Friday, 24 November 2017

Interview - Francesca Baerald, Freelance Artist & Cartographer

Francesca BaeraldFreelance Artist and Cartographer Francesca Baerald has a professional background working on published games, book covers, CD covers, videogames, maps, RPGs, trading card games and children’s illustrations.

I first heard of Francesca when I came across a glorious map she created for Game of Thrones. I wanted to learn more about her talent so I got in touch and, happily, she agreed to answer a few questions.

Hello, Francesca, and welcome to the site. Can you introduce yourself, and tell us something of your history with gaming?

Hello Jonathan and thank you very much for this interview. I'm a freelance artist that has recently discovered to be also a cartographer. My love for gaming started when I was 16 and Diablo had just been published. I still remember filling Tristram with piles of gold and trying to kill the Butcher by shooting arrows from behind a window with bars. From that moment on I have discovered the existence of RPGs, boardgames and other videogames and never stopped playing.

What was it that got you into illustration?

Games for sure. I loved to draw dungeon maps during lessons at school. But also looking at some beautiful CD covers inspired me to start drawing. I have always loved music and learnt to play quite a few instruments along the years. Black and death metal bands have always had the most interesting covers and I enjoyed trying to draw my own covers in my spare time.

Who’s work inspires you the most?

This is a hard question. I'm not influenced and inspired by only one artist. I have an ever growing big library full of artbooks and comics of every kind that I love to browse searching for inspiration. If I have to list a couple of names I would say Brom and Beksinski.

I first became aware of your work via your maps; they’re wonderful illustrations that belong in frames on walls. What’s the attraction to creating these, and what kind of work goes into them?

Thank you for your kind words. I have a passion for details and maps are so full of them! I like to think that when I'm creating a map I'm also giving life to an actual world and each one is very different from the other. So every map has its own personality.

I don't like to call it 'work' but I must admit that there's a lot of effort behind every map. From the hours spent inking them to the time required to create a good balanced composition. It takes me from two to four weeks to complete a map and I treasure every moment of this process. I know the passion and dedication that my clients put into creating their fictional worlds and I want to dedicate  them the best work that I can.

Game of Thrones Map
Image used with permission

Your RPG work includes art for the big names; Fantasy Flight Games, Paizo and Modiphius, to name just three. How do you approach projects for such huge publishers?

Each project for me is important but I must admit that working for such great companies always makes me a bit nervous and shaky. However fear is the engine that drives me to do better and improve myself, also... I like challenges!

Your other work encompasses covers for most things; books, CDs and Videogames. What’s your favourite media to work on?

A part from inks and watercolours, my favourite media is oil on wooden board. It's a time-consuming technique so it's not often my first work choice for economical and time reasons. That's why I usually choose acrylics for my covers. Anyway I always exult when a good oil painting commission comes in.

Do you have a preferred genre? What do you like illustrating the most?

I'm a female artist so people often assume that I'm good at painting romantic stuff. The truth is that I love intense scenes, dark settings, heroic situations and warriors/knights/barbarians. When some freedom is given to me I usually tend to paint strong characters with interesting background images.

What was the longest, most intricate project you’ve ever worked on? How do you plan your projects?

Actually I'm still working on the most intricate project, for Square Enix. It's the in-game map for Project Octopath Traveller videogame. I don't like to give space to chance so first of all I plan every step of my work process very thoroughly. Deadlines must be respected and I always make sure that my client is kept updated on the work in progress.

What’s your favourite piece of personal work?

You probably know that every time an artist completes an illustration he's never happy with it, right? There's always space for improvement so I really can't say which one is my favourite piece of personal work. From an emotional point of view I'm attached to every single piece of work I have done. From a critique point of view there's still so much work to do!

What can we expect to see from you in the future?

Certainly more maps! But also Character Sheets, Covers, Boards,...whenever a project represents a good challenge, I'm ready.

St.George´s Remorse
St.George’s Remorse
Image used with permission

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Free roleplaying game design challenge GO!

I set myself a challenge - could I write and format a game in less than six hours?

I managed to do it in five and a half, and now it's done I'm giving it away for free. The images have been sourced from the public domain, and the game itself harks back to the serial science fiction shows from the 1930s to the 1950s. The system uses a single six-sided die and I've called it the ODDS (One Die Determines Success) System. It's not perfect, but it's just a bit of fun.

'Always dreamed of blasting through space on the back of a nuclear bullet trading laser fire with wicked alien menaces? How about exploring mysterious worlds and trading with exotic races? Perhaps you’d like to hunt down nefarious pirates in haunted asteroid belts?

Now’s your chance! Join the STELLAR CADETS and travel the stars for the Stellar Navy!'

You can download it for free from Dropbox

Let me know what you think. I might knock up a simple background and adapt an adventure for it.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Book Review - Frostgrave: Second Chances

Frostgrave: Second Chances by Matthew WardBy Matthew Ward

Published by Osprey Publishing

‘Time is running out for Yelen and Mirika Semova. Though the sisters have earned an enviable reputation amongst their fellow explorers of the Frozen City, their lives are haunted by a curse - the more Yelen uses her magic, the closer the demon Azzanar comes to claiming her, body and soul. But Azzanar is not the only one manipulating Yelen and Mirika...

When catastrophe separates the Semova sisters, it falls to Yelen to save them both. But in a city shrouded in deceit, who can she turn to for help... and what price will she pay to get it?’

I’ve interviewed Frostgrave’s Joseph A. McCullough, the creator, designer and writer of the Frostgrave miniatures game this book is based on. He’s told me in no uncertain terms that the wider world of the fabled city of Felstad, and the newer game Frostgrave: Ghost Archipelago, will remain undefined and unexplored. There will be no larger map, of the city or the land it inhabits, and no definitive realms, kings, queens or kingdoms, and that the phrase ‘here be dragons’ applies to the rest of the world as it’s Terra Incognita.

So where does that leave writers who have been asked to write a novel-length tale about the city, it’s people and the dangers within? If you’re writing the first book about people in the world of Frostgrave and you need to draw new readers - and possibly players – into the setting, where does that leave you?

It leaves you with an unenviable task. Thankfully, Matthew Ward has taken the route of making the characters the centre of the story, not the world itself. And at that, I feel, he’s succeeded.

The story gets off to an action-packed start in the Temple of Draconostra, where the Semova sisters are trying to recover a reliquiary for their master Torik; Mirika is a Chronomancer and can play with time, but her younger sister Yelen has little magical talent except for that gifted to her by the demon Azzanar. The more Yelen uses the power the closer Azzanar comes to taking her body and using it for her own nefarious ends.

The relationship between the two sisters is palpable and you really feel for their plight as the story progresses. All they want is for Yelen to be rid of this demon and their delves into the dungeons and catacombs of Felstad are to realise that end. Mirika, the eldest sister, is hotheaded and rash, confident in her power and ability. Yelen, however, is jealous of her older sister’s abilities but loves her regardless, and this creates a very complicated relationship underlined by the simple fact that they love each other dearly. This leads to dramatic moments in the book where you feel for their plight, and there are times during conflicts where you find yourself really drawn in. It’s the characters and relationships of this book that really shine, and the two primary antagonists are likeable, interesting and enjoyable to read.

