Wednesday, October 29, 2008

REVIEW: Spellcraft & Swordplay

One of the bits of gaming trivia grognards know is that the D&D combat system with which most people nowadays are familiar -- roll high on 1D20 against a number determined by the Armor Class of one's target -- began its life as OD&D's "Alternative Combat System," so called because the assumed standard combat system was that of the miniatures wargame Chainmail. By all accounts, comparatively few players of OD&D used Chainmail's system, instead opting for the alternative and the rest, as they say, is history. But what if it hadn't happened that way? What if the links between Chainmail and Dungeons & Dragons hadn't been severed and the latter game developed in a way that was more closely tied to the wargame from which it sprang?

One set of possible answers to these questions forms the basis for the intriguing game Spellcraft & Swordplay by Jason Vey of Elf Lair Games. I hesitate to use the word "retro-clone" to describe S&S, because it's not a restatement of an earlier game so much as the product of an alternate universe. At the same time, the game uses many of the same tools as retro-clones, most notably the Open Game License, to create a fascinating work of speculative game design. S&S shows some clear affinities with retro-clones like OSRIC, Labyrinth Lord, or Swords & Wizardry, but it's definitely a unique animal, not quite a "true" retro-clone but showing strong genetic similarities to OD&D and its descendants.

Spellcraft & Swordplay is a complete game, 110 pages in length and divided into three internal "books" that closely imitate the three volumes of OD&D. Characters in S&S have the familiar six ability scores of D&D, although modifiers associated with them more closely resemble those of the Moldvay Basic Rules than those of OD&D (or AD&D). Percentile Strength is also present here, but its implementation is unique to S&S. Playable races include Humans, Dwarves, Elves, and Halflings, with the three demihuman races limited in both their class selection and level advancement more or less as presented in OD&D. The ambiguity of just how Elven "multiclassing" works is preserved in S&S, being left to each referee -- nice to see this term used! -- to decide what he prefers for his own campaign.

There are four basic character classes: Warrior, Wizard, Thief, and Priest. There are also two "elite paths," the Paladin and the Assassin. Rather than being subclasses in the traditional sense, they are instead a collection of additional abilities given to members of the Warrior and Thief classes respectively whose ability scores and other attributes meet the requirements of the paths in question. Some will no doubt balk at this, as neither the Paladin nor Assassin require more experience points to advance in level compared to "normal" members of their class, but the benefits of their extra abilities are weighed against the additional strictures placed on their behavior. It's definitely an old school approach and I applaud it, though I will admit some unease about how it might function in play.

The classes are all roughly as you would expect them to be, given the OD&D influences on S&S. There are a number of interesting wrinkles that derive from Chaimail, however. All classes use D6 Hit Dice and the rate at which they gain them is not uniform, being staggered by pips in addition to whole dice. Likewise, wizard spells require a 2D6 roll in order to function -- all "action" rolls in the game use 2D6, incidentally -- modified by the wizard's Intelligence score modifier. If the number generated is high enough based on the level of the wizard and the level of the spell, the spell is cast immediately. If the number generated is high but not high enough for the spell to be cast immediately, it takes effect the next round after casting. If the number is not high enough for either, the spell fails to function and is erased from the wizard's memory. The implication here is that spells that are cast successfully do not fade from memory but may be used again later, pursuant to the usual rules for casting spells. Addtionally, for every day the wizard goes without re-memorizing his spells, he loses a number of them, starting with his highest level spells. Thus, while memorization is present as per OD&D, it demands slightly less planning than the standard system. I should note that this is close to the magic system presented in Chainmail. The selection of magic spells is very similar to that of OD&D, plus Greyhawk with some additional ideas borrowed from Chainmail (mostly having application in mass combat situations).

Spellcraft & Swordplay includes an ability check system to handle ad hoc actions by the PCs not covered by the rules. I have very mixed feelings about it, particularly because there are specific rules on how to use the ability checks to handle things like perception and social interaction, activities that I generally prefer to leave to player skill rather than dice. Ironically, the game includes optional background skills, which have no system associated with them at all and their implementation is left entirely to the referee's discretion.

