Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Go back to school with Swords and Wizardry by Matthew J Finch

Swords and Wizardry by Matthew J Finch does exactly what it says on the tin. A gold tin forged in the fires of Mount Doom, to be one day lobbed back in by a scrawny bipolar neurotic. It's a boiled down core rules takes from the open-sourced version of the zeroth edition of Dungeons and Dragons. So old school that Latin is its first language. It stands proud for what it is. Unashamed to be derived from the earliest incarnation of the hobby that has commanded so many hours of our lives. It makes no apology. Roll up. Gear up. Get stuck in.

A disclaimer

It might be worth mentioning that I've never really played Dungeons and Dragons. I've dabbled at conventions under the watchful gaze of very understanding RPGA gamesmasters but for a legend such as Dungeons and Dragons, you really need to campaign it. Something I've never done. My myopia stretches just to the degree that I am aware that there are lots of editions and regular verbal fights erupt across the digital landscape regarding love, betrayal and murder but I'm not got a monkey's chance of understanding it. If you read this thinking 'DUH! MUPPET!', assume that I've never read a mainstream roleplaying game before. And you'd be right.

Character Creation

This might all sound very familiar to you but for me, it's something of a revelation. Imagine having toiled over physics studied to discover, years later, Newton's three laws of motion. If you're as fantasy ignorant as I, its like discovering the Rosetta stone and realising all these funny stick men hieroglyphics you've been staring at for years actually mean something. You rolls D6 for a series of Abilities (Strength, Dexterity, Constitution and Intelligence) and the value you roll translates to a plus or minus modifier. Once you have your Abilities and modifiers nailed down, it's off to choose your character class, which determines what sort of things you can do in the game. The classes are Cleric (a god botherer who prefers bashing people's skulls in with blunt instruments and throwing Deus driven magic, unlike my local vicar), The Fighting Man (who enjoys an evening in with Tennyson and cup of cocoa, obviously) and The Magic User (pointy hat, spell book, women's clothing). The Class gives you choice of equipment and skills but also a an advancement table, which plots how much experience you need for each level. After that, you choose a race: Dwarf, Elf, Halfling and Human. Then blow your hard rolled gold on loading up on stuff (20 foot of rope buyers are welcome). Finally, you calculate your Armour Class, which can either be either ascending or descending variants depending on what makes sense to you. Armour Class determines how hard you are to hit.

The system

You kill stuff. You gain experience points. You go up levels. You get better. Kill bigger stuff. Repeat. When you want to hit something, roll a D20 and then check the ENORMOUS table! I'm not so keen on tables. Turn action runs in order: see if there is a surprise attack, spell chuckers get to say what they're chucking, work out who goes first and then get stuck in. There's some advice on avoiding combat by lying and cheating. If players around the world are anything like mine then lying and cheating in character comes almost as easy as starting combat. So that's 23 of the 82 pages sorted.


Roll up! Roll up! Massive spells lists for you to peruse. More tables. More lists. Rule-ettes and a multitude of dice to wield. I know many people salivate at the thought of pouring over 30 pages of spellitude so I'll take a brief pause for those to collect themselves. Of course, this is a delightful hypocrisy coming from a man obsessed with pages of guns and phallic space craft. The game master section is a nod to game master sections. Blink and you'll miss it before ploughing into Monsters! Loads and loads of monsters. There's an entire ecosystem. From dragons to mould. Yes, mould. For those who have never played fantasy before, this might come as a shock. Mould. Yellow mould. A guide to making your own is also included. A brief guide to setting the right level of challenge is given before ploughing onto Treasure! Tables galore. Then some magical items.

The book and community

The book itself is 82 page PDF and is well laid with a profusion of tables images early on. It's laid out for duplex printing, so print the odd pages first. The text is curt and in plain English. It doesn't assume you know anything about Dungeons and Dragons, so complete mongs like myself have no difficulty digesting it. At 82 pages, it's quite heavy but there's no wasted space. It's currently on Lulu as a free PDF and you can even buy it there too! Smashing!

Joyously, Swords and Wizardry is new. Odd that might seem but the publish date is 2008. There is a forum that appears to have a reasonable amount of activity for a single game. It's heart warming that a niche old-school game has its own community with enthusiastic types chatting about all aspects of the game. Worth a look.

What I would change

Changing, modernising, and de-table-ifying Swords and Wizardry would ruin it. It has to be old school. It's very aim is to give a glimpse into the past, a time capsule of roleplaying. It's a little too light on images, especially in the monster bit. Mould. Need pictures of mould. I think it's also a shame there there isn't a setting here. It's crying out for a Tolkeinesque affair with Orcs, a dark Lord, hoity-toity Vulcans Elves and tiny people with the fate of the the world in their hands. Would it be an enormous ball ache to produce such a thing? A go on, Matthew, you know you want to.

