In this article:
- Zweihander is a “grim and perilous” role-playing game for players who want no forgiveness and no second chances.
- The TTRPG’s core gameplay mechanics are a little different than the classic Dungeons and Dragons or Pathfinder systems, but not impossible to learn.
- The character creation process is more human-centric and centers professions, rather than classes.
- Zweihander is definitely not for everyone and certain features can make it uncomfortable for some groups, but if you want more realistic stakes and you’re ready to put the work in, it can be a fun, new challenge.
TTRPG fans, whether they be players or game masters, usually have a go-to system. Sure, there might be dozens of role-playing game systems to choose from, but between the work that goes into scheduling a session, prepping for a session, and actually playing through it, many of us don’t even want to think of the stress that comes with running an entirely new system. Shout out to the eternal DMs reading this.
But while Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder are easy to use, mainly because most players already know the basic rules, they can get boring. You can only play the same video game so many times and the same is true for TTRPGs.
In some sessions, you long for the day you can play a TTRPG that’s harder, grittier, and less forgiving. No second chances or valiant heroes to save the day from a world-ending evil.
That’s when you know it’s time to try out Zweihander, the grim and perilous role-playing game that turns your weekend romps in the realms of fantasy into a struggle for survival in a low magic setting.
What Is Zweihander and What Makes It Different From Dungeons and Dragons?
Zweihander is a grimdark-themed TTRPG system that throws out all of the high fantasy elements of systems like Dungeons and Dragons to give you an experience that’s more Dark Souls than Lord of the Rings.
That in itself is a massive departure from the way bigger systems approach fantasy because — and sorry to the other players out there — it’s mostly just D&D and Pathfinder competing for popularity.
Like several other grimdark role-playing games, Zweihander borrows a lot from Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, which is to say it’s as bleak as it gets. It has a very Grey vs. Black morality that hits you in the face at the very start of the module.
Danziger Eckhardt, an in-universe character, opens the module by letting you know that there is no such thing as morality or honor – only survival. And that’s what you’re going to be doing throughout all of Zweihander: struggling to stay alive. Because in this system, the dead stay dead. Zweihander commits itself to making sure that you never charge into a fight thinking you can sleep a punctured liver back to health.
The game is physically grueling on characters and goes out of its way to make itself just as mentally laborious. The psychological effects of violence can change your character’s point of view about life, their goals, their sense of morality, and most importantly, their grasp of reality.
Yes, it’s one of those games with a moral compass mechanic and a sanity system.
How Is Zweihander Played?
Just as with any TTRPG, Zweihander revolves around rolling dice. Except instead of a d12, your most-used dice in this system is going to be the d100 since many of the game’s subsystems rely on percentages. Alternatively, you could use two dice to make up the tens’ and ones’ places.
Every action in Zweihander requires a skill test. Passing it means your action is successful and failing it means it isn’t. What determines success is whether your roll is equal to under the Total Chance, a number determined by Total Chance.
Additionally, there are Peril condition penalties for players to contend with that dock Total Chance points by ignoring entire skill ranks. In D&D terms, it’s like losing your proficiency modifiers.
You also have a Difficulty Rating baked into the system that can reward or penalize you for attempting a difficult action. Ratings range from Arduous to Trivial with Standard being the middle ground of all 7 ratings. At its hardest, a task can call for a penalty of -30% to Base Chance or, if extremely easy, a bonus of +30%.
Zweihander isn’t as punishing as it seems, though it is more grueling to play than D&D, because your party members can lend you a helping hand in making your rolls or you might be able to use a “Flip Results” special ability that instantly turns failed tests into success if the reversing your roll’s numbers would put it within a passing range. It’s halfling luck, basically, but with less RNG.
Speaking of halflings, that brings us to the best part of starting a new campaign: making new characters.
How Do You Make a Zweihander Character?
Creating a character in Zweihander boils down to seven basic steps. You start by creating an idea of who they are and their background. This is followed by rolling a d10 to get your seven basic ability scores that can be used to improve your chances of succeeding in a skill test.
Next, you pick the sex and race for your character. Note that Zweihander favors a human-centric world so picking a non-human race might turn your play experience into something like an elf in The Witcher universe.
Step four is where Zweihander shines most. Since the game borrows from Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, it shares the older systems’ interesting use of Professions. In step four, you pick a character archetype and first profession.
Switching between professions and mastering different kinds give you the necessary skills to make life in Zweihander a little easier. Think of it as job-hopping and upskilling instead of multi-classing to get a better picture.
