Brian of Welcome to the Deathtrap posted a nice review of Swords & Wizardry Complete on his blog last week.
I’ll add my own thoughts about the game, why it has been my primary game for several years and some thoughts about why I think you might want to try it out.
Brian wrote a good overview of the game. If you aren’t familiar with it, I recommend reading his review.
Swords & Wizardry Complete is a clone of the original rules plus the first supplements. It is a version of Dungeons & Dragons as it existed in 1978.
The game not for everybody. Below, I’m going to talk about how it leaves a lot to the referee to interpret and make rulings. This can be a pain in the ass. I’ve made some rulings that I had to unwind or alter the ruling for how something worked going forward because it was way out of hand. That was good because I learned something. Some people want the designers to do the heavy lifting for them. This game is definitely not for you if that is what you are looking for.
Brian’s post and my post combined together will give you a more complete view of the game. You can download the PDF of the game for free at the link above. Take a look at it for yourself.
I switched over from 1E AD&D to Swords & Wizardry.
In the late 90’s I took a break from RPGs. When I came back to the hobby in 2009, I started by looking at 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder. I quickly realized that those games were not for me. I don’t remember why I decided on Advanced Dungeons & Dragons but that’s what I went with. I ran a fairly successful 1E campaign for a while. During that time, I became aware of Dragonsfoot.org, the various Old School Renaissance blogs, and the retro-clones. I picked up a copy of OSRIC and loved it. It made running AD&D much easier.
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons can be a beast. It has a lot of moving parts. I’ve never run it and rarely played it, rules as written. There were rules I ignored or modified to make it more manageable.
After a couple of years with AD&D, I started looking for something more stripped down. I picked up a Lulu print copy of Swords & Wizardry Core and liked it but it seemed to be missing a lot of what I liked about AD&D.
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons had more complexity than I wanted. However, Swords & Wizardry Core had too little.
It was going to require a significant investment of effort to borrow and build the “just right” number of species, classes, spells to flesh out the game. Right around that time Swords & Wizardry Complete came out. It was just what I needed. The S&W fans generating cool stuff that I could steal and insert into my games was also a big attraction.
It has almost everything I want and very little of what I don’t want.
Simple is good.
I like games with simple components and complex interactions.
A billiard ball is a simple thing. A solid, 2 1/4 inch sphere made of phenolic resin.
The concept of “pool” games is simple. You use a stick to drive one ball (the cue ball) into the other balls and push them into pockets set into the sides of the table. There are different variants but they are all built on that basic concept. Use the cue stick to hit the cue ball which hits the other balls so they go into the pockets.
The game is simple enough that a child can understand it. My grandfather taught me the basics when I was 5.
At the beginning of the game, all the balls are racked together. The cue ball crashes into those balls to break them apart. The interactions between each of these simple spheres is so complex that it is impossible to predict where the balls will come to a rest.
Swords & Wizardry one of my favorite games because the components are simple but the interactions create outcomes I find surprising and exciting in play. If you play it as a game and not as an interactive narrative, then the outcomes of these simple parts interacting in complex ways cannot be predicted.
The unpredictable nature of it makes it incredibly fun and addictive to play.
A character sheet for S&W is one side of a single page. I have used index cards as well.
The section for the rules for players comes to 73 pages. 25 of those pages are spells which most players won’t need.
The choices a player makes to start their character are minimal. You roll your stats, and starting money, choose a species, class, your gear and it’s time to play.
I take 30 minutes to guide a new player through the character creation process and explain what their character can do. An experienced player can do it in 15 minutes or less.
I have played the game with 10 year old children who never played an RPG before in their lives and they were brilliant.
The rule book, some paper, a pencil, a set of dice, and your imagination. That’s all you need to play.
We like to buy stuff for our hobbies. Its fun to seek it out, buy it look at it, thumb through it, collect it, talk about it, argue about it. As hobbies go, S&W is very high value for dollars spent.
I bought a refurbished mirrorless camera a few years ago. It is the least expensive model that Canon makes. I paid $600. A single lens is hundreds of dollars. I have a tiny backpack that my basic gaming gear wouldn’t fit into and its contents cost more than my entire Swords & Wizardry rules, adventure and supplements collection combined. I have every printing, the big monster book, The Tome of Adventure Design, every issue of Fight On! and Knockspell, many published adventures and both box versions of the box set. I’m a fan.
