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Spellcraft & Swordplay


Spellcraft & Swordplay is a keen neo-retro game, doing OD&D through the lens of the original Chainmail.   The Basic Game (4 Classes advancing to Level 3) is available for free.  I like S&S so much that I had to do house-rules.  Vive the old-school!

House Rules

Here are my thoughts on the original edition.  Note that most of my minor complaints were corrected in the current revised edition:

Surely one of the most unexpected results of the Open Game License has been the creation of “grognard games”. Rather than using the OGL to push Dungeons & Dragons forward, these games— both retro-clones and nostalgia games—push it backward, toward whatever Golden Age one fancies, whether it be 1st edition Advanced (Castles & Crusades, OSRIC), the 1981 Basic/Expert rules (Labyrinth Lord, Basic Fantasy Role-Playing) or Original D&D (Swords & Wizardry, Microlite 74). The end of the Aughts turns out to be a bounteous time for old-school gamers.

Due both to the requirements of the OGL and, more interestingly, human creativity, all of these grognard games change certain aspects of the original. One popular alteration is replacing TSR D&D’s (TD&D) “AC Low” to WotC D&D’s (WD&D) “AC High”. Others changes are more idiosyncratic. And this is one of the most fascinating aspects of the whole enterprise. Because these games are attempting, in greater or lesser degrees, to recapture the magic of older D&D, but must change certain elements, they all indirectly address the question, “What is real Dungeons & Dragons?” Is the now-iconic D20 combat roll required? Are funny-looking dice required? Is semi-Vancian “fire-and-forget” magic? The core character classes? Demi-humans? And on and on.

Each of these games answers these questions differently. This proves to be an embarrassment of riches to the grognard-leaning, who might be excused from wondering which one is the best. Which one is the most authentic? Which ones plays the smoothest? Ultimately, I think such questions are of the Brussels sprout variety—for no very rational reason, either you like a particular quirk of the game or you don’t. For example, some will like the way in which an excellent entry, Swords & Wizardry, both standardizes and minimizes the effects of high and low ability scores. Some will not. And both positions are equally defensible (for the record: I like the standardization, but don’t like the minimization).

It is in this light that I review Jason Vey’s new game Spellcraft & Swordplay (hereafter S&S). This game is largely an emulation of the original, three little booklets plus Supplement I: Greyhawk. What makes it really intriguing and, insofar as I know, unique, is that it also attempts to reach even further back to the progenitor of the game, namely the Chainmail rules for medieval miniatures. In the introduction, Vey states that he designed the game to occupy a sort of middle-ground between a retro-clone and a nostalgia game. I’m not entirely sure what that means; possibly he sees S&S as too different from OD&D to be a true retro-clone, but too similar to be a nostalgia game. I’m not sure that this is the case—without trying it, I believe that I could run the Temple of the Frog or In Search of the Unknown under S&S with no more appreciable conversion work than if I did so using Swords & Wizardry.

S&S is organized into three sections—Swordsmen & Spellslingers, Combat & Conflict, and Monsters & Magic—deliberately emulating the structure of original D&D. Swordsmen & Spellslingers present what’s needed for character creations with Abilities, Races, Classes, Alignment, Spells, and Equipment. Combat & Conflict is split between Player and Referee (yes, “Referee”!) information. The majority of the section features rules for combat (unsurprisingly), but also presents rules for Ability Checks, Saving Throws, Movement, Travel, Hirelings, Morale, and Awarding Experience with some other Referee advice. Monsters & Magic concludes with most of the classic D&D monsters to fight and the classic D&D magic treasures to be had. It is thus a complete game in that you are provided with the tools to do whatever you want within the central premises of the game.

Rather than discuss every aspect of S&S, and the ways in which they do or do not mirror OD&D, I will instead concentrate on the three mechanics which I feel most clearly delineate the particulars of this game: combat, spell-casting, and Saving Throws. I note here that I was provided a comp copy of the pdf for review purposes. As always, that was done on the understanding that my review would be objective and unbiased.

Combat

Using 2d6 rather than the more familiar d20, the S&S combat system is not what one expects from D&D. However, the original Men & Magic instructed players to use the 2d6 Chainmail rules for combats. It then presented as a seeming after-thought an “Alternate Combat System” using a d20 which quickly became the “real” system. S&S thus makes an answer to the question of “what is real D&D” by saying that the d20 combat system is not required and that the original system works just fine.