To conclude

Hurrah for old school gaming. Hurrah for tables for everything. Hurrah for Matthew and the respectful dedication to Gygax. Swords and Wizardry is basic but it works. You get that solid feeling from Swords and Wizardry, the difference between a 70s VW camper van where linkages connect the steering wheel to the wheels and a modern Toyota where elastic trickery and magic does the work. It's not overburdened with rules but each Spell pulls rules in through the back door in the form of tables. Bar that, it's a nice solid base for anyone wanting to build their own setting. Or plunder Tolkein like everyone else. Dig out the old polyhedrals from the bottom of your underpants drawer and get stuck in to gaming the way they did before Star Wars existed.


David Macauley said...

Great review Rob, it was interesting to read the views of a non-Old School gamer.

When you said:

"I think it's also a shame there there isn't a setting here."

You hit the nail on the head with your follow-up comment:

"it's a nice solid base for anyone wanting to build their own setting"

And that was what was done with the original 1974 game. There wasn't an official setting, everyone simply made up their own. S&W revives that spirit.

Santiago said...

This guy has not read the book.

\Race and Class are not separated.

The Classes are fighter-men, cleric, magic user, elven adventurer, dwarven adventurer and halfling.

Santiago said...

Then if you don't like the combat tables S&W presents the option of an ascending AC system that works just like 3E

Rob Lang said...

@David: Ah, that definitely makes sense. I didn't realise that settings were no included back in 1974 - I imagine that is showing RPG's wargaming roots.

@Santiago: It's true that I do speed read the book to get enough of a flavour to write a review. It does mean I make mistakes, sorry about that. Ideally, I would read through with a fine-tooth comb and then run the system before review but that would mean that the reviews would be too far apart to be interesting. It's a decision of balance I had to make at the start. I've had another look and it's true that class and race aren't separated. Thanks for the tip!

As for tables, I believe that if you're going to create a game, then there should be one way to resolve those combat issues. Having two (AC ascending/AC descending with tables) not only confuses the matter but takes up unnecessary space. Furthermore, I am unable to compare with 3e because I've never read it and only played it once or twice! It's interesting to hear that ascending AC is like 3e but it means nothing to me. Endless pages of tables for resolution of things in game is not something I approve of. It's fine for character creation but having to check big tables during play slows things down too much. I see now that the ascending AC solves that and perhaps S&W should stick to that but I understand the tables are required to make it old school. It's what makes it what it is. I don't like tables but then I'd put up with it to play an old school game!

Many thanks for the comments, it's good to see people are paying attention! :)

Santiago said...

Ascending AC and 3e means no use of tables if that is what you like.

If you want to use just that, simply erase the other from the DOC, that is the whole point. S&W is a toolkit.

I;m not saying you need a playtest to write a review, but you have failed at the most basic and fundamental aspects of the product. Your review does not meet the minimum standarts.

Rob Lang said...

@Santiago: I can only apologise and seek to improve for the future.

David Macauley said...

Rob, as far as I know, the inclusion of both ascending and descending AC charts is an attempt to greatly increase the target audience.

One of the biggest criticisms of old school games by the younger 3e crowd has been the "complicated" and "illogical" AC numbers. S&W's inclusion of both may just help to convert some of the huge 3e market by removing that stumbling block, with the revelation that the much smaller, niche old school games are actually fun - and not simply "old fashioned" and "out of date".

It also taps into the Castles & Crusades/Basic Fantasy RPG crowd, enabling future S&W products (adventures, etc.), to be usable with a whole range of games.

As for the charts themselves, most players will simply transfer the relevant information to their character sheet and therefore won't need to constantly refer to the rulebook.

Rob Lang said...

That all makes sense. I agree that the best move is to make it both accessible and old school and ascending AC is the first step towards that. My chart fear is rooted from attempts to play Rolemaster and the inevitable stop-start dervied from a chart-driven game. Copying to character sheets is a good remedy. :)

Felipe Budinich said...

And also you've got to keep in mind that if you use descending AC, you just use subtraction instead of addition when calculating attack rolls.

The table is just an aid, for people that suck at math like myself :-)

Rob Lang said...

Felipe, thanks for the comment. Nothing will console by Table Fear! :-)

Anonymous said...

Awesome review, You captured some of the excitement of the earlier frpgs.
I play nothing but old school. If the tables in THIS game were scary for you, review "Role Master" some time.
Of course there's no setting. The best part of old school gaming is busting out your poster-sized hex sheet and creating your own setting. Refereeing games by the seat of your pants and giving the players the freedom to go anywhere and do anything they want.
Overall a good review from the point of view of someonr unfamiliar with the older rpg systems.