Wednesday, September 20, 2023

The original bard class, adapted for Swords & Wizardry

Doug Schwegman's pioneering bard class, introduced in the February 1976 issue of The Strategic Review, deserves to be celebrated for its lasting influence on the game. Ever since its adoption into the AD&D Players Handbook in 1978 (albeit with numerous alterations), some iteration of the concept has been present in most every official version of the rules. That said, Schwegman's actual article is a tad rambling and has a tendency to tuck vital nuggets of game information away in the midst of some pretty convoluted paragraphs. This is my attempt to clean it up and reframe in the format used by my favorite contempory take on Original D&D, Swords & Wizardy. My only concessions to the new format were the addition of prime attributes (the SR article was mum on this), extrapolating a likely solution to what appears to be a typo in the description of followers available to sixth college bards, and the ommission of the bonus experience awards for succeeding at the charm and lore abilities (as S&W uses a somewhat variant experience system).


The enigmatic Bards are an order of arcane warrior-poets. Cunning loremasters as well as entertainers extraordinare, their ancient art encorporates martial prowess, stealth, and magical might. As true jacks of all trades, they can never hope to rival Fighters, Magic-Users, or Thieves within their respective realms of expertise, yet their unparalleled social aptitude, deep reservoir of knowledge, and sheer flexibility grant them an undeniable edge all their own.

Prime Attribute: Strength and Intelligence, both 13+ (+5% experience bonus)
Hit Dice:1d6/level (Gain 1 hp/level after 10th level)
Armor/Shield Permitted: Leather, ring, chain; shield permitted
Weapons Permitted: Any
Ancestry: Human, Dwarf (maximum 8th level), Elf (maximum 8th level), Halfling (maximum 8th level)


Alignment: Bards may be of any alignment, although most are Neutral and on friendly terms with druidic organizations. Lawful bards do not have access to thieving skills.

Bardic Colleges: Bard characters derive thier many skills from training obtained through scholarly organizations known as colleges. These scarcely resemble institutions of higher learning as we know them, instead being loose yet far-reaching webs of association maintained between individual Bards of similar accomplishment. While Bards of higher colleges can often be snobbish about associating with their "lessers" in lower ones, all Bards tend to be fiercely loyal to their fellows and the college system as a whole, regardless of alignment. It is rumored that magical intruments with wonderous effects exist that can only be properly played by Bards of a high enough college.


Fighting Ability: Bards use the same attack and saving throw values as Clerics. They do not gain any class-specific saving throw bonuses, however.

Thievery: Non-Lawful Bards have thieving abilities equal to a Thief of half their current level (round down). Non-human Bards benefit from the same bonuses non-human Thieves do. Note that Bards do not gain a Backstab ability and cannot climb walls or move silently when wearing any armor heavier than leather.

Spellcasting: Bards learn, prepare, and cast Magic-User spells in the same manner members of that class do. They cannot cast spells while wearing any form of non-magical armor.

Magic Items: Bards may employ any magic item usable by Fighters, Thieves, or members of all classes. Additionally, they may use (but not create) Magic-User scrolls. At the Referee's discretion, magic items based on sound (Horn of Blasting, Pipes of the Sewers, etc.) may have enhanced effects when used by Bards.

Charm: The mystical song of Bards has a percentage chance of mesmerizing any listeners within a 60' radius of them. This power may be used up to once per level per day and affected beings will do nothing but stand in place listening to the Bard until the singing stops, the Bard leaves the area of effect, or they are attacked or otherwise startled. The Bard may attempt to verbally implant a Suggestion in any charmed being (as per the third level Magic-User spell). A saving throw is permitted to resist the Suggestion and success both breaks the charm and is apt to leave the target very angry. A Bard's song also nullifies the hazardous effect of a harpy's. Situational modifers apply to charm attempts, as per the chart below.

Bard Charm Modifiers

Bard has charisma 15+ Bard is an Elf Target is a Monk Target is other classed character Target is undead Target is demon Target is other monster Target has AC bonus from magic items
+5% per point above 14 +5% -10%/level -5% per level over four -10%/HD -200% -5% per HD over three -5% per point of bonus

Lore: This number represents the Bard's base percentage chance to possess information relating to a person, place, item, or event deemed significant enough by the Referee to have inspired tales and legends within the campaign setting. It can be used to identify magic items, but the chance of success will generally be half normal (or less) if the item in question is not a weapon or piece of armor. Bards of Elf ancestry gain +5% to this ability.