The combat system that results is both very different from all other emulators and yet has that feeling of authenticity to its source. Characters more usually gain bonuses to their number of attacks as they level-up than bonuses to their to-hit rolls. Melee weapons all do 1d6 of damage. Armor Class goes back to meaning “type of armor” rather than “how hard it is to hit” and that allows the “Weapons vs. AC” matrix to return and be usable. It also means that magic armor doesn’t affect Armor Class, but rather acts as a penalty to incoming attack rolls. I love all of this, although I want to change some of the values as the basic sword remains too superior to all other weapons for my tastes.

Using 2d6 for combat opens up further possibilities. Many have noted that older versions of D&D use mechanics that are almost entirely based on the d6, with the notable exception of combat. This is perfectly sensible historically, as the polyhedrals now so familiar were not available when the game was created. I have been told by one of Gary’s crew that the polyhedrals only made their way into the game because they looked cool (rather than for any logical mechanical reason). But that historical accident is obscured to those of us who grew up with the funny-looking dice. S&S lets one see what might have happened had the Platonic solids remained in the hands of geometry teachers. And, to me, that alternate reality is an appealing one.

The one glaring exception is that Thief skills remain percentile; the only non-d6 mechanic in the game. I believe that this is a mistake and the author has assured me that he will be making a variant 2d6 system in the future.

Spell-Casting

The most strikingly original rules have to do with spellcasting. Here, S&S abandons most of the accepted casting system. Spell-casters in S&S must make a casting roll, using 2d6, and try to beat a number based on the spell’s level. This makes spell-casting somewhat analogous to melee combat—a 1st level wizard trying to cast a 1st level spell must make the same roll (8 or better) that a warrior must make if trying to strike an unarmoured man with a sword. The casting roll has permutations beyond “hit or miss”. Rolling that minimum number needed means that the caster’s spell goes off as expected in the following round. However, if the number is exceeded by 3 (so that the wizard from above rolls an 11 or above), the spell goes off on the current round. Meaning that higher-level casters will likely get their Magic Missiles off faster than lower-level ones.

Further, although the familiar chart of how many spells of which levels can be memorized is here, casting spells does not automatically mean that the spell is forgotten. A successfully cast spell remains in the caster’s memory, ready to be used again and again. Unless, that is, he misses a casting roll, at which point the spell not only fails to go off, but is forgotten. Thus the resource management aspect of spell-casters is different in S&S; there is no need to memorize useful spells multiple times and you never know when your magic mojo will die out on you. Even if it does, and all spells are forgotten, spell-casters are able to attempt counter-spells so as to resist the bad guys throwing Fear and Fireballs ate them. This is a risky, but potentially valuable, proposition since one of the arcane parties will be taking a die of damage.

Let me restate that this is all significantly different from any other iteration of D&D and the most prominent mechanic that has no emulative quality to it. Is that bad? Well, that depends. I’ll say that I have never been crazy about the D&D magic system. The way in which spells are automatically cast doesn’t reflect much of the source material (no, not even Vance). Combined with the way in which the spell resource depletes (fire-and-forget), D&D Magic-Users have always struck me as more akin to walking utility-belts than to eldritch wonder-workers. Therefore, I’m very happy to see this answer that “Vancian magic” is not necessary for real D&D; however I fully anticipate that others will have a strongly opposed reaction. Even so, if one likes the rest of the game, then it would take no effort at all to just use the standard spell casting system. This friendliness to DIY is one of the hallmarks of older D&D and S&S accommodates that very well.

Incidentally, the spell-casting system opens up a nifty possibility, unaddressed by the book, when considering magical goodies for wizards. Magical tools—staves, wands, etc.—are standard accouterments for sorcerers in literature and myth. D&D’s use of that has always been a bit lacking in my mind, because said items are disconnected from the spell caster’s ability. That is, a Wand of Fireballs is basically a gun that performs the same whether used by an apprentice or an archimage. But with S&S’s system, rather than the standard Wand of Fireballs, you could create “casting foci” whose effect is to add a bonus to casting rolls. Off the top of my head, a Wand of Fire Foci could give a +2 bonus to all spells involving fire. Now you have a mage with a kind of signature but who is still using his own skills. An equivalent Staff of the Magi might give a bonus to all casting rolls. In addition, this is the kind of item that grows with the wizard: it is as useful at 10th level as at 1st level.

