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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