Wednesday 29 March 2023

[Musings] Reminiscing About Swords & Wizardry Complete

True original S&WC fans have this cover.
The Otus titan cover is awesome too.
The box set is okay. Let's forget
about the weird uterus stag, though.
It's safe to say this year's Mothership is going to be Shadowdark. While we can argue all day long how much of an OSR game it is, Shadowdark is admired by a lot in the OSR community and had a shockingly successful Kickstarter campaign. On one hand, it's nice to see the game gain such a huge popularity, even if it's not my cup of tea. On the other hand, I was afraid it is going to smother other projects that start after it - particularly the revised edition of Swords & Wizardry Complete, which launched its campaign yesterday. It seems I was wrong - while it is a more humble project with far weaker marketing, it had a pretty strong start.

But why is Swords & Wizardry so important to me?

When I started GM-ing again after my high-school burnout I experimented with different games and styles, until I finally found my expectations in running sandboxes using OSR games. My first memorable sandbox campaign took place on the exotic Coconut Island and used Swords & Wizardry as its core. The party arrived into the single bastion of civilization on the island called Merchant's Port, a colony founded by the imperial Roman-like thuleans. The adventurers explored the darkest depths of the jungles, pieced together ancient maps, dug up buried treasures, traded with slaves1, saved hostages from the local tribes, murdered their shaman2, and finished the campaign by exploring a crashed spaceship.

Soon a cooperation with Frog God Games and Swords & Wizardry Complete was announced, and I immediately jumped on the bandwagon. I had a soft spot for OD&D plus its supplements, because they provided a good amount of content while still being less crunchy than AD&D1e. Wrapping your head around it was no small feat though, so a more accessible entry point was more than welcome. S&WC mostly delivered that, though it lacked some of the content I wanted to see in it. Thus I took the effort to write up some house rules that introduced percentile ability score improvement, Empire of the Petal Throne's skill system, Eldritch Wizardry's psionics rules (that was a tough one to digest), half-orcs, amazons, maybe even bards. After I was done with it, I grabbed my Ready Ref Sheets, Wilderlands of High Fantasy, and Modron booklets, and started what I called the Fantastic Wilderlands campaign.

It was one of my favourite campaigns ever. It is easily in my top 3 campaigns. I still have all my session reports, which I posted on the forums back then. Alas they are all in Hungarian and it would take too much effort to translate them to English. Besides, this post is first and foremost about my experiences with running S&WC, not reminiscing about what happened during that fateful campaign.

Character creation is blazing fast in S&WC. Unless you have a player who likes going through every fucking thing from the equipment chapter and ask mindnumbing questions about them3 it takes a few minutes only. This is a blessing first and foremost for the Referee, not he players. The players will have to roll up only a few characters during a campaign compared to the Referee, who needs an unlimited amount of NPCs, often out of the blue. After the first few sessions I stopped preparing NPC stat blocks, because I could do it in seconds on the fly. Class, level, important equipment, maybe some fitting spells, and you are good to go.

Gameplay is similarly swift, even combat encounters. After messing with the wrong people the party's henchmen were kidnapped by a local bandit chief, who delivered the torchbearer's head in a box as a warning. That warning ended up becoming a campaign of revenge. With some kobold help the party sneaked into the bandit hideot, an old manor through the cellars. There they angered the chief's pet gorilla, whom they had to murder. The scuffle alerted the entire manor. The party of 7 level 2-4 adventurers fought a mixed group of 28 bandits, dogs, altanian barbarians, halfling cooks in one of the most intense battles of my refereeing career. I felt exhausted once it was over, and surprised when I checked the time and realized, that the whole encounter took less than 30 minutes. I wasn't used to this. I just finished a D&D 4e campaign where even a 4v4 match could take up an hour.

This swift and light gameplay is combined with a surprisingly large amount of content. S&WC packs a lot of punch for its page count. It has a solid amount of character options4, monsters, magic items, spells, random encounter charts and so on. And just like the source material, it doesn't limit itself to arbitrary sweetspots in gameplay - it goes all the way up to high levels, with +5 Holy Avengers, Meteor Showers, and 30 HD Orcus! Alas the Fantastic Wilderlands campaign never reached such high levels, although my players did fight several red dragons (at once!) and some tough demons.

How good it is at being a retroclone though? S&W diverges in several ways from its progenitor. Using a single save value instead of categories is a well known, and generally liked one - even by me! The way it handles random treasure is radically different, and far more divisive - I still have issues with wrapping my head around it. The lack of some content like stat blocks for gods, some monsters, hit locations, psionics are understandable, while others morale table, reaction table, random castles, and some other minor stuff from are still baffling even today. Matt said there are legal reasons for that, but if he can revamp the treasure tables then so can he make an alternative for these. I have a hunch they weren't included becase he didn't use them - after all the game is partly meant to represent how he plays OD&D. Fortunately I had other clones and the Ready Ref Sheets to fill in these holes. Despite these differences I could use old Judges Guild products5 with zero effort, which should serve as a benchmark for the OD&D compatibility.

