Saturday, March 30, 2013

RPG Review: Swords & Wizardry Complete Edition

April 17th is scheduled to be "Swords & Wizardry Appreciation Day". I've signed up this blog to participate in that. While I believe my blog has made mention of Swords & Wizardry on numerous occasions I've never actually done a review. It seemed a good idea to remedy that prior to doing an "appreciation post".

Swords & Wizardry is one of the earlier Dungeons & Dragons retroclones, designed to emulate the flavor of the "pre-AD&D" incarnation of Dungeons & Dragons. My memory may be a bit fuzzy, but I'm pretty certain it came out early in the days of D&D 3.5 as people realized the d20 System Reference Document and the Open Game Content of that could be used to reverse engineer older versions of D&D. I believe at that time the original edition of D&D was available as a PDF download from RPGNow, though it may have been made available at a later point. The original D&D books and supplements were pulled from RPGNow and similar sites in 2009 along with all the other Wizards of the Coast content. Since that time some content has returned but not those rules or supplements.

While I'd heard of the original version of D&D when I started gaming in the 80s I never actually encountered it until well after 2000. I believe one of the things that sparked my interest in it was the website Philotomy's OD&D Musings (which no longer seems to exist). In this site Philotomy Jurament discussed the original D&D game and how he viewed its simplicity, often a mark against it, as a strength. He discussed how the dungeon of original D&D was more akin to a "mythic underworld" that was actively out to get intruders, with doors that tended to get stuck closed and would often shut on their own unless secured with spikes.

Swords & Wizardry was the first retroclone to attempt to recreate this original edition of D&D. It has three versions, the first two of which have gone through several iterations.

  • Core - The original version of Swords & Wizardry. Designed to emulate the original D&D experience from the original boxed set coupled with Supplement I: Greyhawk (which introduced variable weapon damage, variable hit dice for character classes, halflings, and the thief class, though it was several iterations of the S&W Core rules until the thief officially appeared).
  • Whitebox - Designed to emulate the original D&D game without any supplements, though it does allow slight variation in weapon damage. It has three classes: the fighting man (i.e. fighter), cleric, and magic-user and three races: human, elf, and dwarf.
  • Complete - Designed to emulate the original D&D game that eventually morphed into AD&D, collating material from all the supplements as well as early issues of the magazines The Strategic Review and its successor, The Dragon. This version adds new classes (assassin, druid, monk, paladin, and ranger) and half-elf characters.
This review will cover primarily the Complete rules though much of it is applicable to earlier versions. Physically S&W, despite its "complete" description, is not a particularly thick tome, with just 140 numbered pages. The PDF version of it is outlined allowing for quick navigation when reading on a tablet or computer. It has an Erol Ottus cover and artwork reminiscent of D&D in the 1970s. 

Character Creation

The first main chapter covers character creation. Characters have the same six ability scores as most versions of D&D: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. Ability scores don't matter quite as much as they do in later versions of D&D - most of the time your biggest possible bonus or penalty is +1, though fighters (and only fighters) can get larger bonuses from Strength. Unlike the original D&D, you get bonuses to your experience points from high wisdom, charisma, as well as your character's "prime requisite" (most important ability score), a +5% bonus from each. This leads to a somewhat odd situation where some character classes benefit from double upped prime requisites.

For those used to more recent versions of D&D the classes are rather spartan. For example, fighters  are pretty much good at fighting with good hit points, reasonably fast advancement, and are the only class to get a full damage bonus from strength. Magic-users are at their old school single first level spell and 1d4 hit points. Thieves are, in this blogger's humble opinion, pretty much useless as written. Their primary problem is their abilities start off at very low percentages. However, this is very much in keeping with the source material. Magic-users may have been one-short sleep or magic missile casters back in the day but at least it worked. The poor thief had (and has) a pitiful chance at, well, being a thief. For those familiar with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons there is much to the classes that will seem familiar.

While I might sound a bit critical, this is a good reflection of how a lot of things were in early versions of D&D. And go to another GM/referee and you might get disagreement - "no, thieves and magic-users are fine as they are." The nice thing about a games like Original D&D or Swords & Wizardry is that these cames are super-easy to customize. I've seen variants of Swords & Wizardry with skill systems, with additions to each class, etc. (Not surprisingly these variants often use the Core or Whitebox rules as a starting point as they are more of a skeleton that new rules can easily be built upon.)

After the various classes comes the possible races. As mentioned earlier the races in this set are human, dwarf, elf, half-elf, and halfling. The races all have minor bonuses aside from humans. Humans are the only race with unlimited level advancement and the only race that can select a class outside the core four (cleric, fighting man, magic-user, and thief). 

