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.

Fate Core Kickstarter

If you haven’t heard of Fate, it’s an updated and improved take on the Fudge RPG rules. It’s a very different but very rules-light and roleplay-heavy system, and has won critical acclaim in the RPGs Spirit of the Century, Dresden Files, Diaspora and more. Now, the company behind this system and games, Evil Hat, is running a Kickstarter to produce an improved writing of these rules in a system-neutral book ala GURPS and others. With these rules, you can run anything from fantasy, science fiction, cyberpunk, and more.

I haven’t personally used the Fate rules, but have heard many great things about it. The buy-in for this Kickstarter is very low; $1 gets you immediate access to the working draft, while $10 will get you all of the PDF expansions that are unlocked. As of this writing, it’s already at $66, 812, with an original goal of $3,000. I commend Evil Hat for setting a realistic goal as well as a long timeline. Right now 10 expansions have already been unlocked, with another one very close. There’s still 55 days ago, so who knows how far this thing can go.

Labyrinth Lord

When searching for a Retroclone to play, it’s impossible to not read about Labyrinth Lord. Written by Dan Proctor of Goblinoid Games, Labyrinth Lord is a clone of Dungeons and Dragons Basic and Expert rulebooks. It’s part of the “first-wave” of retroclones to come out, and has had one major revision since its release (primarily new artwork).

Goblinoid Games knows how to make a nice-looking game, there’s no doubt about it. While the initial release had a more “amateur-looking” cover and artwork, the revised edition, with all art by Steve Zeiser, has a nice uniform look. The font is very easy on the eyes, and each section is clearly marked. Of all the retroclones, Labyrinth Lord may be the best as far as looks.

But to counter that heap of praise, there is something about Labyrinth Lord that I can’t quite pinpoint. As one forum poster noted, reading Labyrinth Lord left him “cold”.  At first I had trouble seeing it that way, but after going back to review the book I can now. I’m not sure if it’s the abundance of blacks/darks in the artwork, very little shading, etc. Or perhaps it’s the nice if straight-forward and no-nonsense writing. This is a book that wastes no time; here’s the game, here’s the set of rules, go play! Compared to the gushing enthusiasm of Swords and Wizardry or even the slight smile from Basic Fantasy, Labyrinth Lord is the straight-faced lecture.

As a Basic/Expert clone, Labyrinth Lord has a solid foundation to build on, while refusing any “wishy-washy” feeling of Swords and Wizardry, or the march of progression of Basic Fantasy. Labyrinth Lord sticks to the guns of Moldvay, Marsh and Cook, and does little to sway from it. Again, it’s a great ruleset and those who aren’t looking for anything different from a “true clone” will be happy to go with Labyrinth Lord and never look back.

At the Mouth of the Labyrinth

It’s been a long time since I’ve played an RPG.  Back in middle school we played Rifts and Star Wars, but as time progressed and people moved away I never tried to find another group to play those with.  I had a friend in my church’s youth group that was obsessed with AD&D, but we never really played.  Since then I have followed the forums at and read about the new releases of Star Wars and D&D, the stagnation of Palladium Books, and discovered other RPG’s that I now wish I had known about all those years ago.

The biggest trends in the past few years have been the birth and growth of both Pathfinder and Retroclones, otherwise called the OSR (Old-School Revival) movement.  Both are very different paths under the D&D umbrella, but both maintain the Gygaxian spirit of fantasy adventure.

Paizo Publishing’s Pathfinder is built upon D&D 3.5 edition, using Wizard of the Coast’s OGL license for those rules to create a foundation for their RPG.  Many who were fans of D&D 3.5 have continued playing that ruleset through Pathfinder, instead of moving on to D&D 4.  Paizo Publishing has also set the standard for digital distribution, selling PDF copies of every one of their titles on their website.  Since Wizards of the Coast offers no PDF copies of current or past releases, many attribute Pathfinder’s success partially due to their amazing webstore.  It also helps that the costs of the PDF releases are far cheaper than paper copies (most rulebooks are only $10!).  I have already purchased the Core Rulebook and Gamemastery Guide, even though I don’t plan on using that ruleset.  Paizo now also offers a Beginner Box, which received far better reviews than the newest Red Box from Wizards of the Coast.

The two first retroclones to come about were Basic Fantasy RPG and OSRIC.  Basic Fantasy RPG focuses on the Basic/Advanced D&D ruleset from the Early 80s.  It is not a “pure” retroclone as it makes some changes to armor class (Ascending AC instead of Descending) and other things (separation of Race and Class).  Basic Fantasy is unique in that it is developed in an “open source” way.  The original documents (in .ODF format) can be downloaded from the website, as well as additional supplements and adventures.  The PDF is also free to download from the site, and the author maintains he prefers interested players do so before considering purchasing a printed copy through Lulu.  I have purchased a hardcover copy from Lulu and am very happy with it.  This will likely be the ruleset that I will use for my game, even as I draw on things from all the other systems.

OSRIC is as straightforward a representation of the AD&D 1E rules as is legally possible.  Expanded in the second edition to include monsters and more, OSRIC has evolved from being a ruleset intended for writers/publishers to anyone who wishes to play without access to the original 1E rulebooks, or even those who simply wish to not subject their original 1E books to further damage.  I have purchased a hardcover copy from Lulu as there is alot of great info in this gigantic book, even if I won’t be using the rulseset.

Lack of access to the actual (A)D&D rulebooks is a key selling point for all of the available retroclones, but especially for those that are based on the original D&D ruleset (the Little Brown Books).  The most popular is Swords and Wizardry, written by the original author of OSRIC, Matthew Finch.  This retroclone can be confusing to newcomers as there are 3 different editions: Whitebox (based on the original 3 rulebooks), Core (including some supplemental material) and Complete (all supplements published before TSR moved on to B/X and AD&D).  The Whitebox and Core editions are available for free from the website, and printed editions are available through Lulu.  The PDF and printed version of the Complete Edition are available from Frog God Games.  The look and artwork are fantastic, and Matt’s writing will inspire you in countless ways.

Labyrinth Lord is similar to Basic Fantasy as it also focuses on the Basic/Advanced D&D rules.  Unlike Basic Fantasy however, it maintains the original rules for armor (Descending AC) and other items.  Some people like that Labyrinth Lord maintains these unique quirks and believe it maintains the D&D “feel”, while others would rather take the improvements offered by Basic Fantasy.  I personally prefer those improvements, but there’s no doubt that Labyrinth Lord is dripping with more flavor than a ribeye steak; in fact, I believe out of all the retroclones it has the most by far (and I have to put OSRIC as having the least).  The writing, artwork and overall look of Labyrinth Lord will leave you raring to go dungeon-delving, no doubt about it.

Castles and Crusades is not a true retroclone; like Basic Fantasy it has presented improvements.  The difference is that C&C has overhauled the whole thing to use their Siege Engine.  I have looked at this game and think it’s a great improvement, but it doesn’t quite click for me.  However coming from a small dedicated company C&C is a great game with some amazing artwork, all done by one man (Peter Bradley).

So which ruleset to go with?  In the end you can’t go wrong, as you’ll still be playing D&D, and all of its progenitors (Gygax, Arneson, Holmes, Cook and Marsh) will be smiling down upon you.  Some of these games have major differences, while other items may be similar if not exact.  Also, in the true spirit of RPGs and D&D in particular you should change any rules you don’t like, and if needed mix-and-match from other games.  Personally I will start with Basic Fantasy, and bolt on a few more races, classes and options as needed.  I can’t wait to start playing again after being gone for so long, and I hope you’ll give one or more of these games a try!