Saving Throws

Saving Throws, and their odd categories, are another distinctive element of D&D. In original D&D, all Saving Throws fell into the following categories: Death Ray or Poison, Wands (including Polymorph or Paralization), [Turn to] Stone, Dragon Breath, Staves and Spells. Each class had different saves in each category, with Fighting-Men generally superior and Magic-Users generally inferior, but with certain exceptions. Thus Magic-Users are a bit better at saving against Staves and Spells, while Clerics actually have the best saves at the first few levels and are always superior against Death Ray or Poison. Further, each class advanced differently: Fighting-Men every 3 levels, Clerics every 4, and Magic-Users every 5.

Much literary blood has been spilt on the logic, or lack thereof, to these categories, which are never explicitly explained in any text. I presume, for example, that Saves against Death Ray or Poison have something to do with the character’s vitality, while Saves against Dragon Breath is an obscure way of saying “dodge”. But why Wands are distinct from Staves but analogous to Paralization is a mystery to me. Now, I don’t hate the old Saving Throw system—it’s colorful as all get-out if nothing else—but, it’s one of the first things that I would change about old D&D.

S&S does so by substituting Ability Checks for Saving Throws. This is an attractive option, introduced into grognard games by Castles & Crusades. Attractive both because it uses an existing mechanic (attributes) rather than introducing another, and also because it gives the largely-meaningless OD&D attributes some more mechanical meat without going the route of drastically inflating ability bonus as WD&D did.

Further, S&S rather elegantly preserves the idea of differing class Saving Throws without the cumbersome implementation. S&S uses only a single Save, with all classes advancing in 3 level increments. Each class then gets a +2 bonus to appropriate Saves. The Fighter gets a bonus to Constitution Saves, while the Thief gets a bonus to Dexterity Saves. There are other ways to handle Saving Throws, but I find this particular version very appealing, retaining the flavour of OD&D with a lot more logic and simplicity.

Appearance

S&S looks like an early TSR product in many ways, down to the sans serif font. However, it is much better organized and easier to read, with appreciable margins and line spacing. It is fully illustrated, although the art is a bit schizoid in character. It is split between Medieval and Renaissance art and Larry Elmore pictures. Yes, that looks about as odd in text as it is to see. The historical pictures, while not always accurately describing the text, nevertheless convey the feeling of the game—a game which harkens back to rules for medieval miniatures—much better than the Elmore pieces, which evoke a later and decidedly different era of D&D. These Elmore pieces, regardless of how one feels about the man’s work, are inappropriate to the game. I understand from the authour the utility of such illustrations i.e. free pictures of Halflings and dwarves that everyone can recognize, but I still believe that they don’t really work for the game.

There Must Be Something You Don't Like

All of the above could give the impression that I find no faults with S&S other than the Elmore art. That is not the case. There are a number of elements to S&S that I disagree with (although probably none so much as the Elmore pictures). I dislike the way that Ability Check Modifiers are standardized (using the Moldvay scheme) but that Ability modifiers to other things (Dexterity modifiers to missile attacks; Constitution modifiers to Saving Throws) are not. I’m sorry that Racial Level Restrictions were retained, since these are among the clumsiest and least sensible rules in the D&D canon. I don’t agree with a number of the choices for appropriate Saving Throws versus the various spells. Having Paladins and Assassins advance at the same rate as Warriors and Thieves (respectively) strikes me as wrong-headed.

There is, however, a vast difference between faults that make one want to put a game down and faults that make you want to tinker. All of the faults I find in S&S are of the latter kind. They aren’t deep, structural problems. They are the kind of problems that encourage the DIY ethic that so exemplifies older D&D.

Conclusion

How does one choose one particular grognard game in such a rich field? Maybe more to the point, why should one pay for a product like S&S when high-quality offerings such as Swords & Wizardry and Labyrinth Lord are free? In the last analysis, it comes down to the question which I have repeated throughout the review: what is real D&D? If the ways in which S&S answers that question are appealing, then S&S is definitely worth the small investment. Despite the heated arguments that plague this question, I feel that it is ultimately an idiosyncratic, non-rational judgment which each gamer makes. Myself, I find that S&S hits most of the right notes for me, tossing out what I consider chaff, refining the underworked concepts, and retaining the great bits. This game is highly recommended.

"Spellcraft & Swordplay is Trademark ™ and Copyright © 2008 by Elf Lair Games. This page is fan-created and no infringement, challenge or claim to ownership is intended or implied in the content herein, nor is any association with Elf Lair Games assumed, claimed, or implied. Spellcraft & Swordplay logo used by permission."


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