Daniel Fox, author of the ZWEIHÄNDER Grim & Perilous RPG, was so kind to answer some questions about his interpretation of dark fantasy roleplaying and his current Kickstarter.
Back in the days we were young and we did’nt like the ‚counter intuitive‘ rules of (A)D&D. So we started roleplaying with Ken St. Andre’s Tunnels & Trolls – lots of monty haul adventuring in the early 80s! Countless monsters died and gave us their precious treasures. After a while we were looking for something different, more challenging and beyond good vs. evil (aka heroes vs. monsters).
Fortunately, about 30 years ago came Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (Games Workshop, 1986) and Shadows over Bögenhafen (Games Workshop, 1987). I will never forget our hunt for the a three-legged goblin and the first encounter with the demon-worshippers. The original(!) The Enemy wihin is still one of my favorite roleplaying campaigns of all time, although we never finish it. Those experiences changed my prefered play style. Since then, grim and gritty roleplaying games dominate my gaming table. The ’sugar-coated‘ WFR3 by Fantasy Flight Games was a step in the wrong direction for me, because the game felt too much like D&D. For some time now, no one offically supports Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay or the perilous atmosphere of the primordial Old World.
A few years ago, I stumbled over some playtest material of the ZWEIHÄNDER Grim & Perilous RPG. I was impressed. Now, my expectations are high, but I think the team has a good chance to successfully fill the gap, which the dead (again) Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay has left behind. Let’s hope for the best!
Finally, ZWEIHÄNDER is coming …
In my opinion, it’s obvious that your ZWEIHÄNDER RPG is heavily inspired by Games Workshop’s Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (1st, 2nd edition) and the Old World. Some fans even call it unofficially Warhammer 2.5. For you, what are the key aspects of the ZWEIHÄNDER RPG? What makes it unique?
You are in fact correct! I have a very long history with Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, which began with 1e back in my younger years. It was one of the first RPGs to really stand out among what I felt was a glut of Dungeons & Dragons splat books. It drew my attention almost immediately: the grim adventures, the perilous outcomes and uncertain doom that awaited players. Although I never used the Warhammer world, I adopted its ruleset to fit into my own homebrew world of Mahalma. Over time, WFRP grew to be the primary source of inspiration for ZWEIHÄNDER Grim & Perilous RPG.
For me, ZWEIHÄNDER was the result of a long period of playing with a ruleset that had a lot of shiny parts, but possessed clear gaps in its design. For instance, I really disliked that every Career had a different distribution of access to Skills. If you look back in WFRP 1e, the Alchemist’s Apprentice receives 3 Skills, with a 50% chance of a fourth. Yet right above it, the Agitator only gets 2 Skills. Move a few more pages in, and the Entertainer got 1 to 3 Skills, depending on what sort of Entertainer you were. To me, this was a major flaw in design. Maybe it was simply the way things were created in the „old school“. Chris Pramas tried to fix this, making it less of a failure in design and more of a „feature“ of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 2e. While I could appreciate the approach – in particular the division of old Skills into Skills & Talents, the issues still remained. Add on top of that the strict limitations for moving between Careers, and you ended up some some very odd combinations of Skills and Talents that became a mess by fourth or fifth Career.
With all that being said, there was a few guiding principles I adopted as I began redesigning WFRP into ZWEIHÄNDER.
First, all Careers (now called Professions) got access to 10 sets of Skills, 3 Talents and 7 Bonus Advances. I didn’t assign weights to the Skills, Talents or Bonus Advances; I just wanted to make sure all Professions got access to the same number of each.
Two – all Professions got a single Professional Trait, unique from every other ability in the game. This means that a Barber Surgeon with the same Base Chance to succeed a Heal Test as a well-trained Interrogator has a leg up. Even if their chances to Heal were both 45%, agnostic of Difficulty Rating, the Barber Surgeon could heal you better; do something more than another Character.
Thirdly, Career Paths were entirely removed. I felt that the story should guide players in the direction they want to go. By removing this restriction, it addressed another critical flaw I saw in WFRP: backwards engineering into the Advanced Career you wanted to be at end game by selecting a Basic Career with a direct path into it. In order to keep things sane, I installed three „levels“ of play. This meant players could move into three total Professions over the course of their Character’s adventures. This freed up players to spend more time in their current Profession, and let the course of the campaign naturally guide them into their next one.
And finally, the math behind the mechanics. This has been a sore spot for me and other players in the community for a while. Between the „naked dwarf syndrome“ of earlier editions of WFRP up to the „whiff factor“, this had to be addressed. I spent countless months figuring out the right way to address the math to be a little bit more fair, while still embracing the grit of earlier editions. I am pleased to say that over three iterations, the math was reshaped into what ZWEIHÄNDER is today. Characters aren’t focused on growing their Characteristics (now called Primary Attributes). Instead, the focus was on Skills and Skill Ranks to „boost“ their capabilities, while putting emphasis on utilizing the Difficulty Rating charts to their advantage.