Other attributes to pick out are secondary attributes such as stamina and reaction time, background, and hand of fate. Hand of fate determines your character’s destiny in Zweihander. Now, Zweihander isn’t a completely deterministic game. The way your alignment falls affects how your story unfolds.
In step eight, players are asked to create an Order Alignment and Chaos Alignment for their character.
Order Alignment determines your character’s inner strength. How closely are they able to stick to their ideals and morals? Do they have a strong sense of who they are and where their loyalties lie? Would they be able to go through hell and high water to keep to those standards?
In contrast, their Chaos Alignment determines their weakness of personality and habit. Chaos and Order aren’t about moral alignment. Ultimately, they are ways of determining how strong your character’s will and psyche are.
A weaker character can receive debuffs if their mental resolve isn’t strong enough. Stress, fear, and terror can all affect your character’s sanity. But the most terrifying effect is corruption.
In Zweihander, your lovable rogue and himbo barbarian don’t get to just laugh at their funny shenanigans. Bigotry, stealing from the poor, assaulting innocents, and committing sex crimes can all corrupt your character and increase your Chaos Rank, sending your character on a downward spiral of madness in the form of Disorder.
Disordered characters can become gambling addicts and chronic drunkards. Go further and your character develops an Insanity that gives them fantasy derivations of mental disorders such as OCD (Clawing Obsession), Anti-Social Personality Disorder/Schizophrenia (Dark Passenger), and PTSD (Soldier’s Heart). All of these change the way a character is played.
The game punishes corrupt behavior and once you get to the extreme end of the scale, things make a turn for the Lovecraftian. You can become a host to the darkness of the Abyss and provide a flesh vehicle for the Abyssal Princes to manifest in this world.
Abyssal Princes are no warlock’s patron, they are unknown beings of corruption who will wrestle for control over your character’s mind and will mutate your character’s body in the process. The results are straight out of a body horror film.
What Zweihander Is and Isn’t For
Zweihander is a TTRPG made for people who liked Dark Souls, The Witcher books and games, A Song of Ice and Fire, and Dune. If you’re looking for “Lord of the Rings but a bit darker” or a mature Harry Potter-esque experience, Zweihander is going to give you a bad time.
The role-playing game’s system is very unforgiving. This is a world where your not-so-valiant and horrifically hero can be dragged off his horse and slaughtered by an angry mob that fears he’s a flesh-eating monster. And really, considering how awful you have to be to get to that mutated state, they have every reason to act “preemptively.”
If your players and game master hate having to run the numbers for every little thing, you’re going to have a bad time with Zweihander, too. Almost everything in this game has a corresponding table. Also, if you have a habit of playing casters, Zweihander‘s mana meter doubles as a sanity meter, increasing your chances of going insane so you’re basically forced to keep your powers in check.
Another thing about Zweihander is that it isn’t made for family fun times. It might not even be made for non-sexual TTRPG fun times between adults, depending on the adults you’re with. The game takes it up a notch compared to Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay by explicitly stating that people can be taken as sex slaves, raped, and forced to bear a child.
(Note to the DMs out there, if you’re involving content this charged, you might want to check in with all of your players to see if they’re okay with that.)
There are also several passages where the rulebook directly states that your character’s gender and race can affect your gameplay. Some of us love that kind of gritty realism. Others? Not so much. Especially if your TTRPG sessions are meant to be a temporary escape from reality.
These features also make it easy for Zweihander to turn into a bad time for anyone whose character is female and not human. You don’t like politics in your tabletop games which is why it isn’t about that.
However, many people who’ve played TTRPGs and have played with different groups have either experienced or, at least, heard of game master horror stories where players get put into uncomfortable RPG situations. This may not be the best game to play with a group of complete strangers.
Plus, all the rules and computations that need to be done might feel a bit restrictive to dungeon masters who want a more flexible system to play in.
That said, Zweihander is fantastic if you like consistent rules and realistic stakes. The game doesn’t allow your characters to become ultra-powerful, world savers whose tiny decisions have massive effects on the world.
You’re just a drop in the bucket without a Wish spell up your sleeve. If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to live the life of a House Atreides soldier, a Westerosi peasant, or a Witcher that isn’t Geralt, this is the system to do that in.
Of course, you’re going to have to homebrew all of that because Zweihander doesn’t have a lot of modules to choose from. Right now, there are only two books available for Zweihander enthusiasts to tinker with so you’re going to need the Zweihander Grim & Perilous RPG: Gamemaster Folio.
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