Tuesday, 16 January 2018

ZWEIHÄNDER Session #3: Feuer Frei!

It seemed impossible to organize a single session of anything in November due to people being busy or ill, so we didn't have the third ZWEIHÄNDER session until the 25th of November. This time I didn't run any classics, but something entirely of my own. The group was made of the following ne'er-do-wells:
  • Agonia Gimdinasdotr, a dwarf adherent of Valaya, who is a magnet for flammable ammo.
  • Blitzkrieg, a dwarf slayer, sworn enemy of everything rodent.
  • Päether von Sternwart, a human diabolist who just found a proper master.
In their downtime Agonia helped the Shallyans in a local hospital, Blitzkrieg got drunk and well known in the Reaver's Return for his incredible tales about the vile skaven, and Päether found himself an arabyan Celestial wizard for teacher called Abdul al Sahir.

"Sir, a half-naked dwarf with orange mohawk
wants to have a word with you."
After listening some rumors about missing sewerjacks and the mysterious hulking monster in the sewers Blitzkrieg found out that the tilean crime lord Don Cornetto has a bounty on Emilio Valentina's head. He went to the Blind Pig tavern to meet him. Agonia followed him, but remained outside of the dirty establishment, not suspecting at all that the slayer won't return for hours. Blitzkrieg not only earned the gratitude of the mob, he was also invited for a lunch, and got a new task fitting his taste: the Cornettos are looking for information about the Yellow Fang cult's hideout, who are becoming stronger day by day.

Back in the Reaver's Return they met a young man was looking for them. Schultz Brenner was a student of the University of Nuln. He was working with the Imperial Gunnery School on a new invention with some of the most talented smiths and physicists of the empire: they were building a self-propelled flying missile (aka rocket)! One day during the late hours he was still in the Imperial Gunnery School, and noticed some shady figures tinkering with the huge missile. He checked out what's going on, which ended with a chase, and the storage burning down with green fire. Schultz was sure he saw ratlike humanoids, but naturally no one believed his story, and was fired. Rumors about their last adventure led him to the party. The rocket will be tested in public tomorrow, and he is afraid the vile ratmen will sabotage it in some way tonight. He wants to check if everything is okay, and if they manage to meet his nemeses, then so much the better: he can finally clear his name!

A place of learning and bang bang.
Of course the best way to get into the school was through the sewers. Thanks to the rumors the mood was already a bit tense, then panic erupted when waves started rising in the sewage and the tunnels started shaking. A huge but skinny rat ogre appeared, still following his last order tirelessly from last adventure. Schultz failed his resolve test and leaked into his pants while climbing on a nearby ladder. The rat ogre attacked Blitzkrieg who dodged the blow, then Päether cast Sleep with success, and the slayer finished the beast by hacking off its head (which he naturally kept as a trophy). 

In the university Schultz realized he lost his key, so Blitzkrieg had to bust down the door. The party ended up in a large hall. Schultz was scared when he saw the rocket was gone. Then something moved under the sheets covering some device. Blitzkrieg tore the sheets down and found a naked and scared couple. The boy turned out to be Schultz's classmate Otto, who was having a rendezvous here. While Blitzkrieg kept terrorizing the girl with his creepy behavior, Hans told the adventurers that the rocket was already moved to Aver Isle, and they were hiding because earlier some creepy cloaked figures were searching here for something too.

On the way back they saw a dark cloaked figure shadowing them. Päther tried to hit him with the crossbow and Blitzkrieg charged, but they couldn't hit the running figure until (to everyone's surprise) Schultz took out a pistol from under his coat and shot. The spy stopped with hands in the air, so Blitzkrieg could finally wrestle him on the cobblestone. It was a member of the Yellow Fang, who was not only scared shitless, but was also a coward, so told a lot to his enemies. Our heroes learned that a squad of skaven is already on their way to attack Aver Isle. They weren't planning to sabotage the rocket: they wanted to steal and study it, so they can build one, fly to the Morrslieb, and have an endless supply of warpstone. There was a force of skaven and Yellow Fangs moving towards the island via boats, the barracks were rigged, and Whitespore (whose skull Agonia bashed on her last adventure) is alive and well. He even told where the hideout is, although the adventurers were skeptical about his realiability.

After the interrogation our heroes let the cultist flee, and discussed what to do. Blitzkrieg hurried to Don Cornetto and told him about the coming Yellow Fang attack. The Don gave a dozen of mercenaries to help the group. Päether gave a karl to a boy on the Marktplatz to send a message to the Aver Isle guards about the bombs. After regrouping they hurried to the island. When the company reached the end of the bridge the barracks blew up with green flames, but fortunately there were no casualties: the city guards were already outside mounting an attack against the invaders.

Maybe next time they will bring out the big guns.
Crater to crater, bunker to bunker the party advanced through the firing range until they reached the rocket. Blitzkrieg attacked the cultists and skavens loitering around the stands that kept the rocket upright. From the stands Whitespore looked down to check who is disturbing his work. His head injury was covered by a metal plate, and when he saw Agonia he lost his mind and started firing at her while screaming, which set the dwarf's clothes on warpfire. She quickly undressed and continued the battle in her undergarments. Thanks to the soldiers and the mercenaries the skaven were outnumbered and started retreating. Schultz shot Whitespore, whom Blitzkrieg beheaded to make sure he's gone for good. At the end the guard captain Heinz von Tomantenhaus thanked the group for their help. The guards started cleaning up, the surviving mercs returned to their boss, and the tired heroes went back to the Reaver's Return.

Schultz's name was cleared, thus he could resume his work at the University and the Imperial Gunnery School. Blitzkrieg proved his stories to his drinking buddies by presenting Whitespore's head, which later was stolen from his room somehow. When the trio met again they were planning an attack on the Yellow Fang hideout the cultist spoke about earlier.

All in all it was a fun and smooth session. I was satisfied how well the players used their resources to save the guards and gain advantage in the forthcoming battle, and it was good to see that they want to put an end to the Yellow Fang menace because "it's personal now". There are still many other questions they want answered though. Who stole Whitespore's head? Who framed the party when they arrived to Nuln? What's with Oldenhaller's promised info? What were the halfling and the squire doing in the meantime?