A representative ZWEIHÄNDER group consists what types of characters and what makes them interesting. Which “cool” classes, races, powers, etc. can players expect?
Unsurprisingly, players will find a level of comfort with the races and Professions ZWEIHÄNDER has to offer. There are over 72 regular Professions and 45 Elite Professions. Many of these are direct analogues to Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, tied together with many of our own inspiration. In our playtests, we’ve had Prostitutes stand alongside Anarchists, Barber Surgeons, Rat Catchers, Slayers, Bonepickers, Grave Robbers, Burglars, Inquisitors, Executioners, Cultists, Warlocks, Hedgewise and more. Although ZWEIHÄNDER has a bevy of options for Character design, it doesn’t throw the kitchen sink at players. Instead, the Professions are all steeped into a pseudo-Renaissance era, with several specifically unique grim & perilous options thrown in. We have made sure to carefully cherrypick and design all Professions based around the five core thematic elements of ZWEIHÄNDER:
- Grim Attitudes
- Perilous Outcomes
- Ignorance & Superstition
- Fractured Fairytales
- Low Magick, Low Fantasy
- Chaos’s Influence
For newcomers, what are typical stories that players will tell? Which kind of threats will they likely have to oppose?
Forgive me here, but I am going to quote direct from the Game Mastery section here: Unlike other tabletop role-playing games, ZWEIHÄNDER doesn’t have an implied setting. Instead, it focuses upon a number of thematic elements, underpinning the narrative and mechanics presented throughout the work. Characters live in a desperate world, where society stands upon both existential and literal collapse. A hellish misery permeates society as a whole, where uncertainty and superstition abound. A brighter tomorrow exists, but only for a select few. Might makes right, order is born from chaos and the entire collapse of civilization inches closer and closer as balance is temporarily sustained. Universal balance is often achieved by the sacrifice of the downtrodden and misfortunate, so that their betters may go on living. What is the death of ten people, when ten thousand will survive as a result? In fact, selfish agendas are oftentimes hidden behind the shield of righteousness. Dystopic order, above all else, prevails over outright chaos. Ironically, the shadow of corruption influences every decision that leads towards the greater good, enticing the most noble of hosts with the promise of lucre and political gain.
This is not a story of good versus evil, but about truth and consequences. It is a world cast in many shades of grey, but also with rare extremes of black and white. Short-term solutions may be more dreadfully harmful in the long run, but fits the ticket for what must be done now, unless everything is lost to indecision. Sacrifices must be made to realize a brighter outcome. The necessary means to achieve order and balance requires tough decision-making.
However, this isn’t a game of gratuitous violence for the sake of violence. In a grim & perilous world, death means something. But compassion, forgiveness and sacrifice means something greater. Pessimism, disillusionment and depravity are realized, but only when allowed to do so. Those who are willing to throw themselves into the jaws of hell – whether that hell may be kneeled before a despicable noble who must be appeased, among a jury of witch hunters intent on burning an innocent man, breaking bread with one’s enemies or inside a demon’s sanctuary who must be coerced to aid them. 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 of the story as is uncovering the brutal truths of the world. While adventurers 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 alike their enemies? This conflict is at the forefront of every worthy grim & perilous adventure.
The campaign world and the many adventures Characters will take part in are generally not about people who change the world. No; it is instead about a world that changes the people within it. And the world should present every terrible situation it can to lure adventurers towards utter chaos. The Characters’ struggle is unlike the archetypical hero of other tabletop role-playing games. They are not a near god-like warriors who must save the village from an evil dragon. Instead, they are everyday, normal people fighting for their convictions while trying to retain their humanity. They may be riddled with angst and verge towards delirious idealism, but should be urged back towards order and balance. While the Characters are not “heroes” in a traditional fashion, they should be willing to make short term sacrifices for the greater good, redemption for the evils they committed and a 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 their own sense of self-preservation, players should act – which means taking action!
Who or what is Grim & Perilous Studios?
Grim & Perilous Studios is my own little LLC I established here in the City of Fountains of Kansas City, Missouri. We all have virtual offices, which means we all work out of our homes. With Tanner Yea as co-author, Walter Fulbright as editor and contractors Dejan Mandic, Milena Lakicevic and Jussi Alarauhio, it’s quickly grown into a operational – if not slightly confederated – game company. We’re literally all over the world. Walter and I are in Missouri, Tanner is in Florida, Dejan and Milena are in Serbia and Jussi is in Finland. But don’t let the word „contractor“ fool you, these folks are all top brass and in it to see ZWEIHÄNDER to completion. We’re already talking with them about our next project, which is slated for later this year.