The secondary characters are also well defined and interesting so much so that when something happens to them - for good or ill – you do feel it. There are a couple of throwaway characters that are stereotypes to make a scene work, but they don’t last long and are there to serve the encounter. The secondary characters, especially the Knight Kain with her harsh attitude and Cavril Magnis the dashing if somewhat untrustworthy leader of a band called the Gilded Rose, really work and add a layer of depth to the story.

The story itself is a long chase – from the start to safety, then from safety back into danger as every character is given a reason to chase, flee or otherwise make haste away from or towards friends, wealth or salvation. There are plenty of plot twists and turns and sometimes you’re never too sure where the story is going to go, or even who’s side you’re on, and that adds a sense of excitement to the proceedings, pulling you into a ‘just one more page’ situation that may result in a late night or two.

In many books I read I like to feel that the world the protagonists inhabit is a character in itself, defined and with form and structure to make it feel real. With the ‘here be dragons’ proviso and not having a full idea of the larger world I can imagine that defining that world would be quite hard. I did get a feel for Felstad but could never really visualise it, not the way it has been visualised by the excellent artist Dmitry Burmak in this book or in the main game itself. There were descriptions of the locations and the city but more detail was lavished on the characters than the setting; the barrows, the tombs, the settlement they rested at, it was all there on the page but I never really felt it, or could conjure up a proper mental image. It was definitely the characters that held this book together for sure.

It’s a great book with a twisting plot, well-defined characters and great scenes of dangerous/exciting encounters, and although it ends rather abruptly the climax of the story is satisfactory and leaves it open for further adventures – and I, for one, will be in line for that.

And for the Frostgrave players out there, there’s a nice scenario at the back of the book to use in your next wargame session called ‘Corpsefire’. I don’t want to go into detail as it references a part of the book, but it’s a cool encounter with plenty of special rules.

Highly recommended.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Interview - Russell Morrissey of EN World

'Xenomorphs' Cover
The WOIN supplement Xenomorphs: The Fall of  Somerset Landing has had a very successful Kickstarter campaign and promises plenty of dark action-packed sci-fi grimness.

I got in touch with Russell Morrissey who, along with Darren Pearce and Angus Abranson, is bringing us this tale of terror and I asked him about the WOIN system and this eagerly anticipated book.

I'm going to assume that the first answer isn't entirely accurate...

Welcome to the site! Please introduce yourself.

I am Captain Kirk, and was the first man on Mars. I also invented the sea, and built Australia.

Give us some background on you and the tabletop roleplaying hobby - what got you involved and what is it that you love about it?

I started playing RPGs when I was about 10, way back in the 1980s. At the time we played at school - AD&D, mainly, but a whole slew of 80s games including FASA's Star Trek RPG, Golden Heroes, the Games Workshop Judge Dredd RPG, and tons more. I've pretty much played ever since, including all editions of D&D, and a whole slew of other games. Right now I'm in a long Call of Cthulhu campaign, and a sci-fi WOIN campaign, and recently finished running Curse of Strahd for D&D 5E. So I'm a lifelong tabletop game hobbyist!

In 1999 I started working in the tabletop RPG industry, initially as a blogger/games reporter, and branching out into publishing. I run EN World, a tabletop RPG news and reviews website, and I also co-founded, and own, the ENnies, which are the premier tabletop RPG awards program. I've published over 300 RPG products over the last 20 years!

WOIN (What Is Old Is New) is a popular system based around the humble D6. How did this come about?

It was a gradual evolution, inspired both by the many games I played in the 1980s, and by many modern game design sensibilities. Initially, my goal was to publish my ideal sci-fi RPG; however, the fantasy themes of D&D (especially older D&D) always drew me back, so I ended up designing two fully compatible games which use the same system.

There have been other D6 dice pool systems before - what makes WOIN different?

I've played a lot of different dice systems over the years, and in truth there aren't many I don't like. I think I fell in love with dice pools way back when I played the WEG Ghostbusters RPG, which was the first dice pool game; that system evolved into WEG's Star Wars d6 system. My goal when designing WOIN wasn't to be super innovative or experimental, but to do something I knew, enjoyed, and do it well. It's not the same as any other d6 dice pool system, but it definitely shares DNA with some.

WOIN includes a life-path character creation system, which I simply adore. I've always enjoyed life-path character creation systems; they feel immersive and organic to me, and the very process of creating our character also creates their background.

The dice pool system is an additive one which pools dice from your attribute (natural talent), skill (training), and equipment (higher quality equipment gives you more dice). You can then "spend" some of those dice on enhancements to your roll, and then roll to beat a target number. It's very simple and intuitive, and that core mechanic drives the entire game. What I enjoy about it is that there is not direct link between attributes and skills - you can build a pool from any attribute, any skill, and any equipment, as long as your GM agrees it's relevant. So if you're climbing the side of a building, you might use AGILITY plus climbing, or architecture, or whatever skill you have that you think will help you climb this building.

I'm also very fond of the Countdown mechanic, which can be used to create tension when you need a duration but you don't want the players to know when it's up. Each turn, the Countdown pool of d6s is rolled, and any 6s are removed. When the last die is removed, the bomb goes off, or the building collapses, or the disease reaches its natural conclusion, or what-have-you. It's a very simple, but effective mechanic.

The magic system gets a lot of attention. It's a verb-noun system (like you may have seen in some other games), so you would combine a verb ( a skill you know) with a noun (a thing you know the "secret" of) to, say, create fire, or abjure ice, or summon beasts, or compel undead. You spend magic points to power your spell, adding enhancements at-will. It's very freeform!

Xenomorphs: The Fall of  Somerset Landing was a very successful Kickstarter and looks to be delving into some serious dark sci-fi action, something that WOIN seems suited to. Inspirations aside, what was the draw to the dark horrific side of science fiction?

Oh, man! I adore those movies! My wife can rattle off the names of all the Colonial Marines (which makes me envious).

We were brainstorming ways to show off what WOIN can do. The core system is very much a "toolkit", and so it (by deign) lacks the setting elements which can draw people to the game. That's both a strength and a weakness - it means it does its "here's the sandbox; now build your universe!" approach to running a roleplaying game really, really well; but it does make it more difficult to market. So with that in mind, we discussed a range of different "settings" we could use to showcase the game. I can't talk about all of them yet, but here's some words associated with some of them: Manhattan, lower decks, exorcism, road rage....

Anyway, Xenomorphs was always going to be first. It's just SO atmospheric, all that gritty sci-fi survival horror. And WOIN can lend itself so well to both heroic sic-fantasy or gritty, darker pieces. It has the tools to "dial" to either. Suffice it to say that in Xenomorphs, we took a bit of a cue from Call of Cthulhu: don't necessarily expect to survive. Don't worry; we have backup characters you can hot-swap into!

Is there a larger world that Xenomorphs could explore? Are you producing any further supplements for the setting?

Our book is about 60 pages long. The first half describes the setting - explored space, the United Marines, the Chen Zua corporation, adventure ideas and plot seeds, equipment, and so on.

So we have a 15-page adventure, which features the PCs arriving at Somerset Landing as colonists - miners, scientists, engineers, maybe a marine. It's a dark, rain-soaked terraforming colony. And pretty soon, all hell breaks loose. The PCs won't be having many stand-up fights (or if they do, they'll be switching to new PCs pretty quick!)

That's the plan - one book, one setting. We plan to release a few of these, covering different genres, really showing off the WOIN system and showing our love for certain archetypes of the silver screen. Any which prove really popular, we might consider for a bigger treatment, but right now that's not a thing. Not yet, anyway.

