|Cover for Swords & Wizardry Complete
Rulebook; Art by Erol Otus;
©2008-2012 Frog God Games
Publisher: Frog God Games
Marketplace: Frog God Games, Amazon, Drive thru RPG
Swords & Wizardry might be described as a selective retro clone of the original 1974 Dungeons & Dragons rules. I say selective, because the original 1974 rules are not a cohesive game. Instead, there are toolkit for playing what we now call a role-playing game. As it was the first, the original Dungeons & Dragons called itself a medieval fantasy war game, and was rooted quite deeply in the Frei Kriegspiel movement that was emerging at the time. I plan on discussing FKS and how it has transformed both war gaming and led to the emergence of role-playing games later this month.
At its core, OD&D was a tool kit to enable a style of play rather than a cohesive ruleset. It included multiple combat systems, for example, but assumes that the players have enough wargaming experience that it doesn't include tools such as initiative. Over the course of its various expansions, OD&D offered quite an array of subsystems, that sometimes are contradictory, posed alternatives to earlier published rules, or that seriously changed the context of previous rules.
Swords & Wizardry takes all the various source material prior to 1978 and compiles it into a single cohesive rule system. Where it has significant gaps, such as initiative, it includes its own alternatives based on later editions of Dungeons & Dragons or popular wargames of the time.
What you end up with is an extremely light system that even to an 80s kid who grew up on Mentzer's BD&D, it looks stripped down. This is quite intentional: OD&D, being heavily influenced by nascent FKS games like Braunstein, wasn't interested in being a complete system of rules. It was interested in having enough rules to enable the style of play desired, that is to say pulp Sword & Sorcery mixed with a little Tolkinian fiction, and left the rest to the referees logical in narrative rulings.
Swords & Wizardry studiously avoids the temptation of adding modern innovations aside from optional ascending AC and to fill in the gaps. It seeks to minimize rules in order to favor narrative play. Matthew J. Finch's "A Quick Primer on Old-School Gaming" lays out the philosophy that drives the decision to keep rules minimal: focusing on logical, narration-driven adjudicated play, approached with the right mindset fosters creativity, engagement, and excitement better than extremely heavy and crunchy systems do.
The very brief GM section focuses on giving GMs advice on how to make effective rulings rather than looking to the rules for answers.
What I Loved
The Magic System
The Vancian magic in older editions of D&D made it so that a PC Magic-User could only manage a few spells per day. The compensation for that was that each spell was a game-changer. This is especially true in S&W; the spells are written so that they make a hide difference. Spells like Fireball and Sleep are likely to end a battle. Spells like Confusion last for hours and often don't allow saving throws. Most spells feel strange and powerful. Many spells that are single-target in later editions are multi-target in S&W.
More importantly, spells are very simple, needing only level, range, and duration. Systems like spell resistance that often caused precious spells to fail are simply not there. Magic feels special on a way that it doesn't in later editions where magic was slowly "balanced" to simply parallel other class abilities.
Swords & Wizardry's biggest strength is its simplicity. It is fast, easy to learn, and ideal for one-shots, pick up games, or solo play, while being rich enough for enduring campaigns.
Surprising Range of Options
I was not aware of just how many options OD&D offered with its expansions. Assassins, Monks, Druids, Paladins, and a Ranger class that is a hybrid Fighter/Cleric/Magic-User taken from various resources including strategic review and the grayhawk setting guide offer enough options to satisfy most modern gamers.
The artwork in the swords and Wizardry complete rule book is stunning. It both start from many of the greats of D&D art, such as Rowena Aitken, Erol Otus,and Stephan Poag, among others.
Swords & Wizardry is a fairly complete version of Dungeons & Dragons. It includes functional rules for henchman and hirelings, creating strongholds, naval and aerial battles, mass combat, and at least suggestions of rules for creating Magic items. Overall, I find the level of detail is not nearly as impressive as BECMI, but gives you more to go on than AD&D2e, or most modern additions of the game do.
I feel a little odd criticizing the actual content of the game. After all, the source material is older than I am. If I were to say that there's one thing that the '74 rules seem to do better, it is encumbrance. Player Characters are given a base range of weights before they begin to slow down. There is an adjustment added to each value based on strength score. Characters carrying a backpack full of gear are assumed to be carrying 10 lb. The only thing you total up is the weight of weapons, armor, and treasure beyond that 10 lb mark, or if you're being particularly heavy on the gear, the GM may say you add another 10 lb to that base value. The weight of weapons and armor in the game remain absolutely ridiculous and unrealistic, but the weight you probably avoid accounting for in that initial 10 lb can more than make up for it.