You’re working for quite a while on this project. What happened and how did you test your game? Did you use (or convert) any special adventure or setting material? Any suggestions beside the obvious references.
Oh man, where to begin? We’ve had a ton of collaboration with the community over at Strike To Stun for years, but it all really began in my basement in 2011 with several of my close friends. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention them all here, but these are all people I know, trust and worked alongside both professionally and personally. My core group – Adam, Jeremy J, Matt, Mike, Nick, Tim C and Walter – have been there since the very beginning. Ben, Caleb, Cole, Jeremiah, Jeremy S, Kay, Kent and Tim Y played the earlier editions, when it was still called Project Corehammer and did a bit of playtesting in GRIMDARK Public Beta. But in the beginning, it was a gigantic puzzle to be sorted and slowly put together. We play regularly every Thursday, and every week there was a rule to change, a mechanic to tweak, a new Character sheet to implement. It became a running joke that every time the players stepped into the door, they knew to throw their old Character sheets into the middle of the table to re-author them from scratch. And somehow, I’ve managed to run six long-running campaign stories in the background with our playtesting! My friends – and especially my wife – has been extraordinarily patient with me, and without their support, ZWEIHÄNDER would never have seen the light of the day.
When I estimated how long we playtested, its been easily over 240 individual game sessions. That doesn’t include the Friday evenings we’d meet once a month to go through new suggestions and a literally ton of emails from my playtesters about rule changes. Eventually, however, it coalesced into the ZWEIHÄNDER folks are seeing today. Once GRIMDARK Public Edition was finalized, I ran it over a period of a year and a few months using the well-regarded The Enemy Within. It was absolutely splendid!
After the Kickstarter, what kind of further development can fans expect? Any other projects you want to share?
Tanner and I have a lot of ideas – I mean, don’t we all? However, the two that really stand out – and have some concrete development already in the works – are Liber Abyssia (an expansion on Slaves To Chaos) and Liber Astra (an expansion to Dark Astral). These are tentative names for now, but I believe before we go to print later this year, we’ll have something material to present for Liber Abyssia. Fans of ZWEIHÄNDER will continue to see support from us with print-on-demand adventures, however we are planning to release at least one major expansion a year. Each expansion will always include a new setting, professions and adventure. Quality control is key – we don’t want to get caught in the trap that a lot of RPGs fall into: splat book after splat book after splat book. We have a very measured and strategic approach to it all. We do not intend to pile on additional rules. Coincidentally, we are talking about releasing under a Creative Commons License 3.0 – similar to Eclipse Phase – that will open the doors for ZWEIHÄNDER to adopt an OGL-like approach.
I am also working on a second dream project, unrelated to ZWEIHÄNDER, which I plan to begin speaking of after turn of year. In short, it’s an adult drinking game. With dungeons. And flagons! But I can’t speak much more on it for now. ZWEIHÄNDER is at the fore of all development until it goes to print in November 2016.
Why do you think fans should support the Kickstarter for the ZWEIHÄNDER Grim & Perilous RPG right now?
That’s a hard question to answer! I do think our passion and slavishness towards the source material has really shown from the support we got out the gate. We were fully funded in 6 hours, and broke all our immediately stretch goals in 48 hours. We were ranked one of the top ten games by Kickstarter in the US, standing alongside the shoulders of giants such as the Evil Dead & Walking Dead board games! But, this is more – much, much more – than Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay with the serial numbers filed off. It’s a wholly unique RPG that can be used to play games set in the worlds of The Black Company, The Witcher, A Song Of Ice And Fire, Lies of Locke Lamora, popular PC games like Inquisitor, Darkest Dungeons, the real-world Renaissance and, naturally, the Old World of WFRP.
Thank you, anything else you want to add?
I really appreciate you reaching back out to us and asking for the interview! Your continued support, along with the rest of the community, has helped inspire me to turn what started out as a set of simple house rules into a full-fledged RPG. I hope that our hard work shows in the finished product, and that we can be the go-to for all grim & perilous OSR rulesets out in the market.
You can support the ZWEIHÄNDER project until 25. Aug 2016 on Kickstarter. Enjoy.
Disclaimer: This is – not – a paid advertisement. I have neither a personal relationship to Grim & Perilous Studios nor to the ZWEIHÄNDER Grim & Perilous RPG team. I am just observing the development of the game since the beginning of the project. When they launched their Kickstarter for the ZWEIHÄNDER Grim & Perilous RPG, I backed it without hesitation. For further details about the ZWEIHÄNDER RPG please visit also their ‚grim and perilous‘ homepage.
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