Flavors of the OSR: part 2 Swords & Wizardry

The time has come to delve into another cool old school game, and one that I like very much:
Swords & Wizardry – developed (all editions) and published by Mythmere Games (S&W Whitebox and Core) and Frog God Games (S&W Complete).

S&W Whitebox

S&W Core

S&W Complete

Before we dive into the subject I’d like to clarify that there’s 3 different versions of this game. To complicate things they’re written by different people and published by different publishers.

The author of Whitebox is Marv Breig, while Core and Complete are written by Matt Finch. And while there’s a lot of likenesses, there’s some fundamental differences as well.

I’d also state that I never played OD&D back in the day, so bear with me if I have gotten some things wrong. We use S&W Core and I just bought S&W Complete, which I will use along with Core in future S&W games.

Here’s the editions in order of complexity:
Swords & Wizardry Whitebox: The most bare-bones version of them all. Basically it covers the 3 basic books of OD&D. Only 3 classes – Fighting-Man, Magic-User and Cleric, that all use d6 for HD and all weapons do d6 damage. Available from Mythmere Games as a free PDF, or in print from LULU.

Swords & Wizardry Core: This edition is what I have used. Covers the 3 basic books + supplement 1. Will be described in detail below. Available as a free PDF from Mythmere Games, or in print from LULU.

Swords & Wizardry Complete: I recently bought this. It covers the 3 basic books + all the supplements for OD&D. Will also be described in detail below. Available as free full-art PDF and in print from Frog God Games.


So, while Labyrinth Lord (described in part 1 of this blog series) has a ”basic” book and an ”advanced” expansion book, Swords & Wizardry has 3 different books of varying completeness and complexity.
I will discuss the Core and Complete books here, and I’ve chosen to separate them for ease of reading. I leave Whitebox out, since I have no experience whatsoever with it.

Swords & Wizardry Core
Type: Clone (Original D&D + supplement 1)

Availability: Free full art PDF and paid print versions (soft- and hardback) at LULU.

Form factor: Nice looking b/w books with old school fantasy art. The green cover by Peter Mullen is seriously cool! Well written, clear and concise rules. Very easy to pick up for new gamers.

Community: Very good support with a very active G+ group, where most of the discussions live nowadays. There’s an old forum, but activity has moved to to G+.

Product support: Excellent. Frog God Games publish new books and modules all the time, so professional support is awesome. Besides, there’s a bunch of 3rd party publishers and community free stuff as well.

There’s also many electronic resources, for example Akrasia’s blog. S&W is also unique in the OSR in that it has an official SRD online, kept by the people behind the Pathfinder SRD. Go check it out: S&W SRD

Tinkerability: Über-excellent. The author actually encourage you to add to, and tinker with the rules, and many times he offers several options or takes on the rules in the book.

Compatibility: Excellent. S&W materials is very easy to use with other old school games.

Flavor: Original D&D as in the books from 1974, but with some additions from the Greyhawk supplement. The game is easily modded for whatever flavor you might prefer, and since the rules are so loose and simple, tinkering won’t mess up other rules. Having no experience with the Original D&D rules I would say that the feel is AD&D1e light.

Statblock:
AC: Descending (unarmored man is AC 9) OR Ascending (unarmored man is AC10). S&W actually gives you two AC systems to choose from, where descending is the default).
Saves: 1 (unique for S&W)
Level range: 1-20 (with rules for advancement to 21+)
Race & Class: Separate race and class
Classes included: Fighter, Cleric, Magic-user and Thief (optional)
Races included: Elf, Halfling, Dwarf
Hit Dice: Varying according to class (similar to B/X)
Monster Hit Dice: Static, d8
XP charts: variable, depending on class
Multi-class: yes
Demi-human class and level restrictions: yes*

Swords & Wizardry Complete
Type: Clone (Original D&D+all the OD&D supplements)

Availability: Free full art PDF and paid print version (hardback) from Frog God Games.

Form factor: Nice looking b/w books with good old school fantasy art. The new blue cover is a specially commissioned piece from legendary Erol Otus! Well written, clear and concise rules with just a little more crunch than S&W Core . Easy to pick up for new gamers.

Community: Same as S&W Core.

Product support: Same as S&W Core.

Tinkerability: Same as S&W Core.

Compatibility: Same as S&W Core.

Flavor: Original D&D as in the books from 1974, but with additions from all the supplements. The game is easily modded for whatever flavor you might prefer, and since the rules are so loose and simple, tinkering won’t mess up other rules.

Statblock:
AC: Descending (unarmored man is AC 9) OR Ascending (unarmored man is AC10). S&W actually gives you two AC systems to choose from, where descending is the default).
Saves: 1 (unique for S&W)
Level range: 1-20 (with rules for advancement to 21+)
Race & Class: Separate race and class
Classes included: Fighter, Cleric, Magic-user, Thief, Ranger, Assassin, Monk, Druid, Paladin
Races included: Elf, Halfling, Dwarf, Half-elf
Hit Dice: Varying according to class (similar to B/X)
Monster Hit Dice: Static, d8
XP charts: variable, depending on class
Multi-class: yes
Demi-human class and level restrictions: yes

Blurb: Having no background in OD&D, it took some time for me to get into Swords & Wizardry. I had a good look at S&W Whitebox and Core at the time I was searching for a base system for my games, and discarded both in favor of Labyrinth Lord + AEC. This I did because I was unfamiliar with the OD&D rules, and Labyrinth Lord felt much more familiar. There’s power in the known…

However, after some time I purchased the S&W 0E Reloaded Monster book for my LL games, and to be able to understand the monster stats better, I read the Core book again. This time, I realized that the S&W fans had a point in being just that. It’s a sleek and very complete system in a short book, and I realized that I hadn’t done the game justice by discarding it so fast.