Encumbrance really is a meaningful part of the game that gets ignored a lot of new editions. Finding any way to make it simpler to track so that players won't fight it is always preferable. The Swords & Wizardry version works fairly well. I would use it without modification if I were running just a one shot game. Although, I might consider importing the burden rules from Lamentations of The Flame Princess or Castles & Crusades, or an equipment slot system like Knave if I were campaigning.
Dedication to the Gygaxian Alignment System
Swords & Wizardry keeps to the original alignment system used in Dungeons & Dragons, your character is devoted to Law, Chaos, or is neutral. And Law and Chaos aren't about your character's opinion of the legal structure of the nation or the legitimacy of authority. It's about whether they are helping to build up the world around them and care for the people important to them, but whether they're just in it to tear things down and destroy. If you stick to this cosmic, pseudo religious way of looking at alignment, it makes a lot more sense. Especially for clerics.
I appreciate the fact that clerics are highly limited in alignment as well, with only lawful clerics having the full scope of the class is powers, and the very existence of chaotic clerics being uncertain.
Single Saving Throw
I always thought the saving throws system in BECMI and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was a little hokey. Why those five categories? Of course, I have seen game designers come up with great custom saving throw tables with different sets of categories that actually help build the world on the character sheet. However, just having a simple single target number to roll over on a d20 based on level is something I can appreciate. It's something I enjoyed about Venger Satanis's Crimson Dragonslayer d20 (used in Cha'alt) as well, although Swords & Wizardry is a little more forgiving on saving throws.
Swords & Wizardry has a very open license and a simple rule set that has encouraged a lot of creators to offer modules, settings, many of which are famous for their quality or design in OSR circles.
Why Not Include the Primer?
I found Matthew J Finch's A Quick Primer on Old School Gaming to be one of the most enlightening reads about Dungeons & Dragons I have ever enjoyed. It references Swords & Wizardry heavily. given what a fine documented is, a pared down version of it would have made a far more engaging and valuable GM section. Boiling that advice down to one page did not do Finch's ideas justice. Swords & Wizardry is a gateway into a more relaxed style of play that you might otherwise only find in a minimalistic game like Tiny Dungeon.
Missed Opportunity to Educate
The Open Game License can be a strange beast. Every OGL game is built on older editions of Dungeons & Dragons, and everybody knows it. But for some reason, you're just not supposed to talk about it. At least not in the way the community generally interprets the terms of the agreement.
Being a little too young to have played the White Box, I would love to know where all the material comes from and what order. I ended up filling in a lot of gaps in my knowledge thanks to sites like the D&D fandom Wiki, but in many ways Swords & Wizardry is a living museum exhibit of role-playing games. I would have liked to have at least being able to see a listing of which sources were used. A bibliography would have been awesome.
I guess that's too difficult to do, when the most versions of the OGL essentially tell you not to use the phrase "Dungeons & Dragons."
It Carries Through the Limitations of the Source Material
Swords & Wizardry by it's nature is going to carry forward flaws from the original Dungeons & Dragons. It tends to offer a lot of alternate options for subsystems that are not adequately described. It lacks some of the innovations that would have been excellent to bring backwards into the system, such as monster morale scores.
Some of it's coolest ideas, such as grand magical rituals in place of high-level spells only appear as a sidebar with no development, even though such things were far more thoroughly developed in BECMI, AD&D, and D&D 3E. Not that there's anything stopping you from porting things into it. It remains entirely compatible with other OSR games.
Light and flexible, Swords & Wizardry offers you a D&D compatible experience that you can use the mountain of osr material out there with, without excessive clunky subsystems. The magic is powerful, the combat is fast, and much of the experience left in the trust of the GM, rather than being hung on the rules. It offers you the best of a minimalist system and OSR compatibility. While the book is available for free on pdf, I highly recommend getting it in print, because the art is up there with Dungeon Crawl Classics in terms of being something worth just flipping through to enjoy.
I'm currently working on a couple of campaign pitches, and find myself hard-pressed to decide between my Rules Cyclopedia, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, or Swords & Wizardry as the base for the OSR experience I'm looking for. And that is high praise.