Thursday, December 23, 2010

Swords and Wizardry review, part III : What is in it, and what I like.

Okay. Now that we know why I love it, and what it looks like, let’s see what the heck is in it.
First off, a list of tables in addition to a table of contents. Good work there. Table finding is a perennial chokepoint for games. This should speed it the heck up. Strongly suggests that effort and thought has been put into actual ease of use in addition to ease of rules.

Characters. No Surprises here. All the stats you expect with the usual names. Generation is 3d6 in order or GM moderated move-around. Stat bonuses exist, and are between the LBB minimal effects and the Greyhawk extremes. AD&D as I recall reduced the value of bonuses, but made them easier to get; on the whole, I think this solution is good enough to provide adequate character flavor while not supporting munchkinism. Also, and this is one I really like: only fighters get the to hit and damage bonuses for high Str. AND, this specifically excludes paladins and rangers. Good way to make fighters more unique and less vanilla: when it needs to be hit very very hard, call a fighter.

STR gives penalties for whimps, and bonuses for fighters -real fighters, not rangers and Paladins.  So, expect to be giving your luunch money to the fighter, or be willing to get familiar with the nearest trashcan....This is one of the nicer and more elegant ways to make fighters more than just the vanilla class of gaming. Well done !

DEX: The dex bonus/AC effect is interestingly linked to the fighter, also. Everyone gets a mild bonus to AC for high dex, but only fighters get a special bonus for defensive fighting. What defensive fighting entails is left intentionally undefined (according to a post by Matt). Is it a constant bonus, or one that the fighter can apply instead of attacking? Your call, and that's just fine. I’ll keep it as a bonus used when the fighter deliberately decides to not roll an attack. It’s another cool way to differentiate fighters from the mixed types (Rangers, Paladins).

CON: minor bonus for higher levels, but they have returned to the old “raise dead survival” rules. Roll the number or less, or the raise spell fails, or the major system shock kills you. My opinion is that anything that makes death a bit more of a real risk (rather than just a setback) is good. There are correspondingly good limits to the spell “Raise dead” also. Me, I’m also going to include the “each time you have to roll, if you succeed, you still lose 1 CON” point rule; because I’m mean, that's why.

INT: The rules do include one of my least favorite Greyhawk+ additions, the spell knowledge rules; you know, limits numbers of spells, and chance to comprehend them. I don't like them for two main reasons; first, it’s an annoying chore and doesn't have much positive payoff except pissing off the characters player; and second, its one of the misplaced attempts to balance out Magic users. Why misplaced? Well, because while the observation that Mages are the Powerhouse characters, it’s only later in the game –after 6th level or so, they start dominating the game. Unfortunately, most of the balance attempts are applied at the beginning of the MU’s career (d4, spell knowledge) when they are at their absolute weakest. The net result really is to winnow the weak and stupid MU’s, which on a population level probably works fine to limit the number of them, but from a character perspective, only adds frustration…..and doesn't solve the problem, because the survivors still gain the abilities that let them dominate play. My 2cp anyway.

Wisdom and charisma, well, y’know. Yeah.  Whatever. 
Actually, high wisdom does help that saddest of first level characters – the no-spell cleric. High Wis gives cleric (specifically) an additional 1st level spell.

All the canonical OD&D book and supplement classes are there with the addition of the Ranger from (at the time) the Strategic Review. No illusionists or barbarians, though. I won't miss either cause illusions are always the hardest spells to deal with (as a GM); and I’ve never felt that a barbarian needed to be its own class. Really, ranger works pretty wells for that, or, get this, a fighter with a high dex. (And an all-too rational fear of magic). [Look guys. Conan wore armor when he knew he was going into battle if he had it. If he was sneaking, no, and when he is out on the town? Seldom. When he was fresh from Cimmeria? Didn't have any. Lots of historical warriors couldn't afford armor and never had it. FRPGs tend to make it the exception, not the norm. Enough. Maybe a later rant.]

Basic comments on canonical classes
The list includes Assassin, Cleric, Druid, Fighter, MU, Monk (sigh), Paladin, Ranger, Thief. I guess one has to include monks, but really – they just don't fit in a eurobiased setting –which D&D is, no arguments allowed from anyone. I mean, they work great in Asian settings, and even the old west, but semi-hemi-demi-tolkeiny-1300ish Europe-Scandinavia? Really guys –King Fu was great fun, but did it really need to be fossilized into amber as a vital part of D&D? Okay, again, more ranting for later.