My itty bitty low end, refurbished camera, a tripod and three refurbished lenses cost me more than all that.
Even in the world of tabletop games, Swords & Wizardry is an absurd value.
The game and the products Frog God Games sell for it are very reasonable. There is enough free and inexpensive content online that you could easily spend less than $50 and have more high quality gaming material than you could play in your lifetime. Or you could make material for the game yourself.
A fundamental characteristic of classic fantasy adventure games is that the referees and players enjoy creating their own settings, spells, monsters, magic items, house rules, and adventures. It’s as much a part of the game as the play at the table. Game masters almost always spend more time creating their game worlds than they do playing the game.
Gary and Dave didn’t think anyone would want them to create dungeons and settings for referees. It was assumed you’d bring home the bike they sold you; bolt on some ape hangers, a pair of bobbers and give it a sweet flame paint job.
Why would you want them to do your imagining for you?
Swords & Wizardry retains that customizability. This is its most important feature.
Making encourages sharing.
Swords and Wizardry Complete often leaves the details of how something works to the referee to decide. There is NOT a lot of text in spell descriptions or prescriptive rules telling you how a particular subsystem must be used. This openness, is one of the reasons why there is such a rich and varied quantity of great material available for Swords & Wizardry and OSR games in general.
The game demands that you make rulings and create things for yourself.
It is impossible to play it if you don’t make some shit up.
Creativity encourages sharing.
Reciprocity is a fundamental requirement for a scene of hobbyists to thrive.
If I’m only selling you things, then that’s a transaction.
Once you give me money and I give you the product the transaction is complete. The relationship ends.
If I make something and give to you (or even if I sell it) but encourage you to modify it and welcome you to tell me about what you did to it and how you made it better then that creates a relationship built on reciprocity. We are sharing.
The act of making encourages you to share it with someone. The thing you made comes alive when you show it to your friends, write it up and put it out on your blog, or publish it as a zine. Someone else improves on it or takes it in a direction you didn’t imagine or anticipate and brings it back to you. You take that and use it, share it with other people, there is more tinkering, more sharing, new relationships.
The incompleteness of Swords & Wizardry Complete is a catalyst for creation. Creation is a catalyst for sharing. Sharing is the foundation of of relationships, friendships and creative movements/scenes.
Without it there is no OSR.
Refereeing Swords & Wizardry gave me a deeper understanding of the game.
Swords & Wizardry Complete is a clone of the original class fantasy adventure game. I started with AD&D but most of my D&D experience was with 2nd Edition. There were some things about those games I didn’t understand. Why did this spell work this way? What’s up with the potion miscibility table? Why do clerics get access to the entire spell list but wizards have to find or buy all the spells after their first few?
A lot of these rules and exceptions seemed to be odd and arbitrary. Until I ran a 2 1/2 year campaign where the characters got to high levels over 100+ sessions.
When a clever player starts stacking potions, spells, character abilities, scrolls, and magic item abilities and bonuses to kill a liche in three or four rounds of combat…you begin to grasp what Gary had in mind when he wrote out some of those long and absurdly specific rules. Ernie or Rob Kunst must have thought of some clever way to exploit a spell, item or ability that took the challenge out of something Gary had devised so he was patching up the exploit. You really start to understand what Gary was on about when he was TYPING IN ALL CAPS ABOUT TIME KEEPING!
Some of Gary’s design choices, I don’t agree with and wouldn’t use in my own games. After running S&W for a number of years, I understand where Gary was coming from now that I’ve seen what a hasted, boosted strength, 15th level, invisible, monk with a prosthetic magical hand can do in Swords & Wizardry Complete.
The Perfect Joke
The late Norm McDonald said in an interview that the perfect joke was one where the punchline was the same as the set up. Example from Norm in his Saturday Night Live days:
Julia Roberts divorced Lyle Lovett because she realized she was Julia Roberts and he was Lyle Lovett.
I think maybe tabletop roleplaying games might be like that too.
Swords & Wizardry Complete is an incomplete game.
It’s incompleteness is its best feature.