Welcome to the Flaming Faggot

Callovia is called "the boundless empire" yet you have managed to find its northern border - a notorious roadhouse deep within the Madrasan Marches on the edge of the wilds of Llanvirnesse. The sign above the door reads "Flaming Faggot," which would suggest a cozy, homey inn with fresh biscuits served at teatime if not for the severed troll heads mounted on pikes at the gate.

As you cross the threshold the raucous din quiets momentarily as all eyes dart to the door and calloused hands drop instinctively to well-worn sword hilts. The threat, instantly assessed, is dismissed and roadhouse patrons go about their business hardly missing a beat.

Grim, hard-eyed men huddle around tables in close conversation thick with conspiracy; caravan guards gamble away their earnings; Caemric rangers sit close to the fireplace cooking the damp of the Black Annis from their clothes as they warm their innards with Red Dragon Ale; minstrels play and buxom wenches dance for the pleasure of men who pay them little attention - until they need a companion to warm their bed.

As you approach the bar, a huge, bald barman with a greatsword slung across his back slides a mug of freshly-pulled ale towards you, its frothy head dripping over the rim.

"Pull up a seat, lad," he says, "and let me tell you a tale of high adventure."

Friday, June 4, 2010

Swords & Wizardry

One of the best things in life is getting a parcel in the mail - especially when that parcel is a box full of gaming-goodness.  This week, my long-awaited Swords & Wizardry Whitebox set arrived and I once again performed my happy-dance of avarice.  While there are likely few people in the Old School community who aren't familiar with Swords & Wizardry, especially since the PDF is available as a free download, I thought it might be worthwhile to review the physical product and discuss what distinguishes S&W from the recent proliferation of retro-clone games.

The boxed set of the Whitebox edition contains four staple-bound digest-sized rule books, a set of polyhedral dice, a pad of character sheets, and a copy of Matt Finch's excellent essay: A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming.

The first thing that one notices is the evocative black on white illustrations.  I have to say that I like the art a lot; it is simple and captures the spirit of OD&D style gaming.  The box art features a group of adventurers facing off against a dragon emerging from its lair, and the picture is reminiscent of the box cover of the 1977 Holmes edition basic set.

Book I: Characters.  I love the scene depicted on the cover of book I.  A party of adventurers confronting some unseen menace.  The party is arrayed in typical fashion with the fighters up front and the spell casters at the rear.  What I really love about this picture is the look on the foremost fighter's face - he looks like he really doesn't want to be in the front rank right now.  The dwarf is standing wide-eyed with his mouth hanging open, while the halfling is looking warily to the side.  The only people actually doing anything are the elf, who is drawing an arrow, and the magic-user who is firing a blast from his staff over the party's heads.  This is a great illustration for the character book, as it depicts a party composed of every type of character in the game being confronted by an unseen menace.  Book I contains everything you need to make and equip a character (including hirelings), and also covers the basic rules of play - all in 24 pages!

Book II: Spells.  The cover illustration on book II is even more impressive than that of book I.  It depicts a magic-user performing some conjuration.  The splatter of the background, to me, suggests breaking the breaking of dimensional boundaries as a small, winged, demonic creature is summoned forth.  There is a lot going on in this picture that emphasizes the nature of magic in sword and sorcery settings.  This guy is clearly no Gandalf and is willing to traffic with the powers of darkness and chaos in exchange for his power.  Check out the amorphous, multi-eyed, tentacled denizen of the Outer Dark in the background.  To me, this is what old-school magic is all about.
The twenty-one interior pages describe all of the cleric and magic user spells.  The spell lists are very abridged compared to newer editions of the game - the 1st level magic user list has only eight spells, while the 1st level cleric list has only six.  The spells themselves are not nearly as rigidly defined as spells in modern games, which go to great efforts to constrain the effects of magic to provide 'game balance.'  In S&W magic is powerful.  The descriptions themselves are left open to the GM's interpretation, and the effects and durations are often considerably greater than modern players are used to.  The back of the book has several pages where home-made spells can be entered.  I love this and it fits perfectly with my campaign setting, in which arcane spell casters have been hunted nearly to extinction and their libraries burned.  The surviving mages have banded together and now seek to restore magic to the world.  The abridged spell lists fit perfectly with my vision for my world, representing the spells that are commonly available, leaving it to the players to seek out lost arcane knowledge and research new spells.

