This question has come up over the years about what “Grim & Perilous” gaming means. When we look at it through the lens of Zweihänder (without consideration of mechanics), here are the themes we feel encapsulates the experience players and Gamemasters will have at the table:
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 in 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 women and 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, diabolical servants and other less palatable entities. All of these terrible things manifest into Corruption (both a thematic element and a game mechanic); a world-eating blackness that can utterly twist its victims both physically and spiritually.
Grim & Perilous gaming is never a story of good versus evil, but about truth and consequences. It is a world cast in many shades of grey between rare extremes of black and white. Short-term solutions are likely to have more harmful consequences in the long run, but deals with what must be done now. Sacrifices must be made to realize a brighter outcome. The necessary means to achieve order and balance requires tough decision- making on the part of the players.
However, ZWEIHÄNDER is not a game of violence for the sake of violence. In a grim & perilous world, death means something. However, compassion, forgiveness and sacrifice mean something greater, for only they can overcome the pessimism, disillusionment and depravity that pervades and threatens society. This is a world where cynicism and disintegration of society (chaos) is pitted against idealism of a better tomorrow (order). These two principles often blend together, feeding off one another in an eternal tug of war where there is no clear victor.
Self-realization is as much the story in a ZWEIHÄNDER campaign as is uncovering the brutal truths of the world. While Characters will uncover deeper mysteries, reveal double-dealings of upstanding men and expose corruption at its very core, will they debase themselves in the process? Will they rise above the brutal truths of the world or root around in its filth, becoming akin to their enemies? This conflict is at the heart of a grim & perilous adventure.
In general, a ZWEIHÄNDER campaign is not one in which the Characters changes the world. Rather it is a world that changes the people in it, both the Characters and the NPCs. Key to this is that the world should present situations which can lure the Characters towards utter chaos and this makes both their role and their struggle unlike that of the archetypal hero found in other tabletop role-playing games. They are not wide-eyed neophytes destined for greatness or near god-like warriors capable of saving the village from an evil dragon. Instead, they are ordinary people fighting for their convictions in the face of impending doom while trying to retain their sense of humanity. In ZWEIHÄNDER, there is no track for going from ‘zero to hero’, it’s zero to one. While not ‘heroes’ in a traditional fashion, the Characters should be willing to make short term sacrifices for the greater good and for the better life that awaits them in the beyond. Whether these sacrifices are made in the name of a liege lord, a thundering god, a set of moral convictions or even just their own sense of self-preservation, the Characters should act – which means taking action!