ZWEIHÄNDER Grim & Perilous RPG (pronounced “tsfai henda” or as we prefer it “tsfai hander”) is a tabletop role-playing system designed to support “grim & perilous” adventures. This book is nearly five years in the making, adopted from pages and pages (and pages) of personal notes, scribbles in sketchbooks, house rules and the private wiki we use around our gaming table. In November of 2011, your author decided to get serious and produce what was first dubbed Project Corehammer. It was originally intended to be released as a rules hack for the world’s second oldest grim and gritty role-playing game. However, it became clear that the project was evolving into a wholly unique gaming system. We scrapped the title. We rewrote our own rules with a “new school” flavor. We hired artists. We brought two of our playtesters onboard to help co-author and edit. This system has been revised and rebuilt through multiple iterations with the invaluable feedback our playtest group provided during the entire process. We consider ZWEIHÄNDER our love letter to everything we enjoy about literature and tabletop gaming – uncompromising realism, wanton violence, political conspiracy, weird horror and dark humor presented beneath a veneer of Renaissance-inspired low fantasy.
A word of caution – the themes presented in this book are mature, but perfectly suitable for teens and all adults. And although we may make mention of other authors in this book, it is not meant to present a challenge towards others’ intellectual property, copyright or trademarks.
- Daniel Fox
Lead designer of ZWEIHÄNDER Grim & Perilous RPG
WHAT IS ZWEIHÄNDER?
ZWEIHÄNDER is a pastiche of many familiar themes found throughout low fantasy literature, the gritty portrayal of a society replete with clandestine conflict, political intrigues, vicious reprisals and terrifying supernatural elements. The Gamemaster will impress situations upon Players with what we call the Three Pillars: social intrigue, environmental challenges and conflict. These are the foundation of this book, as any one of them can prove lethal in very different ways. And whenever the Gamemaster calls upon you to change the outcome, you roll the dice to determine success or failure.
But a role-playing game is much more than just a series of arbitrations between numbers on a sheet of paper, or a puzzle of arithmetic to be plotted out and solved. The lifeblood of your game will be expressed through humanity, subtlety, and complexity, for which dice alone are woefully inadequate. Characters will be comprised of moral strengths and flaws; in most other styles of RPGs, the rewards for success are based on successfully manipulating situations confronted towards the former and away from the latter. The strength of your game will not be in the overcoming of obstacles, but frequently in the act of simply facing them. Your Characters’ spirit is as crucial as the dread they face; after all, the darkest recess is always placed just outside the range of the flickering candle.
ZWEIHÄNDER AS A THEME
There are many dark themes you’ll find within these pages. The system and its game mechanics are written to describe a motif of stark realism, political intrigue, profane sorcery and unimaginable horrors from beyond. Disease runs rampant throughout cities. Towering asylums upon the edge of civilization ring with the howls of the demented. Tales of twisted monstrosities are whispered into firelight, of evil that consumes the crumbling remnants of a past age, slumbering until stirred by intrepid fools… or lurking in the deepening shadows of a nearby alley, biding its time. Villainy lies within the hearts of men, who engage in all manner of violence and deceit in the name of progress. People live in a state of decay and paranoia, scrambling to keep what little has been afforded them by the higher social classes. The gods are petty and quick to anger, their fickle gifts bestowed upon a vexing few. Those who call themselves priests are often venal charlatans, consumed by the very sins they preach against. And far from the prying eyes of others, sorcerers risk their sanity and their souls to harness the mysterious power of cosmic disorder by striking Faustian bargains with gods, demons and other less than palatable entities.
Finally, the ZWEIHÄNDER system is “world-agnostic”, easily adaptable for any number of home brewed or published worlds. The system is ideal for role-playing games inspired by or emulating a darker version of Germanic and European Renaissance. It can also be adapted to support games in the politically-driven stories of George R.R. Martin, medieval-styled horror adventures inspired by H.P. Lovecraft, the dark fantasy world of Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, among a host of others. It’s up to you to tailor these rules to your liking; they’ve been written in a modular fashion, so Gamemasters may remove parts of rules wholesale in support of their style of gaming.
WHAT ZWEIHÄNDER IS NOT
This system isn’t really designed with a pure dungeon romp in mind. While these rules can support that style of play, death is almost a certainty if you seek out these sort of endless challenges, even if you’ve focused on nothing but growing your Character’s fighting skills. Injuries sustained in ZWEIHÄNDER often have nasty consequences, requiring prolonged periods of recovery and care. Monsters are incredibly dangerous and rarely taken down without great casualty. Even common peasant rabble, when gathered into groups, can drag a tuned-up knight off his steed and beat him to a pulp. We don’t want to discourage this style of play, but you have been warned!
ZWEIHÄNDER IS A ROLE-PLAYING GAME
Most readers will already be familiar with tabletop role-playing games and how they work. For the uninitiated, a role-playing game is basically an organized, cooperative game of pretend called a “Game Session”. You and your friends share an interactive story where you drive the action, drama and suspense by taking on the role of someone else. A group of people create alternate personalities called “Characters”, developed using a system of rules similar to the book you’re holding in your hands right now. Players are actors within a story, portraying an personality using first and third person perspectives during a Game Session. They speak with one another as these Characters and rely on a “Gamemaster” (sometimes referred to as a GM) to present the world their Characters live in. The Gamemaster acts as the narrator of this world, keeping things generally organized, creating the story, providing exposition and portraying the other personas (commonly known as “Non-Players Characters”). The Gamemaster makes up details and information about the setting and those within it on the fly. The Gamemaster also serves as referee to the decisions Players make as their Characters, promoting fairness and fun in equal measure. And when the arbitration of rules are called under question, the Gamemaster is responsible for making the final decision.