For a long time Swords & Wizardry's three variants (Whitebox, Core, Complete) served as the definitive retroclones for the various flavours of OD&D. That's not really the case nowadays. If you want to play 3LBB OD&D, Delving Deeper is more faithful and WhiteBox: Fantastic Medieval Adventure Game is sexier than S&W Whitebox. If you want to play 3LBB+Supplement I, Iron Falcon is superior to S&W Core. But S&W Complete is still the king of a niche, which while often overlooked by purists, provides a fun, fast, and substantial old-school experience. It has near-AD&D amount of content, but far less crunch. While most OSR games out there are pretty light and flexible too, they often offer a smaller scope and less stuff out of the box, and if you want to run a campaign, especially a long term sandbox, you are going to need stuff. Lots of stuff.

I don't plan to run S&W Complete in the near future, because I have enough already on my plate and if I wanted to run an OD&D campaign I would use my reprint boxed set and a few sheets of house rules instead. I'm still buying it though, because it is a game I have fond memories of, it helped me to learn and understand what makes old-school games and sandboxes tick, it might come handy when I need a quick and dirty rpg for a quick session, and also because Matt Finch proved several times that he is one of the nicest designers of the OSR scene. Tomb of the Iron God deluxe edition next, please!

1 Needless to say they weren't really good guys, and were prone to abuse Sleep.

2 Killed by the fighter Rogar, who survived a lightning bolt, then threw the invisible shaman in the head with a coconut he bought on the market the day before. His descendants carried the coconut as a +1 weapon in future campaigns.

3 In our case that was the lawful evil grey wizard Anonymous' player, who did a great job at forging a team from a party of ne'er do wells using Sleep, Charm, and various disciplinary tools.

4 For race you can choose from human, elf, half-elf, dwarf, halfling. For class you have assassin, cleric, druid, fighter, magic-user, monk, paladin, ranger, thief. Yeah, rangers were not in the OD&D booklets, they are from Strategic Review.

5 Of course this means pre-JGU Judges Guild products. Using post-JGU products requires doing tricks like ignoring half the stats and covering the last number on each.

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Thursday 16 March 2023

[Session] Fauxhammer S03E01: Back in the Saddle

Another excellent module overshadowed
by The Enemy Within.

On the 3rd of March I finally GMed my first session after almost two years of hiatus. While my son's arrival came in the middle of our Portals of Eremus campaign, I decided to keep that game on hold, and dust off our Zweihänder campaign instead, which took a pause because of the pandemic a few years earlier. Those who have been reading this blog for a while now might remember that I had some session reports for that campaign, but eventually discontinued writing them because they took more energy than I was willing to spend on them.

We has our 18th session behind us when the virus intervened, which marked the end of what we called "season 2". During the first season the party thwarted several skaven plans, had to leave Nuln as wanted criminals, and accidentally freed a daemon prince of Tzeentch. The second season started with them trying to tie up loose ends, which resulted in blowing up an entire quarter of Altdorf, waking up on a skaven train, and ending up in Tilea, which was invaded by a greenskin horde at the time. Thus began the party's long and weird way home...

Season 3 starts with the party returning to the Empire, with a warm up adventure using bits and pieces from the excellent Death's Dark Shadow. It's not only the scenery what changed: we also left Zweihänder behind in favour of my homebrew system Mordschlag1, which I jotted down during the winter to have something that's much lighter than Zweihänder or WFRP4e, and works well with WFRP1e and WFRP2e stat blocks on the fly2. I might talk about that later, but for now, onward to the session report!

Dramatis Personae

Blitzkrieg, dwarf veteran slayer: Half-deaf, naked, and in possession of a magical axe he fished out from the belly of the legendary Moby Squig. He is on his way to Altdorf to find the love of his life: the dwarf priestess Agonia.

Edgar, human [redacted]: The former monster slayer's skin turned black & white after a short trip to the Realms of Chaos, where he saw several of his clones crucified, was granted apocalyptic visions, and obtained an ominous sword. He is also followed by the black and white horse of a former chaos warrior.

Paether von Sternwart, human astromancer: Eager to get back to Altdorf, graduate as an archmage, and put his elven sword back into the daemon prince it was pulled out of.

Ruben Shultz, human mercenary captain: Downtrodden sylvanian noble on his way back home from a breatonnian trip. He firmly believes there are no vampires in Sylvania. New character.

Brünhilde, human hedge master: A huge burly woman with an addiction to mandrake. Alas she was pulled away early from the game to fulfill some motherly duties, but still deserves mention. New character.

