Friday, December 17, 2010

What It Is: Swords & Wizardry Complete Rules (Part One)

The Old School Renaissance/Revolution is wonderful in a lot of ways.  I don't hate D&D's later editions (I played an awful lot of 4e in Colorado Springs), but I read the blogs of a lot of these OSR guys and I remember so much of what I loved about games back when all I had was the original Red Box and the Orange Spine 1e books.  Unfortunately, one of the trickier parts of navigating the OSR is finding WHICH set of rules to play.  You've got Swords & Wizardry, Labyrinth Lord, OSRIC, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and many more.  They each offer something different and you have to really look around to see which one is the right fit for your game.

I picked up Swords & Wizardry: Complete Rules last week in PDF form.  I have the softcover on the way, and I'll comment on that when it arrives.  For now, I'll go cover to cover on the Complete Rules PDF.  Hopefully, you'll get an idea of what makes it tick and if it's the right fit for your game.

Basic Info:
The PDF weighs in at 135 pages.  I'm thinking that's a decent size.  I'm convinced that anything over 256 is bloated (I'm talking to YOU, Pathfinder), and 128 is probably the best size to have a thorough, concise rule set.  So, on that superficial level, Complete Rules looks good.

That's just a damn sharp cover.
The beautiful cover shows a party down in the depths of somewhere, near an eerie settlement built into/on top of a mesa at the bottom of what looks to be a deep chasm.  In the foreground (I can't quite tell if the party is going to or coming from the foreground), an eel-like creature rises from the muck.  A great old-school painting which sets the tone for a classic dungeon adventure in an alien setting.  What I like about it is that all of the individual components of the cover wouldn't be eerie in and of themselves, but combine for one of the better covers I've seen in a long time.

The internal art is incredibly varied, running the spectrum from line work to greyscale, detailed and realistic to highly stylized.  There seems to be a lot more art in the Player's Section than the Referee's Section.  I'm not sure if it was a conscious decision, but it does make sense when you think about it.  A player's section (or even a player's guide) is going to be what grabs the player and gives him inspiration for his character.  The ref just needs to get down to business.
Anyway, the art inside is decent.  While nothing really jumped out as amazingly awesome, there also aren't any pieces I'd consider bad at all.  I'd say it's on the higher end of average.

I recognize a few of the names in the credits from the blogosphere and from my childhood.  It's great to see that the people who were part of the Old School when it was the New School stuck around.  Tim Kask, the original editor of The Dragon, writes a short foreward and the primary author, Matt Finch, writes the introduction.  Combined, they take up about a third of a page.  It's nice because they let you know the overall vibe of the Old School way of thinking and let the reader know that experimentation is not just allowed, but encouraged.

The table of contents fits on one page, as does a list of tables.  Listing the tables in a book is a lost art, and I am thankful that they have it.  It really speeds up the search for an important bit of information.  The overall presentation is solid.  It's dense enough to pack a lot of information inside, but not so dense it gives you a headache when you are trying to read it.  There are no frills in the layout, which is a plus for me.  I've seen too many game designers get all crazy with the desktop publisher and not realize that simpler is better.

Character Creation
I know I'm not the only one who loves to jump right into character creation without even skimming the whole rulebook.  The Complete Rules allow you to do so, so that's good.

The Assassin from page 9.  Clearly bad ass.
You start with your attributes, with a 3d6 in order, which is pretty typical of the old-school.  Swords & Wizardry (both the Core Rules and Complete Rules) only makes slight modifications to the Original D&D attribute ranges.  With some attributes, such as Dexterity and Constitution, there is a very minimalist approach to bonuses and penalties.  For examply, you basically have three classes of Constitution, low (3-8), medium (9-12), and high (13-18), which give you a -1/0/+1 modifier to your hit points, and either 50/75/100 percent chance to survive resurrection.   For the most part, this isn't THAT much of a departure, but an 18 Con in OD&D gave you +3 hit points and still only a 99% chance of surviving a major system shock.  However, the 13 gave you no hit points and an 85%.  Compared to later editions, this low-key approach may shock people who have more experience with higher attribute bonuses for higher attributes.  What it serves to do is minimize the desire for higher scores.  If a 13 and an 18 give you the same benefit, you aren't as bummed if your highest score is a 13 or a 14, which is a very real possibility when you make characters with the straight 3d6 method.