Expert Linguist: Being both highly educated and well-traveled, a Bard may learn as many additional languages as he or she has points of Intelligence.

Followers: As natural leaders, Bards attract a much higher than usual number of special hirelings, as shown in the accompanying chart. The class of each is determined using the "Bard Follower Classes" chart. Higher level follower slots will generally be taken up by already existing followers who have advanced in level, rather than all new ones. For example, a Bard who advances from the first college to the second will be joined by a new first level follower and one of the previous two will be promoted to second level in order to fill that slot on the chart. A Bard need not pay these followers, and ones that die or otherwise leave the campaign are not replaced. Bards following other Bards will not have their own followers. If the optional morale rules are used, these followers gain a +4 morale bonus (not cumulative with any bonus from high Charisma, but low Charisma penalties still apply).

Bard Follower by College

College Followers by Level
1 2 3 4 5 6
First 2 - - - - -
Second 2 1 - - - -
Third 3 2 1 - - -
Fourth 3 3 2 - - -
Fifth 3 3 3 3 - -
Sixth 4 4 4 3 3 -
Seventh 4 4 4 4 4 4

Bard Follower Classes

01-30% 31-55% 56-75% 76-90% 91-99% 100%
Bard Druid Fighter Thief Magic-User Roll twice, ignoring 100%

Bard Advancement Table

Level* XP Required for Level Hit Dice (d6)** Saving Throw College Charm/Lore Number of Spells (by level)
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
1 0 1 15 - 10% - - - - - - -
2 1,000 2 14 1st 20% 1 - - - - - -
3 4,000 3 13 1st 30% 1 - - - - - -
4 9,000 4 12 1st 40% 2 - - - - - -
5 16,000 5 11 2nd 50% 3 - - - - - -
6 25,000 6 10 2nd 60% 3 1 - - - - -
7 50,000 7 9 2nd 70% 4 1 - - - - -
8 100,000 8 8 3rd 80% 4 2 - - - - -
9 150,000 9 7 3rd 90% 4 2 - - - - -
10 200,000 10 6 3rd 100% 4 2 1 - - - -
11 250,000 10+1 hp 5 4th 110% 4 2 1 - - - -
12 300,000 10+2 hp 4 4th 120% 4 2 2 - - - -
13 400,000 10+3 hp 4 4th 130% 4 3 2 - - - -
14 500,000 10+4 hp 4 5th 140% 4 3 2 1 - - -
15 600,000 10+5 hp 4 5th 150% 4 3 3 1 - - -
16 700,000 10+6 hp 4 5th 160% 4 3 3 2 - - -
17 800,000 10+7 hp 4 6th 170% 4 3 3 2 - - -
18 900,000 10+8 hp 4 6th 180% 4 3 3 2 1 - -
19 1,000,000 10+9 hp 4 6th 190% 4 4 3 2 1 - -
20 1,100,000 10+10 hp 4 7th 200% 4 4 3 3 2 - -
21 1,200,000 10+11 hp 4 7th 210% 4 4 4 3 2 - -
22 1,300,000 10+12 hp 4 7th 220% 4 4 4 3 3 - -
23 1,400,000 10+13 hp 4 7th 230% 4 4 4 4 3 - -
24 1,500,000 10+14 hp 4 7th 240% 4 4 4 4 4 1 -
25 1,600,000 10+15 hp 4 7th 250% 5 5 4 4 4 2 1

*Bards are capped at 25 levels of ability.
**Hit points shown for levels after the character no longer gains full hit dice are the total combined number. A 12th-level Bard has 10 HD plus 2 hit points total, not 10 HD plus one hit point gained at 11th level and another 2 hit points gained at 12th.