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

[Review] Sky ov Crimson Flame

Which metal album is this?
Let's start the new year with a review instead of bullshit resolutions! Owl Knight Publishing's Sky ov Crimson Flame popped up on my radar in 2016's September when its Kickstarter campaign launched. The premise was interesting, the adventure seemed mostly complete, and the author only asked for five bucks. After short hesitation thanks to flashbacks from a past disappointment I backed the project. The planned release was October, but as usual the stretch goals resulted in a serious feature creep which pushed it back to last Spring.

Sky ov Crimson Flame is 64 pages long, with color cover, black & white interior. The layout flawlessly mimics the official DCC line, but once you look at the illustrations you realize you are dealing with a wolf in sheep's clothing: instead of the gonzo sword & sorcery of DCC RPG you are staring at some weird fucked up horror fitting of a Lamentations of the Flame Princess product. There might be no dongs and vaginas, but get ready for some flayed men, intestines, and creepy freaks. The art was done by Jordyn Boci, Nicolò Maioli, and Stefan Poag.

The first half of the module covers the titular adventure, a character funnel for 16-20 level 0 characters. The village sweetheart Balena goes missing, people start disappearing, and the Horned Moon rises on the night sky, which is a bad omen. Folk tales point toward the nearby abandoned castle of the long lost necromancer Balrothhariid as the source of every woe. To make players even more motivated, one of their PCs finds a love letter from the girl. Does one need more reason to storm a hellish dungeon?

Probably my favorite creature from the module.
Within the crumbling castle are twenty-something rooms awaiting for the foolhardy visitors. The ruin offers a good mix of combat, exploration, interactive elements, and loot alike. Our heroes will face flying heads, a huge butcher who loves flaying his victims, a mass of baby heads and limbs, and even the animated flesh Balrothhariid flayed off from himself. Monsters aren't the only threat though: there are plenty of opportunities to fall to death, and activating the soul chamber can desintegrate careless people. The castle is also the resting place of the legendary King Roulreed, and his magical sword Silvallum. That's not the only interesting loot though: the library holds some fun random magic items, like a potion that hulks out the user for a few round, or a lamp fueled by a farting imp that might escape. The most memorable for me weren't these though, but the history of the castle, and the all the foreshadowing that slowly reveals what's going on, and sets the mood for the final encounter.

The final confrontation takes place at the top of the highest tower, where the survivors will find the now flayed Balesa in company of some impaled corpses and a pool of blood. The girl was corrupted by the dagger forged from Balrothhariid's soul, and is about to finish a ritual to become the necromancer's next incarnation. The PCs have six rounds to stop her, and the author offers several ways to do that. No matter how they succeed, the ending will be bleak. On the other hand, if they fail, the ending will be still dark, but they will also have a kickass psychedelic planar battle full of random effects against Balrothhariid. It is a tough battle, but it's a million times more exciting than the normal conclusion.

The adventure ends with the new Splinter Soul spell (with effects ranging from Personality loss to total domination), the Nexus Disturbance Table needed for the post-ultimate battle, a bunch of handouts, a character sheet, and of course maps. The dungeon map is isometric, and much simpler than those in the official DCC RPG product. It might be not as jaw-dropping, but at least it isn't too crammed either.

The second half is the Blight ov the Eastern Forest mini-campaign, a small sandbox region with a hex map, and several adventure sites. Unfortunately it has a few glaring issues. First, while the village of Reed is on the map it lacks any kind of detail. Good sandboxes need a central hub where the party can recuperate, gather information, interact with locals, and spend its hard earned money. Omitting information on the hub is a huge mistake, even if it's just a small village. A few pages would have been enough to help the Judge, but now it's extra work he has to do. Second, the village is in the southeast corner of the map. It's better to have the hub at the center, so no matter where the PCs go you have something, and can expand later as they advance further. Now you will either do some more work in advance to cover some of the southern and eastern areas, or put there some walls like mountains, or do the cheapest lamest thing by asking your players not to venture there.

The points of interest include lairs and small dungeons alike. They aren't all independent pockets within the wilderness: some of them are connected to each other or Sky ov Crimson Flame through history, the sword, or the dagger.

Lair of the Yss'sak hides a wounded monster who tries to trick the party into getting him the silver medallion that restores him to full power. He is afraid of the Silvallum, which can destroy his medallion, but will also lose its power when doing so. Overall this is a cool encounter with a memorable villain, although nerfing the sword after destroying the medallion is a dick move.
A deal with the devil.

Hellspring Hollow is an area corrupted by the blood pouring from a Chaos Lord's still beating heart. The adventurers will have to wade through a forest of flesh-eating trees, a river of blood, and a whirlpool until they find the ribcage holding the heart, and its octopid guardians. It's theme makes the mini-dungeon a bit dull (blood, blood, and more blood), and it also lacks any kind of reward.

Domain of the Coo'ng is a monster lair, and as linear as a tower can be. While the creature has an intriguing origin it's unlikely the players will learn of it or it will have any importance, unless the Judge introduces a way to reveal it.

Jhumbii-Beyr Glen is an area corrupted by a sweet alien slime that turns creatures into gelatinous freaks - most of them are bears who can bounce around. If someone didn't get the reference, it's basically the Gummi Bears meets Giger. It's fun mini-dungeon, though there are too many things that can mess up the PCs permanently.

Sanctuary of the Sightless Sisters was founded by the Margaret, King Roulreed's blind sister, who was exiled to stop gossips about their incestuous relationship. The sanctuary was known for its blinded sisters who took care of the sick and wounded, until it was attacked by the Three Warlock Brothers (who defeated King Roulreed too). This is a small dungeon, but it packs a lot of punch for its size, for it has cool encounters, traps, secrets, and even meaningful treasure. What's better, the characters can make a great sacrifice by ritually gouging out their own eyes to redeem the place, which in turn rewards them with great power!

The Wrook's Hut is home to a strange creature that takes tolls from tresspassers, or their souls if they can't pay. Furthermore, he can controls crows which will try to murder intruders. What really makes this lair interesting is that the Wrook is a random encounter in the forest, and if he has taken any treasure or souls from the party they can be recovered here.

Even the fairies are horrible in the Eastern Forest.
The book ends with the random encounter table and the monster stats. Besides the above mentioned fiends this chapter offers corrupted revenant knights who seek the Silvallum's bearer, undead rabbits shooting strands of hair, baby-headed spider freaks shooting their bowels from their asses, and diseased pig fairies flying with gossamer wings, et al. If you didn't think the adventure was messed up enough already, well here you are!