Assassins are probably not for my campaign, but so what and druids have a better justification than just a bow to the celty-welty artsy-fartsy dancy-wancy crowd (Hi Kristen!).

Clerics are either Law or Chaos (which is the good old good guys, bad guys axis); no neutral clerics on the fence; those are Druids. Nice flavor. Gods seldom compromise on their views so their clerics shouldn’t either; and neutral isn't just fence sitting for druids: they just do not care what the gods want – not the gods of Man (and demi-man).

Mages: Fine, Vancian fire and forget dudes (no explanation given for why magic works that way, which is fine by me) who cannot use any armor or shields. Why? Because they can’t, pilgrim, and it says so right here.

My take on it (and as I'm sure you know, the correct one) is extrapolated from Larry Niven: no magic user with an ounce of self respect would admit that he needed something as mundane and common as armor to protect himself; his huge intellect and might mystical powers are all he ever needs. Thus, in MU school, any armor-prone student is mocked and persecuted until they give in or quit. And the other Mages always know, so while you may wear underwear of the other gender, non-one, no-one at all, dares wear armor even in secret. End of story.

Thieves. Well, goody, they are there. As thieves, too. Rogues. Peh. Rogues are for thespians and Errol Flynn movies. The mouser stole from the rich and gave it to himself, bartenders and whores. Thief.

Unfortunately, and probably unavoidably, they are still the greyhawk model, which presumes that the thief starts as a much younger and more Noobish character than any of the others. Really, except for climbing, they can’t do jack at first level unless you assume that their “skills” (stop spluttering you OSR pundits) are actually extraordinary abilities, rather than stuff everyone can do. I can’t remember who suggested this, but the essence is that one should read the original thief abilities as written, not just as hyped descriptions of normal skills. In short, hide in shadows really means the ability to be Batman (tm DC comics) and vanish and appear from normal sight; Climbing means going up a glass or ice wall with no tools, pocket picking is the stage magician type that really does steal your tie without you noticing, and lock picking –well, in a medieval society, it's a pretty rare skill, so that works. It’s suggested in the rules, but not explicitly made plain, so, had I written it, it would be different with a great big huge font statement that anyone can hide or climb but thieving abilities are special, above the norm on a par with spell casters special abilities. Are you there Matt? Next edition, MAKE IT SO. Well, y’know, if you want, I guess……

I like the Box about “why play a cleric or fighter”. It highlights that there are some actual advantages to the core classes that the variants types do not get. Good ones, too. Some simple rules on starting a second class which are much more consistent with the AD&D model than the 3e model. I’m agnostic about which is better, and one could easily do either. The rules are simple and clean as given and work well enough.

Okay, good old fashioned racial list (which really should be species, but I digress). They aren't race as class, and have the lovely illogical level limits one would expect. Multiclassing is the forte of the non-human, with stat modified level caps. Interestingly, the actual multiple classes allowed are specifically spelled out – not the infamous “pick any three from 4 classes” mold of the extremely annoying half elf. Actual guidance as to how to manage these levels is given, which is cool. Both of these (specific combinations and some coherent rules for multiclassing) are improvements that Original D&D badly needed, and only got in dribs and drabs, so, Win. Bonus win is the explicit statement that Non-Player versions of the races do not follow the same rules! Yay! And bonus points for not including some fluffy bizarre rationale for why that is. (You should be sensing a trend by now regarding this topic).

Yeah, everything you need is there, based on the D&D gold piece economy. I’m more forgiving about that now that I’ve tried to design a “more realistic one”. Historical economics is….well, insane, hard to do, and barely documented. So, whatever. It works, and this isn't papers and paychecks, or Malls and misadventures, so drive on.

Experience is unabashedly pegged to killing stuff and stealing their flatware just as in the Original game you loved, with the benefit of clarification and streamlining. None of the typical alternates are presented, which probably cut down the page count significantly. Killing and looting is the baseline, and actually kinda sorta makes sense , if you treat this as some kind of epic/mythic kind of story/saga in which great deeds and great rewards always made a hero mightier, if for no other reason than his rep increased, and he could reward the bards more richly. .
I do admit that I’ll probably be adding some balancing factor for simple loot to experience, probably that at higher levels (after about 3rd level seems right), and no more complicated than that if you spend some of it on gear or training upgrades, class obligations, or squandering it perhaps.