Combat is handled much like the man-to-man system in Chainmail, with a character's chance to hit being determined first of all by his choice of weapon and comparing it to the Armor Class of his opponent. As in OD&D, magical armor subtracts from the to hit rolls of attackers rather than being a bonus to their AC, which remains an unchangeable class based on the type of armor rather than a generic target number. For reasons I don't quite understand, S&S uses a different AC system than OD&D, with higher numbers being better. Thus, plate mail and a shield is AC 8 rather than AC 2. Granted, the number is purely arbitrary and retro-clone games often change certain game mechanics to avoid infringing upon the artistic presentation of the games they're restating. Still, it's a bit jarring to see AC 8 as a "high" AC, when one is accustomed to its being a "low" one after three decades of playing D&D.

Like Swords & Wizardry, characters in Spellcraft & Swordplay get only a single saving throw, based on their class and level, but modified when appropriate by ability scores and class-specific situational modifiers. Warriors, for example, get a +2 bonus to any Constitution-based saving throws. As befits a game inspired by Chainmail, there is ample room devoted to movement, the effects of terrain, siege weapons, morale, and other related topics. At the same time, the experience rules are a bit odd, being a mix of old (XP for defeating monsters) and new (XP for good roleplaying), along with the notion that "treasure is its own reward."

The monsters section includes the usual staples of OD&D-descended games, but there are universal rules governing how certain abilities work, meaning that, for example, any creature with the Paralysis ability paralyzes opponents for 1D6 turns unless otherwise specified. Again, I have a very minor quibble about this, as this is a bit too schematized an approach for my tastes. Given the simplicity of the system overall, there's little real need for such mechanical shorthand and, more importantly, I prefer my monsters to be unique, right down to their own unique rules implementations. There are also some rough and ready guidelines for the creation of one's own monsters, but they're very "impressionistic," trusting the referee's judgment and ability to eyeball appropriate abilities. This is another example of the game's schizophrenia, one minute lapsing into 3e-style mechanical universalism and the next minute giving referee fiat free rein. The book concludes with a selection of magic items, most of which should be familiar to D&D players.

Let me be blunt: I really like Spellcraft & Swordplay. As a game, I think it's quite good. As an example of "what if?" logic applied to design, it's even better. There are quite a few ideas in here that I think could -- and should -- be swiped for old school homebrews, in particular the way that magic works. I'm also a fan of one's choice of weapon playing a more important role in determing whether one can do damage to an opponent. Still, there's something off-kilter about the game, as if its author can't quite make up his mind whether he's writing an old school game or a new school game in ur-Gygaxian dress. You can see this in the fact that the book's illustrations alternate between early modern woodcuts and lithographs depicting medieval tales and legends and Larry Elmore clip art of the lowest sort. Jason Vey notes in his introduction that he intended S&S to be a minimalistic rules set that is simultaneously old school and "cinematic." Granted, I don't share Vey's interest in such an approach, but I nevertheless think it's fair to say that the game, as presented, suffers because it's largely an old school one, but it has enough of a foot placed in the new school that it rankles. I have a hard time imagining committed new school gamers finding much to appreciate in S&S, so I'm not sure of the rationale behind this "of two worlds" presentation.

These are quibbles, though. Spellcraft & Swordplay really is an excellent game and I think it has a lot to offer old school gamers, particularly those interested in the prehistory of the hobby. I do hope that, one day, we might see a somewhat more refined version of the game, freed of the new school mechanical incursions and with a more consistent esthetic, but, even as it now is, S&S is well worth the cost. I recommend it very highly.

Final Score: 4½ out of 5 polearms.

12 comments:

  1. Thanks for the review, I've been wondering about that game. I've toyed with similar ideas IMC but I've never gone to the lengths Vey did.

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  2. An idea concerning why for the two-worlds mixture:

    Since S&S is trying to be an "Alternate History," we might want to know what era of that alternate history it is trying to show. Since it is mixing a bit of old and new school, we might say that it is what D&D could have been during the (late?) 90's (or possibly its 2e era?), after new editions and errata has been released over the years.

