ZWEIHÄNDER (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. And, after many months of work, it became the product you now hold in your hands. 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. 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.

Welcome to grim & perilous gaming.

- Daniel Fox
Lead designer of 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 impose dramatic, tense scenes upon players with what are the three pillars of a role-playing game: Combat, Social Intrigue and Wilderness Travel. These are the foundation of this book, as any one of them can prove lethal in very different ways. These challenges frame the drama of how your Characters interact during adventures. As the Gamemaster calls upon you to mold the flow of events, 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 game, 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 found just outside the range of the flickering candle.

In short, ZWEIHÄNDER is a bloodier, grimmer and grittier version of the world’s oldest role-playing game, without all of the deus ex machina mechanics. The gaming community commonly calls it the “pathetic aesthetic”, but we simply call it grim & perilous gaming.

There are many dark themes you’ll find within these pages. The system and its game mechanics are written to describe a motif of brutal violence, 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 and damned. Tales of twisted monstrosities are whispered into firelight, talk of an all-consuming chaos that rests below the earth and beyond the stars. It slumbers until stirred by intrepid fools… or waits 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. It is a world where the upright perish, the unjust linger and grim attitudes rule. 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. 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, daemons, diabolical servants 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 many different published games, such as the dark fantasy novels of Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, the politically-driven stories of George R.R. Martin, medieval-styled horror adventures inspired by H.P. Lovecraft and even the chaos-laden Renaissance authored by Chris Pramas, Graeme Davis and Richard Halliwell amongst a host of others.

This system isn’t really designed for the traditional role-playing game dungeon romp. While these rules can mildly support that style of play, death is almost a certainty. Injuries sustained in ZWEIHÄNDER often have nasty consequences, requiring prolonged periods of recovery and care. Creatures are incredibly dangerous and rarely taken down without mortal injuries. In a grim & perilous world, common peasant rabble, when gathered into large enough groups, can drag a veteran knight off his steed and beat him to a bloody pulp. We don’t wish to thwart this style of play, but you have been warned!

Most readers will already be familiar with tabletop role-playing games and how they work. For the uninitiated, a role-playing game is basically a story or adventure, otherwise an organized, cooperative game of pretend called a “Game Session”. In essence, you and and your friends share an interactive story where your choices drive the action, drama and suspense by taking on the role of someone else.

You and your friends will share an interactive story where you drive the action, drama and suspense by taking on the role of someone else. To start, a group of people use the book you’re holding in your hands right now to create alternate personalities called “Characters”. Players are actors within the shared story, portraying the Character using first and third person perspectives during a Game Session. They can change the outcome of the story by making decisions “In-Character”, using the persona they’ve created. Players portraying their Character’s personality using “active” or “descriptive” role-playing perspectives during a Game Session. Active roleplaying means a player declaring things as if they were their Character, such as “I march across the chamber to skewer the highwayman, declaring loudly FIE!”. Descriptive role-playing means a player describe the actions their Character is engaging in, such as “Wilhelm marches across the chamber to attack the highwayman, shouting a battlecry”. Both are appropriate ways to role-play in ZWEIHÄNDER. These decisions drive the challenges, resolved by using dice to test success and failure.

The “Gamemaster” (sometimes referred to as a GM) presents the world Characters live within. They act as the narrator of this world, keeping things organized, authoring the challenges within the adventure, providing exposition and portraying the other personas (commonly known as “non-players Characters”). Additionally, the Gamemaster makes up details and information about the setting and those within it. They also serve as referee to the decisions players make as their Characters, promoting fairness and fun in equal measure. The Gamemaster will adjudicate the results of dice rolls and produce a narrative that encapsulates what the players’ Characters are experiencing. And when the arbitration of rules is called under question, the Gamemaster is responsible for making the final decision.

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 created by other role-playing game publishers.

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 act as tools, rulings are far more important on the Gamemaster’s part rather than strict adherence to the book. ZWEIHÄNDER is built with modularity baked into the rules and able to be modified 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. Above all else, a role-playing game is a cooperative game, with an 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 discussion of the point for the end of the Game Session or the beginning of the next.

Additionally, 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 of chance to the game that may be beneficial or ruinous, the narrative, story and role-play should be the core focus. 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!

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 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 aristocracy and common folk 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 Magick 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 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 mythic lake?

With imagination and creativity, the possibilities are endless. ZWEIHÄNDER awaits, and the fate of your grim & perilous tale hangs in the balance. We can’t wait to hear how it turns out! Please come to our home webpage share your experiences on our forums at GrimAndPerilous.com!

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