You choose your character class next.  The options here are: Assassin, Cleric, Druid, Fighter, Magic-User, Monk, Paladin, Ranger, and Thief.  This makes the Complete Rules more of an early AD&D analogue than an OD&D one with regard to classes.   The classes don't stray far from their roots, to include differing mechanics for thief skills (some are percentile, some use a d6) and lack of spells for 1st-level Clerics.  There are no attribute minimums for the classes, like AD&D, but each class does have it's prime requisites to gain the 5% bonus to experience points.  Some only require one attribute to be 13, others as many as three.  From a text box in the Complete Rules, I understand that a lot of these are strict interpretations of what is found in a lot of the OD&D Supplements.  I confess I don't have anywhere near the working knowledge of those rules as I do AD&D 1e.  I'll take the author's word for it.

At least page 26's Halfling brought some suds!
The next step is to choose your race.  You can choose human and be done with it, or you can be an Elf,  Half-Elf, Dwarf, or Halfling.  A lot of your sub-classes are not available to your demi-humans, meaning you can't play an Elf Ranger according to the rules as written, and level caps are in effect.  It's all very much the old-school standard. 

There are some pretty extensive notes on multi-classing towards the end of the race section, which clears it up much better than a lot of editions of these rules did.  They offer some different perspectives on multi-classing (brought on by the vagueness of earlier editions) and players and referees both can figure things out much easier.

True to its roots, the Alignment section is set up for the linear Law-Chaos model, compared to AD&D's 3x3 cube.  Law represents civilization, Chaos represents anarchy, and Neutrality is poorly defined as always.  My issues with D&D's alignment models are deep, and better suited for another post.

The equipment section takes up three pages.  Not too many games are this light on gear.  What's listed are the basics.  The general equipment doesn't include weights for the objects, which is a curious decision for a game that operates on pounds as the basis for their encumbrance system.  In the Weight & Movement section, it assumes that your gear weighs ten pounds on top of your money, arms and armor.  I get that encumbrance is a pain in the ass and is frequently ignored by a good number of players.  Lamentation of the Flame Princess did a good job of abstracting encumbrance, while the old game made encumbrance require a calculator.  Maybe some of the OD&D experts can chime in and let me know if that's how it was done in the white box days.

Playing the Game
The first thing discussed after you've made your character is experience.  It explains their decision to have Prime Requisite bonuses for all character classes (since it apparently was very disjointed and vague in the original rules), and bases experience on monsters killed and treasure accumulated.  Again, pure old school.
One of the greater departures S&W takes from the source material is the one saving throw compared to many different classes of saves.  It's not quite the same as the 4e single saving throw, starting high and getting lower as the character advances in level, but it does make the paperwork a lot easier.  Much like 4e, different combinations of race and class give you situational bonuses to your save, which is nice.

Combat.  The heart of the game.  One thing that is unique about Swords & Wizardry is that the rules offer both ascending and descending Armor Class charts.  I get that with different OSR products out there all with different opinions about whether AC should go up or down, you've got a million different systems.  It's still a bit distracting to have two numbers out there.  The combat is pretty much your standard old-school D&D combat rules.  A nice touch is the frequent use of alternate rules text boxes, with different interpretations from different versions of the game.

The examples of play are nice, handling many different situations that new referees and players might run into before they really get a handle on the rules.  The sections on high level adventuring, strongholds, and hirelings are brief.  They leave a lot to interpretation, which is good for the majority of OSR players who are comfortable with coming up with systems that work within their campaign's particular framework.  Players who have come from less improvisational backgrounds might find it wanting.

The magic rules are pretty simple, not straying too far from the source.   Magical research is left to the referee to decide the details, which falls in like with the hirelings and strongholds rules above.  After a quick scan of the spells, there doesn't seem to be anything about them that jumps out.  If you are familiar with a lot of old D&D spells, you won't be in for any shocks here.

So that's it for the first half of the review.  On Monday I'll share my thoughts on the Referee's section and give my overall review of the product.