What more can we expect to see from WOIN in the future?

So our biggest upcoming thing is the official Judge Dredd & The Worlds of 2000 AD RPG. That will be out this winter. It's a gorgeous full-colour hardcover book. We have the license not just for Judge Dredd, but for the entire range of 2000 AD properties, which provides us with a massive amount of completely different sci-fi and fantasy settings. We're starting with Dredd, of course, but you can expect to see all sorts of 2000 AD goodness over the coming months and years.

We have N.O.W. the Modern Action roleplaying game coming out this winter, too. That's all about superspies and action heroes, talking cars, and soldiers-of-fortune. Those who love those 80s TV shows will love that one. It even includes rules for Mutants!

Interior excerpt from 'Xenomorphs'
Used with permission

Monday, 20 November 2017

I was an awful GM

Puppet Master by j4p4nLook, I’m a GM and I was guilty of this years ago: being condescending because the players can’t figure out your puzzles or get past your bad guys doesn’t do much for the group. There isn’t a player in the world, not even one desperate for a game and has nowhere else to go, who will sit at a gaming table and be basically laughed at for not figuring out what the GM has put them up against. GMs create the adventure and the dangers but that doesn’t mean that he’s against the players. It doesn’t mean that the players are in the game to beat what he has created, and therefore ‘win’ the game. And what’s worse is a GM that not only ‘wins’ but makes sure that the players know that he’s beaten them.

And it’s not just ‘I beat you with my dungeon!’ GMs, it’s those who use the game to bolster their egos, playing Mary/Gary Sue Gamesmaster Player Characters - the dreaded GMPC - that are the definition of what the GM thinks a perfect player character should be. The GMPC holds their hands, babysits, and is untouchable due to GM fiat. These type of GM-controlled characters are the most annoying, crass and downright unlikeable types of character because they not only make you feel inferior, they’re basically communicating to you how the GM feels about your progress in the game; ie, you’re all rubbish at what you do and they can do it much better.

If you’re a GM and even slightly glancing down this route, I implore you – don’t do it. You will do irreversible damage to the gaming group and lose any trust the players may have had in you. This way of gaming leads to a false sense of achievement for the GM and miserable, downbeat players who will drift away. If you run a fun, fair session, you’ll have more chance of having the players shake your hand and commend you on your game.

I don’t know of any evenings that have ended with, ‘Hey! Your GMPC certainly showed us that we’re idiots! And we all died trying to get through your awesome killer dungeon! See you next week!’

Originally posted March 2012

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Interview - Sarah Newton of Mindjammer Press

There's a new Kickstarter in town - Capharnaum - The Roleplaying Game.

Sarah Newton at Mindjammer Press is bringing us the English version of 'a fantasy roleplaying game set in an imaginary Arabia-like world. It borrows from the tales of the One Thousand and One Nights, as well as semitic legends and the ancient and mediaeval epics. Capharnaum doesn't aim to be a historical game, but a heroic one, a flamboyant refraction of historical, cultural, and mythical themes, filled with light and thrilling adventure!'

As of this post the Kickstarter is still ongoing, so get over there now and have a look!

To get some further insight into Capharnaum I caught up Sarah and asked her what we can expect to see from this exciting new game.

Welcome back to the site, Sarah! So, what have you been up to recently in the tabletop RPG world? How's things in the industry?

Thanks very much indeed, Jonathan – it’s great to be back! Well, my life over the past 2 years, as I’m sure you can imagine, has been very much focussed on delivering all the cool books we were able to unlock in the Mindjammer Kickstarter of late 2015! We now have thirteen physical products in the line, which is just an amazing tribute to the power of Kickstarter and our fantastic backers – and the last of those are just about to go out to backers this Wednesday 22 Nov 2017, leaving us with 3 PDFs and some digital support products to release during the course of next year. It’s been a hectic and creative couple of years – very inspiring!

The one thing the Kickstarter did which I should have expected and maybe didn’t enough was take up pretty much all of my time! I’ve been to relatively few conventions since the Kickstarter ended – I’ve made Dragonmeet and UK Games Expo in the UK, and Les Utopiales, La Comédie du Livre, and Au-Delà du Dragon in France, but I haven’t made it to GenCon for several years, and am really missing it! Learning from the experience, I’m hoping to remedy that!

So, tell us more about your newest project Capharnaum, the game of 'Fantastic Arabian Nights adventure in a world of deserts, dragons, and crusaders'. It sounds amazing!

It is! I found out about Capharnaum back in 2009 when I picked up the frankly beautiful first edition core book at the Paris Games Fair, and I immediately wanted to do an English-language version. It was just begging for it: this deep, massive, and compelling setting, with some wonderful supplements, epic game-play, and sensational production values. I just felt its potential. It took several years to get the conditions just right to be able to do this, but the French publisher, Studio Deadcrows, and ourselves came to an agreement in 2015 / 2016 to get cracking on a joint project, to bring Mindjammer to the French-language market, and Capharnaum to the English-language one – and now that the Mindjammer kickstarter has completed its physical deliverables, we find ourselves finally able to do so!

What was the attraction to this game and genre?

I love good world-building, and Capharnaum has it in spades. You really have to see it. The designers, François Cedelle and Raphael Bardas, explained to me that, after 9/11, they wanted a game that showed the depth and awesomeness of Middle Eastern cultures, but also did so in a way in which the games you played would transcend historical and cultural conflicts and try to build something new, something which broke the chains of history and transcended its limitations. You know me – with Mindjammer, and indeed pretty much everything I write, it’s all about going beyond, breaking down barriers, achieving our potential, whether as an individual, culture, or species – and what François and Raphael said just totally resonated with me. It’s so ambitious, and yet so timely.

So, Capharnaum is a game in which the societal and cultural norm is a fantasy version of Arabian and Middle Eastern culture. It’s a vast world – as big as our own – with analogues of major historical lands, including those such as fantasy versions of mediaeval Europe – dark age Germania, mediaeval France, early renaissance Spain – and ancient world “fallen empires” such as ancient Greece and Rome, all of the playable homelands for your characters. But the focus of the campaign, at least to begin with, is a peninsula called Jazirat, which resembles in many ways pre-Islamic Arabia, say about 500-600AD. That’s the cultural norm, that’s the land the game calls “home”, and all your mediaeval knights, dark age Viking barbarians, ancient world hoplites and oracles – well, they’re all foreigners, visitors to Jazirat, with their own agendas. They’re the “other”. I don’t really know a game which takes that decision, and then follows it through with such panache, depth, and such an obvious love of the subject matter.

A key point of the setting is the freedom. Capharnaum has religion and cultural conflicts, but, while they echo those of our own world, they’re not the same. There’s no Christianity, no Islam, no Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Greek or Roman gods. Instead, you have the god-hero Jason Quartered, the martyred warrior, and his Quarterian Crusaders; you have Jazirat and its One Thousand and One Gods; you have the Chiromancers of ancient Agalanthia. These provide hooks for intrigue, adventure, and conflict which are similar to those of our own history, but you don’t have that worry of cultural sensitivity or historical accuracy – you have the freedom to improvise, to make the whole world and setting your own. There’s a lot of depth there for when you want it, but on the other hand the game setting is immediately understandable and accessible. It feels familiar, but there’s so much to explore.