Sky ov Crimson Flame is a product I find hard to judge. The first half is an excellent funnel that reminds me of Sailors on the Starless Sea in many ways. I can wholeheartedly recommend it, even if you don't want to use it as a funnel. The second half is a half-done sandbox. It's a mixed bag of some really good, and mediocre content. The Judge will have to do put some effort into it to make it work, especially if he wants to make those locations that only offer risk, but no reward of note less frustrating for the players. I can also understand if someone won't pick it up because its outrageous parts, which are sometimes clever and creative, but often feel fucked up just for the sake of fuckedupness. Still, there is a strong imagination at work here, accompanied by solid writing, and good product quality.

Tl;dr: A great character funnel accompanied by an incomplete sandbox, written for DCC RPG, but with heavy LotFP vibe. You can buy it HERE.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

ZWEIHÄNDER Session #2: The Oldenhaller Contract

After the first session's mayhem I introduced some optional and house rules to speed things up. First, cannon fodder foes will follow the underling rules: they can't save action points for reactions, and after a serious or bleeding wound they will die or retreat. Second, good old swift attack makes a return, so players can attack multiple times with an increasing penalty to their attack rolls. Third, following the rules about opposing skill tests (a bonus to your skill check means a penalty to the opposing check, and vice versa) leads to petty spells being harder to dispel or resist than greater spells. I changed that by giving the dispel or resist test the exact bonus or penalty the caster gets to his invocation test. I also promised my players I won't use Misfortune Points until they learn the rules properly, but in truth I just simply keep forgetting about them.

These changes worked like a charm - the game run much smoother. Unfortunately two players couldn't come, so the group for the session held on the 8th of October was:
  • Agonia Gimdinasdotr, a dwarf adherent of Valaya, who turned into a fucking warmachine.
  • Blitzkrieg, a dwarf slayer, still suffering from his broken ribs, and a glutton for punishment.
  • Päether von Sternwart, a human diabolist looking for a proper master.
  • Sternchen, an ogre hedgewise, who plans to write a gastro journal.
After an exhausting journey with the roadwardens the party finally reached Nuln. There they wasted half a day with passing the gate, and answering the roadwardens on the interrogation. When the four of them were released Hans Ernst, a roadwarden they befriended on their journey told them that someone is trying to bribe some big dogs to blame the whole incident on them, and put a bounty on their heads. He asked them to meet him next morning in the Reaver's Return, where the innkeeper still owes him a favor.

On their way to the inn a man named Grolsch van Eyke invited the party to an elegant club, but after some discussion they ignored him and moved on. In a dirty alley they found the Reaver's Return. After accidentally breaking through the stuck door they met the angry innkeeper, Rudolf Grasser. Mentioning Hans Ernst calmed him down. Rudolf gave them dinner, and showed them the best room he could offer - with a nice view of the canal. Someone noticed the bolts weren't fastened, which was quickly fixed. Closing the dirty windows turned out to be a good idea: during the night a cat burglar tried to break in, but had to flee when he realized the windows are bolted, and someone is awake.

Good old Oldenhaller, the first employer of many WFRP characters.
Hans arrived during the breakfast, and told the group a councillor called Albrecht Oldenhaller might be able to help, in exchange of some services. Oldenhaller lived in the fancy Altestadt, and knew everything about his new employees already. He offered 100 crowns each and information about who wants to frame the group for recovering a long lost family artifact: a red ring held by the Schatzenhaimer gang, who didn't deliver it to Oldenhaller. A servant lead the adventurers to the entrance of the Asylum, an underground complex made of interconnected cellars and sewers, and inhabited by three bands.

The Schatzenheimer door had a notice asking visitors to knock and wait. Following the advice had no results, so Blitzkrieg opened the door, and fell into the pit trap under the carpet. The Schatzenheimer HQ was full of corpses. After some search the party found a wounded man called Ulrich Vogel, who almost attacked them with his crossbow. While Agonia took care of his wounds, Ulrich told the visitors about how the tilean Valantina gang raided the Schatzenheimers not so long ago. He also remembered his boss, Kurt Holger wearing a red ring, but he couldn't recall any deals with Oldenhaller. In Kurt's room the party found a small box with a layer of lead within, and the corpse of Kurt, which showed the signs of the Red Death, and was missing a finger. The party took the box, and a notice from a Valantina corpse, which had today's password.

Entering the Valantina territory was easy: not only did the guards accept the password, but they were awaiting for some workers, because they were busy moving. The notorious Yellow Fang gang showed up and attacked the neighbouring Huydermans base. The Valantinas quickly killed the Huydermans messenger who asked for help, built a barricade, and wanted to leave as soon as possible. The Yellow Fangs are weird people they don't want to mess with. After asking around a bit more the adventurers met Emilio Valantina's bodyguard, Sebastiano Sansovini. He told them to wait until Emilio finishes his prayers, but after some waiting he got nervous and opened Emilio's office. The Valantina's leader was dead. The ring was missing, his head was missing, and blood trails lead to a secret door that opened to the sewers.

Following the sewers the party found a large area with mine carts and rails leading down. Someone was lying in one of the carts. It was the fresh corpse of Emilio's assassin. He had the ring and the head with him, and was full of rat bites. Seeing the growing and closing swarm of chittering rats the adventurers got into the carts, and released the breaks. The rails went down to the loading bay, and the carts hit the buffer thanks to the broken breaks. There our heroes met the wastelander Huydermans, who greeted them as friends.

Their leader Dirck Huydermans told them how they were attacked by the Yellow Fangs, who are waiting at the cove for something at the moment. There were two options for escape: through the Valantinas, or through the Yellow Fangs. The first offense through the Valantinas was a failure: the tileans used explosive barrels to seal the tunnel.

The second had more planning, and included the group using another mine cart to roll into the cove, attack the Yellow Fangs, while the wastelanders covered them from behind. In the meantime the party eavesdropped some discussion between a foe and their leader about an incoming reinforcement. The skirmish started with rather amusing results. Agonia jumped off the cart and killed one of the ragged bandits with ease, Blitzkrieg hurt himself while jumping off but killed another, a third one was hit by the cart, and Sternchen fell into the sewers after the cart hit the buffer.