An expanded armor table for Swords & Wizardy

On a recent read through the latest edition of Swords & Wizardry, an adaptation of the original D&D from the mid-'70s, it struck me that the equipment list notably includes ring mail armor in addition to the leather, chain, and plate varieties found in the source text. This got me thinking more generally about the various armor types beyond that "basic three" that were added to game over time, particularly in AD&D. Some of them, like the aforementioned ring armor or studded leather, have little to no precedent in historical or archaelogical records. With that in mind, here's my take on an expanded armor list that's broadly compatible with the ones found in later editions. I kept the more dubious items in for tradition's sake, but flagged them as such, making them easy to ignore if you're a stickler about such things. Enjoy!


Armor Type Effect on AC from a base of 9[10] Weight** (pounds) Cost
Shield -1[+1] 10 15 gp
Padded gambeson -1[+1] 15 3 gp
Leather -2[+2] 25 5 gp
Ring*, scale, studded leather* -3[+3] 40 30 gp
Chain -4[+4] 50 75 gp
Banded*, brigandine, lamellar, laminar, splint -5[+5] 60 85 gp
Plate -6[+6] 70 100 gp
*Possibly ahistorical armor type.
**Magical armor weighs half normal.

Monday, June 5, 2023

Review: Swords & Wizardry Complete Revised

Mythmere Games has recently finished work on Swords & Wizardry Complete Revised, an updated take on their flagship fantasy RPG. As an enthusiastic backer of the book's highly successful Kickstarter campaign and equally enthusiastic reviewer of game stuff, I couldn't wait to dive in and take you all along for the ride. The information below is based on the first PDF release of the core rules sent out to backers, which should be virtually identical to the upcoming final print and PDF releases, barring a few minor last minute typographical fixes.

Before I get to that, however, here's a little disclaimer: This latest release isn't my introduction to Swords & Wizardry Complete (S&WC). I've been a fan of the game's earlier incarnations for years. I even furnished some (very minor!) behind-the-scenes assistance with the preparation of this Revised edition, mainly by collecting outstanding errata. Though my name appears in the book's credits as a result, I'm in no way compensated, let alone employed, by Mythmere Games and purchased my copy of the book with my own money, just like the 2800 other Kickstarter backers. So while my fanboy status means you probably shouldn't expect an unbiased review out of me, you can at least be assured that none of my praise has been purchased.

With that out of the way, what exactly is S&WC? In essence, it's a cleaned up, legally distinct restatement of the very first ("pre-Advanced") set of rules for Dungeons & Dragons that were initially published between 1974 and 1978. In other words, the ur-game all RPGs to this day derive from. The Swords & Wizardry brand has been around since 2008 and is the creation of Matt Finch, author of the acclaimed Tome of Adventure Design accessory and the same fellow who pioneered the whole idea of finding legal ways to publish new material for legacy versions of D&D, thereby kicking off a little thing called the OSR (Old School Renaissance) movement.

Having been born in the tail end of the 1970s, I cut my gaming teeth on a combination of AD&D and the later 1981 B/X D&D line. For the longest time, the only things I knew about the various foundational Dungeons & Dragons rules pamphlets (colloquially known as Original D&D, OD&D, or 0E) were that they were chaotically organized, choppily edited, and expensive collectors items to boot. It wasn't until I saw how the material was presented in Swords & Wizardry Complete that I truly understood the lightning-in-a-bottle success of early D&D. Finch's artful polishing revealed that the original was not only a better game at its core than I would have expected, but a better one than I could have imagined.

See, when the classic D&D family tree split into two main branches in 1978 (largely due to acrimonious high-stakes legal wrangling between Gary Gygax's TSR and ousted OD&D co-creator Dave Arneson), each branch inherited some of the fledgling game's coolest features. AD&D got the gritty sword & sorcery feel, demonic antagonists, and iconic character classes like the assassin and paladin, albeit wedded to a significantly larger and more complicated set of mechanics. The Basic D&D line, starting with the first boxed Basic set edited by J. Eric Holmes, assumed OD&D's overall simplicity and ease of modification/expansion. S&WC is what demonstrated to me what an elegant "best of both worlds" option the pre-split rules could therefore be.