Throughout this book, you’ll note that we use the singular “they” (along with its inflected forms like them or their) for indeterminate gender. This is so we can avoid the headache of using gender pronouns throughout the book. It may seem a bit foreign, but trust us – it’s semantically and grammatically correct. Sometimes, our play examples will always reference the gendered pronoun appropriate to the Character’s gender.
Players can change the outcome of the story by making decisions “In-Character”, using the persona they’ve created. These decisions drive the challenges within the story by casting dice. The Gamemaster will adjudicate the results of these dice rolls and produce a narrative that encapsulates what the Players’ Characters are experiencing. Veteran Gamemasters will likely develop a lengthy story arc known as a “Campaign”, a malleable blueprint that highlights the themes, people and places within the game while allowing the aforementioned elements to be molded by the choices Players make with their Characters. Oftentimes, they will even create their own persistent world (called a “Campaign World”), further immersing themselves and the Players within its deep and robustly imaginative framework. Some Gamemasters may even adopt elements from popular television shows, author an alternate history derived from our own world’s history, adapt stories from material found in popular fantasy novels or use published Campaign Worlds from other role-playing game publishers.
THE GOLDEN RULE
One rule above all others is held in the highest regard around the gaming table – have a good time! This means that the Gamemaster and Players should never let the rules prevent the story from moving forward. If a rule gets in the way, work with your Gamemaster to change it by turning it into a “house rule”, personalizing it for your group’s preferred style of play. While rules are tools, rulings are far more important on the Gamemaster’s part than strict adherence to the book. ZWEIHÄNDER is built with modularity baked into the rules and you should be able to modify and change rules without upsetting the inherent balance of the system.
In other words, don’t let the rules bog down gameplay and fun on the part of Players and the Gamemaster.
If for some reason you or the Gamemaster has forgotten a specific rule, ignore it and look it up whenever your group ends the Game Session. Stopping the game to find the exact language (or even argue about its interpretation) only creates frustration around the table. The Gamemaster and the Players shouldn’t position themselves into adversarial roles against one another. Above all else, a role-playing game is a cooperative game, with an unspoken agreement between the Players and the Gamemaster that they will play fairly, placing fun above all else. And while the Gamemaster has the final say on how all rules play out, you should be mindful of your choices and discuss any issues you may have with a particular mechanic or interpretation outside of the Game Session. Don’t ruin the fun for yourself and everyone else around you by dragging the Gamemaster into an argument over how a rule is used. Save interruptions for the end of the Game Session or the beginning of the next.
Dice rolls alone do not solely dictate how the story plays out. Dice add an element of random chance to the game. It may create moments of excitement as you succeed an incredibly difficult test to overcome some deadly obstacle. Other times, it can be exceedingly harsh, as when a dice roll results in the death of a Character. While dice add a threatening element to the game that may be both beneficial or ruinous, the narrative, story and role-play should be the core focus of any successful role-playing game. While grim & perilous games tend to be far more gritty and unrelenting than other role-playing games, you should do your best to emulate this same style of gaming by relying less on the dice rolls you make and look more towards the role you play. In fact, the game is designed to offer the most rewards for doing just that!
YOUR ZWEIHÄNDER GAME!
Although ZWEIHÄNDER has several implied thematic elements, you are encouraged to adjust them to fit your vision of grim & perilous adventures. Feel free to select them piecemeal or ignore them completely and create your own elements. Take a moment, let yourself go and envision how your story might unfold…
Will it be an epic struggle between the roving mutant adherents of disorder and a noble empire of scattered provinces?
Will it focus on an ongoing war between two or more rival nations who squabble over invisible lines in the sand?
Will it explore a perilous frontier of scattered city-states, entrenched in localized sorties between petty warlords?
Will it be a dark meditation on real-world ethnic cleansing and land grabs in foreign countries between fantasy races?
Will it emulate a pseudo-Germanic empire, where the forces of chaos have tainted the minds of the gentry and smallfolk alike?
Will it be a street-level crime drama, taking place entirely in the streets of a Renaissance-inspired metropolis that’s dominated by factions both small and large?
Will it be a low fantasy world, replete with backstabbers, schemers, sycophants and money-grubbing petty nobles while the tides of magic have begun to arise once more?
Will it be a story of a realm riven by civil war, where corrupt noble houses attempt to unify their people beneath the banner of a monotheism?
Will it be a sacred pilgrimage that takes its adherents through a terrible and strange land during a cataclysmic apocalypse, testing their faith as the world crumbles around them?
Will it be a horror-based game, where Characters either race toward madness or simply try to survive the onslaught of unimaginably horrifying entities from beyond the stars?
Will it be a game set in a desperate region stuck in the throes of feudalism, ruled beneath a corrupt monarchy where knights mete out their own brand of justice in service to a goddess of a mythical lake?
With imagination and creativity, the possibilities are endless. ZWEIHÄNDER awaits, and the fate of your grim & perilous tale hangs in the balance!