer Fantasy, one of the things that immediately grabbed me and sold me on the setting was the unique monsters, distinct in tone and visuals from anything prior. WFRP additionally presented them in a way that evoked the sense of real creatures and cultures. Of these there were three in particular that captured my young imagination; Skaven, Zoats, and Fimir; only one of which would survive past 3rd edition in the wargame. From the contents of this blog it isn't hard to guess my favourite of these, but I was just as fascinated with the other two. And in many ways they are the embodiment of "Oldhammer" for me.

The Fimir were created by Graeme Davis (with help from Tony Ackland and Jes Goodwin) at the behest of Bryan Ansell, who apparently requested a new monster "to be as distinctive of Warhammer as the Broo are of Runequest" (according to a usenet post by Davis circa 1998, quoted from The Realm of Zhu).

Graeme's inspiration was a painting by Alan Lee for the cover of a book of Irish myths...
alan_lee_fomorian.jpg

This one, in fact

The painting depicts Balor of the Evil Eye, a king of the Fomor or Fomorians (from the Gaelic Fomhoire). The Fomorians were a monstrous race that had conquered Ireland before the Irish psuedo-gods (the elf-like Tuatha De Dannan) invaded the land. For a time the Fomor enslaved the Tuatha de, with Balor as Tyrant king ruling from his fortress on Tory Island. He was eventually slain by his own grandson, Lugh, in one of those "you try to cheat a Fate and end up creating it" stories European myths were big on, and the Fomorians were overthrown, driven into the sea.

Well , in one version of events. Sometimes the Fomor invaded sometime after the Tuatha de had shown up and kicked out the Fir Bolg (probably aborigines, but often made out as giants in legends). The Fomorians themselves were probably not originally monstrous, with historians interpreting them as everything from Norse Vikings to the displaced gods of a prehistoric religion. But Celtic traditions were passed down orally, and it wasnt until Christians got ahold of the stories that most were written down. And the Christian scribes went full Silent Hill in their interpretation of the Fomor (or, I guess, full Bosch). "Demons from the depths" in a manner that makes you wonder if Lovecraft's ancestry could be traced back to some of these scribes (more on that soon).

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Tony Ackland's first sketch of a Fimir
Unfortunately, The Fimir never acquired "Broo status," and by 4th edition they were gone, for two main reasons.

First, a miscommunication came up when Nick Bibby took over duties as sculptor of the original Fimir line of miniatures from Jes. See, originally Fimir were intended to be man-sized (or at least orc-sized), and the stats they got in the Wargame reflected this. But Bibby sculpted them as ogre-sized instead, taking the place of 4 regular soldiers in WFB's rank and file system. As such, they were horribly undervalued. Big, expensive minis with bad game stats means very little sales.

Second, in crafting the culture surrounding the Fimir, Graeme had drawn upon numerous Celtic soures, including ascribing to them the common fairytale motif that they carried off human women to be their brides (that's the nice way of putting it). With 4th edition, Ansell was reformatting the game to appeal to a younger, mainstream audience, and assumed (probably correctly, judging by recent reactions to the Goblin Slayer anime) that a group of one-eyed rape monsters wouldn't go over too well.

fimir_ban2.jpg


Anyhows, I remain as big a fan of Fimir as I am of Zoats and Skaven (and I have armies of both waiting for the paintbrush when the Great Skaven Project is finished), so I was looking forward to seeing what Zweihander did with them.

It was this...

Fomori-Crone.jpg

The Fomorians in Zweihander are basically Deep Ones etsy's. That tentacled creature above is one of the matriarchs, and the boyos look like the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Yeah, I get it, it makes sense with the mythology (it's a parallel I've seen exploited before). But I was disappointed. Not just due to Lovecraft burn-out after Cthulhu successfully consumed pop culture in the last generation, but moreso in that I consider the Fimir as iconic to WFRP as Chaos and Mohawked dwarves.

Higher Demons have an Arch Cenobite, so...there's a reference. It's Slaanesh by way of Clive Barker, makes sense. The "Great Devourer" is a Great Unclean One, but also gives birth to abyssal goblins from his slime. Oh, yeah, Nurglings...

And Tzeentch's vulture-demon is here as well.

Lesser demons include a few D&Dish fiends and proxies of most of the Warhammer Chaos daemon units.

Hellbeasts include a Barghest standing in for a Hell-Hound, Black Dog-type (it should be Bargheist).
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We also get a Lemurian Host (kinda like a spectral blob of skulls, no idea if this is referencing something Blavatsky came up with), a Night Mare (because no game designer can resist that pun), a Pit Dragon (dragon + demon = win!), and a Shoggoth (aka "Protoplasmic Dolor").​
 
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TristramEvans

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Animals are much as the name implies. They are divided into Critters, Primevals, and Beasts.

Critters are mostly ordinary animals, classed in groups with an overall profile the GM is expected to customize. These include large animals, including everything from horses (and, apparently, unicorns) to wolves to big snakes; large insects, man eaters such as lions, tigers, and bears...

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...small animals, such as cats, rats, and tiny vicious dogs; and swarms, which are....swarms.

Primevals are...well, i'll just let the book explain...

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Sounds good, I guess, in theory. The phrase "almost Shakespearean in predilection and tastes" made me laugh aloud. I have no idea what that is supposed to mean.

In practice what we have is giant spiders, giant bats, giant rats, a paleolithic boar, an owlbear, a warg, and a crocodile.

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Beasts are basically monsters, most of the mythological variety. Here we find Basilisks, "Bog Behemoths" (Krakens, basically), Chimaeras [sic], Cockatrices (déjà vécu), Dragon Turtles, Fen Wyrms, "Fodderlings" (Squigs), Gryphons, Harpies, Jabberwockies, Sirens, and Wyverns.

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TristramEvans

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Humanoids (thankfully not "Demihumans" in this instance) is a much more extensive section than the previous ones, and where we find the majority of Warhammer proxies.

This starts with the Aztlan, Zweihander's answer for Lizardmen. Here they follow much closer to the later Warhammer Fantasy Battles retcon of Lizardmen circa 5th edition. They are, as the name suggests, vaguely Meso-American in culture, descended from "Ancient Ones" (*cough*), and divided into castes based on the type of amphibian/reptile they most resemble, with toad-like heirophantic rulers. No Oldhammer herein, with nary a mention of pygmies or lobotomized slaves.

The Chosen of Chaos are Chaos Warriors, of course. Barely even a proxy, but then, Chaos Warriors predate Warhammer. Kudos for including Chaos Dwarves in the mix (here, Duergar, which is kinda just the Norse word for Dwarf, but that works). Dark Elves and Nephilim are also included as creatures "corrupted by Chaos."

Corrupted Souls is sort a catch-all category for human NPCs, of one or another degree of villainy.

Then out of no where we get a "Zoatar." Zweihander's answer to Zoats.

So, if you recall when I was talking about Fimir, Zoats were the third part of the trilogy with Skaven that I regard as the personifications of Oldhammer. Zoats in WFRP were an ancient race of weird turtle centuars (Testuditaurs?) who lived deep in the woods and had "Druid"-type powers.

latest

There wasn't any specific reason they were excised from Warhammer come 4th edition, like Martin Short they just never "caught on." It probably didn't help that the minis weren't that great.

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But, anyways, I liked them. They occupy a very special nostalgic corner in the labyrinthine pits of my cold, dark heart, for some reason just round the corner from my memories of the film Troll.

Anyways, this is what Zweihander offers as "Zoatars"...

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What's most baffling is that this is included in the category "Corrupted Souls", which otherwise is all just medieval human cultural stereotypes. Are these all under the sub-category of "Chosen of Chaos"? I can't tell, but the formatting makes me think so.

Either way, after that are Mutants.
 

TristramEvans

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The "Mutant" category doesn't have any sort of description or explanation, but I guess that's OK.

The first sub-category of Mutants is Deadly Flora, basically predatory plants

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Then there's a Dragonborn Ogre. I'm pretty certain "Dragon Ogres" were a Warhammer creation, and I've always had it in my head they were basically an evil counterpart of Zoats.

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Goblins are in the Mutant category as well, which does me kind of wish there was an overall explanation of how Zweihander is defining the word. I mean, I'm pretty flexible, I grew up with X-Men comics so I can deal with any interpretation of Mutant you want to throw at me, but I don't know what connection Goblinoids supposedly have to evil plants.

Unless...oh god...

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If you get that reference then I'm certain you can picture the face I'm making.

But it turns out Goblins are mutated children. Specifically "ill-born babies and crippled children," mutated by demonic imps.