Hits like a truck, loyal as a dog, dumb as a brick.
Soon the adventurers realised the Yellow Fangs weren't mere criminals: they spoke strangely, acted crazy, and were lead by a ratlike beastman wearing gasmask, a metal tank, and two pistols connected to the tank. Blitzkrieg immediately recognized the skaven and attacked with frenzy, only to get burned by warpfire, and suffer a deadly blow to the shoulder from behind. Fortunately he had a Fate Point to burn... Agonia charged the skaven, who burned her before suffering a deadly injury to the head. While the rest of the cultists were taken care of Päether heard the sounds of struggle from behind. The reinforcements have arrived: a rat ogre charged mindlessly into the chamber! He rushed through the ogre, into the sewage, and continued running forward, into the dark...

With the rat ogre gone the struggle didn't end. Rats swarmed into the cove. Päether took down the tank from the skaven engineer, then with Sternchen's help they tried to start the engines of the weird skaven boat they found, while Agonia was throwing rats out of the vessel. Finally the engine whirred, and the boat bursted out of the cove with insane speed. The sewers ended, the boat jumped out unto the Reik, and almost collided with a ship.

After the exciting boat trip the adventurers drowned the boat, put the barely living Blitzkrieg in the Reaver's Return, then visited Oldenhaller. They told their employer that the ring is infected, asked for their rewards, has some chit-chat, then went back to the inn. During the night they learned that Hans Ernst was probably helpful out of remorse: secretly he and his friends took the bounty for Hans Jinkerst, who was actually killed by our heroes. They also learned that Ulrich Vogel's head is worth a few crowns too (whom they saved), and there are crime leaders who will gladly have the head of Emilio on their walls (which is rotting in one of their backpacks).

And somewhere in the sewers of Nuln there is a rat ogre still charging forward, following his last order...

The Oldenhaller Contract is a classic Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay adventure. It is the introductory adventure at the end of the 1st edition core rulebook, and thus it was the first experience of many WFRP Game Masters and players. It might be a bit dated, it might be rather linear, but it introduces many of the Warhammer Fantasy tropes I love, and quickly teaches you that the Old World is not Faerûn. It is also an urban adventure, so I thought it would be ideal as the second part of our campaign. I made some changes to it of course: I replaced the Nurgle cultists with skaven and their slaves, I changed when the ring's powers are revealed along with the protective device, and altered the beginning to link it to Night of Blood. I was satisfied with the results: we had fun, and a lot of hooks were introduced I can use in the future.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

ZWEIHÄNDER Session #1: Night of Blood

We had our first ZWEIHÄNDER session on the 16th of September. I ran the classic module from White Dwarf and Apocrypha Now called Night of Blood for six players. Our protagonists were:
  • Agonia Gimdinasdotr, a dwarf adherent of Valaya with a troubled past.
  • Blitzkrieg, a dwarf slayer, and sworn enemy of skaven.
  • Odger Tobold, a halfing pugilist armed with a stool, a tabletop, and no testicles.
  • Johann von Immelscheld, a human squire who hates Chaos with a passion.
  • Päether von Sternwart, a human diabolist who wants to join the Colleges of Magic.
  • Sternchen, an ogre hedgewise who has a living stump in place of his right leg.
Things that go bump in the night.
This unlikely group left Wittgendorf for Nuln on the Geheimnisnacht of 2502, thinking they can reach the next inn before nightfall. Thanks to the pouring rain, the ogre's slowness, and bad directions from locals they didn't succeed. Their advance on the muddy roads of the Nattern-forest was suddenly halted when a wounded deer burst out of the woods and stumbled. Their hopes for free meat were crushed when the hunters followed: a hound-like beastmen, a mutant with snail-like eyes, another with tentacles, and a pair of furries. Johann and Blitzkrieg charged without hesitation. After the first furry beast fell the leader, a scaly bovine beastman emerged from the wood to start a lengthy melée with Blitzkrieg. The battle only ended when Päether cast Subdue on the gor. He also saved Johann's hide with the spell, who held the ground against the other furry, and the canine beastman. Sternchen called forth the winds of magick to disarm and blast his foes, crapping himself in the process thanks to a Chaos Manifestation. Agonia took her splitting hammer and tried to help wherever she could. Odger pursued the snail-eyed freak into the forest, and took him down with a chokehold. A bit later the ogre attived, and took some of the mutant's meat with him for tasting.

Blitzkrieg got an infected wound, so finding a clean inn became even more important. After a while lightning illuminated an inn the distance. The gate was closed, but light came out of the windows, so Johann and Blitzkrieg climbed in through the wall. Odger meanwhile visited the ferry, where he found bloodstains, broken furniture, and some crowns in a bag. The ogre saw him, so they split the loot. From the stables disturbed neighs could be heard, so while the angry Johann kept banging on the door, Agonia, Odger, and Sternchen examined it. Opening the gate the horses ran out, nearly knocking the ogre down. Within the corpse of a boy was found, with a huge bitemark on his arm.

After a while the grossly fat innkeeper opened the bar room's door. His sole guest was a roadwarden, and a boy with bulbous eyes was washing up the floor behind the bar. The roadwarden  Hans Jinkerst was distrustful towards the new guests, just as the innkeeper Otto. They told there was a bandit attack recently, and accused the party with being criminals too. Otto said the house was full, but in the end Hans convinced him to rent the common rooms to the new guests. Odger also tried to cook the venison he cut from the deer, but without any skills in cooking he only burned it. In the meantime Agonia cleaned Blitzkrieg's wound. Otto was shocked to learn the doom of his stablehand, but Hans said that's another good reason to keep the inn closed for the night.

After getting thier room our heroes realized that Otto locked their door, and their food was spiked, which wore them down a bit. Looking out the window Johann saw Otto leading a three legged monster into the building. The party hacked the door down, while Sternchen started jumping in the room until the floor broke down, and he fell into the kitchen with the ogre. Following a chanting the adventurers arrived in the cellar, where Odger fell and hurt his head thanks to a tripwire. In his anger he retreated to the kitchen.

