So things have been quiet here at the Toolbox; a part of that is because I’m doing a lot of prep work for a thorough investigation of Pathfinder feats, but an even bigger part is boring “personal life” stuff, like a big move for work that I’m in the middle of. Anyways, hopefully I’ll have interesting things to talk about here soon, but my “hobby time” has been pretty scarce lately.
But that’s for another time. Today is Swords & Wizardry Appreciation Day!
So, Swords & Wizardry is one of many game systems that are indicative of the “Old School Renaissance movement in tabletop RPG gaming. The idea is that RPGs these days aren’t like they were “back in the old days,” and that we’ve lost something in modern games that we had back then. I generally agree with the notion, with the caveat that I don’t think modern games are bad, just different, and there’s value in reviving this older style of play. S&W itself claims to be a “restated” version of the “Original Game” written by Gygax and Arneson in 1974.
In a lot of ways, I feel like Swords & Wizardry matches up a lot better with my assumptions about characters and the world than modern interpretations of Pathfinder and Dungeons & Dragons – not because those games don’t match my expectations, but because they are more-general systems that allow for a wider range of experiences, and Sword & Wizardry intentionally restricts itself to the grittier core of fantasy RPGing.
So, let’s look at some of what S&W does and how it does it, and I’ll throw my thoughts in as well.
Swords & Wizardry uses the six attributes we’re all familiar with, rolling 3d6 for each to give the familiar 3 to 18 range of scores; but the way S&W treats these scores means that the effective range of ability is much smaller. Attributes as such have far fewer built-in mechanics; a score of 3 might give a -1 penalty and a score of 18 might give you a +1 bonus – compared to the Pathfinder scale it’s effectively the same ability range as 8 to 13 (which is where I like most characters to sit most of the time, anyways). There are two “meaningful” mechanics built-in to attributes: the maximum spell level a character can cast (and a 3 INT Magic-User can still master Level 4 spells), and Experience Bonuses if certain attributes (Wisdom, Charisma, or some Class-determined attribute) is a 13 or better. Attributes don’t even affect which classes might be available to you, depending on your DM: there are no requirements for the base classes of Fighter, Cleric, Magic-User, or Thief and only suggested requirements for Assassin, Druid, Monk, Paladin and Ranger (which might be seen as strictly better than the ‘base’ classes otherwise, though I’m not sure I agree).
In short, you really can just roll a straight 3d6 for each attribute and be done with it, without any worries of being over- or under-powered compared to your teammates or gimping your character.
There are five playable races in Swords & Wizardy: Humans, Elves, Dwarves, Half-Elves, and Halfling. Your choice of Race doesn’t change any of your attributes, instead it merely adds a handful of special abilities (like elves’ chance to notice hidden doors) and restricts your choice of classes. This is where S&W demihumans aren’t just “humans with funny hats,” as they essentially have a different set of “classes” to choose from. A Human can be any class you want; but Elves can only be Fighter-MagicUsers, Thieves, or Fighter-MagicUser-Thieves; Half-Elves can be Fighter-MagicUsers, Thieves, or Fighter-MagicUser-Clerics; Dwarves can be Fighters or Fighter-Thieves; and Halflings can be Fighters or Thieves. Demihuman races may also be restricted on how high in level they can advance in certain classes.
Swords & Wizardry has four ‘basic’ classes and five ‘advanced’ classes – the Fighter, Cleric, Magic-User, and Thief are ‘base’ classes and the assassin, Druid, Monk, Paladin, and Ranger might be seen as ‘advanced’ versions on the Fighter, Cleric, or Thief. The classes are all pretty simple and straight-forward. Each class has a “prime attribute” which give an XP bonus if it’s 13 or higher, a hit die (either d4, d6, or d8), permitted weapons and armor, a Saving Throw progression, and a small handful of features; at Level 1 there’s really nothing beyond hit die and Saving Throw that will matter much. Clean and simple, making it really easy to put together a new character.