Subtypes of Goblins are Hobgoblins (the D&D kind) and Kobolds (the anime kind).

Grendel is the Zweihander equivalent of Beastmen, which were the Warhammer equivalent of Runequest's Broo. And the first sub-type of Grendel? Broo.

Lycanthropes are also classed as Mutants, along with Medusa (not Gorgons?), Orx (hipster orcs), Ravenous Ghouls(?), and Trolls.

Finally we get to Zweihander's version of Skaven, the SKRZZAK...
 

TristramEvans

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The imaginary translation of the imaginary word "Skrzzak", from an imaginary ancient language, is "The Scourge Below." The Skrzzak ("Skz" from now on, because I hate having to constantly stop typing to reconfirm the spelling) are man-sized rodent-like creatures whose existence is regarded as myth and folktale by most of the population of The-Setting-That-Doesn't-Exist.

"Chimera? Jabberwocky? Lovecraftian fish-men off the coast? Sure, all perfectly plausible.
Rats as big as men? lol, pull the other one mate, it has bells on it!"
Anyways, so far, so Skaven.
Underempire = Great Warren
Clan = Kabal
Brood Horror - Broodmother

Oh yeah, in case you didn't know, Forgeworld makes the following model, depicting a Skaven Warlord with a Brood Horror mount.

99590206003_SkavenBroodHorror01.jpg


Which is one of the most subtly f-ed up miniatures GW has ever unleashed. Like, it's hitting Kingdom Death levels, but only in a wink-nudge way to those who know the lore. See he is literally riding on an example of the female of the species. Skaven basically turn all their females into huge, grotesque, mindless birthing beasts of burden. And this miniature's very existence suggests that the occasionally also ride them into battle as mounts. And you thought one-eyed rape monsters were bad.

And here is also where we hit Zweihander's big twist...

The Skz have a matriarchal society. The "Brood Mothers" are still big huge, uh, breeding machines, but they are also in charge.

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"When not issuing commands to her children, the Broodmother is found in a
Wytchstone-imbued stupor to bring them into communion with The Thirteen, the Skrzzak rat god
."​

This clearly mirrors the Skaven addiction to Warpstone and references the Council of Thirteen, leaders of Skaven society whose unofficial 13th member is The Great Horned Rat.

Skaven society is of course divided into clans, with the 4 most powerful clans each having a unique ...culture? Shtick? Theme maybe?

Clan Eshin are ninja assassins
Clan Moulder are beastmasters/eugenicists
Clan Pestilens are a disease cult
and Clan Skryre are mad scientists/boffins
There is also The Grey Seers, Skaven pope-sorcerers who operate much like a Clan, but are made up of Skaven born to any Clan with the very specific mutation of white fur and horns, marking them as full of the Skaven equivalent of midichlorians.

Zweihander retains this quadrilogy of "Kabals," but derives their titles from the Four Humours of medieval physiological theory .

skrzzak.jpg

The Bilious are kinda like Skryre, or at least they use a few Skryre weapons and dress like Skryre, but seem to be less inventors so much as elite shock troops...

"...new pups are shipped to the most dangerous and vile places of the Great Warren, left alone to survive and adapt.
They are conditioned through rigorous torture and administration of Wytchstone fumes...to obey their Broodmother above all else.
Few survive the harrowing ordeal, but those that do are merciless, fanatically devoted and cruel beyond measure."
So...Skaven Sardaukar. A picture is forming, one confirmed by the first sentence in the description of Choleric SkZ...

"Broodmothers have foretold the birth of a special pup: one who will be a 'super ratling',
a Skrzzak that can go to the regions of prescient knowledge where Broodmothers dare not enter.

Through careful (yet imprecise) manipulation of Kabal bloodlines,
the Broodmothers have attempted to create this superior being, who they call the Skrzzak Cholerach."

see_what_you_did_there_doctor_who.gif

Yup, it's Dune. I mean...wow. Colour me impressed.

Well done Daniel, I have no idea where the inspiration came to blend these two, but it is a stroke of mad genius.

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So the Broodmothers are the Bene Gesserit sisterhood, the Bilious Kabal are the Sardaukar, the Phlegmatic SkZ are mentats, and the Sanguine SkZ are Fremen. But they also parallel the original Skaven to a wide extent. Sanguine resemble Eshin with Fremen cultural ideas. Choleric SkZ are patterned after Clan Pestilens but add in elements from the Lynch film's interpretation of House Harkonnen (and even reference the fact that Paul's mother was secretly a Harkonnen). Overall this is a masterful blending.

I came in expecting to be the harshest, or at least the most disappointed, regarding Zweihander's interpretation of the Skaven, especially after the Fomorians and Zoatar...

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...but I'm going to come straight and say that this turned out to be my favourite interpretation of ratmen besides the Skaven themselves.

Above and beyond. If every one of the creatures in this Bestiary got this same level of clever re-interpretation and blending with pop culture reference, I'd consider this chapter a masterpiece.
 

TristramEvans

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Finally, we arrive at the Supernatural, largest category in the Bestiary, because it covers such a huge variety of creatures. To the point it sorta calls into question the point of these categories overall. Here we have Paracelsian Elementals (here called "Ætheric Spirits"), Defilers (Tomb King mummy-liches), Fey (faeries, continuing the weird-ass D&D tradition that these are somehow separate from Elves), Golems, Living Statues (Ushabti), Mindless Undead (Zombies and the like), Restless Spirits, and Vampires (apparently of the White Wolf variety).

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So, this section is reasonably comprehensive. Some British folklore makes it way into the section on Fey. The Dullahan rides in from Irish legend as a death omen. I rather liked the Facedancer, which I can' help but think also takes it's inspiration from Dune, but also is a good representation of a Faerie archetype that shows up in older stories,

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Redcaps are for some reason included here instead of with Goblins. "Sidhe Lords" get what seems to be a Twin Peaks reference as beings from "The Black Lodge." I've long made comparisons between the underlying mythos of Lynch and Frost's Twin Peaks to the Seelie/Unseelie courts of Caledonian Faerie folklore, a concept I've used in my CoC games. Unfortunately, Zweihander doesn't take this any further than the oblique references to The Black Lodge, with no mention of the corresponding White Lodge. Basically these are just more powerful elves. An Ent ("Talking Tree") and Dryad ("Woodland Nymph") finish this section off. Overall, this section just seems incredibly sparse. It barely scratches the surface of Faerie folklore, doesn't even cover many of the more common creatures or archetypes. They could even have done some customizable categories like they did with "animals"; a precedent set by RPGs such as Dark Ages: Fae and GURPS: Faeries. Oh well.

The Vampire category gets a bit more cosmopolitan, with Lamashtu (named ror the Mesopotamian goddess) and Rakshasha (the tiger-headed man-eating spirits from Hindu myth). Succubi are also included here, rather than among the demons, not the first ime these categorizations have seemed entirely random to me. It's harder and harder pill for me to swallow that Zweihander is trying to be a generic, or at least settingless, RPG when they're interpretation o mythology seems to owe more to Gyga than the actual real-worl legends, but that rant is coming up.

The Bestiary chapter finishes up with a guide to customizing creatures, including creating "underlings" and "Bosses," if you like some videogame in your RPGs. And several pages of "Loot Tables." These are flavourful, if a bit bizarre.

"Look! This Salamander I just killed was carrying a barrel of linseed oil!"

To be fair, there's nothing in the text directly tying the loot to the creatures in the Bestiary, so that would completely be at a GM's discretion, but why is this section even included in the Bestiary if not because of the obvious Gygaxian association?

OK (whew) that'll do it for Part II of this review. There is a handy Appendix collating the various charts needed for play, and a pretty comprehensive index, which is no doubt invaluable during play, which I'll find out (spoilers: I already found out, as I'm typing all this up a long while after I first wrote it) in Part III - The Playtest Session and Final Thoughts.
 

Voros

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UNDERGROUND

Got this on pdf as I was afraid it may be pulled by Mayfair Games since they are folding. Long intended to check it out and I was not disappointed.

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First off this game has an innovative layout I'm surprised I haven't seen others take ideas from.

Here is a summary directly from the intro.

*The central (and largest) column of each page contains the main body of the text. This is the column you should read as you progress from page to page.

*Whenever a word or phrase in the main text is printed in color, you'll find a definition of that word printed in the page's inside column in same color.

*In the outside column of each page, you'll find a quick summary next to each paragraph. By reading only the summaries, you can quickly scan vast sections of the rulebook for the passage that interests you.

*Important text is always surrounded by black and yellow "construction bars." Pay close attention to these passages.