To me it feels like AD&D light instead of B/X with AD&D bolted on. I also appreciate the author’s light tone and that the book encourages the readers to tinker and modify the game according to taste, and that’s something I’ve heard others say too. The book are well laid out, and nice to read, and it’s easy to find stuff. Nothing fancy, but it does the job very well. There’s a table of contents and an index of all tables. No ordinary index though, as is common with the small publishing houses.

The rules are as simple as Labyrinth Lord, if not even simpler. The spell descriptions are short and simple a la B/X. Clerics spell lists are 6-10 spells/spell level and goes up to level 7, while Magic-Users get 10-20 spells/spell level and goes up to level 9. The Cleric has manage without spells at level 1 though. One of the bigger differences from B/X is the attribute bonuses. Instead of the same for all attributes -3 to +3 range of B/X, S&W has different tables for all attributes, and the range is much lower, from -1 to +1, meaning that most characters will have no or just small attribute bonuses. And in extension, that having high attributes might be less important than in B/X or AD&D.

Another difference is that the only class to benefit from high strength to hit and damage bonus are Fighters. All in all, there’s a whole lot of small mechanical differences here and there, if you come from a B/X or AD&D background. Movement and encumbrance are more like AD&D, i.e. annotated as a base move of 12’, 9’, 6’ and so on. Encumbrance is in pounds and definitely easier to track than the old ”coins” used by B/X. All in all move and encumbrance is very easy to track in S&W.

Then there’s also some more significant differences, exemplified by:
Ascending Armor Class – S&W actually gives you a choice of using standard old D&D descending AC (DAC) or 3E style ascending AC (AAC).

Unified Saving throw – Yep. Only one Saving throw. The concept has actually been used this before, in a the 2E introductory box called ”D&D Adventure Game”. I know that a lot of people have got issues with the single saving throw, but I actually like it, and I use it for NPCs and monsters in all my OSR games nowadays.

Challenge level – old D&D was always vague about guidelines for GMs in the art of balancing encounters. The only solid advice I’m aware of were in Rules Cyclopedia. 3E introduced the concept of Challenge levels (CL), which S&W has adapted. Good for novice GMs. CL is also used for determination of XP for monsters. So, no Treasure Type or Hoard Level stats in S&W.

Treasure generation – I don’t know if the random treasure generation process in S&W was in OD&D, but it differs some from what I’ve been used to.

S&W Complete covers all that is in Core, but adds a new race (half-elf) and a bunch of new classes (Ranger, Assassin, Monk, Druid and Paladin). There’s also some minor rules additions/differences from Core, but in essential it’s very similar.

Another difference is that Complete is produced and sold by a commercial publisher (Frog God Games), and that the production values are higher than Core. In my opinion this commercial support is a huge advantage to S&W as a game system. Frog God Games has released a great deal of cool new S&W books and supplements, such as Tome of Horrors Complete, Rappan Athuk, Monstrosities and many more. This makes S&W a game that is alive.

The Swords & Wizardry SRD (produced by the same people behind the Pathfinder SRD) is yet another great thing. Basically, the S&W Complete book on a searchable web page, for free. How cool isn’t that? I’ve noticed that I reference the SRD more than the books nowadays, especially at the game table, and I wish more games had such a great online resource for gaming.

If you want more cool races, classes and monsters the Land of Nod magazine (by John Stater) are full of S&W goodness. There’s also fan-made alternative rules for simple feats and other cool additions to the game to be found in the OSR blogosphere, but you already know that, right? Here’s a place to start: Akrasia’s blog.

There’s also a very cool Swords and Sorcery styled game based on S&W, called Crypts & Things, that I’ll cover in a future post.

Play-wise I’ve only tried S&W Core, and it was a blast, even if I (GM) and the players were all new to S&W. There was a flow and very little in the way of looking up rules and such. And ascending AC, single save and usage of attack bonus instead of attack tables (house rule from Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque) smoothed out the GM work even more. I even ran a home-brew Labyrinth Lord adventure on the fly – worked like a charm.

In conclusion, Swords &Wizardry is a very good choice for your old school D&D-ish games. The three flavors allows you to choose complexity level, and all are free – as in full art PDF free! Online support is excellent, and the fan base is very active, especially at the Google+ groups. The solid commercial support is another great plus, and the released supporting books are top notch. Also, the moddability of the rules makes S&W a very good choice for OSR tinkerers.

Hopefully, this blog series might help some people in choosing the right OSR game flavor. Because it’s on that level – flavor. To illustrate, the rules differences between Labyrinth Lord and Swords & Wizardry are quite small, and at the table it really feels like the same game. Or, you do it my way – play them all ☺

One caveat, though, is that Swords & Wizardry products are virtually non-existent in European game shops, meaning that books have to be ordered online if you like printed books (as do I). With current pricing for overseas shipping, that’s a very expensive affair. So, please Frog God Games, please get a European retailer. Soon. There’s a lot of people on the other side of the pond that’d like your cool books in print.
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Next OSR Flavor will be the magnificent Blood & Treasure!

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