Might be a joke in the wargame, but here this guy would
have massacred the party with ease.
Under the cellar there was an ancient shrine built from cyclopean stones. Hans was chanting in front of a blasphemous idol of Tzeentch. Without his clothes the many eyes growing on his shoulder and breast were visible. He was with the fake innkeeper Otto, the kid with the huge eyes, the three legged freak, and an elegant noble with a skullface. In one corner the murdered staff and guests were thrown, in the other those who were only asleep from drugs.  Hans asked whether his visitors are willing to talk, but Johann and Blitzkrieg charged, so the sorcerer answered by summoning the Flames of Tzeentch. Agonia silenced him by casting Hush, so for the rest of the battle he had to rely on his pistol. Blitzkrieg was knocked out when Otto released all the gas in his body through a huge fart unto the him, while the skullface wounded Agonia with his sword. Agonia cast Aeagis to protect herself, but her Channeling produced a Chaos Manifestation that made her hair stand up. Päether used Subdue again to great effect. During the battle Odger returned drugged, and after a charge he beat Hans to death with his stool. When all the cultists were slaughtered the party started knocking down an idol. After the first hit a Daemon started manifesting above it. The process was hindered by Johann feinting because of all the Peril he suffered, and the statue barely taking any damage from the weapons, but luckily they managed to break it into pieces before the Daemon could materialize.

After the battle the hostages were woken up. There was a lengthy argument about what should be the fate of the whole place. In the end they didn't burn it down, and Agonia consecrated it with a ritual. In the morning a group of roadwardens arrived who asked the adventurers to follow them to Nuln, where they will have to help them write a report about what happened.

I ran the adventure mostly as written, but I spiced the mutants up a bit because originally most of them was too generic for my taste. The session was rough and bumpy. Not only did we have to get used to a new ruleset, we also had players without any former WFRP experience, and there plenty of arguments about who does what. Having two arcane spellcasters and a trigger-happy Witch Hunter-wannabe didn't help either. The first battle was tedious (mostly because of using too tough monsters), but by the end the game ran much smoother. Still, I ended up implementing some house rules starting the second session to speed things up. They helped a lot, but I'll leave the details to my next report.


Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Christmas in September

It feels so good to find a package on your office desk after an exhausting meeting! The long anticipated ZWEIHÄNDER rulebook has finally arrived, and it's just as magnificent as it was promised. It's heavy, sturdy, and beautiful. The tome happened to arrive just in time: Saturday will be the first session of my new campaign in Warhemmer's Old World, using the ZWEIHÄNDER ruleset. The only question is whether I should call this blasphemous union Zweihammer, or Warhänder.

You will really need two hands to wield it.

Speaking of first session, I've spent far less time on preparations than I expected. Character creation went quickly for everyone so far, and converting the old module I'm going to use didn't take much effort either. This is also my first campaign where I'm going to heavily use miniatures and tokens. One of my players is still working on his one-legged ogre hedgewise, while the other spent a few hours on sculpting himself a hobbit tavern brawler from greenstuff. Hopefully their characters will survive, and their work were not in vain.

If he can't beat the crap out of someone with a stool, he is going to call
his Spess Mehreen drink buddies.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

[Review] ZWEIHÄNDER Grim and Perilous RPG Part V: The End is Nigh

This is the final part of my ZWEIHÄNDER core book review. Similar to most other RPG rulebooks ZWEIHÄNDER leaves the Game Master's stuff to the back of the book, besides the appendices.

Chapter 11: Game Mastery

How the GM imagines himself before he starts
preparing for the next session.
This is a thick chapter, on par with professions. I will go through step by step all the sections, so I can point out a serious issue with not only this part, but the whole rulebook.

The chapter starts by explaining the tropes of grim and perilous campaigns, and what harrowing tasks a GM must face to make it work. It's a dense section, but useful for those new to the genre.

The basics are followed by combat. It expands the material of Chapter 8 with some more details, and also contains the most important tables used during battle. The Injuries tables are needed when someone receives an injury, obviously. Each injury level has its own table with twelve results, including such cool sounding effects like Hyperextended Elbow, Fractured Larynx, Vitreous Hemorrhage. Unfortunately they are not ordered by locations, which makes using them with the hit location optional rules presented later a bit bumby. The Slain! tables are here to give you the gory details when someone is killed. There are four of them, one per weapon category (bladed, crushing, gunpowder, missile) containing twelve flavorful results. Barely more than a page covers encounter building and narrative considerations, then the book gets into Combat Options for those who want to add some more complexity to their game: alternative weapon damage, multiple attacks, piecemeal armor, hit locations, called shots, alternative encumberance, morale checks... Stuff that makes WFRP fans drool.

Following combat we get a sub-system for chase scenes. It is based on the contest rules explained in Chapter 1. While it isn't as complicated as it seems, it is still more detailed than required. I have yet to see someone who actually uses similarly detailed chase rules instead of a few skills rolls. Overland exploration is far more useful with its seasonal weather tables, aetheric phenomena, and general information about travel. It's followed by another detailed sub-system, this time for wilderness exploration. It involves breaking the journey into stretches, the players selecting roles á la The One Ring RPG, then rolling to succeed in their roles, while the GM rolls for random encounter (music to my ears). Like chasing, this isn't a tough nut to crack, but it's presented in a tedious and lengthy way.

Next is the explanation of reward points, which is short and simple. 100 RPs are recomended for a 4-6 hours long session, with bonus for different marks. Progression is slow by default, especially for higher tiers where advances cost 200 or 300 RP instead of 100. A new resource is also introduced for PCs, called Reputation. It's reminiscent of Fate Points, but instead of using it to avoid death the player can burn it call upon his character's connections, and ask for a favor. The bigger the requistion's level, the more time it will take, and more Reputation it will require. Players may also pool their Reputation for a common goal if they all agree.

How the GM feels himself while
preparing for the next session.
The book moves to breaking objects. I haven't seen this in a WFRP rulebook since the 1st edition's core book, so it was a pleasant surprise. It's similar to the damage system: objects have a Hardness Condition Track instead of Damage Condition Track, and Hardness Threshold instead of Damage Threshold. Plain and simple, just like the rules for repairing broken items. The next topic is far more interesting: traps! The book offers seven common examples with rules for their construction. Practical and to the point.