*Optional rules intended for more advanced players are surrounded by blue bars filled with question marks. Beginners should simply ignore these passages for the time being.

*Examples of play are always printed against a yellow background.


In pdf some of the coloured text is a bit hard to read against the bright white background but I would hope this is less of an issue in the hardcopy (which I'm going to be looking for now that I've read this pdf).

The book opens with two-page in-game fiction that is actually quite good and communicates a lot about the world and the kind of gameplay.

The background is densely imagined but essentially the PCs are genetically superpowered, mentally unstable and drug addicted vets who have returned home from corporate controlled wars in Third World countries to an ultra-violent and poverty stricken dystopian USA.

To help adjust to the reality-distorting effects of their genetic and cybernetic enhancements the supersoliders are brainwashed via a VR dreamworld based on 4-colour superhero comics. Inadvertently being indoctrinated with the 'simplistic' morality of the superhero comics many of the vets upon returning home decide that the dictatorship running the USA is actually 'evil' and form a rebel/terrorist Underground of the game's title.

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The unstated and even ironic assumption of the game is that you will probably join the 'terrorist' Underground but the game has a extensive examples and suggestions for a variety of play including a corporate cop, criminal, near-psychotic nihilst, or my personal favourite: a Cyber-Celeb. Yes, a game where you can play a cybernetic David Bowie or Sly Stallone has been here waiting for you the entire time!

This is all presented with lots of gonzo humour and irony. For instance there is a popular fast food chain that sells human flesh and poor citizens can sell their actual brains for inferior artifical brains.

So a little-bit cyberpunk, a fair bit of Watchmen, 2000AD, Robocop and outside of Paranoia and Price of Freedom one of the few examples of actual political satire in RPGs.

Systemwise, to go into detail would require a very long post. I'll try and quickly summarize it below but the tl;dr is the core system is medium crunch, chargen heavy but rewarding.

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Chargen is an involved point buy and literal expenditure of in-game funds system where genetic or cybernetic modifications increase your Stress. In a process reminscent of Traveller you generate your PCs military career and the traumas and Enhancements they suffered from it. The Stress system is quite good, integrating a number of effects, not only your powers but the stress of drugs and comitting violence/firefights in general. There are also Traits and Codes to flesh out the characterization. Overall an interesting combo of crunchiness and 'storygamey' characterization.

Attributes are pretty conventional. Abilities are split into Skills and Enhancements (i.e. superpowers). The skill list is about medium length for a 90s RPG, nothing too excessive but still too long for most these days I suspect. The Enhancements are pretty low-power by superhero standards, although often spectacularly violent (eg. acid breath!).

The system encourages Automatic Actions for most ordinary actions that most people could perform without failure. For every other kind of action, including combat, comes down to a contest between an Attribute/Ability measured by Units. So Strength is used to overcome a door's Resilence. 0 Units is the measure of the average human, the range is from -5 to 35. There are lots of examples of Units, including in terms of weight, speed, time, etc. To me the system is a bit too granular but also kind of reminds me of FASERIP and may play faster than it looks.

Contests are resolved by rolling 2d10 +Attribute/Ability and adding the results then the GM rolls and you compare results. Doubles lead to additional rolls that can be added, another double can be added, etc with no limit. In a Standard Challenge if the challenge is succesful you calculate the difference between your roll and the GMs roll and refer to a very simple Challenge Chart to indicates a letter grade (so a difference of 4 is C Grade whereas a difference of 10 is a B Grade).

Finally you get one Karma Point, which you can use to turn a failure into a success or shift a Challenge by a Grade (So a C can become a B).

Combat looks to be deadly and disfiguring.

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There is a pretty extensive weapon and equipment list that doesn't quite extend into Gun Porn levels. The tech is appealingly retro-futuristic without coming off as too dated. The artwork and world-building ads, new reports, popular music, etc is all terrific stuff.

There is a lot of GM advice, advancement is through Reward Points for achieving Campaign Goals that usually mean, get this, improving the world. Yes, the PCs are actually encouraged to be Heroic in this world, not behave like emotionally and mentally arrested adolescents. Crazy.

I'd like to see how this all runs, it could be a bit clunky in places but could probably run fine by smoothing out the granular details in play.

Overall a near (or dead-on depending on how it plays) masterpiece of an RPG, particularly for its vividly imagined and blackly hilarious concepts and setting. There are a number of supplements, not sure if they can live up to the corebook but I'd be interested in finding out.

Oh yeah, and that dude on the cover has all his equipment fully statted and explained.
 
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Dan Davenport

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The Hardboiled GMshoe Reviews: Wicked Pacts



Introduction

The name's Davenport. I review games.

So the other day I'm sitting at my desk, just mindin' my own business, when this fella in a black duster carrying a flaming sword steps outta this black cloud that smells like rotten eggs.

"You could at least say 'excuse me'," I says.

"Cute," he says. "You Davenport?"

"That's me."

"Got a review job for you. A game of modern-day magic."

He points at my desk, and a rulebook called Wicked Pacts appears. Out of a cloud of black smoke that smells like rotten eggs.

"Well," I says, "I can already tell you that the game stinks."

"Real funny," he says. "Less comedy, more reviewing."

Substance

Setting

The world of Wicked Pacts won't be anything new to fans of the World of Darkness or the Dresden Files. In fact, the author described it to me as "the Dresden Files with the serial number filed off".

Essentially, it's a version of our modern-day Earth in which magic is and always has been real. Due to witch hunts back in the days when the common folk knew of magic's existence, modern magicians practice in secret. This secrecy is the decree of the magical Hermetic Order and is enforced by their Praetorian Guard.

Magic itself consists of specific spells rather than the freeform magic of Mage: the Ascension, and is also generally less powerful. However, there's nothing built into the system itself that prevents mages from blasting away with flashy spells in public, making the mundane world's ignorance of magic a bit hard on willing suspension of disbelief.

Magic doesn't work the same way in all places. Adding flavor to the setting are Ley Lines, where supercharged ambient magic creates wildly unpredictable effects, and Dead Zones, where magic doesn't work at all. The latter provide an opportunity for non-mages to shine and places where magically powerful adversaries can meet in a sort of "neutral ground".

Other realms exist alongside our own in Wicked Pacts, including the Thicket (the Faerie realm), innumerable specific Hells, an amusingly urban Heaven, and the mysterious, abomination-haunted ruins of Carceris, the prison to some thing that all supernaturals fear. The text vividly describes all of these realms, providing enough detail to use them with a little creativity to get around the lack of actual game statistics.

Bestiary

Supernatural monsters, like mages, also exist in the shadows of Wicked Pacts Earth, and the core rules provide a respectable bestiary.
  • Angel
  • Chupacabra
  • Demon (Major and Minor)
  • Elemental (Earth, Fire, Water, Wind)
  • Ghost
  • Ghoul
  • Golem (Flesh, Clay, Stone, Iron)
  • Hellhound
  • Lich
  • Red Cap
  • Troll
  • Vampire
  • Wendigo
  • Werewolf (Feral-Created and Natural-Born)
Note that several of these entries, such as Elemental and Vampire, include more than one power level for the creature type in question.

System

Wicked Pacts rates Attributes from 1-5 (for normal humans). Skills are based on pools of 1-3 dice, with the die type determined by level of learning (d6, d8, or d10) and the number of dice determined by the level of practical usage. For example, a person with years of study in Spanish who never actually used the language after leaving school might have a 1d10 in the language, whereas someone with minimal Spanish education who speaks it regularly might have a 3d6.

Tasks involve rolling the Skill dice, keeping only the highest and adding the attribute score to get the total. A critical success occurs when two of the Skill dice come up as the highest value. A critical failure occurs when all of the Skill dice come up ones and a second roll also results in a failure. (A success on the second roll simply means that an ordinary failure has occurred.)
Saving Throws are made by adding a roll of 1d10 to the relevant Attribute.

My thoughts on this mechanic...

Well, on the downside, the chance of a critical success actually drops with increased learning. The system might be better served by going with matching dice on a successful roll, or perhaps by going with degree of success.

On the other hand, the system is extremely transparent and quick to use. My wife and I both absolutely loved it.

Character Creation

Building a character in Wicked Pacts involves a fairly simple multi-step process.
The first major step in this process involves selecting the character's Bloodline -- the source of his magical power. (This step applies even to characters lacking magical powers, such as the Ungifted and the Knights Templar. Their gifts simply never manifested.)

The Bloodlines are:
  • Angel Blood
  • Demon Blood
  • Pure Blood
  • Half Blood
Each Bloodline comes with some small perk(s) and, except for Angel Blood, a minor drawback.