So far, I could be describing any of several prominent "retro-clone" game lines based on OD&D. What makes this one different? Well, that mainly comes down to the fact that the core mission of S&WC isn't to replicate the primordial 1974 "white box" D&D alone (as with White Box: Fantastic Medieval Adventure Game and Delving Deeper) or AD&D (as with OSRIC), but instead to capture the essence of D&D as it was commonly played right before AD&D grew to dominate the scene circa 1979. By widening its scope to incorporate all the best material from the various OD&D supplements (including Greyhawk, Blackmoor, Eldritch Wizardry, and key bits from the magazine Strategic Review), it's fundamentally doing something no other modern repackaging does.

This leads into the second most common question newcomers to S&WC tend to have: If you're not going to embrace the bare bones three character class approach of the '74 White Box, why not skip straight to AD&D? For me, the answer's easy: The things I love most about AD&D, such as the separation of character species and class (as opposed to every elf being a hybrid fighter/magic-user) and the wide assortment of flavorful class options, come with some major downsides. People are still arguing to this day over exactly how AD&D's surprise and initiative rules are even intended to work, for example. S&WC functions for me like an alternate universe version of AD&D that gathered together the best of the entire OD&D line, reorganizing and streamlining it without dialing up the base complexity or shifting the emphasis away from empowering individual GM's in favor of the "official" rulings from on high. Running combats and other common adventuring scenarios with it is no more complex or time-consuming than doing so with, say, the newbie-friendly B/X edition.

That said, don't underestimate the many nitty-gritty differences between how various character classes were presented pre and post-AD&D, either. The S&WC paladin, for example, is clearly the far less cleric-like version from Supplement 1: Greyhawk. That means no spellcasting or turning undead. Similarly, those only familiar with post-AD&D implementations of the assassin, ranger, monk, and even common fighter are in for some fascinating surprises here.

But enough backstory! If you didn't know what and why S&WC is, you damn well do now. Time to tackle Revised more specifically. What does this rendition of the game bring to the table that previous ones didn't? Most immediately obvious is the new layout by Mythmere's Suzy Moseby. To me, it's a clear improvement on what came before, especially in the area of spell listings, monster stat blocks, and other concentrated nuggets of game data. I find that the situational pivot to a three column format for these list-like sections makes picking out relevant bits of information on a page more intuitive and quicker than ever. While I can detect the influence of Necrotic Gnome's Old School Essentials line at work, S&WC doesn't wholly embrace that paradigm. I prefer this, as it allows for a pleasing middle ground between the somewhat dry OSE bullet point format and Finch's colorful and often witty prose style. For a fine example of the latter, check the description of the spell Holy Word: "Creatures of fewer than 5 hit dice are slain; creatures of 5–8 hit dice are stunned for 2d10 turns; and creatures with 9–12 hit dice are deafened for 1d6 turns. Creatures with 13+ hit dice are unaffected but probably impressed." As a fan of authorial voice in my RPGs (within reason), this suits me fine.

This superior layout is accompanied by new black-and-white interior art from Del Teigeler, J.E. Shields, Brett Barkley, Chris Arneson, Ed Bickford, Ala Fedorova, Mike Hunter, J. Preston, Adrian Landeros, and Matt Finch himself. Though there is perhaps less of it than in some earlier editions, I found every piece to be tastefully done and relevant to the text it accompanies. A quality-over-quantity approach, in other words. My favorites include the assassin who, in a nice twist relative to the stereotypical knifing scenario, is shown running away from the aftermath of a bombing and the adorable pack llama that closes out the equipment chapter.

The two cover art options, a gorgeously understated gold sigil by Del Teigeler (available with premium Smyth sewn binding as well as print-on-demand) and a typically trippy take on a wizard facing down an extradimensional beastie by the inimitable Erol Otus (a print-on-demand exclusive), are both wonderful in my eyes. I've encountered some negative responses to the Otus piece, largely based on the notion that the monster in it resembles a space alien more than a traditional fantasy critter. Need I remind you all, however, that OD&D dates from a time before these sorts of distinctions were treated as holy writ by speculative fiction lovers? The original boxed set includes androids and Martians on its encounter tables and the first officially published adventure, Dave Arneson's Temple of the Frog, was based on a Star Trek episode. So lighten up and embrace the gonzo, already!