Just as the juicy stuff from combat was put in this chapter, so was magick. The price casters have to pay for their power, and the unpredictable nature of magick are the cornerstones of low fantasy. The Chaos Manifestations of wizardly mistakes, the Malignancies that torture black mages, and the Divinie Punishment for priests are all here. The charts are excellent, but strangely it's not the arcane magick I found most amusing, but the divine. The authors overdid themselves and wrote up minor, middling, and major Divine Punishment results for each god! The only way it would have been better if they wrote some more examples for atonements. This section ends with relics and artifacts. There are only four of them listed, but they are all intriguing enough to be worth building a whole adventures around them. My favorite is the trebuchet called Whoreson. No, not because of its name. Or, not only beacause of that... In case someone missed more common magick items, remember that in runesmithing, talismans, and potions were already covered in chapter 10.

NPCs don't get much love: there is a random chart for their alignment and motivation, and a lengthy explanation of what they mean. On the other hand we get another mini-game, this time for social intrigue. This one is now really as complicated as it seems, with lots of steps and modifiers. Even the author recommends using these to the really important interactions, but I find it and overkill for that too. The only good idea I will keep from here is writing down for your NPCs what kind of social skills are favorable or unfavorable from them, but the rest seems to only stand in the way of roleplaying and make social interaction cumbersome.

There is a section about madness. The title is a bit misleading though, it's not about insanity, but stress, fear, and terror. There are some well written lists for each one fo them, and simple rules for handling them. Corruption gets a similar treatment, we get lists about the corrupting influence of the various offenses, and some details about Order and Chaos levels. If you remember the second part of the review these have been already explained in great detail in the character creation chapter. The information provided here is redundant to some degree. Instead of repeating earlier stuff maybe the rules should have been moved here instead of chapter 3.

Fate Points are haphazardly mentioned, then we reach Disorders. There are three categories: Addictions, Insanities, Mutations. These are the "rewards" one gets when he gives in to Corruption too often. Interestingly, they aren't one-sided raw punishments. Besides their negative effect they all have a cool little bonus that can be invoked, at the cost of earning more Corruption. Thus moving towards Chaos has its rewards too, but using them will throw the character into a downward spiral and shorten his path to damnation. Probably the high point of this chapter: great flavor, great mechanics.

Of course we are still not at the end. There are optional rules for character advancement, including staying at the same career for higher tier, starting at a higher tier, and using character stables like many do in their OSR campaigns. This should have been put right after the reward section.

With the GM' approval you can play
pest exterminators other than rat catchers!
The Slaves to Chaos section adds more races for those who want to run a campaign on the other side. There are rules for playing aztlan (slann/lizardmen), grendel (beastmen), orx (or orxes?), and skrzzak (skaven). Cool stuff, and useful for building NPCs too, but I wonder why weren't these included in the Bestiary instead, right after the stats for the corresponding creatures.

Forming a frame to the whole chapter, the last part returns to talking about what makes grimdark roleplaying click. Racial issues, rulerships, daemons are the topic this time, culuminating in actual campaign seeds. While their core themes are different, their tone is very similar. They all felt too mundane for me, none of them had any exceptional qualities that would have made me pick one over the Old World.

And that's it. All in all this chapter is a mixed bag. Good and straightforward explanation of commonly used elements are balanced with dull and overcomplicated rules about stuff most will ignore. The latter should have been streamlined and simplified, because their involved nature will alienate even those who are looking for such mechanics, essentially turning these into deadweight no one will ever use.

While the chapter covers a lot of ground, it does lack something that way too many RPGs ignore, and surprisingly, WFRP3e did well. There is no guide about how to build an adventure. WFRP3e offered some solid advice about how to start with an idea, turn it into scenes, connect them into an adventure, and develop the whole thing into a campaign. It might not have been a comprehensive guide for every playstyle (eg. it wasn't good for sandbox campaigns), but it was an exceptionally helpful tutorial that could give the kickstart many beginning GMs need. Most rulebooks lack this kind of handholding.

Time to talk about my gripe I mentioned at the beginning. The whole book is a chaotic mess. Information about the same topic is spread out all over the book, and the order in which matters are presented feels random. Why were the combat tables not included in the Combat chapter? It's not a secret that should be hidden from players, plus it's in the same book so they can look it up anyhow. Who thought it's a good idea to interrupt the Character Creation with explanation of how Alignments work during play? It's totally unrelated to the process. Why isn't the optional advancement after the explanation of rewards? I would start looking for it there, not between disorders and monstrous player characters. And I could go on. Bookmarks and handouts will be needed, otherwise browsing the book during sessions will be a headache.

Chapter 12: Bestiary


Even fans of Malal get something to rejoice over!
The bestiary offers an exhaustive selection of monsters, including most of the iconic creatures from WFRP. They did get new names, and often a small twist that can be easily ignored if you want to stay faithful for the original game. We have demons, greenskins, skavens, and even some rare, or downright forgotten blasts from the past here! Zoatars are the good old zoats whom only a handful people have ever utilized, but this time with fur. Fomorians are the fimirs everyone loved, now turned into crustaceans. Aztlan were already mentioned above, it's an umbrella term collecting both old slanns and the newer lizardmen. And the howlbear is cute. I chuckled when I saw it, it's one of my all-time favorite D&D monsters.

The stat blocks themselves are short, but the details following them are long, because they include the description of every ability a creature has. While it doesn't look nice, it has a huge boon: less page flipping during combat. Maybe cutting out the less meaningful abilities would have helped a bit, but the situation isn't bad at all.

The chapter also has rules about turning creatures into underlings, bosses, and magicians. The magician part even has placeholder spell lists for more lores, so nothing can stand in your way using slann mage priests, skaven grey seers, or chaos sorcerers in your game.

The bestiary ends with something surprisingly D&D-ish, and very welcome: loot tables! This part answers trivial questions like what does a peasant's, burger's, or noble's coin purse hold, offers an exceptionally colorful treasure table, and even has the prices for uncut gemstones and fineries. Well done!

Overall I liked the bestiary chapter a lot, except for some of the name choices. I found several annoying for a variety of reasons. Orc isn't a copyright protected name, so seeing them written as orx is baffling. I can understand why skavens were renamed, but skrzzak is hard to pronounce and figure out at first glance what holds. It took me some time to figure out what Adversary Demon was originally. Generic names (eg. ratlings) would have been better.