Random rolls determine the character's Background, after which the player spends 18 points on Attributes: Strength, Health, Reflexes, Willpower, Charisma, and Intelligence. Hit Points are figured on a table based on Strength and Health, while Magic Points are figured on a table based on Willpower and Intelligence.

Every character must have an Archetype:
  • Angel Slayer: Exactly what the name implies.
  • Demon Hunter: Ditto.
  • Enchanter: Creators of magic items.
  • Grunt: Magical "Hulks" specializing in physical enhancement.
  • Knight Templar: Holy warriors with access to miracles instead of magic.
  • Necromancer: Masters of the undead.
  • Scribe: Intellectual magical jacks-of-all-trades.
  • Seer: Diviners of the future.
  • Shadow: Magical ninjas.
  • Ungifted: Non-magical action heroes.
  • Vodou: Intercessors between mortals and spirits.
  • Warlock: Wealthy, influential battle-mages (not all male).
  • Witch: Mages at their best when working indirectly.
These Archetypes are as close as Wicked Pacts comes to classes and determine what sorts of spells the character can cast (if any), what special Talents the character may have, and what Attribute the character uses to cast spells. For example, Demon Hunters can cast Demon Hunter spells and General spells using the Reflexes attribute and can have such Talents as angelic swords and shields and supernatural senses.

Overall, I really like the selection, which allows players to play not just different types of magicians, but very different types of characters in general. On the flip side, players wanting to play the "traditional" sort of brainy bookworm wizard can play a Scribe.

I should mention that all character types have access to General Talents, both magical and mundane, offering still more variety. Players may also choose to take a Complication to earn an extra Talent or an extra Adjustment point. (Adjustment points are used to tweak characters at the end of character creation, adding more Skill points, tweaking Attributes, changing a randomly assigned Background, or adding an extra Talent.)

I would describe the Skills as moderately specific. Blades, for example, covers all edged weapons, and Computer Operation covers all aspects of computer use, including program writing and hacking.

Magic
Spells are treated as individual Skills. Spellcasting involves a Skill roll and a Magic Point expenditure accompanied by a gesture and an invocation. Every
Spell has an associated Magic Lore Skill that sets the limit on the level of that Spell. Magic Lores, in turn, are either Archetype-based or fall under General Spells that all mages can use.

The spell lists are fairly extensive. The General Spells cover a lot of ground, including basics like lightning bolts and magical shields. If anything, the list may cover a bit too much ground, as some of the Spells would seem to fall under the purview of other Magical Lores.

For their part, the Archetype spells are quite flavorful. A personal favorite of mine is the Angel Slayer Spell "Brimstone Shift", which teleports the mage via a trip through Hell.

There are two exceptions to this format.

The first is Miracles of Faith, which do cost Magic Points but which are not purchased as Skills and do not require Skill rolls -- the Templar simply starts play with one Miracle and may never have more than two. I like the way this distinguishes Miracles from Magic, making them something special.
The second is Petty Magic, which does not involve Skills purchased for individual spells -- if the mage knows Magic Lore: Petty Magic, he can cast all Petty Magic spells using the Lore rating as the casting Skill with no Magic Point cost at all. These are, as the name implies, relatively weak but handy cantrips like Clean/Polish Item, Freshen Food, Minor Illusions, and Prestidigitation. This allows a mage to perform numerous cool little tricks without having to burn a bunch of Skill points in order to do so.

Combat

Wicked Pacts
breaks combat down into two-second turns and rounds long enough to accommodate every participant's turn. Combatants may take as many as four actions on a turn, albeit with a +3 target number per action after the first on all actions taken (e.g., taking four actions would result in a +9 TN for all four actions).

Initiative is determined by the Reflexes score plus a die roll -- 1d8 for PCs and important NPCs, 1d6 for garden-variety thugs.

Damage is randomized by dice pools that vary in number and size of dice, and armor reduces damage. A medium pistol, for example, does 2d6 points of damage. That may not seem like much when you consider that an average person has around 24 Hit Points, but a critical hit inflicts double damage, and any hit calls for a roll on the hit location table that may inflict yet another damage multiplier. Factor in multi-actions and auto-fire, and combat can end pretty quickly -- just how I like it.

Scene Points

PCs begin play with at least three Scene Points, which may be used to:
  • Add either +5 to a Skill Test or add an extra d10.
  • Automatically deal maximum damage.
  • Reduce incoming damage by half (or eliminate it entirely with two Scene Points).
  • Alter a minor aspect of the Scene.
I'm always in favor of these dashes of narrative control, so this is a plus for me.

Tarot Cards

Every PC is associated with one of the Major Arcana of a tarot deck -- either chosen or randomly drawn.
At the start of each session, each player draws a card from the tarot deck. The player keeps a card drawn right-side up and surrenders a card drawn upside-down to the GM. If a player draws another PC's Major Arcana right-side up, the card goes to the other player and the drawing player draws again. If a player draws another PC's Major Arcana upside-down, it goes to the GM, and the player does not draw again.

Players may use Major Arcana to:
  • Automatically break or block a Spell.
  • Instantly refill a character's Magic Points.
  • Instantly find a nearby Ley Line or Dead Zone.
  • Gain a Scene Point.
  • Ask the GM for a specific effect related to the card.
Minor Arcana have more specific effects based upon the suite, their level of power based upon the card's number:
  • Wands: Increase Initiative for a combat Scene.
  • Cups: Reduce the TN for a single social Skill.
  • Swords: Reduce the TN for a single combat Skill.
  • Pentacles: Reduce the TN for a single non-combat, non-social Skill.
The GM can use Major Arcana to introduce complications to the story based on the meaning of the card and can use Minor Arcana for the reverse of the effects they can produce for PCs.

I like the thinking behind this mechanic, but I'm not thrilled with the fact that players have to turn over upside-down cards to the GM and don't get a card of their own. It feels like such players are being left out of a fun aspect of the game. I'd rather see the GM draw one card per player and the players keep the cards they draw, regardless of their orientation.

Style

The art in this 250-page full-color hardback manages to be both stylish and evocative. My only regret is that there isn't more of it. The vast majority of the art consists of very well-done character images.

The layout could use some work. The headers are attractive enough, but the body text needs some tightening up. The text orphans are particularly annoying.

The writing is professional but needs another pass from the editor to clean up typos that are too frequent for my tastes. Most of these are simply annoying, but some negatively impact the content. For example, the Earth Elementals, according to the text, are capable of lobbing cars, yet their stats make them no stronger than normal humans.

Regrettably, the book lacks a glossary or an index.

Conclusion

This is one of those games that's more than the sum of its parts. The setting isn't particularly new or innovative, but it's certainly entertaining, and the system makes playing in this world the most fun that my wife and I had at GenCon 2017. I highly recommend you give this one a look. It may well become your new go-to for dark urban fantasy.
 

TristramEvans

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Zweihander Review Part III of III
A Finale in Three Parts

I. Playtest
II. Comparison
III. Final Thoughts

I. Part The First - The Playtest
Honestly, this playtest was more of a formality than anything. I know that there are those of the opinion that no review of a game is complete without actually playing said game. However, with a system as crunchy as Zweihander, and a group of players completely unfamiliar with the system, it seems to me equally inadequate or unfair to compare the stumbling & fumbling through a single obligatory game session to that of a gaming group familiar and comfortable with the system. In other words, take this section with a grain of salt. AND as such. I'm not going to give a detailed rundown of our playtest session, just some highlights and observations.

  • I decided to adapt a Warhammer Fantasy RPG 2nd edition scenario that I've wanted to run for a while: "There Are No Such Things as Skaven." I was GMing for two players from my regular gaming group. Converting the adventure was pretty straightforward, if time-consuming. Reverse-engineering chargen to approximate NPC stats was the bulk of that, and I didn't feel like I was well-versed enough in the effects and interactions of traits and drawbacks to get it right, but I don't think it mattered so much in this situation. Once again, however, my preference for RPGs wherein a character can be statted-up easily in a few seconds is reinforced, though I imagine this may come with Zweihander's learning curve, so I wouldn't hod it against the game.

  • Despite preparations, character creation took up a good chunk of our time. One player (I'll call "X") was at least very pleased with the results, vocally praising the game. The other player (let's call him "Y") found the process a bit tedious and suggested (probably correctly) that we should have gone with pre-gens for a one-shot. X and Y both agreed that rolling for gender and race was (quote) "stupid".

  • I also ran Nix Halewijn as a GMNPC. This is not a practice I normally condone as I don't believe it's fair to the players, but in this case I warned the players beforehand and they knew it was only for the sake of the playtest. And, to be perfectly honest, I liked the character and couldn't foresee another opportunity in the future to take him for a test run.