Session Report

Let's throw a troll at them!
Aaand it's gone...
After orcs burned down Alimento and the party made a deal with some vampiresm they were finally on their way home on a strigani bargue. While still on the underwater river leading to the Empire, they learned that Altdorf is in turmoil: there is a huge hole in the city, the green mist billowing out of it is spreading sickness, a new extremist sigmarite cult is on the rise, Emperor Karl Franz is dying, and his son is missing.

Near the end of the journey Blitzkrieg and one of the sailors pulled up a stinky river troll along with the webs, who immediately attacked the group with a rusty anchor chained to its hand. He was one unlucky bastard... First a pot thrown at his head distracted, then Ruben threw an oil lamp in his face, then all his attacks were dodged or parried (though Ruben's sword shattered while parrying the  troll's anchor), and after getting critted by the dwarf he tried to jump back into the water, only to get torn apart by attacks of opportunity. Lazlo Lazlovicz, the captain, offered to pay the party's drinks in the Helmsman Inn once they are in Kreutzhofen.

Kreutzhofen was full of tileans, bretons, and refuges. They quickly learned the city is currently under the control of the pompous militia captain Bruno Trottel, who abuses some legal fuckery to announce martial law everytime there is something suspicious, which is a day or two later is revoked by the dorfrichter Sigismund Klippel - until Bruno discovers some new threat.

After buying suppliesthe party went to the Helmsman, except for Paether, who performed some divinations on the edge of the village. After getting some baleful visions he noticed a giggling girl running away and his daemon-slaying sword pulsing at his side. He lost the tracks, then heard a commotion across the street. It turned out a tilean syndicalista was brutally murdered and mutilated at the bridge, and Lazlo Lazlovits was found looting his corpse. Needless to say the strigani captain was beaten senseless and taken in by the militia.

In the Helmsman the party gathered some gossip while drinking herbal tea and schnaps with three old crones:

  • The town was founded by the tyrannical Reichenbach family, whose last members burnt to death in their manor during a bandit attack many years ago. Some say the old Reichenbach lord is back as a vampire, murdering people.
  • Whether there is a vampire or not, graves were dug up recently, and the third victim's scarf was found in the mud near the Reichenbach manor.
  • The village has strong pagan ties. There have been no priests for a while now. Recently a teenage girl showed up in the nearby wilderness, whom many revere as a druidess.
  • The pious believe the druidess is up to no good, and someone claimed she saw the girl near the house of the theologist Rudolf Furst.
  • Rudolf Furst moved in recently from Altdorf and paid rent in advance for a year so he can perform his studies in peace. He is rarely seen and doesn't mingle with the locals.

At Rudolf Furst's house the party the dead tilean's missing genitalia at the doorstep. After pretending to be with the militia, Rudolf let them in for a drink. The theologist was absolutely clueless about what's going on. He didn't notice anything and the party didn't find anything interesting at his house - but at least Paether messed up casting Witch Sight, waking up all the animals and children in the vicinity as a side-effect3. Rudolf was eager to join the party on their way to Altdorf when they leave, because he has to do some paperwork at the university.

The ragtag hand of the law.
At the militia house Bruno explained this was the fourth murder in four months, and he needed to arrest someone to calm the people. Lazlo was in the village during the last murder, he is known to be on bad terms with the tileans, he used to walk around with a huge machete, and he was found right next to the corpse, so he was ideal for scapegoat. Other than the wounds being too brutal to be done by human there isn't much evidence in his favour, but those have yet to be examined. The local doctor, Jakob Entesang wasn't at home when the militia knocked on his door. The party can save Lazlo by providing evidence or doing a mission for Bruno... Magnus Richthofen, a local landlord, has been working on something in his barn and ordering all kinds of weird stuff. The last cargo he received was a crate of guns and gunpowder, which Bruno confiscated and used as an excuse to proclaim martial law. He is sure Richthofen is planning to incite a rebellion to take over the village.

After the chitchat with the militia, the adventurers visited the doctor's house. The Herr Entesang arrived soon on his couch along with his hunchback assistant, Igor. He said he was visiting an old patient in a nearby village and will check the mutilated corpse tomorrow. The party returned to the Helmsman, discussing what should they do tomorrow.

Big thank you to Paether's player, who took and shared his session notes. Maybe I should do the same for his next Call of Cthulhu session...

1 Might be temporary title. I wanted to go with Mordhau, but that's already taken.

2 One of my biggest mechanical issues with Zweihänder is how it handles characteristics and bonuses. Conversion isn't hard, but it takes some effort, and isn't much fun if you have dozens of stat blocks.

3 It's a pity he didn't roll the big brother of this effect, which makes the nearby animals and children so angry they will seek out and attack the wizard.