That freedom is also reflected in the characters you play. In this fantastic refraction of our own world, many people are wedded to cultures and world-views in deadly conflict. Not so your characters. Each character in Capharnaum bears a birthmark on their back in the shape of a dragon’s claw: the Dragon-Mark. In the cosmos of Capharnaum, dragons are a big deal: they’re mysterious, semi-divine entities, perhaps servitors of the gods, perhaps even their progenitors and manipulators. In any case, the dragons – or maybe a dragon – is keeping an eye on your character. You have the potential to become a mythic hero; you’re marked for a special, unknown destiny. You find you have more in common with other Dragon-Marked, regardless of their origins: and, once again, transcending cultural boundaries and ancient conflicts, your adventuring party is multicultural, diverse, trying to figure out your fate, how you’re supposed to – or how you want to – change the world. It’s like you’re Sinbad, Scheherezade, Ronan, Heracles, Circe, all banded together at the start of their heroic story arcs, searching for their destiny. What will you do? What will you become? How will you change the world? I mean, as a campaign concept, how cool is that?

I also loved the rules system. I’ve been working with Fate for several years, and for me my perfect system is one which is lightweight and elegant, quick to learn, but one which is also very scalable, and with a huge amount of depth and sophistication which comes out in play and with increasing system mastery. Capharnaum is like that, but it’s more traditional than Fate, it doesn’t have those narrative, meta-elements. I find French game systems have a really solid core, but they’re also expert at integrating genre-specific elements which bring out the flavour of the setting they’re designed for. Capharnaum is no exception. You’ll find it more traditional than Fate, but with some very satisfying touches which are really crunchy, fun, and really “pop” during play. It’s fast, intuitive, but also deep and explorational, and we’re incorporating all the streamlining and polish of the new 2nd edition of the French game. The magic system in particular is worth the price of the book alone: it’s an improvisational system which works. In some ways it reminds me of what we were doing with LEGENDS OF ANGLERRE for Fate 3rd edition, but without the Fate-y side. It works on an assembly of philosophical / linguistic components called “Sacred Words” and “Elements” – you can “Create Fire”, “Transform a Person into a Camel”, or “Destroy Flesh”, for example – but the improvisational aspect is supported by concrete game effects which stop the whole thing falling into arbitrary handwaviness. It’s really nice.

What can we expect to see in the final book? The system basics, or the full game and setting with all the bells and whistles?

It’s the full game and setting with all the bells and whistles. It’s going to be at least 400 pages in two-column layout with good-sized font. It’s a gorgeous book, incidentally – top quality art, spectacular maps (I’m a major map nerd, so these were just a must-have!), the initial offering has 16 colour panels which are lovely, and we’re hoping the Kickstarter will let us produce the whole book in full colour throughout (at the moment it’s a two-tone effect, a sort of desert sepia, which looks genre-appropriate and very attractive, but I dream of colour artwork all the way!). Most of the core book is setting material – gazetteers, histories, cultural descriptions, and lots of information on the “paths” which characters can follow on their road to greatness – the Capharnaum equivalent of secret societies, cults, guilds, legions, what-have-you. The rules part of the book is probably less than 100 pages, and it’s very quick to grasp. There’s a solid foundational bestiary of 20 very flavoursome beasts native to Jazirat, and even an introductory adventure. It really is everything you need. It’s kind of a principle here at Mindjammer Press: my interest is getting the setting and its rules in your hands, and then exploring the world with campaigns and more detail which I hope will be exciting enough for you to want them. For us, the model of releasing the core system over multiple books isn’t the right one, it’s not how I want to work.

That said, the supplements for Capharnaum are fantastic! There’s a complete Bestiary – that’s the nearest the system comes to a “second rules book”. It expands the core book bestiary hugely, by delving into the cultural depths of Jazirat, into the demons and spiritual entities of the land, and then going overseas, with the critters you can find in other lands. It’s also very readable in its own right: that’s one of the things I love about Capharnaum, all the books are a damn fine read, even without playing them (although we hope you’ll do that too!). I’ve taken a great deal of time to make sure the writing in the book is the best it can be. The initial translation has been done by José Luis Porfirio (QIN, KURO, FINAL CONFLICT: XCORP, SHAYO) – we already have the core book ready to go for a swift delivery in March/April 2018 – but I’m also a French speaker, and I’ve edited, restructured, rewritten, and even added to and changed things here and there so it’s a very smooth read and also conveys the setting and material effectively.

So, in addition to the Capharnaum core book and Bestiary, we have a player’s guide, a screen, two scenario packs, an atlas, and then this massive, world-spanning, globe-shattering, epic campaign which can provide the whole framework for your play in Capharnaum. That’s one big book – we think it’ll be a good 300 pages in English version – and can plug in beginning, intermediate, and even advanced characters, and also gives room for GM detours, sub-campaigns, and other scenarios along the way. And we have lots of other surprises along the way in the Kickstarter as we start to unlock stretch goals…

What kind of support will the game receive in the future?

That’s one of the lovely things about the deal we have with Studio Deadcrows. Our license lets us publish original material. That’s why we’re asking backers and the RPG gaming community to really jump on board with Capharnaum. It’s not a closed, finite product, but the beginning of a fantastic new game and setting in the English-language RPG world. Please jump in on the Kickstarter and help us unlock the core book and its series of stretch goals. Mindjammer Press is committed to Capharnaum as our fantasy-historical RPG – it has everything I’ve ever dreamed of in a historical-themed game, from history and politics, military campaigns, spiritual, magical and mythical exploration, and then a whole transcendent, mystical, and apotheosis-based set of themes which can take you just about anywhere you want to go. We’ve bubbling with ideas we’d love to bring you!

What else do you have in the pipeline? What else is on the horizon for Mindjammer Press?

One of the things I’ve learned from the Mindjammer Kickstarter is that my own big, personal challenge is to correctly balance my own creative writing with the need to manage the business side. We’re very cautiously expanding: Jason Juta is now deeply embedded as our art director and layout guru; David Donachie is our webmaster and an awesome writer of campaign and setting material; we have John Snead representing us in the States, and also as a great writer; and we have Paul Mitchener and Graham Spearing in the UK / Europe, not only as top writers but also as community developers, convention outreach, and organised gaming. That’s really filling out the feeling that Mindjammer Press is becoming a production studio, working hand-in-glove with Chris Birch and his fantastic team at Modiphius Entertainment, who provide us with the “front-end” – distribution, marketing, store sales and convention sales presence, and of course Kickstarter consultancy!

All that means that I’m able to devote a significant chunk of my time to writing and development – I feel that’s where my own strengths lie. I’m writing all the time, and also working with other writers, to produce our new material. In 2018, we have an ongoing production schedule for Mindjammer which should take us into 2019, and some exciting plans for Mindjammer’s 10th anniversary (hasn’t that gone quickly!); also, I’m supervising the whole Capharnaum effort, making sure everything’s effectively translated, edited, worded, and produced to the standards we need to maintain after Mindjammer and as part of the Modiphius family. But I’ve also earmarked that vital time to spend planning and working on our next big project after Capharnaum, The Chronicles of Future Earth RPG, which we’re hoping to Kickstart in the first half of 2018 for delivery twelve months from now.

Thank you again for the opportunity to appear on the site, and thanks to everyone out there for reading! Do please drop by at the Capharnaum Kickstarter page and help us take the adventure still further!

