Review: Swords & Wizardry Core

I can still remember the impression the S&W Core Rules, a clone of Original Edition of Dungeons and Dragons, left on me the first time I read them.  I hadn’t read Matt Finch’s Old School Primer yet, but while reading the Core rules the enthusiasm was infectious. It had been a long time since a rulebook had really gotten me excited to play while reading.  There are actually 3 versions of S&W: Whitebox, Core  and Complete.  The first two are available free on the Mythmere Games website, while Complete can be purchased from Frog God Games.  Whitebox clones the 3 original Little Brown Books only, while Complete includes all supplements released for OD&D; Core includes a few items from the first few supplements.  Is the enthusiasm of the writing too much?  Does it take the place of where clear rules explanations and elaboration should be?  Also, does the 3 different editions “water down” the S&W brand/name/experience?

As mentioned above, the Core Rules PDF is completely free (PDF link here). Hard-copy prints can be purchased through Lulu; the prices aren’t too bad, between the low price of Basic Fantasy and the higher price of Labyrinth Lord. Unlike Labyrinth Lord, the Core Rules PDF includes the same high-resolution art you’d get in the Lulu printing; perhaps a small thing, but my mind did take note of that. As I’ve now read the Complete edition, I did notice that the artwork in Core is different from that in Complete. There’s a few pieces in Core that I like, but also a few that I’m not a big fan of (namely the dragon). Besides the art, the layout and look of the Core rules is pretty good. Readability is very good (the text is larger than in Complete), but there are many large blocks of white-space where additional art could have been used.  The charts have alternate coloring in them, making them far easier to read than any other game (Castles and Crusades has alternating colors in the new printing, but it’s two shades of brown).

As noted in the text, S&W Core is a game of brevity.  It doesn’t pretend or try to have rules for everything.  Based on OD&D, it is extremely light by today’s standards: 4 classes (if Thief is allowed), 4 races, and no skills or feats.  This is a game that will need a Gamemaster who’s quick on their feet.  Roll up your stats, pick a class and some equipment, and it’s time to play!  Swords and Wizardry, and by extension OD&D, is made for house-ruling.  While its bare-bones structure may scare off newcomers to RPGs, it can be a great way to begin.  Don’t know how to do something or don’t like what’s written?  House-rule it!  Want a d100 skill system?  BAM, it’s in!  Rather have ability checks based on ability scores, similar to Castles and Crusades?  WHAM, you got it!  Stick to OD&D style, and just describe in narrative to the Gamemaster what you want to do, and he rolls a D20?  Well that’s fine too!  It is also very easy to create your own classes and races, so if the 4 standard ones aren’t enough (or you really want to be a Bard…) it’s simple to add that in.

Again, this may frighten a lot of people.  Some may be better off with Labyrinth Lord, as it has a more concrete but still simple foundation.  But again, it’s hard to not get excited while reading Swords and Wizardry about playing and already brainstorming your own rules.  If you decide to do this and come up with enough changes, you may want to even go so far as to create your own custom document that integrates your rules with Matt’s.  Well guess what?  Here is a link to an RTF text version, provided by Matt, so you can do just that!

Like many retroclones, the Core book is the only one you’ll need to get started playing.  Along with rules for player creation and combat, monsters and treasure are also in the book.  The monster descriptions are kept pretty brief, as Matt wants the Gamemaster to describe the creature to the players in their own terms, and bring a fresh perspective to monsters that have now been around for decades.  Again, for some people that’s not going to be great, while for some they’ll be happy to be given the bare minimum and go off on their own.