  • The players, contrary to my initial reactions while reading, really liked the Initiative system. Enough to mention it, even with the caveat that they still liked Savage World's system better. Player Y, responding to my assertion that it seemed immersion-breaking said (paraphrasing) "With a game like this, everything comes to a halt for combat anyways, so it's more of a tactical exercise tacked on to an RPG". Though Y also said it wasn't "as bad" as D20 games, which pretty clearly indicates his tastes. Player X, who was a GM and fan of D&D 4th edition (though I don't hold that against her) didn't mind the crunch but didn't think it was "well-crafted", but I can only sort of guess how she meant that.

  • The resolution mechanic was omnipresent and remained tedious. It reminded me, in play, of nothing so much as the WRG family of wargames that dominated historical miniatures games in the '80's. And I like those rules...for a wargame. But I've been spoiled by incredibly fast-playing game systems for decades.

  • Neither Player X nor Y thought the system was anything like Warhammer Fantasy Role-Playing (I've run 1st edition for them several times). X said it was closer to third edition. with all the various widgets. The consensus after the game was that, some surface chrome aside, Zweihander is completely different in feel and approach.
 

TristramEvans

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II. Part The Second - Comparison

Way back at the beginning of this review I mentioned that I was going to compare Zweihander to Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play 1st edition based on 3 categories that defined what made WFRP unique. Namely, Aesthetics, System, and Comprehensiveness. But before we get into that, let's talk a bit about Zweihander's setting, or lack thereof.

In Part II of this review, the authors hit us with this gem:
"Unlike other tabletop role-playing games, ZWEIHANDER doesn't have an implied setting."​

How that sentence should truthfully read is...
"Unlike most other tabletop role-playing games, ZWEIHANDER has an implied setting."
An implied setting is exactly what Zweihander promotes at every opportunity throughout the text. I can only think of one other RPG that so absolutely illustrates or embodies what the phrase "implied setting" means, and that's post-TSR D&D (I think Greyhawk was taken as the implied setting? I remember being surprised it wasn't Forgotten Realms as that seemed the "most-D&D D&D setting circa AD&D 2nd edition).
And even D&D wasn't as blatant about it.

Zweihander attempts to play this off as "genre elements", but this comes across more like a half-hearted attempt to circumnavigate Games Workshop's IP than any genuine genre emulation attempt. Zweihander's "genre" is pre-Age of Sigmar Warhammer Fantasy, and only shares as much in common with other examples of the "dark fantasy" genre is the extent the inspiration can be described as such.

Ultimately, this ends up being Zweihander's greatest strength and weakness as an RPG. If Zweihander had embraced it's implied setting, it might have captured some of what made WFRP so special. An RPG doesn't need to tell gamers they can adapt it's system to other settings - roleplayers have done this instinctively since the beginning of the hobby. Some RPGs show how to do this, or position themselves as "universal systems", but Zweihander straddles the line, not committing to either it's implied setting nor being a genre game, and inevitably ascends to greatness in neither.

This is doubly a shame as Zweihander's setting elements are consistently what it does best. From the professions, to poisons, to the bestiary, even beyond emulating Warhammer it provides frustratingly brilliant peeks at an incomplete setting informing all aspects of the game.
 

TristramEvans

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SYSTEM

My thoughts on Zweihander's system judged on it's own merits are discussed in 'Final Thoughts', for now I'm specifically focusing on how it compares to WFRP. I've seen it expressed online that Zweihander is a "retroclone" of Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play. It may have started out this way on the Strike-to-Stun forums, but in regards to the system as published, nothing could be further from the truth. Zweihander borrows elements and ideas from WFRP, but forged them into something quite different. Zweihander is an original system, but one attempting to cover the same ground. Note that I can only say this in regards to WFRP 1st Edition, I skipped 2nd edition except for some sourcebooks and adventures for conversion. To what degree Zweihander might resemble that iteration of the rules, I couldn't say.

I will, however, go so far as to say that Zweihander represents a quite different concept of an RPG than WFRP. Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play was an unashamedly "old school" game even at a time that had already fallen out of popularity; simple, easy to learn, with a clearly stated "rulings-not-rules" approach to GMing. It was a modular design, with individual systems designed to handle specific situations and game elements. This was conspicuous for a game released in the late '80's, when the RPG industry as a whole was well into it's second generation, with genre games and exception-based design all the rage. Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu and Pendragon, Victory Game's 007:James Bond, TSR's Marvel Superheroes and Conan, Mayfair's DC Heroes, West End Games' Ghostbusters and Star Wars RPGs ,all exemplify this generation, while Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play had more in common with Fantasy Wargaming or Swords & Chivalry.

On the other hand, it is to this second generation that Zweihander clearly owes more to, with it's unified mechanics, the addition of narrative system elements, and aspirations towards "game balance". This leads to logical inconsistencies in the design, like keeping the randomized aspect of character generation, while attempting to balance the professions.

Zweihander doesn't clone the WFRP system, it approaches the elements of Warhammer Fantasy RPG from a more modern design perspectiv.
 

TristramEvans

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COMPREHENSIVENESS

This is difficult to quantify. Zweihander is a massive tome, with tons off gaming material packed into it's not insignificant page count. Just in comparison however, it falls just a bit short of Warhammer', for pretty much the same reason I just talked about in regards to the system. Zweihander's unwillingness to commit to it's implied setting leaves one with a slight feeling of incompleteness.

This shouldn't entirely be taken as a criticism. There is nothing inherently wrong with an RPG not providing a setting, it's actually exceedingly common, with the assumption that GMs will more often than not prefer to create their own gameworld. If anything, one could say that's the default for the hobby, taking Dungeons & Dragons as the archetypal RPG. D&D is a good analogy overall, as the best way to describe Zweihander's comprehensiveness is to compare it to a one volume combination of the Player's Handbook, Dungeon Master's Guide, and an abridged Monster Manual. Zweihander is essentially as comprehensive as The Rules Cyclopedia, and that is high praise.

But Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play first edition stands as possibly the most comprehensive single-volume RPG rulebook, and Zweihander doesn't compete for that title, it just gets closer than most.

AESTHETICS

Pretty much spot on. At the beginning of this review I sang the praises of Zweihander's art design, and by the end I can only reiterate that for emphasis. Even without access to the pool of talent that Citadel enjoyed, Mr, Mandic steps up and fills that role. Perhaps what's most remarkable is that despite Dejan Mandic maintaining his own identifiable style, it is almost universally agreed that the art almost perfectly captures the WFRP aesthetic, or at least a close enough equivalent.

I would be surprised if Zweihander's art design wasn't at least 50% or more responsible for the game's surprising success. And as such, I probably have the least to say about it. I already gave the obligatory rant about black noses on rats, but beyond that personal niggle, I was thoroughly impressed with Zweihander's art, especially how it managed to capture the essence of the Old World.
 

TristramEvans

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(This will probably take a few posts, and depends on how much time I can spare to sit and type. I'll identify the finish with a big "THE END")

Part The Third - FINAL THOUGHTS

So it's been quite a journey since I first cracked open the nearly 700 page tome and started recording my impressions. Of course, I'm not a professional reviewer, so one would be forgiven or thinking that this closer resembled a "Where I Read" forum thread. And in that manner I've not passed up any opportunity to take the piss out of Zweihander, or a chance play for laughs. To say this review has been "nitpicky" is a gratuitous enough understatement to verge on hyperbole. What I hope I at least provided is a comprehensive enough overview that any reader could make an informed decision on whether or not Zweihander is the right game for them, divorced of my personal preferences and pet peeves.

I mentioned above that the playtest seemed obligatory even as I expressed doubt as to the value of a single game using the system. It was years before I identified many of the emergent properties in MSH (FASERIP), a much simpler system. Even Warhammer Fantasy Role Play had a substantial learning curve. However, thinking on this turned my thoughts to reviews in general, or RPG reviews specifically. Bear with me, we're about to get meta. There is a point, I promise.

My first experience with RPG reviews, as well as RPG online forums, was RPG.net circa the turn of the century. I'd never been a reader of Dragon or Dungeon growing up, or even White Dwarf prior to it becoming a house organ, so I wasn't exposed to reviews or what form they took pre-internet. If there was any magazine influence, it was probably Nintendo Power or Wizard, neither of which were noted for objectivity or journalistic integrity.