Sarah Newton is an award-winning RPG and fiction writer and co-director of Mindjammer Press. Her credits include MINDJAMMER – THE ROLEPLAYING GAME, ACHTUNG! CTHULHU, LEGENDS OF ANGLERRE, THE CHRONICLES OF FUTURE EARTH, and more. You can find her online at, on Twitter at @sarahjnewton, and at her website and Meme Machine blog at Mindjammer Press can be found online at, and you can check out and support the Kickstarter campaign for the new RPG “CAPHARNAUM – TALES OF THE DRAGON-MARKED” at

Friday, 17 November 2017

Knowing your gaming world

Planet by bogdancoYou should never count on being able to run a fully successful game in a setting you love, because people may see it differently than you do.

A game I have always wanted to run a proper campaign for is Star Trek, set in either the current Next Generation era, post-Dominion War, or the classic movie era around the time of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan - I like the atmosphere of the Next Generation setting and the adventure-come-combat of Trek II, and even Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. I like me some Star Trek and I love the idea of adventuring in the setting. I’ve even taken the character sheet and some of the rules of Task Force Games ‘Prime Directive’ and converted them to West End Games D6 System, utilising the rules of the first edition of ‘Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game’. It’s a great game and plays really well, but my problem is that I like Star Trek but know little about the larger setting and how it fully operates and only take my cues from the films and TV shows. Gaming with players who know more about it than I do – true Trek aficionados – proved difficult as the slightest detail I got wrong was corrected and ideas were formed using words and terminology I didn’t have the slightest clue about. In these cases I let the dice decide but on a failed roll there was a long conversation, almost an argument, as to how they as Federation characters and members of Star Fleet would know how to do that or would have access to certain kinds of equipment. A basic case of Player knowledge versus Character Knowledge with not much chance of an amicable settlement because the player knew so much more about Star Trek than I did.

I had the same problem as a player in a Middle-Earth Role Playing game. It was set during the War of the Ring and we were Gondorian soldiers scouting the north and I knew the GM was wrong about the location of The Lonely Mountain. I can’t remember why it made so much difference to the game, maybe it didn’t, but the GM did not want to hear my corrections. He even had me roll to see what my PC did know, and when I failed the roll he told me that as far as my character was concerned it was where he said it was. I remember being incredibly annoyed and a bit flustered about it and my argument at the time was, ‘But I’ve been reading Tolkien for more than a decade!’

Certain settings are easier than others. I used to run a lot of games in the Fighting Fantasy world of Allansia and I knew that world inside out thanks to the book 'Titan: the Fighting Fantasy World' so any new players to the setting would get a basic crash course in the history of the world and their race, if it called for it, and then I could run smooth, effective games because I could narrate without the need to stop and refer to books or notes. I was confident in my knowledge and that confidence can make for a much more comfortable game for everyone involved.

Some settings aren't that bothered about dead-on accuracy and exist for the fun of it. Playing in the Star Wars universe is easy. Everyone knows where they stand. Good guys are heroes, bad guys are villains, and nobody cares how things work or where things are – they’re just there and they do what you need them to do and with no defined ‘this is how it all hangs together’ you can pretty much wing because, hey – everyone loves Star Wars. It’s all about adventure on a pulp scale.

But a richer setting, such as Star Trek or Middle-Earth, has so much more detail and history that parts of that can affect gameplay, or at least people’s perceptions of it. These settings can be several things at once – adventure, combat, exploration, character driven, emotional, intriguing, mysterious, lots of things – and in some cases a player’s view of the setting will be vastly different to how someone else views it. Attitudes to how the game should be played will differ, and the amount that a single person knows about the setting will differ from the amount another knows, and these levels of knowledge might bring about disagreements. How do I know that a PC can get out of trouble with the Andorians on the planet Flexagarble VII by using an inverted tri-phase resonator on the transponders they use for the transporter room? What does that even mean? How do I know that the player isn’t simply making it up – like I did just then - knowing that I know far less than he does about the setting?

These days I leave it to the dice. Unless there’s something specific in the rules that addresses this particular problem, a ruling that’ll give me something to make a decision about how to handle the situation no matter what the player has to say about it, then I’ll just match what they want to do to with the closest skill on their sheet and ask them to roll, maybe modify it depending on how plausible their argument sounds. That has to be the fairest way so that everyone comes away without feeling cheated. In these possible situations I’ll make sure this kind of ruling is going to be implemented before the game starts so that everyone knows where they stand. I realise they know more than me but I have to make rulings based on what sounds plausible and not based on what some random character in Season 5 Episode 4 did or said, or what it says in Book 3 on Page 244 Paragraph 2 of The Epic series. I don’t know these things and the players should have respect for that, the same way I’ll have respect for their breadth of knowledge by making modifiers to rolls depending on how they make their case.

It’s certainly better than simply saying or hearing, ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about, you can’t do that’.

Originally posted February 2012

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Interview - Joseph A. McCullough of Osprey Games

Frostgrave: Ghost ArchipelagoFrostgrave: Ghost Archipelago hit the shelves recently, promising us more fun, frolics and combat in the world of Frostgrave. This time, however, the cold of Felstad has been swapped out for the sun of the south, with new heroes to create and crews to command.

I spoke to Joseph McCullough, the designer and writer of the award-winning Frostgrave games, to find out more about the Lost Isles...

So, how did you come up with the idea for Frostgrave: Ghost Archipelago? Did Felstad get too cold for you and you felt you needed a warmer climate?

Phil Smith, the Head of Osprey Games, asked me to think about writing a supplement for Frostgrave that took the game to a new setting. At first I was reluctant because I thought that would essentially just be a new list of monsters, and a bit of window-dressing for scenarios. If I was going to do it, I wanted to do something that gave players a somewhat different game experience. At the same time, I was starting to feel that my imagination needed a break from the Frozen City, just to give me a little space to refuel.

Was it a long design period? It’s been more than two years since Frostgrave, so how long have you been working on this?

The actual writing didn’t take that long, about a month. Partly this is because most of the core rules of the game are just slightly updated and modified Frostgrave rules. Partly this is because I had mentally been working on the game for several months before that. Then, of course, you have editing and play-testing afterward. I suppose from the point I made up my mind to do it, to turning in a complete manuscript to Osprey, it was about ten months.

Frostgrave: Ghost Archipelago is not a simple add-on to the original rulebook and is a complete game in itself, so what changes or additions did you make to make this stand out?

Well, like I said, I wanted to give players something new, something that significantly changed the game. I figured the biggest change I could make was to take wizards out of the central role, but if I was going to do that, I needed some suitably heroic figure to take their place. Thus out of my thoughts on the setting grew the Heritors, these sort of low-level superheroes who have inherited their powers from their ancestors who drank from a magic pool somewhere in the Ghost Archipelago. I liked the way the protagonists and the setting became linked. In game terms, the use of Heritor Abilities has a much more risk/reward system than magic does in Frostgrave. Also, the game tends to focus more on hand-to-hand combat than does Frostgrave.

Can Ghost Archipelago be used with the original Frostgrave? Can they be mixed up at all, such as having Heritors visit the Frozen City?

Absolutely. I didn’t write the two games to specifically be balanced with one another. In truth, I think that would be a fool’s errand. There are just too many possible combinations of wizard spells and Heritor abilities to try to balance them all against one another. That said, I think most people will generally get a good game out of a wizard vs. Heritor match-up.