Saving Throws:
I like having just one saving throw, so obviously Matt is correct in having only one, but, for those who are incorrect, a good old fashioned multiple save by threat table is presented, along with some recommendations as to how to integrate them.

More stuff:
Weight and movement are covered adequately and concisely –of particular goodness is including cross country movement rates with indoor and tactical movement rates in one place. Score one for a low flip and seek factor in the rules.
Time:  Passses.

Combat, The BIG C, Bloody constraint, WackAnOrc.
Well, here’s the thing. You either love D&D’s roots as a miniatures wargame, or hate em. I’ve seen very little middle ground (not that the internet is any place to find it, I admit.). I am in the first category, but have come out the other side of the wargamers delusion, which is: more realistic equals more complexity and consideration of more variables and modifiers. My rules of choice of Mini gaming has become HOTT/ DBA1.0, as opposed to WRG6/ Tactica/Frappe/etc etc. where it started okay? Combat is important, but really, what we want to simulate is the results, not the process. People need to be able to move, shoot hit and cast in a system that allows basic tactics and cunning along with pure luck, without slowing the process down by orders of magnitude, especially compared to actual combat... That's pretty much all I need, and from my SCA experiences fighting in melee (in armor), works just fine.
So, the combat rules are fine, very close to what one gets with LBB/GH with rationalized centralized interpretations, and lots of clearly identified options. For instance, initiative is presented in three forms: The default one (pretty much pre AD&D), the Holmes one, and a cool one which takes the rules from Eldritch wizardry and makes them playable. I’ll be trying out the phased movement version really soon, but using the basic generic version with those players who really don't care about detail (e.g., my son and his buddies).

Some nice developments in the RPG field of combat are included, such as fighting from a second rank, but not attacks of opportunity. This may be a bit of a wrench for the hard core 3E players, as it’s become so central to the game, but, probably is for the best. Basically, a quick explanation of the issue is provided, with resolution explicitly left up to the GM. This is one are that I would have liked a bit more detail about, but its not like I wouldn't do it myself, anyway, plus, I’m an old school wargamer. YMMV.
Weapons do varying damage by type (only) and aren’t differentiated by armor effects at all. Which is fine. I always loved the idea of weapon vs. armor modifiers, but it always turned out to be more trouble than its worth…always. Sigh.
Armor class is presented both ways, country and western. As an aside, I always liked descending AC because I tied it directly to movement: base move was 4 + AC, with load carried reducing the constant. I may or may not worry about this for S&W.

Combat uses lookup tables by class, not the most elegant solution, but the one in keeping with the subject matter. Yearning for the jump up to a better column was a big part of the original experience, and so here it is, although it’s not as severe. You can calculate THAC0 again, so if you hate lookups, that's the way to go, especially in the absence of Weapon vs. Armor modifiers to hit. Oh yeah. The monsters have their own table, based as ever entirely on HD, and it's a bit better organized. This goes up for every HD, so monsters have much more granular combat progression than ….well, non monsters. Also, I note that 1 1HD monster still has a better to hit than a 1HD character; I suppose monsters always need an edge or they’d just be Victims. And Dungeons and Victims just sounds depressing.
Subdual is spelled out and clear rules presented. Fighting with two weapons and two-handed weapons is covered simply and in one place, the solution is elegant, if a bit flavorless, but they match up with the rules for fighting with a shield, and, remember, I’m a combat rules geek.

Grappling, the eternal pain in the butt (hmmmm….a white wolf supplement?) has rules, (that at least is an improvement over most of D&D pre 2E), they’re simple, and at the same level of abstraction as combat, so if not revolutionary, I’ll call that a success. Plus, they don't seem to be arsed by monks, which is a plus –assuming you allow monks, which is a wrong thing to do, so stop it.
How turning undead works is very clearly laid out, thank the gods; it isn't the most common variant, but it works, and that's that. And note: only LAWFUL clerics can do it. With undead. Heh heh heh.
Damage death and healing are all standard harsh old D&D (0=dead, heal 1/day), with some alternative ways presented. Check.