RPG.net, for those who weren't around during those days, was originally primarily focused around the reviews, to the point that the forums were originally just the comments sections attached to specific reviews, closer resembling BoardGameGeek or a popular review blog than what the site has become . Even when the forums proper were established, the reviews were still the main focus of attention. Out of this grew what one might call a "review culture" in retrospect, where frequent "discussions" (to put it nicely) centred around the nature of reviews and the "proper" approach to reviewing.

If you are noticing a sudden increase in quotations regarding this subject, note that is only a reflection of the inevitable (because Internet, and because geeks) theorywank that permeated these topics at the time, not to be surpassed until Forge theory started gaining attention. And when you disappear that far up your own rear, OCD obsessions bordering on fetishes with minutia such as typography, binding, and whether a game places the setting information before rules, are par for the course.

It was, I realized in between writing notes regarding the Playtest to try and mine somewhat relevant observations and now [edit: meaning months before now now, when I'm actually typing these words up], it was from this review culture I acquired the impression that a Playtest review is somehow more valid or complete than a so-called "capsule review". Yet the most hotly debated topic that I recall from those days was based upon the idea that a review should be "objective".

A popular school of thought floated at the time basically declared that a "proper" review should aspire to be as objective as possible, offering only factual observations divorced from the reviewer's biases (read: opinions and preferences). In my opinion, this led to some of the most boring and pointless reviews posted to the website. I know that it's increasingly popular among certain online cliques these days to pretend that the concept of 'discernment' either doesn't exist or is not the responsibility of the audience (leading me to wonder when they stopped teaching it in school), but I view this as a form of blatant infantilization. In other words, I could not disagree more with this assertion. I want to know a reviewer's uncensored opinions. I want to get a sense of their personality, to see their point of view. This is just as valuable whether I ultimately disagree with them or not. I'm perfectly fine with reading (and identifying) things I disagree or don't believe (it's kinda how I got into this whole fantasy thing). I don't even believe half the stuff I do believe, because the human mind is perfectly capable of sustaining paradoxes in every way that physical reality is not.

But I digress. Anyways, the point is that the value of an "unobjective" review is more than entertainment. Understanding the reviewer as much as possible, seeing their tastes, perceiving the game from their POV, tells me as much, if not more, than a recitation of a game's contents. To put it another way, if I can perceive a gamer's tastes, their approach and playstyle, then their reaction to a game tells me how I would react to that game.

With that in mind, I reach the inevitable conclusion that the most honest and meaningful final evaluation of Zweihander that I can offer is one based upon how the game reflects or doesn't reflect my personal preferred style of play. Comparing and contrasting that as it's been presented in this review will ultimately provide more information about what type of game Zweihander is, and who it will most appeal to, than anything else I could offer.


With all that in mind, let me start with the admission that I am quite a bit more particular than most gamers. After thirtysome years in the hobby, I've developed a very specific ideal as far as what I want from a role playing. It's not that I can't or won't enjoy other types of play, but my free time is more limited these days so I tend to be laser-focused on things that especially push my buttons. Additionally, I am under no illusion that my preferences are anything besides personal, nor even remotely mainstream. What's interesting (or, at least, 'relevant') is how much my tastes were shaped by the original Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play.

Our original WFRP games were actually conducted under a tree in the far corner of a Pennsylvanian elementary school yard. Our games almost bordered on freeform. It was roleplaying as a conversation. And to some extent it's fair to say that's how I approach GMing to this day, and naturally that influences what I look for or value in a system.

So, in that context, it's worth a disclaimer that while I've frequently used the term "crunchy" in regards to Zweihander's mechanics, this is definitely relative to my own tastes, which obviously tend towards "rules lite". Zweihander overall I'd say falls into the realm of "medium crunch", comparable to most editions of WotC D&D, Shadowrun, RuneQuest, or GURPs (without all the fixings). In other words, Zweihander is no Phoenix Command or Hero System.

When I was younger, and free time wasn't at such a premium, investing in such a system wasn't as much of an issue. I remember many hours pouring over the rules of Ars Magica or Pendragon, committing subsystems to memory. These days, it's not just that time is a factor, rather as my confidence and comfort has grown with improvising and making rulings, the point at which the crunch of a system hits a point of diminishing returns has gotten progressively lower.

Right now, the crunchiest system that I'd consider running is RQ6/Mythras, which to be fair is probably on-par with the complexity of Zweihander. The difference is, however, much more significant than simply the amount of rules. 'Justified Crunch' is the term coined by a poster on The RPGPub for rules that serve a purpose in a game system whose value is equal or greater than the disadvantage of complexity, time consumption, or learning curve. Mythras, IMO, is a game filled with, even defined by, Justified Crunch. Whereas, to my mind, Zweihander is a game that would benefit greatly from a second edition, insofar as streamlining and combining various sub-systems. The most egregious example is, of course, the Sanity System, but there are also the numerous point pools, along with the oddly D20 sytem-ish attribute bonuses attached to practically meaningless Attribute numbers.

[Note: as I am transcribing this, it's recently been announced that Zweihander is getting a 2nd "print edition" as it's expanding into a more mainstream retail market. However, from what's been said, I take it the changes are largely cosmetic due to an increased production budget as opposed to indicating any rules revisions]

So, all that said, is Zweihander "too crunchy"? Well, I think it is fair to say that it is a bit crunchier than it needs to be to accomplish it's goals as a system.
 

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The Hardboiled GMshoe reviews Torg Eternity: The Living Land Sourcebook


Introduction
The name's Davenport. I review games.

So the other day I'm sittin' at my desk goin' through my review copies, when I hear a knock.

At the window.

I go check it out, and what do I see there? A lizard-man ridin' a brontosaurus.

Now, as it happens, this wasn't all that unexpected. See, I'd just recently wrapped up a Torg Eternity gig, and I knew that a sourcebook for the Living Land, their prehistoric reality, would be comin' down the pike pretty soon.

Speakin' of pikes, the lizard guy had a nasty-looking plant-spear in one hand. Fortunately, he had the sourcebook in the other.

"So," I says as the lizard guy climbed through the window, "I gotta tell ya, I've been lookin' forward to this one. The old Living Land didn't do much for me, but the new one with its Law of Wonders sounds like everything but the kitchen sink can show up there."

"There issss no kitchen ssssink," Mr. Lizard agrees, "but there issss a refrigerator."

A fridge in the Living Land? This I had to see...





Substance
Welcome to the Living Land
Some setting fiction and a general overview of the book. The former had me rolling my eyes at the Storm Knight expressing surprise at seeing a dinosaur in the Living Land, but it's otherwise fine.

One Year Later...
As the name implies, this chapter brings the timeline up to a year after the initial invasion.

The chapter begins by covering the basics of the Living Land, a lush and vibrant dinosaur-haunted primordial world of low technological, social, and magical axioms, but with stunning levels of spiritual power.

The section mentions that Lanala, the Living Land's goddess, is literally real, and that the tenets of her faith, Keta Kalles, have been perverted by the Living Land's High Lord, Baruk Kaah. Oddly, the section also illustrates the spiritual power commanded by Baruk Kaah with the earthquake miracle he invoked to destroy Seattle. That's fine, but if he's acting against Lanala's will, why is she answering his prayers, and in such spectacular fashion? This would seem to run counter to the way miracles are supposed to work in the game, yet the text doesn't even mention the issue.

The chapter next details the state of the war against the Living Land in Canada, Cuba, Guatemala, Mexico, and the United States. The section brims with interesting details, from the utter collapse of the Mexican government (and corresponding rise of drug cartels in the power vacuum) to the uncertainty regarding an upcoming election in the U.S. when massive areas are in enemy hands. The text does a great job of explaining what's happening where and why.

One of the highlights of the chapter is the discussion of the reaction of Earth's religions to Keta Kalles. Interestingly, Christians, Muslims, and atheists are united in their rejection of the faith and its miracles, whereas pagans, New Agers, and some Native Americans have embraced Lanala as a true "Earth Mother".

The chapter also touches on the nature of humans transformed to the Living Land's reality. It seems that unlike in original Torg, transformed humans do not become Neanderthals, but they do regress to a caveman-like life.

Finally, the chapter features a helpful timeline of the first 365 days of the Living Land invasion.

Storm Knights
This chapter focuses on new Perks appropriate for Living Land characters. Of particular note is the fact that the book introduces Beta Clearance (50+ XP) Perks.

Edeinos

This section offers Perks reflecting some variations on the edeinos species, including water-breathers, poison-eating berserkers, and individuals with Predator-like camouflage. There's even a Perk that negates the usual Outsider penalty suffered by edeinos, making the species more playable than ever.