Chapter 13: A Bitter Harvest

The people of Vorberg are famous for their exceptionally
realistic scarecrows.
A Bitter Harvest is a rural adventure inspired by the tragic events of the Baltic crusades. It tries to apply everything from Chapter 11, and uses the Goth Moran Divided campaign seed - not that it matters. The story begins with an orc horde invading the area of Vorberg. The leadership parleys with the orcs and offers their women to survive. Maximilain thus lives to see another day, while his wife Johanna, and daughter Katharina become orcish slaves. In the coming years Johanna ends up as the concubine of the orc boss, learns herbalism and magick, then kills his new husband. As the new leader of the warband she returns to Vorberg to take vengeance upon Maximilian, who is going to be married soon. The locals don't know anything about the coming storm, though. Even the party believes their whole job will be just finding out what happened to the lost bride token.

Of course the above is just a very short summary of the adventure - there is a lot more going on, and there are dozens of NPCs involved. They are generally well rounded personas, although there are some details that won't ever surface, or add anything to the adventure itself. The wordiness is true about the rest of the adventure too, but that's not my biggest issue with it. The adventure is very linear, and has scenes after another where the PCs take a passive role to just watch events unfold. It isn't hard to fix this, but it will require some extra work on the GM's side. Still, the adventure itself is cool, with interesting themes.

I do believe though that it should have been left on the internet as downloadable content. I don't like carrying around stuff that I use only once (if ever), and the page count was a critical issue during development.

Appendix

The appendix containcs chase complications, random wilderness encounters, taints of chaos, and a bunch of ugly tracking sheets. Ugliest of them was the character sheet that stinks of Microsoft Word. Fortunately they made some changes to it. It's still ugly, but eats far less ink. I also wonder if all these cool tables were put here, then why on Earth were the frequently needed ones left in the middle of the rulebook.

Summa Summarum

Writing a thorough review of ZWEIHÄNDER was exhausting, which is exactly like the book itself. It felt much longer than it is, thanks to all the long-winded explanations and redundant information. Even the entertaining parts were overshadowed by these. A stricter editor and some streamlining could have helped in making the book more readable.

Despite its serious flaws, I love the book. It has all the content and rules one would require for many years of grim and perilous gaming. I have never felt the need for supplements while going through all the material within. If I have to compare it to Warhammer RPGs, then its closer to WFRP1e in this regard, but even that wasn't as comprehensive as ZWEIHÄNDER. It is also a flexible system, one that I'm not afraid to butcher with house rules to fit my campaign. While I'm honestly curious what Cubicle-7 will offer with the new edition of WFRP, I have a feeling that ZWEIHÄNDER will be the one weighing down my table during sessions. Speaking of tables, I might need a new one before the print version arrives...

Tl;dr: While ZWEIHÄNDER might be amateurish in presentation, it offers a solid ruleset, and an amazing amount of content. You can buy it HERE.

Part I: My History With Hammers and Swords
Part II: Beauty is in the Eye of Terror
Part III: Bring Out Your Dead!
Part IV: Battle Metal

Lucky bastard.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

[Review] ZWEIHÄNDER Grim and Perilous RPG Part IV: Battle Metal

After character creation it's time to proceed to the crunchy heart and soul of Warhammer games, and thus ZWEIHÄNDER too: killing things with steel and magic, and getting hurt by them.

Chapter 8: Combat

Your character on ZWEIHÄNDER.
The combat system of the percentile Warhammer RPGs are near and dear to me. It aims for some degree of realism mixed with ludicrous brutality, while still remaining completely playable. It hits the sweet spot in complexity for me. Of course it has its warts too: it is a very swingy system thanks to the low hit chances, the defense rolls, and the explosive damage dice. Sometimes you fell a huge ass monster with a single blow, other times you enter an endless loop of misses, parries, dodges with a snotling. Still, I consider WFRP battles immensely fun and engaging.

ZWEIHÄNDER's combat is built on the same foundation as WFRP2e and WH40K RPGs, but took a step towards WFRP3e's way with some abstraction. When combat begins you roll 1d10 + Initiative to find your character's place on the Initiative Ladder. Once it's your character's turn he gets 3 Action Points to spend on actions: attack, movement, stunts, and some other stuff. It's also possible to take reactions outside of one's turn, which cost APs as any other action - so it's a good idea to leave some in case of an incoming attack has to be dodged and parried.

As everything else in ZWEIHÄNDER, most combat actions need skill checks. The book lists 28 actions in a table with their short descriptions, then explains them in length on the following pages. The listed actions cover a lot of ground, and offer plenty of interesting combat options, like inspiring allies, threatening foes, splintering shields, or chokehold. Even if a player comes up with a headache-inducing unique maneuver, you can use the existing ones with ease as the basis to improvise rules.

Once your character lands a blow you have to roll a Fury Dice and add the weapon's Damage. ZWEIHÄNDER abandons the Wounds characteristic of WFRPs in favor of Damage Threshold and damage levels. If the Damage exceeds the Damage Threshold the target moves one step down from Unharmed towards SLAIN! on the six grade Damage Condition Track. High Damage can drop someone several steps lower on the track. If Moderately Wounded status or lower is reached, a number of Chaos Dice have to be rolled - the worse the status, the more. Sixes results in an injury, its severity depending on the current position on the track again. These injuries replace the criticals of the first two editions of WFRP. They have nasty penalties and are difficult to heal. Taking damage without wearing armor will also cause bleeding, so even a crappy armor is far more useful than it seems. Before someone starts worrying about Slayers: they get the Die Hard talent, which makes them immune to bleeding. Bullet dodged!

Unlike WFRP1e and 2e the core rules only allow a single attack per turn, and use a single soak value. Those who prefer the more complex methods from days of yore (which includes the author of this very review) will find optional rules in Game Master's chapter about multiple attacks and hit locations. The injury charts can be found there too.

Overall combat seems to be on the same complexity as WFRP 2e, with a bit more flexibility. There are even actions that can help avoiding the above mentioned loops, at the cost of more APs. I'm only worried about the new damage system a bit. It seems possible that a series of underwhelming damage rolls will be shrugged off by the foe and not hinder him in any way. This can be offset though by outnumbering foes or taking the right talents, so maybe it's not as bad as it seems to me at first glance.

