Welcome Back to the Labyrinth

"We have been away far too long, my friends," Ashoka declared, his face lit by the eldritch green glow of his staff. "But we have finally returned to the labyrinth whence our adventures first began."

"Just imagine the treasures that lie within," said Yun Tai, flexing his mighty muscles. "Wealth enough to live in luxury the rest of our days."

"And arcane artifacts of great power," added Ashoka his words dripping with avarice. "All ours for the taking!"

"Umm...guys?" Nysa interrupted. "Do you hear something dripping?"

Sunday, July 4, 2010

RPG Smackdown: Swords & Wizardry vs. Labyrinth Lord

So you're looking to try an old-school retro-clone, but can't decide which game is for you.  There are several to choose from and the choice is a tough one.  I know, because I was recently caught tight in the grip of indecision, myself.  If you're at all interested in old-school games you already know that S&W emulates the original, 1974, D&D rules, while Labyrinth Lord emulates the 1981 Moldvay/Cook Basic and Expert boxed sets, but such a description doesn't really edify the differences between each game.  In my case, I'd never played, nor even looked at the Basic/Expert game, so I had no idea what, exactly, Labryinth Lord was even emulating.  Sure, both games are available as free PDF downloads, but I can't read more than a few pages of a PDF before my eyes start to glaze over - so trying to evaluate the PDFs was out of the question.  The only thing for it was to order a hard-copy of both games and give them a good read through.  Since my copy of Labyrinth Lord arrived a couple of weeks ago, I've had a chance to read it and formulate my opinions of the two games.  I don't intend this to be an exhaustive review of the two game systems but, rather, a short and to the point explanation of how these two, essentially similar, games differ.

Swords & Wizardry (Whitebox version) is a bare-bones rule system that gives the basic tools needed to run a campaign.  Its salient features are: three character classes (Cleric, Fighter, and Magic-user); weapon damage does not vary by type (all weapons deal 1d6 points of damage); a d6 hit dice for all classes; highly abbreviated spell lists with only a small handful of spells at each level; and attribute scores are of little importance to the mechanics (there is only a maximum +1 or -1 attribute modifier for very high or very low attribute scores).

Labyrinth Lord, while based on the OD&D model, incorporates many of the rules that were subsequently introduced to the game over the years, such as: four character classes (Cleric, Fighter, Magic-user, and Thief), variable weapon damage by type (different weapons deal different amounts of damage); variable hit dice by class; slightly larger spell lists; and attributes have the standard +1 to +3 or -1 to -3 range of modifiers for high and low attribute scores.  Furthermore, Labyrinth Lord, like the Basic/Expert sets it emulates, is much more refined and polished game and includes lots of rules to cover a wide variety of situations, such as outdoor and seafaring adventures, chases, aerial combat, and how to build strongholds.

Both games are similar and speak the same language - they are fully compatible - but S & W intentionally leaves a great deal open to interpretation (such as spell effects) so that the GM is responsible to come up with his own take on how things work, whereas Labyrinth Lord explains everything more completely.

I was being a bit disingenuous with the adversarial sounding title to this post.  There really is no question of one game being better than the other.  Each, despite their great similarity, gives a slightly different vibe and scratches a different itch, so to speak.

So which game is for you?  Go with Swords & Wizardry if you are want to have maximum freedom in interpreting the rules as you choose and are interested in incorporating your own house-rules with no fuss.  As I've mentioned previously, S & W is a framework upon which to hang your own rules, and essentially create your own custom game.  Mythmere Games facilitates this by providing the rules in MS Word format so you can add to the rules while retaining a unified master document, which is one of the features that excited me most about the game.

Go with Labyrinth Lord if you are looking for a nice, simple all-in-one system that covers all the basics.  While you can certainly tinker with the rules if you want, it really isn't necessary.  If you are a tinkerer I'd recommend going with S & W.

It had been my intention to wait until I had read both games before deciding which one to play, but I got impatient waiting for Labyrinth Lord to arrive and was so excited about S & W I ended up adopting that system, but I fretted that once I got Labyrinth Lord I was going to want to play it, instead.  Fortunately, that's not the case.  Having read both games, it has become clear that, as excellent a system as Labyrinth Lord is, Swords & Wizardry is the toolbox that suits my purposes at present.  I'm having a great time tweaking the game, and inserting my house rules seamlessly into the game.  I have little doubt that before long I'm going to have my very own game system that will bear little resemblance to the base system.

On the other hand, in a few years my daughter will be old enough to start gaming, and I think Labyrinth Lord will be the ideal system for her to cut her teeth on.  It's simple, it's elegant, and it has guidelines to cover most every situation without requiring a lot of interpretation, which is important when you are first learning the game.


Shane Mangus said...

Nice write-up. As you know, I have given LL quite a bit of attention of late, but I have to admit that S&W has been whispering in my ear that I need to spend some time with it as well... I guess I will allow my group to decide which game they would like to use and roll from there.

Bob Reed said...

I've run both, and the differences are pretty trivial overall. I pretty much agree with your assessment that S&W is probably slightly better for more experienced and/or hands-on DMs that like tinkering. It's easier to add stuff than to subtract stuff...

Also, I've found that S&W: Whitebox is easier for new players to grasp because there are way fewer modifiers and die-types to keep track of. This is why I prefer Whitebox for con games and casual gaming.

Ultimately the choice is pretty arbitrary. The touches you add as a DM will make either game completely yours.

Sean Robson said...

@Shane: Unless you find a group of old-time players I doubt it'll matter much to them one way or another. I'd suggest you just pick the system that feels right to you and run with that. The players will have a great time no matter which game you use.

@Cyclopeatron: I agree. The differences are slight and the choice is arbitrary; its the 'feel' or 'vibe' that each game projects that feels a bit different to me. I like both games a lot and I'm happy to have supported both companies.

Russ Westbrook said...

I'm a fan of both games you're comparing. Both are excellent; and you are correct- they inherently "scratch different iches". Which is why I think you may have missed the target a bit by selecting White Box instead of Core for Swords and Wizardry. Core was designed to match more the play style of B/X. If someone were looking for that vibe, they'd pass right over White Box. Core has the 4 iconic classes, variable weapons damage (although, you missed that White Box DOES have variable damage; just more limitedly- it goes from 1D6-1 through 1D6+1), Etc. Personally, I prefer White Box for the Original Game, and I prefer Labryth Lord (slightly) over Core for my B/X moods.

Sean Robson said...

Wow, I never expected to receive a comment on such an old post! With respect to why I used Whitebox as a comparison - that was the only version of S&W I had at that time, though I did eventually buy the core rules book as well.