Faith

Given the Spiritual axiom of the Living Land, it's only fitting that this book feature new Faith Perks. Highlights include Blessed Weapon (a primitive supernatural weapon), Gotak (Keta Kalles priest of death), and Optant (Keta Kalles priest of life). The latter two give some idea of how Torg Eternity will handle Faith Perks specific to individual religions.

Savagery

The chapter features a number of interesting Perks powered by the Law of Savagery. In addition to Perks that boost the character's physical capabilities, the section allows for several types of animal companion: velociraptor, pterodactyl, and (at Beta Clearance) sabre-tooth tiger. There's even a Perk allowing the character to easily climb and swing from vines, Tarzan-fashion. Good stuff.

Prowess

Here the chapter offers three any-cosm Perks that particularly suit the Living Land: Poison Tolerance, Smasher (ignoring Unwieldy penalties on weapons), and Sprinter. Nothing earth-shattering, but nice.

Social

Given the cosm's low Social Axiom, Social Perks might seem a strange inclusion. Nevertheless, this section covers two Social Perks that target individuals from a Social Axiom of eight or less: One allowing for easy multi-targeting with intimidation, and one that makes the character more attractive to animals and primitive individuals.

Miracles
Unsurprisingly, the book devotes a good-sized chapter to miracles. What is surprising is the fact that the chapter includes miracle lists for two human faiths associated with the Living Land: Los Asangrados (a new and bloody Aztec/Mayan influenced practice) and Neo Shaman.

I like the fact that Living Land natives with sufficient faith can invoke five specific miracles without the Miracles Perk, highlighting the impact of spirituality on the cosm.

Not only is the size of the list -- over 20 -- fairly impressive, but the content is as well. In particular, I appreciate the Invoke Lanala miracle, which literally causes an avatar of the goddess to appear, perchance to grant a supplicant's request.

Gear
Equipment wouldn't seem to be much of a factor in a primitive world like the Living Land. That, however, doesn't factor in the influence of the high Spirit Axiom, the amazing bounty of nature, and the out-of-cosm supplies available in Core Earth. Accordingly, this chapter features miracle-shaped weapons and armor of plant or bone, sacred items, poisons, primitive and modern survival equipment and travel modes, riding beasts, and even insectoid spiritual "power armor".

In a nod to the unique nature of the setting, the chapter features simple rules for barter and foraging.

Warzones
Here the book takes a more thorough look at the state of the Living Land on multiple fronts: the East Coast, the Gulf Coast, the Midwest, the North, the West Coast, and even the caverns that riddle the Living Land. The chapter helpfully provides a list of common threats in all of the areas detailed.

Along the way, the text briefly re-introduces Merretika from the first edition's Land Below, here appearing as a sort of safe haven for those fleeing Baruk Kaah's forces that's nevertheless fully integrated into the Living Land. I'm not sure how I feel about Merretika having the Living Land's axioms, as I was a fan of the world featuring magic. It's a moot point, though, as there's really not enough here to make use of Merretika. For that, you'll need The God Box adventure.

Another nice touch is a sidebar addressing Nightmare Trees, which create Orrorsh Zones wherever they appear. Here, the text discusses the affects a Nightmare Tree can have on the Living Land, including even herbivorous dinosaurs thriving on a diet of human flesh.

A separate sidebar discusses the confounding fog known as the Deep Mist, which is thankfully no longer omnipresent as it was in the first edition. Traveling to the Living Land is no longer an exercise in getting lost.

Reality
This chapter focuses on the elements that make the Living Land tick: the Axioms and World Laws. Some of the latter -- the Laws of Savagery, Life, Wonders, Decay, Scars, and Variety -- have actual game mechanic effects, but all impact the flavor of the setting. For example, the Law of Savagery makes all-out attacks brutally effective, the Law of Scars means that a well-scarred opponent will always be more fearsome, and the Law of Wonders allows for the creation of astounding works of architecture -- not to mention Lost Worlds. (More on those below.)

The chapter also does an excellent job of describing the Living Land's environment and the challenges it poses to travel, both above and below ground.

Baruk Kaah and the Invaders
The book manages to make Baruk Kaah both interesting and scary -- a far cry from the joke he became in the first edition. The text skillfully details his motivations and attitudes, including his relationships with the other High Lords.

Rec Pakken, Baruk Kaah's spear-shaped Darkness Device, also gets good coverage of its own personality and motivations.

The chapter also goes into great detail regarding the edeinos, from their history and language to their fashions. The text presents valuable information regarding the various edeinos clans, including their chiefs and champions, and features multiple adventure seeds for each clan.

Keta Kalles in general and Lanala in particular get a great deal of coverage in this chapter, giving the reader a solid grasp of the religion and its adherents.

Finally, we learn about Thrakmoss, high priest of Rec Stalek, the god of death. This makes an interesting counterpoint to both Baruk Kaah and Lanala, and I'm glad the authors decided to include them in the sourcebook.

The chapter includes stats for Baruk Kaah, Thrakmoss, and even an Avatar of Lanala. The latter is of particular interest, giving our first view of what a deity looks like in Torg Eternity.

The Delphi Council
I couldn't ask for a more thorough treatment of the Delphi Council's dealings with the Living Land. It's all here: Their tactics, leadership, resources, bases, you name it. There's even a section on major operations and ways they may be incorporated into a campaign, helping the players feel like part of a larger world that's active all around them.

Adventures in the Living Land
Here the book addresses the various themes and tropes of the Living Land, all of which give a great feel for what Living Land adventures should feel like.

The real treat for me, however, is the section on Lost Worlds, which vastly increase the potential of the Living Land. Anything might be found tucked away in the jungles of the Living Land, and from any sort of reality. Want a mysterious pyramid? Sure! A building made from liquid mercury? Absolutely! A crashed flying saucer? No problem!

The section includes both a random lost world generator and a selection of pre-generated lost worlds with tantalizing names like the Anything Obelisk, the Hivemind Projector, and the Frozen Menagerie. (The latter includes cameo appearances of stalengers and benthe, creatures otherwise absent from this edition.)

The chapter also features an adventure generator to randomly produce a goal, opposition, setting, and complication. I don't think I'd get much use out of it, but it's certainly nice to have.

Threats
Ah, the bestiary -- always my favorite part of an RPG book. This one is pretty good. I'd have liked to see more dinosaurs, but admittedly, I'm a bit greedy in that regard.

I was surprised to see that all five plantings of gospog remain plant-like, which makes me wonder if the gospog of other realms will follow suit.

  • Gospog of the Living Land
    • Living Land Gospog of the Second Planting
    • Living Land Gospog of the Third Planting
    • Living Land Gospog of the Fourth Planting
    • Living Land Gospog of the Fifth Planting
  • Dinosaurs
    • Ankylosaurus
    • Borr Aka (a kaiju-sized dinosaur)
    • Brontosaurus
    • Hadrosaurus
    • Plesiosaurus
    • Pterodactyl
    • Lakten (a pterodactyl large enough to ride)
    • Mosasaurus
    • Sohba Sohba (a weird two-headed poisonous lizard)
    • Velociraptor
  • Undead Dinosaurs
    • Ghoulasaur
    • Skeleraptor
    • Z-Rex
  • Edeinos
    • Bluespine Sata Eater
    • Edeinos Priest
    • Edeinos Shrouded (covered in disgusting explosive fungal growths)
    • Goldsun Beast Rider
    • Ghost Clan Mistwalker
    • Red Ssatar (Ghost Clan champion)
    • Redbane (Redjaw Clan champion)
    • Redjaw War-Scarred
    • Silithar Tuy (Bluespine Clan champion)
    • Spearhand (Whitespear Clan champion)
    • Ssoryn (Goldsun Clan champion)
    • Whitespear Warrior
  • Cryptids
    • Sasquatch
    • Chupacabra
    • Megalodon
  • Humans
    • Cartel Soldier
    • Los Asangrados Cultist
    • Los Asangrados Priest
    • Primitive Humans
  • Flora
    • Carnivorous Plant
    • Deepweed
    • Glowers
    • Sata'Chlar
    • Talgar Spore
Eternity Shards and Lost Treasure
This chapter presents four Eternity Shards that can be found in the Living Land:

  • The Liberty Bell
  • The Feather Shield
  • The Forever Totem
  • La Malinche's Necklace
Now, Eternity Shards are always cool, and I'm glad to have them in the book. But to me, the real fun is the Lost Treasures. These are oddball items that can show up in the Living Land for no particular reason, and I love each and every one of them:

  • Automatic Spectacle Cap: A weird science device with lenses that help with finding things and negate darkness penalties.
  • Cyclops, Nereus, and Proteus: A trio of grounded bulk cargo ships, last seen in the Bermuda Triangle.
  • Hoverboard: You know, like in Back to the Future 2?
  • Police Car: A literal police car, complete with a shotgun and a full tank of gas.
  • Refrigerator: A 1950-style fridge operating just fine without power, complete with ice cream!
  • Singing Crystal: A glowing crystal producing synthesizer-like music that drives off the Deep Mist.
  • Shatterer: A powerful bizarre tentacular bio-organic rifle that does brutal damage but also damages the wielder with every shot.
Style
The look of this 144-page full-color hardback is exceedingly professional from cover to cover. The layout is cohesive and easy on the eyes, and the art ranges from good to great.