Chapter 9: Hazards & Healing

After grim & perilous adventures don't forget to
wash your hands!
This is the part I usually ignore in rulebooks because it's boring and rarely comes into play. WFRPs are a bit better in this regard, thanks to the juicy diseases and insanities. How does ZWEIHÄNDER perform in this regard? I never imagined I will say this about any RPG ever, but it's one of the best chapters of the book.

Hazards & healing explains how disease, disorder, weather, falling, fire, alcohol, poisons, toxins, deliriants, fatigue, starvation, suffocation, injuries, peril affect the character. And by explain I don't mean giving only dry rules about what to roll. Hell no! For several items you get descriptions and explanations on par with the Trappings chapter. You can read not only about what effect something has on the character, but how can you dampen it, and what do you need to treat it.

It's not only entertaining, but gruesome, or downright ridiculous for some topics - especially diseases! I love them! Whether it is a simple Blood Flux that makes your stool watery and bloody, or a dire Orx-molt that mutates you into an orx, they are exciting ways to tort..., I mean challenge your players. Chemicals are also worth mentioning. There are several types of them and they cover everything you might need from combat drugs to venoms. Even some of the medicaments can have some minor harmful effects, that can lead to addiction on the long.

I have already mentioned Peril before, and the time has come to explain what it means. Peril is what doesn't kill you, but makes you weaker - stress and fatigue. Some effects cause an amount of Peril, which works the same way as Damage: if the Peril rolled is higher than the Peril Threshold the victim falls one or more steps closer from Unhindered to Incapacitated! on the six grade Peril Condition Track. Imperiled characters get a -10% to -30% penalty to their skill rolls, which can be ignored if the player has focus for that area of the skill.

Damage has been covered above, but this time we can also learn about infections, bleeding, and attending to wounds using bandages, surgery, bloodletting, cauterization. These delightfully medieval treatments are just as risky as they sound: a bad Heal Test can worsen the situation, and even cause permanent injury! While these details might feel unfair and unnecessary to some, they can help a lot in making a grim & perilous fantasy campaign more immersive.

The end of the chapter is every alchemist's wet dream: it explains in details how to craft alchemical and medical items, such as gunpowder, smelling salts, even royal water - ingredients included.

I have never seen such flavourful chapter about the topic. What's better, the authors managed to make hazards and healing not only detailed, but interesting. I'm feeling motivated to utilize them against the players more frequently. It wouldn't be me if I didn't have some problems of course. Fall damage seems a bit low, although it has been fixed to ignore armor in an update lately. I don't understand why fire damage is only checked every minute instead of every round. Is it an artifact from early playtests when combat rounds were one minute long? Insanities, mutations, addictions could have been handled here too, but they were moved to the GM's part. Maybe the chapter couldn't handle more awesomeness? Lastly, while we have rules about how much time injuries need to recuperate, there is no natural healing: you need medical care to move up on the Damage Condition Track. Time to house rule!

Chapter 10: Grimoire

Yup, she is definitely casting Candlelight.
The magick of ZWEIHÄNDER adheres to the lore of WFRP to some degree, but with the serial numbers filed off. It is an unpredictable energy flowing from beyond the veil into the mortal realm, where it breaks down into aethyric winds. These currents are only visible to a few. They cover different aspects of magick, and are identified by their colors - and a kaballistic name, because writing magic with "k" wasn't pretentious enough. Manipulating them can alter the reality and its user in all kinds of (often unexpected) ways.

Similar to most fantasy rpgs, there are two traditions: arcane and divine. Both have ten lores that are parallel to those known from WFRP - and just like there, a man can only become competent in one in a lifetime in ZWEIHÄNDER too. Spells are further divided into three principles (petty, lesser, greater), which basically tells you its tier. They must be recorded in arcane tomes and prayer books through an involved learning process that requires a source, experimentation, and the sacrifice of Reward Points. Fortunately you only pay for the spell if you managed to learn it, it would be a shame wasting the delicious RPs and then fail the experiments.

To cast magick a free hand, sight, voice, and reagents are required. The skill check's difficulty and AP costs depend on the spell's principle: the higher the tier, the harder and slower the casting becomes. Some spells even require concentration to remain active, which can be easily disrupted even by a fly landing on the caster's nose. To improve his chances the caster can channel power, at the cost of more AP, a few points of corruption, and rolling Chaos Dice - which may result in Chaos Manifestation or Divine Punishment on sixes. If all goes well the spell is invoked, and the only thing the victims can do about it is trying to resist, or cast a counterspell.

There are 24 generalist petty spells everyone can learn, and 9 spells for every lore (3 per each principle). Most of them will be familiar from WFRP2e, which I appreciate a lot. I liked the spell lists of WFRP2e because even with the specialized nature of lores and the small number of spells in each, they still weren't plain. The same is true about Zweihänder. Pyromancers (your old Bright Wizards) aren't just lobbing fireballs - they can also raise morale, and cauterize wounds. Priests of the Martyr (the equivalent of Shallya) aren't solely focusing on healing - they can also improve resistance, keep abyssal creatures away, and absorb the damage taken by others. The spell descriptions are quite straightforward, but the reagents and critical failures might provide some fun. It's also worth noting that ZWEIHÄNDER follows WFRP2e's tradtion by not overwhelming us with damaging battle magick: most lores have only one or two of them.

After the spells the book delves into other magic-related topics. We can read about wytchstone (aka warpstone), and it's many uses. They are required to create wytchfire, bind talismans, and brew elixirs among other things, but working with them is risky, and even carrying a shard causes corruption. Seven rituals are explained too. Besides the usual tedious ceremonial magick like awakening the dead, summoning demons, and blessing a place it also covers the inscription of magickal runes on items - an all time favorite of mine from Realms of Sorcery.

All in all this section does a good job in revamping WFRP2e's magic system, by taking the mechanics in a slightly new direction, keeping the characteristics that made me fell in love with it, and including as much as possible in the rulebook. Being jam-packed did have its cost though: sadly the ruinous powers didn't get their own lores. Their sorcerers will have to use either the Sorcery lore, or the Chaos lore spell list from the GM's chapter. For more details we will have to wait for the forthcoming Chaos expansion.

Part I: My History With Hammers and Swords
Part II: Beauty is in the Eye of Terror
Part III: Bring Out Your Dead!
Part V: The End is Nigh

A priest of the Demiurge prepares the reagent to cast Fury of the Wildlands.