Morale, as ever is unfortunately shorted big time. Possibly for compatibility, possibly to save page count, possibly just to annoy me personally, it’s basically ignored beyond the usual note that Monsters don't always attack or fight to the death. Well, yeah, true, but everything else gets at least a table. Well, this is probably because D&D’s Ancestor, Chainmail come from a specific era in miniature gaming, that ignored or minimized morale effects, and I don't. I want tables and modifiers dammit, ones that indicate that the standard bearer must be moved back one inch! Take note for the next iteration, Matt ‘cause I just know that my opinions are of greatest possible importance to you! (See my rules for keyboards and bathrobes….)
OKAY. Here we come to an example of play, and so the page count for everything you need to know about creating characters and killing bystanders is……$# pages ! Or, 43 with the shift lock off. That is a wondrous achievement right there. Seriously.
Okay, the rest is five pages of campaign and strategic notes and rules (hiring, building, etc) and okay if not very elaborate (I always hated that there weren’t better guidelines for building strongholds and the like; S&W is a bit better than book 3, but not much –this is kind of a weak spot.

Page 50 starts Magic, and is, unsurprisingly, an adequate list of spells from the LBB/GH books, all in one place, with some nice variants suggested here and there. Each has a summary of crucial game info (Range duration type and level, and the usual blurb. None of the VSM components garbage, which is fine by me. Does anyone ever run a pencil and paper tabletop campaign where that is rigorously tracked? Does any one play in it? If so, does getting on a high dose of anti OCD meds help you not want to?

Pet peeve. Stop mixing up clerics and spellcaster spells, and while alphabetical listing is nice for details, I really prefer alpha by level. Why? ‘Cause I’m a useless old fart, I suspect, but one who has played lots of spellcasters. I almost always know the name and level of any spell I look up, and the level acts as an index to speed it up. There. I feel much better, now, thanks.
Spells take up 23 pages, or about 15-20% of the whole which is better than most rules sets, and is probably an unavoidable result of the convenience of a Vancian spellcasting system.
I’m going to stop detailing things here, because I’m out of steam and time; the rest is a good GM section, with wilderness rules and encounters, a good selection of Monsters, and a very nice dungeon building section.

There are basic mass combat rules, as well as very basic rules for nautical and aerial combat. Both are more abstract than what was presented in LBB3, and even I can’t say if that's good or bad. Nowadays there are so many sets of rules available for this kind of stuff, that it isn't the handicap that it was in ye Oldenn Dayes.

Treasure is handled nicely, with a good hoard generator table and rules, and tan expected set of magic items and the like. One complaint is this: possibly I’ve missed it, so tell me if I have, but I still haven't found any rules for spell research OR creating magic items. It's a shame, because this was (for me) one of the biggest issues with the old D&D rules. Oh well. I can probably graft on the 3E rules which are pretty good; I always like the magic items for experience points system – money was easy to get, but XP? Now that's a rare currency

Okay, that is it. It's the holidays – get offline and get bent on eggnog and cookies, fer criminys sake! GET THESE RULES! They are Excellent. I’m not kidding. I have so many RPG’s that….well, I don't have them all, but I’m closer than I’d like to admit; and these are the ones I’m going to be using to run D&D and teach my spawn how to play. THESE. Matt take a bow, give him a big hand, and somebody local run the game so I can play! THANKS and Merry Christmas to all and sundry, and also my subscribers! (I hit 40, YAY!)

xxxoooo Your gushing fanboy, DocGrognard !


Matt Finch said...

Fantastic review!

Clovis Cithog said...

If players want variety in saving throws - allow the various ability modifiers to be applied based upon the type of attack or threat.

Strength modifier is used against traps or magic which immobilize or restrain such as web, hold and paralysis.

Dexterity modifier is used for dodging traps and applied against attacks that deploy fire or energy such as lightning bolt and breath weapons.

Constitution modifier is used against attacks that drain, poison or cause death.

Intelligence modifier is applied against magic or traps that deploy illusion, phantasm or mazes.

Wisdom modifier is used against fear, disguise, sleep and many magic items including wands, staves and rods.

Charisma modifier is applied against attacks against the ego or personality such as charm, polymorph or silence.

Al said...

"I always liked descending AC because I tied it directly to movement: base move was 4 + AC, with load carried reducing the constant."

That's brilliant! I'm actually a little mad at myself for never noticing that correlation...

Btw, there are some brief spell research details given , in the preamble to the spells section. Haven't noticed any magic item creation stuff though (though I've been using the Judges Guild Ready Ref for this for ages and probably won't stop now;)