The text is an easy and entertaining read, describing the Living Land in vivid detail. I saw no typos of any consequence.

Finally, as all RPG materials should, the book contains a comprehensive index.

Conclusion
You do not need this book to play in the Living Land in Torg Eternity.

That is a good thing. A sourcebook that is vital to play is, in fact, an extra set of core rules that were left out of the main rulebook.

You will, however, really want this game to play in the Living Land. It fleshes out the setting in loving detail and provides a whole slew of goodies to bedevil any group of intrepid Storm Knights. Moreover, it makes the Living Land some place interesting and fun. If this is what the Torg Eternity folks have done with one of the least popular cosms from the first edition, I can't wait to see what they do with the likes of the Nile Empire.

If you're a Torg fan with even the slightest interest in adventures in the Living Land, I can't recommend this book highly enough.
 

noman

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[Review] Awaken


OK, so stop me if you've heard this one...

A bunch of folks are chatting about Exalted. It goes something like this:

Person 1: "I love Exalted, yada yada yada."

Person 2: "It's meh, yada yada."

Person 3: "I run the setting with Godbound, yada."

Person 4: "THE RULES ARE TWO DAMN CRUNCHY!"

Persons 1, 2, and 3: "?"

Person 4: "TAKES TOO LONG TO READ AND TOO MANY POWERS AND TOO GOOD FOR MINMAXING AND I DON'T LIKE THE CHINESE SHIT AND YADA YADA YADA!"

Person 3: "I guess I can see that. If only there were a fantasy game similar to Exalted, with a simpler rule-set, scaled down powers, less of them, and with more of Western feel to it."

Games Collective: "Have you tried our game, Awaken? It does all of that!"

Awaken on DriveThruRPG

Awaken: The Liborian Age Kickstarter

From their store page:

Awaken is a tabletop roleplaying game set in a dark, war-ravaged fantasy world heavily influenced by Slavic and Mediterranean folklore, where the forgotten mythologies have resurfaced as Vasalli, powerful humans gifted with abilities capable of changing the course of history.

I can't speak to part about Slavic or Mediterranean influences, as I know nothing about those subjects personally, but everything else is as it says on the tin.

TLDR version

Think of Awaken of a scaled down version of Exalted, with a simple dice-pool system, a small but robust selection of powers, and those powers being very scaled down compared to Exalted. It's set in a dark fantasy Western world.

Longer version

The setting is a Western fantasy world, torn by war and intrigue, with a sort of Italian Peninsula kind of feel. There's a collection of city-states, orders, business and criminal factions, and the Church, all competing for power. In the middle of this you have the vargans, the setting's main antagonists. They're a race of subterranean humanoids that have recently returned to cause havoc. The players play vasalli, mortals with superhuman abilities. It's an interesting setting, but nothing to write home about.t

The system is a simple stat + skill dice pool against a target number, similar to Storyteller System (SS). It's fast and uncomplicated. There are only three attributes and a handful of skills, very toned down and broad in application. There are skill specialties, like SS, Characters also have virtues: courage, will, and luck, which can add dice to rolls in dire situations. There's also wealth and reputation stats, which change as the game goes on depending on what the characters do. There's also the picture rule, which allows a player to gain extra dice to his roll if he describes the action in an entertaining way. It's a fairly narrative system, in this regard.

Combat is fast and lethal. Beat the other guy's dice pool. Pools can be split for offense or defense, depending on how the player wants to manage her fight. Weapons and armor add to the pool, but armor can only be used for defense. There's a health and endurance system that I don't yet fully understand, and the rules for these, are, IMO, not fleshed out enough. But I understand enough to run a basic combat, and combat in this game is fast and damn lethal.

The powers system in this game is one of its main selling points. Unlike Exalted, with its exhaustive list of gifts, gifts in Awaken are limited and weaker in scale. There are only four gift trees, with each one having about five gifts each. Most of the powers you'd want in this setting are covered, from physical enhancement to mind control to telekinesis. It's just enough to get you started quickly without being stuck in decision paralysis or brooding over which gift combos are the most optimized.

Each power is graded by tier, from one to three. They're all, by Exalted's standards, weak. The gifts are just strong enough to give you an edge in combat, or to pull off some impressive feats, but nothing on the near-godlike scale of Exalted. You can add an extra three dice to your combat roll, you can teleport about thirty feet or so, and you can mind control someone, but can't make them do anything clearly suicidal. You're strong, but you're not demigods.

I'll note that the gifts are fairly balanced. They're all useful, and the ones that are useful within their specializations are particularly so. There's a great deal of niche protection. As the fighter vasalli is going to dominate on the battlefield, the social vasalli is going to dominate in the court. It's an overall decent system, and I like it quite a bit.

One interesting twist to this is the corruption system. Vasalii are as cursed as they are blessed. When you use a gift, you don't roll stat+skill; you roll the sum of all of your gift tiers in its gift tree. So if I have two tiers in one gift, and one tier in another gift of the same tree, I'm going to roll three dice. If I fail to succeed in using a gift, I get a corruption point. As corruption points accumulate, bad things begin to happen. Cool blood scars begin to mark my character's body, and if things get worse, my character goes a little insane, and if things get really worse, my character become a fiend and becomes monster. Awesome!

You can remove corruption points with sleep or meditation, so it's not that big a deal...if you've got time to rest. If you're in the middle of an extended conflict, physical or otherwise, and you botch a bunch of gift rolls over and over, which can actually happen, you're in trouble. It's an interesting limiter on the characters' powers, helps keep them in check, and helps drive home the dark, dangerous feeling of the setting.

There are some editing issues with the rulebook, which might bother some, as the authors don't seem to be native English speakers. Some of the text is choppy and badly worded. Beyond this, a good book with high production value and excellent art.

Overall, it's a solid, fun game that's easy to pick up and play. There's enough meat here to get a good campaign started, though I hope this game is developed further. So if you're looking for something a little different, or would like to try an Exalted type campaign with a simplified rule-set, this might be something you'd want to take a look at.
 
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noman

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What I most dislike about Awaken

The editing. I think some people will be immediately turned off because of this, some people won't mind it, and some people (like me) will consider it a minor irritant in an otherwise good product.

What I most like about Awaken

Power balance and niche protection.

Awaken does a good job of offering a number of ways to play and a number of ways a character can express his power. It's not simply limited to combat. While you can build a character around a fighter concept, you can also easily create a thief, assassin, merchant, scholar, and behind-the-scenes mastermind, just to name a few ideas. Each 'pure' concept character is going to dominate in its preferred medium, but be vulnerable outside of that. For instance, a pure fighter character is going to dominate on the battlefield, but put him in court, and it's going to be the pure social character that's going to control the action and save the day. Meanwhile the merchant prince is bankrolling the whole party and making deals on the side.

And even if you've got all of your players wanting to be fighter types, there's still a lot of room for everyone to be distinct, but useful, in combat. Assume four players. One can be a heavy-armor tank, and one can be a light-armor glass-cannon. Both of these would want the Body gifts to boost combat skill. Add to this an archer with crafting for poison arrows and the teleportation gift, and you've got a very dangerous sniper. Then last but not least, you take the player who doesn't want to play a combat-oriented character, but wants to be more of a scholar type. He takes the Mind gift tree, takes the knowledge skill and specializes in tactics, and suddenly you've got a character who can anticipate enemy movements, set up ambushes, and telepathically direct the rest of the party from a safe distance or from concealment.

And you could do the opposite. One of the ideas I had for a campaign was a party of merchant types, starting on the bottom. Limited combat skills with maybe one player (because I know there'd be one) as a fighter to work as the party's head of security. They'd form their own trading house, compete openly and secretly in the markets, and deal with the intrigue, As with the fighter variants, there's enough options to make each merchant player distinct and useful.

I find this kind of thing fairly rare in most of the games I've played, and I get excited when I find it. "Can I build a strong archer or assassin as efficiently as I can a melee fighter?" is one of the first things I look at with a new system. And most of the time, the answer is 'No, I cannot." Not so with Awaken.
 
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