This new book, as well as the others before it, hint at a much larger world. The specifics of that world are never divulged, and I’ve asked about the possibility of the world being fully uncovered before. Are you sticking with the enigmatic ‘here be dragons’ idea, keeping the larger setting vague and mysterious?

I’m afraid so! In truth, the more I write about the world (and now a few other people in novels), the more it slowly takes shape and becomes defined. So, over time we will see more and more of it, but there will still always be a large chunk that is never explained. I have no intention of writing a gazetteer or drawing a map of the world. That said, there is nothing to stop players from drawing their own maps and dropping the Frozen City in it.

What kind of support can we expect for the new rulebook? Will there be new scenarios, characters and beasts? And will there still be the same level of support for the original Frostgrave?

Osprey has said that they would like to support the game to the same level as the original. I’ve already turned in the manuscript for the first supplement, The Lost Colossus which will be out in February along with a load of new miniatures. This is a big campaign book, where the Hertiors are racing around the archipelago in search of the pieces of a giant statue that exploded long ago.

I’ve always liked the fact that the game made the characters quite personal, and that after a few levels you could get quite attached to certain creations. Will we ever see a tabletop roleplaying game, using similar stats and mechanics?

I don’t know. Certainly I’m a role-player at heart, and I think we will see more and more bits that will aid players who want to push the game in a more RPG direction, but at what point does something stop being a miniatures game and become an RPG?

Frostgrave: Ghost Archipelago is available now.

The Ghost Archipelago has returned. A vast island chain, covered in the ruins of ancient civilizations, the Archipelago appears every few centuries, far out in the southern ocean. At such times, pirates, adventurers, wizards, and legendary heroes all descend upon the islands in the hopes of finding lost treasures and powerful artefacts. A few, drawn by the blood of their ancestors, search for the fabled Crystal Pool, whose waters grant abilities far beyond those of normal men. It is only the bravest, however, who venture into the islands, for they are filled with numerous deadly threats. Cannibal tribes, sorcerous snake-men, and poisonous water-beasts all inhabit the island ruins, guarding their treasure hordes and setting traps for the unwary.

In this new wargame, set in the world of Frostgrave, players take on the role of Heritors, mighty warriors whose ancestors drank from the Crystal Pool. These Heritors lead their small, handpicked teams of spellcasters, rogues, and treasure hunters into the ever-shifting labyrinth of the Ghost Archipelago. Using the same rules system as Frostgrave, this standalone wargame focuses on heroes who draw on the power in their blood to perform nigh-impossible feats of strength and agility. This game also includes 30 spells drawn from five schools of magic, a host of soldier types, challenging scenarios, treasure tables, and a full bestiary of the most common creatures that inhabit the Lost Isles.

Joseph A. McCullough is the author of several non-fiction books including A Pocket History of Ireland, Zombies: A Hunter's Guide, and Dragonslayers: From Beowulf to St. George. In addition, his fantasy short stories have appeared in various books and magazines such as Black Gate, Lords of Swords, and Adventure Mystery Tales. He is also the creator of the wargame, Frostgrave: Fantasy Wargames in the Frozen City, and co-wrote The Grey Mountains, a supplement for the Middle-Earth Role-Playing game. His continued ramblings can be read at:

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Life Rolls On - what a character's scores might mean

Swordsman 3 by Firkin
Bralbuck. He likes
stripey trousers.
Do any other players take into consideration how much the numbers that are rolled for stats mean beyond the scores and benefits/penalties they give? I mean, do you consider why the character you're designing has ended up with those particular values in those particular stats? When I do design a detailed PC I try to imagine why the character ended up with such scores and then try to give them a bit of background to explain them.

Let's say I'm rolling a Dragon Warriors character (3D6 in each stat) - there must be a reason why my PC has such numbers. Let's call him Bralbuck.

STRENGTH 11 - Bralbuck is of average build. He never really stood out in the place where he grew up, but he wasn't exactly a weakling. To get in such good shape perhaps he grew up in a community where physical work was required, such as a helping hand in a castle or on a farm.

REFLEXES 15 - He was quick, though. Quick on is feet with speedy reactions. Perhaps his job required him to be nimble, such as looking after sheep or doing a lot of climbing, or perhaps he was practised in avoiding beatings from bullies or particularly nasty peers.

INTELLIGENCE 9 - His education wasn't up to much, so perhaps he is of a peasant or serf class.

PSYCHIC TALENT 9 - Where he comes from there's not much call for magic. Maybe the Church has dominion and does not approve of such practises.

LOOKS 13 - He's a good looking fellow, which probably resulted in some jealousy from other less blessed people which resulted in the beatings and the increased reflexes.

So, going by the numbers, here's Bralbuck's history:

'I grew up in Cornumbria in a small farming village called Break Beacon. We were one of many such villages under the so-called "protection" of a noble to the north who returned from the Crusades when I was just a boy, glowing with fierce piety. His devotion to the True Faith was so strong that within weeks of his return those of a magical disposition found themselves burned at the stake or imprisoned. My father remembers a time when magic users would aid the farms and villages with their crops and cattle. Now any who come to these lands are chased away or arrested. He has told me of some of the wonderous things they used to do and I imagine, sometimes, of weaving my own spells.

My father was a good man and cared for his family well, but he and my mother were not from Cornumbria. They had travelled from Ereworn in search of a new life; the people here were accepting but my parents always felt like outsiders. Because of this growing up was sometimes difficult - the local thugs would single me out and chase me down, and more than once I suffered a beating. I had to learn quickly to be quick on my feet. All this left me with little chance for an education; I rose and fell with the sun working on my father's farm so the opportunities afforded to those of a higher rank passed me by.

I got through my childhood and early manhood relatively unscathed, but always I dreamed of something more. I loved my father and mother dearly, and I loved the friends I had made, but there was always something in me that yearned to see beyond the hills and the fields that surrounded us. My father always said that I would one day feel this, this wanderlust, this need to break free of the bonds of servitude and travel in search of adventure. It was why he left Ereworn, after all, and he had told me of some of the adventures he had on his journey.

I thought this feeling nothing but a fancy, until one day a Knight came riding through the village...'

Sunday, 12 November 2017

RPG Review: ZWEIHÄNDER – Grim & Perilous RPG

Image result for zweihander kickstarter
Cover by Dejan Mandic
ZWEIHÄNDER – Grim & Perilous RPG

By Daniel Fox

Released by Grim & Perilous Studios

From the game:

‘ZWEIHÄNDER Grim & Perilous RPG is an OSR, retro-clone spiritual successor to Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay first and second editions, an unrepentant heartbreaker released under Creative Commons License Share-Alike.

Using the classical D100 system, with ZWEIHÄNDER RPG you will create grim characters, write perilous adventures and build low fantasy & dark fantasy campaigns. These rules are perfectly suitable to run Renaissance and medieval-styled adventures, too. You can also use this book to craft homebrew stories set in the works of Andrzej Sapkowski, George R.R. Martin, Glen Cook, Scott Lynch and other ‘grimdark’-inspired worlds.

This all-in-one game includes most of what you need to play: a character creation guide, game mastery rules and a bestiary brimming with creatures both fair & foul. All that’s left to gather are a few friends, pencils and a handful of dice.