A quick note on skills: they essentially don’t exist in Swords & Wizardry. Thieves (and Assassins and Monks) have a set of skills, including Climb Walls and Move Silently and Hide In Shadows, where they have a certain percentage for success; it’s assumed that any character can attempt these actions normally, and a Thief automatically succeeds at any task a ‘regular’ person could succeed at, and rolls against their Skill in cases where a normal person would not have a chance of success (climbing a sheer wall, for instance). Although I do believe there can be a strong argument for a robust Skill system (such systems allow for unbiased arbitration of actions), I think eliminating Skills-as-such is a good choice for simplifying the system, and “light weight” is the name of the game in S&W.
Following the theme so far, Alignment in S&W is simple and clean-cut: it’s not so much an explicit moral code the way Pathfinder’s 3×3 intends to be, but an allegiance in the cosmic war between Law and Chaos. Law stands for civilization and honor and goodness, and Chaos is blood-drenched anarchy and the rule of the strong. Most “mere adventurers” will be unaligned (or Neutral, if you prefer) – at least until events conspire to force them to choose sides (and even unaligned, Law and Chaos are sure to use them as unwitting pawns). Because of this cosmic stance on Alignment, some classes have restrictions or expectations: Assassins and Thieves may not be Lawful, Paladins and Rangers must be Lawful or “revert to the abilities of a regular Fighter”, Druids are expected to be unaligned, and Monks are expected to be Lawful.
And that’s really it for character creation! Roll attributes, and pick a race, class, and alignment. There are very few fiddly bits to mess with, and most level advancements are flat increases in ability. Spellcasters might need a bit of extra time to determine their spells, and picking miscellaneous equipment took my players the most effort – but that’s because they got hung up on being prepared for every possibility.
Combat is one of the biggest differences between the RPGs I’m familiar with and Swords & Wizardry. Initiative is checked each round, but it’s rolled per side rather than individually. The side with initiative then makes movement and fires missile weapons, followed by the same from the other team, then the side with initiatve makes melee attacks and resolves spells (which were declared before initiative), followed by the other team’s attacks and spells, and then the round is over. Rinse and repeat.
In Swords & Wizardry, magic spells are much more powerful, and magic items are both less powerful and less common than in modern games. “Charm Person” is a Level 1 spell that can permanently charm someone, and “Knock” is a Level 2 spell that unbars and unlock all doors within 60 feet. At higher levels spells can completely immobilize a target for over an hour or cause instant death (at range, on multiple targets).
Magic items show up in only 5% of treasure hoards, and 25% of the time those magic items are just potions. Weapons might have a +1 or +2 (or, if against a specific type of foe, a +3 or +4) and armor might have a +4 or +5 to AC, or some other type of magical effect. A significant portion of magic items (between 5% and 15% depending on the type of item) are Cursed items, including “instant death to wearer” items. Characters (or at least players) should be much more cautious about meddling with enchanted items than in modern games.
In the printed version of the Swords & Wizardry rulebook, about a quarter of the book details player-targeted information, like character creation, spell descriptions, and basic combat; another quarter is spent on magic item tables and generating treasure hoards; and the middle half (by my rough guestimate) is tips and tools for GM to use for prepping and running campaigns. It includes suggestions for building dungeons, advice for wilderness exploration, and systems for mass combat, siege combat, and aerial combat. It’s some pretty good stuff, and at the very least a good place to jump off of for your own thoughts and systems.
So, that’s really all I’ve got to say, generally. As in most cases, I still prefer the low-level end of the play spectrum. I like the gritty “swords and sorcery” feel of Swords & Wizardry, and I definitely appreciate the light-weight focus of the rules (especially for character creation). It let’s you get in and get going pretty easily and focus on the characters’ choices, which is where I enjoy RPGs the most.
Thanks go out to Tenkar’s Tavern for organizing the Appreciation Day, and to Frog God Games (who publish the S&W books) for recognizing the Day with a 25%-off sale on Swords & Wizardry books (just use the coupon code SWApprDay). And if they don’t have what you’re looking for, the SRD Store is also having an S&W sale, with the code SWAD252013.
Now, back to digging through Pathfinder feat trees, trying to find sense and meaning…