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.