ZWEIHÄNDER awaits, and the fate of your grim & perilous tale hangs in the balance!’

I’m not generally a fan of heartbreaker roleplaying games. When I’ve sat down to read them I’ve always had this little voice in the back of my head telling me that what I’m about to experience is, quite simply, the game I already own with material added by some house rules, and some changes or additions to address the writer’s vision of how the game should have been. It’s not a fair way to approach books such as these, I know, but it’s always a nagging doubt that sits there and skews my view of the game.

In all honesty, I pretty much ignored ZWEIHÄNDER when it first came up on my Warhammer radar. It was a few changes by gamers who loved the old-school Warhammer RPG, a fan edit of the game, nothing more than a few house rules thrown out into the ether to attract attention. However, the more it hung around the more it intrigued me, and when the Kickstarter began I then began to give it more than casual attention.

Actually, I was probably even more purposefully ignorant of this project than I have been with any other OSR-style game of this type. You see, I’m a huge Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 1st Edition fan. Huge. It is, without doubt, my favourite roleplaying game of them all. I bought the re-released softback in the late 1980s and I have had countless hours of adventures in this world. Even after 2nd Edition came out, with much cleaner and balanced rules, I still went back to the 1st Edition. It was unbalanced, with arguably the worst and most unmanageble magic system ever put into a rulebook, and it took quite a bit of work to get a handle on the rules (for myself, at any rate).

It was clunky and annoying at times, but, by the Blood God, I loved it. It wasn’t my first gaming system, and there have been better ones since then, but it’s the one that made the biggest impact on me creatively. And this was because the rulebook not only oozed atmosphere, it had everything I needed to run roleplaying games for years. The book had a wonderful dark-but-fun feel to it that was very me, and it contained full rules for everything, world details, a full bestiary and an adventure. It was everything I could have wanted in a single, weighty volume.

So, when someone on the internet has a go at creating their own version of it and not not only aims to redo what has come before but also create a full game in the ‘spirit’ of old Warhammer? Well… they’d better bring their A-game, because for 30 years I’ve not needed anything else for my Warhammer FRP games but that 1st Edition rulebook.

The more I read about ZWEIHÄNDER the more intrigued I became. I didn’t know much about the changes, but the artwork that started to appear was wonderful and really evocative of the setting as well as the original rulebook. Still, that wasn’t enough to sway me – after all, all they could do was emulate the Warhammer rules, so it wasn’t really Warhammer, was it? Unless I could travel the Reik avoiding that death, have a beer in Altdorf and headbutt mutants in the face in the Border Princes then what was the point?

But then I read more, and then I started to read the feedback from the early access Beta version of the rules. And my curiosity turned into suprise, then excitement. Then I started asking questions and before I knew what was happening a copy was being winged to me and it landed on my desk with an almighty thump. And I stared at it long and hard. Then I slowly opened the book and, with a deep nervous breath, I got stuck in.

The damn thing is huge! Huge I tell you! A single volume of almost 700 pages, hardback, with a full-colour cover and a black-and-white interior. It was so heavy the delivery man who dropped it off has been sending me his physiotherapy bills. Calling it ZWEIHÄNDER is accurate; you could wield this tome with two hands and beat someone to death with it.

It’s a gorgeous book, with a nice red page-marking ribbon that just about sticks out at the bottom. This is the version with the Kickstarter edition cover; in the dank sewers of some dark place, a mage summons fire, a hammer-wielding warrior takes a swing at some rat-men, a scarred elf attacks a larger rat, a soldier aims a musket and a dwarf attends to a wounded fellow, all while being guarded by a small but vicious dog. It’s action packed and a lot of fun, really getting across the action-packed darkness of the setting.

Cover by Jussi Alarauhio
The Drivethrurpg print-on-demand has a different cover depicting four grim soldiers posing, as if for a photograph, all watching you, the reader, with accusing eyes. In all honesty, I prefer the Drivethrurpg print-on-demand cover. As fun as the Kickstarter one is, I feel the POD cover is much more atmospheric and it appeals to me more. Either way, each cover has wonderful art, the Kickstarter cover is by Dejan Mandic (who also does the interior art) and the POD is by Jussi Alarauhio.

And the interior art – wow. Dejan Mandic has produced some amazing work that captures the atmosphere of the game wonderfully. The number of illustrations is staggering, from small page-fillers to depictions of races, monsters and careers, to full-page chapter introductions and images. It’s all done in an old-fashioned way and it suits the book perfectly, meeting the design halfway between old-school 1980s goodness and modern design choices with evocative borders and layout. It’s fully black-and-white but that only adds to the grimness. It’s excellent stuff and throughout it looks great, and the use of a single artist keeps the atmosphere constant.

It’s a wonderful book, and it’s bound so that it can be left open where you need it without any fear of pages falling out or the spine cracking open.

Everything I expect to find in a Warhammer RPG is here – races (Human, Dwarf, Gnome, Halfling Ogre and Elf), archetypes (Academic, Commoner, Knave, Ranger, Socialite and Warrior), and then  professions which I won’t list here because, like WFRP’s careers, there’s a lot of them. It’s all well balanced and characters are much more likely to be much more equal. In original WFRP, the career system gave some players better characters than others, sometimes by a long margin. I never really cared that much for game balance – it’s part of WFRP’s appeal for me – but this makes things much more balanced and will make players feel they’re much more competent within the group.

The main attributes are Combat, Brawn, Agility, Perception, Intelligence, Willpower and Fellowship, each represented by percentile scores. These scores reflect skills, which can be increased up to three ten percent increments, so up to 30% can be added to a skill as the character advances. Different professions open up different skill opportunities, and talents give characters special abilites they can pull out if needed. The skills have been tidied up and slightly reduced in number, so there’s a huge choice to be made but they’re fairly distributed between characters and professions.

All skills are percentile based – roll under to succeed – with modifications for difficulty and with different results representing different levels and effects of success or failure. Combat is fast and brutal, as it should be in a game like this, with lasting effects. You can contract diseases, go mad, and there’s a corruption scale that determines how you lean towards order or chaos, which is adjusted as play progresses and determined by what happens to the player, how they react to certain things and how they act. Leaning too far in either direction can result in disorders or benefits. The magic system is much better, a vast improvement on 1st Edition – but, to be fair, that wouldn’t be hard. The grimoire of spells is impressive with different schools of magic to choose from, and it’s easy and quick to use, although by the nature of the game the chances are that if anyone found out that you could cast spells you’d be strung up by the neck and everything you owned would be burned.

A huge section on game mastery helps with running games, but this is more of a set of extras to help with different situations, including overland travel, rewards for players, social intrigue and campaign ideas. There’s a large section on extra combat rules in here; I’m not sure why, they would have been better served in the combat section, even if they are optional. The huge bestiary is excellent and the adventure ‘A Bitter Harvest’ is a good introduction to the game as well as the dark fantasy genre as a whole. The appendix at the back is more than welcome, especially with a book this size.

As with Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 1st Edition, everything you need to run a dark fantasy game, in the Warhammer world or any other grim setting, is here. Whether you establish your own setting or use an existing one, these rules will have you covered with minimal adjustments to the rules. The magic section may need looking at depending on the setting, but otherwise it’s a solid system that will serve a dark game exceptionally well.

So - I’ve read the book, and I’ve run some players through an adventure of my own design, with ancient devils, broken pacts, serious political problems and some straight-forward in-your-face combat. How did I get on with it? More importantly, how did the game make me feel?