We at this point receive a discussion of dual and multi classed en characters. A dual class character drops one class to advance in another (but keeps the abilities of the original). Multi classed characters advance in multiple classes at once. 

It is worth noting the book has several sidebars where it discusses how things worked in original D&D (though D&D isn't, and I believe, cannot be, referred to by name). They often discuss where the rules diverge, why, and how to change things to be more like the original game).  

Another area of divergence is in saving throws. The original game had five categories with different values for each. This game has one save value per class with bonuses to certain types of savinv throw. I rather like this system as it allows for easy tweaking - for example some games have used that as the beginning of a skill system. 

There's nothing too shocking about the equipment section. It is worth noting that there are two options for armor - the ascending Armor Class system, as found in D&D 3.0 and later (where the AC is the combat target number) and descending, as found in older versions of D&D. My own personal bias is that ascending Armor Class was one of the best, and most obviously needed, innovations of the 3.0 edition, but opinions obviously differ and presenting both options was probably the best option.

How To Play

The section discussing How To Play begins with rules covering experience, time, and saving throws. Characters gain experience by gaining treasure and defeating monsters, with a reminder that outsmarting monsters and getting their treasure is often a preferable option.

As mentioned, saving throws are given in the form of a single saving throw value per class/level, with each class having certain bonuses. Guidelines are given to replicate the saving throw categories of Original D&D.

The largest portion of this section is dedicated to combat. Combat rounds are of a minute length with a detailed combat system given as well as three separate alternate systems to replicate various early forms of D&D - and Original D&D had no real combat round sequence. As in other versions of D&D clerics are able to "turn" and "destroy" undead. Going into my editorial voice this is another thing I've always been uncomfortable with - at higher levels clerics are able to automatically turn or destroy undead - I've always preferred that there be at least some chance of failure in such things. Again this is a personal preference and my point in brining it up is that I don't believe anyone has ever run an Original D&D game without some house rules - in all honesty the original D&D rules were rather vague in spots, requiring the Dungeon Master to have house rules.


The section on magic provides details on how magic-users, clerics, and druids gain their spells and has a listing of spells followed by their descriptions.

For the Referee

The Referee's section deals with items such as monsters, treasure, special combat rules, and building adventures.

Building adventures is concerned with, well, building adventures. This is divided in to dungeon adventures and wilderness adventures. Earlier versions of Swords & Wizardry didn't have much detail on wilderness adventures so their inclusion is rather welcome.

We get some special combat rules for mass combat and sieges, events that become more likely as characters go up in level and become movers and shakers of their world. This isn't, as far as I know, representative of anything from Original D&D but unique to Swords & Wizardry - though Original D&D typically assumed access to the Chainmail miniatures rules.We've also got rules for ship combat and aerial combat.

The monster list is a good representation of monsters from old D&D, with some demons, goblins, dragons, and odd beasties. Their writeups are brief - a listing of stats followed by a paragraph or two of text. 

Treasure is always a welcome thing for an adventurer. Magic items in this game bear a resemblance to magic items in earlier versions of D&D, with items such as scrolls, potions, charged items like rods, staves and wands, magic weapons and armor and various miscellaneous magic items. And we've got our rules for intelligent swords, allowing your fighter to have a sword smarter than him or her.

Anything Missing?

Swords & Wizardry Complete is often described as Original D&D with all the supplements. I don't believe that's entirely accurate. There's some material which appeared in supplements that didn't make it into AD&D and much of this is also not in Swords & Wizardry. For example, there were psionic rules that appeared in the supplements that were quite different from what later appeared in Advanced D&D. I'd say this game probably represents the way that most people played D&D.


I've thrown out a lot of things about these rules that I've indicated I don't like. I think that's a sign that the game achieved its goals - there's a lot about AD&D 1st edition I didn't like and tweaked back in the day. But, at the same time, I really enjoyed early AD&D and had a blast playing it. I've fond memories of the moathouse near Hommlet, of battles against the Slavelords. And this game brings me the feeling that such a game could be run quite easily with this game.

I've had a number of games using D&D 3.0, 3.5, and 4e and had a lot of fun with them. But at the same time I had issues with each of them. I found that 3.x and 4e required a lot more prep time and dedication to balanced encounters than I had to give. And I found that encounters ran a bit slower than I'd've liked. 

I usually play games that have some sort of skill system. However, I had a brief Dungeon Crawl Classics game and I can testify that while there is a lot of good to be had from a skill list the lack of one is often far from crippling - without one there often is a tendency towards a lot more innovation. As I did this review I found myself thinking of various house rules and campaign ideas I'd like to ry out. And that's probably something in its favor. 

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