Leaving aside their presentation, the rules themselves have seen their most substantial revision and expansion to date. Most of these changes were suggestions by fans meant to bring the game even closer in function to OD&D proper. Monster stats now include the number appearing and lair encounter percentages, as well as morale scores intended for use with the long-awaited optional B/X-compatible morale system debuting here. High level monsters award increased experience. Wilderness travel has been fleshed out with additional guidelines pertaining to encounter check frequency and a nifty section devoted to generating random castles and their powerful inhabitants. Suggested procedures for spell and magic item creation are now provided. Intelligent weapons now get their due in S&W via the addition of simplified rules for Stormbringer style ego clashes. Random treasure generation, a particular sore point for me in prior editions, has been completely overhauled. It now calls for far fewer rolls and makes magic items much more accessible. Too many rolls and too little magic were my two biggest gripes with the old "trade-out" system, so I couldn't be happier. At this point, I feel confident saying that pretty much every worthwhile concept from the OD&D corpus is now represented, and represented well, in S&WC. Only junk like the Blackmoor hit location tables has rightly been left on the cutting room floor.

With these upgrades in place, S&WC at last fully lives up to its title, being an impressively complete fantasy RPG condensed into a mere 144 pages. It encompasses nine character classes (assassin, cleric, druid, fighter, magic-user, monk, paladin, ranger, thief) , five ancestries (dwarf, elf, half-elf, halfling, human), roughly 200 spells, 160 monsters and just as many magic items, procedures for dungeon and wilderness creation, hirelings and henchmen, stronghold building, naval, aerial, mass, and siege combat, and more; everything needed to run any type of adventure for characters of any level. The book's habit of presenting multiple rules options for things like saving throws (the original five categories or the popular "single save" approach unique to S&W?), armor class (ascending or descending?), and initiative (a total of four distinct systems!) makes this overall brevity all the more impressive. Of all the official (A)D&D versions ever released, I'm only aware of one, the 1991 D&D Rules Cyclopedia, that aspired to cover so much ground within a single set of covers. The comparatively focused S&WC manages to do it in less than half the page count, however, and never gets itself bogged down in iffy design cul-de-sacs (Weapon Mastery) and unnecessary math (War Machine) like the sprawling Cyclopedia does at its worst. Its design is a simultaneous triumph of scope and economy.

Of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't offer any caveat or criticism. I may be a fan, but I can still acknowledge that the stark simplicity and heavy emphasis on competent, confident GM rulings inherent to OD&D (and hence to S&WC) won't appeal to everyone. Packing all the above-mentioned gaming content into such a slim volume doesn't permit much in the way of digression and handholding. To illustrate that, here's S&WC's description of the infamously tricky Polymorph Self spell in its entirety: "The caster assumes the form of any object or creature, gaining the new form’s attributes (the use of wings, for example), but not its hit points or combat abilities. The Referee might allow the benefit of the new form’s armor class if it is due to heavily armored skin. A great deal of the spell’s effect is left to the Referee to decide." That's all. 63 words spread out over three sentences, and two of those sentences essentially boil down to "figure it out yourself." That's around a third of the explanation AD&D provided and a quarter of what you get in the current (5th) edition of D&D. Hell, the 3rd edition devoted over 700 words to this spell alone. Or perhaps you want to know how much damage falling into a thirty foot-deep pit will cause? Too bad, because S&WC won't tell you. For "rules lawyer" players and GMs who take solace in always being able to crack open a book and be presented with The Answer, this sort of borderline free kriegsspiel roleplaying may not cut it. Whatever your feelings on them, "crunchier" RPGs certainly evolved for a reason. Gamer, know thyself. Some may also lament the lack of a true index, although I myself have found the table of contents entirely adequate for a work this length.

In conclusion, take it from someone with 30+ years of experience: This latest evolution of Swords & Wizardry is easily the best yet; a standout in the crowded retro-clone field and a legitimate contender for the honor of greatest "D&D" rule book ever devised, despite the fact that it can't legally use the name. As a slick distillation of everything that was great about the game from its inception, it demands serious consideration from anyone intent on running an old-school campaign today.