What hit me square in the face with the book is the writing; the book is almost 700 pages and the text dominates the pages. It’s well written and everything is fully explained. And when I say fully explained, I mean there’s a level of detail here that some might find a little annoying. You could say that it’s overwritten, with examples and explanations of sometimes obvious things that you may have done without. It does tell me that the writers were passionate about what they were doing, and that excitement is there on the page for everyone to see, but when you’re trying to pinpoint a rule or simply get to the point it takes time. If you’re in the middle of the game that can be a problem as it slows things down, so it’s best to make sure you’ve read the book cover to cover and highlighted the areas you’ll need regularly. As it’s such a big book, that can take a lot of time. This isn’t the sort of game that you can get into quickly; from cold, learning the rules and prepping for a game will take a lot of work.

Character creation was fun but I opted to allow my players to choose from the tables. Each part of character creation, from sex to skills, has a random table and you are able to roll randomly for pretty much everything. That can make for some fun characters if you’re playing on the edge, but my players wanted to make characters they could enjoy. There are a lot of choices for players to make during generation, and this alone took us an evening’s session. I don’t mnd that; it gives the group a chance to really think about their character and we can work out a group dynamic. Like I said earlier – this is the kind of game that requires a lot of time, mainly to digest the book and prep an adventure. You can’t really hand the book to the players and say ‘crack on’, and let them create characters off their own back because that’s an entire section of the book that will have to be read by every player individually. An evening of character creation is the best route to take, I feel.

The adventure I designed was easy to set up – I didn’t have to worry about scaling the threats or designing new stats, I could take the details I need straight from the book. I just marked the page number of the creature on my design and referred to it as game progressed, and I lifted NPCs from the introductory adventure. I have had plenty of experience in adventure design so this part was easy for me, and with the level of detail in the book it was even more of a doddle.

The adventure itself was fun, but the there was a little conflict between player expectations and the game in action. There were four players, two had not played Warhammer before and the other two had experience, and it was a little easier to run the game for the new players than it was the experienced ones. During combat especially, there were assumptions made by the Warhammer players as to what rolls were made and what they meant. I had to stop play a couple of times because I went with the flow and didn’t realise that I had made judgements based on the old rulebook and not ZWEIHÄNDER. That’s not a fault of the book, but if you are an old-school Warhammer player then make sure that you’re playing ZWEIHÄNDER! It got a little confusing, but after some backtracking and corrections we were back on course; the fault was mine.

There were a few times I had to reference the book as we played but this didn’t impact play too much. I had already marked what I needed so, as I mentioned earlier, it’s best to make sure you’ve done your pre-game prep. In fact, I was happy with the way it played out for the new players. They were experienced gamers but new to this system, so after a few rolls and an encounter they got used to the system and the game progressed at a nice clip even with the pause for my ‘those aren’t the rules!’ gaff.

Combat was fun and suitably brutal – a little too much for one player who almost bit the big one in the first fight! - and the unpredictable nature of the system left us all a little breathless. The low chances to hit were a little frustrating and some of the combat resulted in a series of rolls that resulted in nothing at all, but that’s the nature of the system and it added to the fun, especially when a lucky hit by one of the players pretty much ended the fight with a single roll. Not so much for the player who got hit right before that roll; he lost an ear and spent the rest of the game nodding during character conversations, and then ending with a ‘What?’ He’ll live, with the Crop Ear drawback.

All in all it was a successful game, and the ZWEIHÄNDER rules handled the action really well. The players felt they had control over their character’s design and creation, and they felt they had some control over the game itself even with beginner’s stats. The book, options and the adventure itself recreated the dark fantasy genre really well – I set it in a horror version of Europe, on the border of the Ottoman Empire - so all in all it was a successful evening. Well, two evenings if you include the character creation session. With four players and an equal number of foes we managed to resolve a combat encounter in half an hour to forty minutes; the adventure had three combat encounters and the rest was social interaction and investigating, and the entire evening’s play came in at five hours. It would most likely have been less if there hadn’t been any confusion about the rules but that wasn’t the game’s fault, it was ours as a group. As the GM it was an excellent game to run, and the players enjoyed it.

So… the big question is; would I use this Warhammer heartbreaker in a Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay game?

No, I wouldn’t. That’s not a reflection on this book, it would handle a WFRP game exceptionally well as the content is simply Warhammer with adjustments. It would be easy to say it’s WFRP with the serial numbers filed off, but that would be a disservice to the game. It’s an unashamed Warhammer heartbreaker after all, so those comparisons are inevitable, but whether you want to use it for Warhammer or any other dark fantasy world it’s perfectly suited. It is, however, Warhammer at it’s heart.

I wouldn’t use it because I’ve been using Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 1st Edition for more than a quarter of a century, and that game is woven into my Old World in a way that makes it pointless in me trying to use any other system. In many ways all of the consecutive percentile rules after 1st Edition have been better; including ZWEIHÄNDER as I think that, despite the rulebook’s complexity, it’s a much more fluid and balanced system. However, as a Warhammer grognard I simply see no reason to use a new game system for my campaigns. That might seem to be a rather nostalgia-influenced blinkered view on my part, but if the shirt fits...

Would I use ZWEIHÄNDER for other dark fantasy games? Absolutely 100% without a doubt. Here I have an excellent set of rules designed for miserable, grim, down-and-dirty fantasy roleplaying. I can take out or adjust certain sections depending on the world I’m running, and the rules are familiar enough for me to be comfortable in running a game of that genre while keeping it seperate and identifiable from my WFRP games. I have tried to use the WFRP 1st Edition rules for other worlds, but they ended up being the same WFRP games in different clothing. ZWEIHÄNDER is far enough removed to help me run other games in other worlds more identifiable and unique.

ZWEIHÄNDER is now my go-to system for dark fantasy games. In fact, I’m looking at creating my own world and also using an existing one. My own world is a discussion for another time, but the established world I’m looking at is Robert E. Howard’s ‘Solomon Kane’. I do love the original stories but I was quite taken by the Michael J. Bassett movie from 2009 (I said at the time that it was the greatest Warhammer movie never made) so the imagery from that film makes for an excellent background. Adventuring across the world with rapier and flintlock would make for a  great campaign, with enough dark gods and raving badguys to keep players on their toes. ZWEIHÄNDER’s system makes the game edgy, dangerous and somewhat unpredictable, so that’s perfect for a game where the players are kept on the edge of death and madness. I’m basically going to run my campaign as horror action games with a Call of Cthulhu-type angle of danger. I’m sure ZWEIHÄNDER will handle that easily.

It’s big, it’s a heavy read and prep time will take a while. It’s not new-player friendly and you’ll need to have some experience with roleplaying to get the most out of it, it’s a little disjointed in parts and, yes, it’s overwritten, but ZWEIHÄNDER is an incredibly satisfying game of excellent quality, and the sheer darkness, joy and excitement for the history of the system and the genre are literally crawling off the page to get under your skin. There is very little in this book that can’t fail to inspire GMs and gaming groups, and with some investment of time and effort the end result is a rewarding experience that, once the campaign gets going and everyone is on the same page, will result in many satisfying campaigns for many months and even years. All in this one, single volume.

And that’s the very thing I loved the most about Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 1st Edition. ZWEIHÄNDER has done the legacy proud.

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