Book III Monsters.  The cover illustration of the monster book is attractive, but is my least favourite of all the cover illustrations because it isn't as suggestive as the others.  I do like the giant skull that the monsters are gathered around, though.  I implies that death awaits within.  I also like the vermin; the snake, spider, and centipede, crawling around the skull.  I have a fondness for giant vermin and I especially like spiders (in real life as well as in game).  The monsters are only cursorily described, allowing the GM to interpret and employ them however he wishes to suit his campaign.  This differs from the contemporary practice of providing long, exhaustive descriptions that allow very little room for personal interpretation.  Like the spell book, the monster book ends with several pages of blank stat-blocks for people to add their own monstrous creations.  What struck me as odd, at first, about this book was the inclusion of the monster attack matrix.  All the other attack matrices were in book I, and it seemed odd not to put them all together in the game rules chapter.  But, on second thought, putting it in the monster book is brilliant.  When I'm running a session and need to look up stats for a wandering monster, the last thing I want to do is then have to look in another book for its THAC0.  Having this right in the same book is dead useful and far more logical than putting all the attack matrices together for the sake of hidebound consistency.

  Book IV: Treasure.  This is my favourite cover illustration - a room containing fabulous treasure and an adventurer lying dead at the threshold.  I love how the doorway looks like a gaping maw, and the helmet impaled upon the bent portcullis bar leaves no doubt as to the cause of the adventurer's demise.  If this picture had a caption it would be "Do you feel lucky, punk?  Well, do you?"  This book is great fun to read, reminding me of the many hours I spent drooling over magic items when I was a kid dreaming about the cool stuff I wanted for my character.  The treasure tables at the front are easy and fun to use, and make it easy to generate treasure really quickly on the fly.

So what distinguishes Swords & Wizardry from the panoply of retro-clone games currently available?  This is the game that emulates the original, 1974, version of the D&D rules, and S&W has gone to great lengths to capture the free-form, do-it-yourself spirit of the original game.  This bare-bones rule set can almost be considered an armature upon which to build your own custom role playing game.  Mythmere Games has even gone so far as to provide a link to download the rules in MS Word format so that you can modify and add to them to create your own unique game as a single, unified document rather than having disorganized pages of house rules in a binder.  You can then create a PDF of your game suitable for printing, or even use Lulu to create a professionally bound copy of your rulebook.  I'm very happy with the quality of S&W: the product is well-constructed and clearly written.  There could be just one thing that would make it perfect.  In addition to all the other goodies added to the box, I would really like to have seen a quick reference sheet with all of the attack matrices and saving throws so I'd never have to look them up in the game.  This isn't a big deal - the books are so short its easy to find everything in short order, but it would have been the butter-cream rose on an already well-frosted cake.

If you're trying to decide which retro-clone game is for you, S&W is a good choice if you are a do-it-yourself-er and are looking for a bare-bones system that is easy to house-rule.  S&W also appeals to me because I missed out on OD&D and have always regretted it.  The original game was still in print when I started playing D&D, and while most of my friends wisely bought the OD&D rules, I foolishly dismissed them.   AD&D had already been released and, in the naivety of youth, assumed that 'Advanced' meant better so passed on OD&D - a decision I've regretted ever since.  Now I have the chance to play a version of the original game without paying hundreds to thousands of dollars on Ebay for a copy.

Of course since most of the retroclones are available as free PDFs there is no need to limit yourself to just one, and since they all 'speak the same language,' and are generally interchangeable, support material for one will be usable by all.  Even now my copy of Labyrinth Lord , the retro-clone emulating the 1981 Moldvay/Cook Basic and Expert Sets should be in the mail and on its way, so there will be another Happy Dance of Avarice in my near future.


cyclopeatron said...

Yup, this set's a winner! Nice review!

P. S. Mangus said...

I love this boxset, and need to get one for myself. I love the covers for each of the books (especially the art for the Spells and Treasure books). Very nice indeed!

Sean Robson said...

I'm really looking forward to trying this out.