Heavy-Handed Design Lessons from Zweihänder

When grimdark gives you hope.

This past Sunday, we found ourselves with several hours to kill between when we checked out of our hotel and when we had to be at the Tulsa airport even accounting for how much extra time I like to allow for that sort of thing.

Not quite enough time that we wanted to shoehorn in another museum trip or a park visit or anything else, especially since an airport always means getting our steps in anyway. So what I was looking for was a place we could sit down in a climate-controlled environment and maybe get drinks or snacks if we wanted them.

What I hit on was a Books A Million, which from my experience also tends to have gender neutral single occupancy restrooms as part of their branded floorplan.

That wound up working out pretty well, and while we were there I decided to take a look at the RPG section. Tabletop roleplaying games are a big interest of mine, but because I've been so focused on the political world for the last three or four years I haven't really kept up with much outside of D&D.

One thing that immediately caught my eye was a great big doorstopper of a book called Zweihänder. The name was apt, because I couldn't hold the tome with a single hand.

What it is is a fantasy RPG designed for "grim & perilous" fantasy adventure games, modeled after a book or TV show like Game of Thrones or video game series like The Witcher. I suppose Dragon Age would also fit the mold.

It's very much not my bag when it comes to tabletop gaming, but I appreciate a system that actively supports the conventions of a genre it's attempting to emulate and enable, so I was curious about it enough to open it and take a look.

I didn't spend much of my finite time there o nit (the book really was quite cumbersome) but I was intrigued enough to want to get an electronic version of it sometime down the road.

For one thing, even though it's very much a framework game, part of the forbidding size of the core book is down to the fact that it seems very much to be a toybox approach to things... that is, the book is full of character options for players to play with.

For another, the conflict resolution dice system seems to hit a pretty nice sweet spot beteen interesting and quick and easy.

But mainly I'm interested in seeing how it does a bunch of things because my long-simmering game development project is basically intended to do the opposite. Where the grim & perilous approach tells you not to get too attached to your characters because battle is dangerous, I enjoy a style of game where players can take risks and lose battles and fail at quests without the game being over, because the stakes are real but it's not usually the characters' lives on the line, not really.

My models are not HBO prestige television and R-rated movies but cartoons like Avatar: The Last Airbender, The Dragon Prince, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, and The Pirates of Darkwater. Or things like all those D&D tie-in novels and comic books, where the narrative knows who the main characters are to a far greater extent than in any vanilla game of D&D.

As it happens, I had restarted development on my game system shortly before our trip to Oklahoma, then mostly paused it. But skimming the Zweihänder rule set and seeingthe loving care and attention its author gave to making a game system that does exactly what he wants it to do, that supports exactly the kind of fantasy play he finds compelling? It makes me feel like I'm really on the right track.

Honestly, years of people responding to my designs with "Why don't you just use [existing system]?" or "How is this not just [other game]?" was one of the most dispiriting things I've ever encountered as a creative, in any of my creative endeavors.

But seeing Zweihänder, a game that has noting in common with what I want to do, gives me a huge shot of confidence in terms of simply following my instincts and doing exactly what I want to do.

For those who have been following my design experiments for a while, the game I'm talking about here is the one I've called A Wilder World. I'm currently kicking around a few alternate titles, as in the years since I stared the word "World" has become very strongly associated with the Powered by the Apocalypse engine.

But in the coming weeks, I expect to be sharing some of my design musings and early versions of playable rules.

I am excited.