Swords & Wizardry & Me: Reflections and Applications
A second post in one day. Eek!
My earlier post today for Swords & Wizardry Appreciation Day was more on the practical side. I wanted to provide the community with something that might be handy in their games. I'm probably most proud of the idea of short-duration scrolls. What I was looking for was a way to give the magic-user a little extra while not unbalancing him, either at low levels or high levels. With scrolls that don't last indefinitely no magic-user is going to stockpile them and assigning a cost to them will make sure they aren't used flippantly. But it gives low level magic-users just a little something extra while still keeping them rather delicate at low levels.
For this follow-up post I wanted to reflect a bit on the Swords & Wizardry game as a whole. I've never been at the core of the "Old School Renaissance" - I've played and run lots of games, old and new, and bear none any particular ill will. Some I have more fun with than others. And there's some new school games I'd love to have a chance to try some day - I'm looking at you Trail of Cthulhu.
I got my start with the "Magenta Box" D&D Basic Set. At the time (4th grade) it seemed incredibly complicated. But it was so engaging. It fired off my imagination in a way no other game had, whether board game or Atari 2600 game. And in those days of middle school there was so much time for gaming. Lots of adventures to buy at Toys R Us or Kay-Bee Toys. And easy to make your own. As I got older it became harder to keep a group together and time for gaming diminished. By the time I was late in high school and in college my gaming was limited to some one on one time with my brother (whom I still game with and is always welcome at my gaming or dinner table) and the occasional game in the dorm at UConn.
A few years after graduating college and moving to Massachusetts I was able to get a group together. We started off with Last Unicorn Games Star Trek, had a great D6 Star Wars game, and then, years after my last D&D game, kicked off a D&D 3.0 game. It was great to be playing D&D game. But I noticed something about playing 3rd edition D&D. We had a lot of fun but as Dungeon Master I was spending more and more time preparing for it. And while playing was great fun its encounters took longer than I would have liked. Please don't misunderstand - I didn't hate the game. A few years later I kicked off a D&D 3.5 group set in Eberron and we had an absolute blast - and there's still a few players left from that group in my current group. But as my wife and I had children and those children required more and more of our time the prep time for these games was a luxury I didn't have - and being able to play only once every two weeks I wanted to be able to get as much activity into a session as I could.
You might think that the next step would have been for me to pick up and Old School game like Swords & Wizardry. As it turns out, it was not. Around this time I was actually following the development of games like OSRIC, Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Game, Labyrinth Lord, and Swords & Wizardry. But I wasn't quite able to convince the group to give one of those a try. And to be honest I wasn't quite pleased with Swords & Wizardry as it was then - it's evolved quite a bit and the game(s) now available are far superior from the initial efforts. These were efforts that had a lot of good in them, but they got better with time and refinement. A lot of the development of Swords & Wizardry was done publicly, on various Old School forums and on the Mythmere forums. And watching this development, making the occasional comment, studying the results that were produced got me really thinking. Could I run a game in the way I used to. Getting away from those rules that handle every possible scenario. Get away from the safety net of guaranteed balance. Be willing to allow the players to try anything. To go off the beaten path and embrace the times that they surprise me.
I wound up launching another game that I'd been itching to play for years - Call of Cthulhu. It worked wonderfully. We had games set in the 1920s and 1890s. We had memorable PCs and adventures. In the middle we tried out Dungeon Crawl Classics, another fun experience. And one I think did a superb job selling the idea of getting away form rules for everything. When you have players having an unforgettably enjoyable as their characters suffer horrible deaths you know something is right.
As part of a goal to expanding our group - it's small enough that we can easily not have a quorum - we decided to switch gears to fantasy and do some recruiting. As it turns out we've had tons of people interested, with Swords & Wizardry attracting the most attention. But we also got a lot of interest in Adventurer Conqueror King System (ACKS) and that's the game we've decided to go forward with.
"What kind of lame Swords & Wizardry Appreciation Day post says 'hey I'm not going to play Swords & Wizardry'"? Actually I'd love the chance to play it and quite likely will in the future. For me, the appeal of ACKS was that it refined the version of D&D where I got my start in gaming some thirty(!) years ago.
But even then I'm planning on getting a ton of use out of Swords & Wizardry. It has provided a lingua franca for the Old School gaming community. Products from it can easily be used in similar games like OSRIC, Labyrinth Lord, ACKS, Basic Fantasy Role-Playing. And other games have material which can easily be imported into it. If we were to have played Swords & Wizardry for this campaign I would have been borrowing a ton of ACKS rules. On the other hand, as I'm prepping for ACKS I have to confess I'm not fully pleased with the monster selection there. But I have two enormous tomes of monsters from Swords & Wizardry, the Tome of Horrors and Monstrosities. And I will be using them and Swords & Wizardry adventures in my ACKS game.
This reminds me of the environment when I first started gaming. We mixed and matched D&D with AD&D, freely made use of materials from companies like Bard Games and Mayfair Games and didn't lose a ton of sleep over full compatibility. The games and their supplements used terminology we all understood. And they all flowed from a set of assumptions we all understood as well.