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  3. A fair review of the game. Good job! I liked the combat system and the way magic works, since I'd been eyeballing both out of Chainmail for some time but had been too lazy to piece it all together.
    I also agree that the "unified mechanic" of the attribute roll is a little out of place.
    I bought this when it first came out and liked the old-school feel of the woodcuts and public domain art. I was very jarred when the newer version was released and had Larry Elmore art in it, which I felt didn't have the flavor that the game required.
    Yes, overall a good game and I recommend it as well, but it does seem to be suffering from an identity crisis.

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  4. The whole concept of "emulators"--both retro-clones and nostalgia games--bring up so many interesting permutations of the question, "What is real D&D?" Is the D20 combat roll required? Vancian fire-and-forgot? And, to zero-in on one of James' points: Are standardized mechanics somehow not real D&D?

    Ultimately, I think a lot of these are "brussel sprout" questions: you either like them or you don't. Myself, I wish the ability modifiers were more standardized, as in Moldvay. However, S&S retains one of what I think is essential to real Old D&D: you can much around with it easily and without too much fear of breaking things.

    Myself, I find S&S hits about all the things I like. More so than Swords & Wizardry, which rather surprised me.

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  5. Thanks for the review! I think I've got to put this on my list now. It sounds right up my ally, both in terms of being a new permutation on the basic form, as well as straddling the old and new schools, as I'm so prone to doing.

    I guess I'm that mysterious target audience.

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  6. Since it is mixing a bit of old and new school, we might say that it is what D&D could have been during the (late?) 90's (or possibly its 2e era?), after new editions and errata has been released over the years.

    An amusing suggestion! Having conversed with Jason Vey a bit about it, the game's "schizophrenia" is intentional. He happens to like certain new school game designs and so included them in S&S for that reason. It's a perfectly valid choice, even if it's one I don't particularly share.

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  7. Ultimately, I think a lot of these are "brussel sprout" questions: you either like them or you don't. Myself, I wish the ability modifiers were more standardized, as in Moldvay. However, S&S retains one of what I think is essential to real Old D&D: you can much around with it easily and without too much fear of breaking things.

    I think this is a comment that deserve a post-length response, because it raises some excellent points. I largely agree with the general tenor of your comment, although I suspect we'd probably disagree on just which elements of the various D&D editions are "Brussel sprouts" and which ones aren't.

    More on this later.

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  8. That's the very nature of these Brussel Sprouts issues: everyone agrees that that want to eat yummy things and don't want to eat yucky things. The problem is that almost nobody entirely agrees on which is which. And you can't argue it. I can't say, "You are demonstrably wrong--Brussel sprouts are delicious."

    (does this food metaphor and word-choice make it clear that I have small children with whom I argue the merits of various leafy, green foods? :D)

    In any case, I'll eagerly await your post. I should maybe mention that I'm completing a review of the game for rpg.net which rather goes on about this at length.

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  9. Thanks for the review! Great comments; it makes me feel like I'm on the right track with this. I've been considering an actual print run.

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  10. That's the very nature of these Brussel Sprouts issues: everyone agrees that that want to eat yummy things and don't want to eat yucky things. The problem is that almost nobody entirely agrees on which is which. And you can't argue it. I can't say, "You are demonstrably wrong--Brussel sprouts are delicious."

    No, you can't really argue you, but you can put things into a context that at least make one's like or dislike for Brussel sprouts more reasonable. The entire project of Grognardia is to explain why old school games were the way they were and point out that they weren't somehow more "primitive" or "inferior" than modern games just because they do things differently. Certainly, I often give in to the "Eat your Brussel sprouts" approach when highlighting things I prefer about old school games, but I do recognize it's a matter of taste, not truth. I'd be much more willing to cut the Brussel sprouts haters some slack if they'd be willing to recognize the same thing.

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  11. In that regard, I could not agree with you more.

    And should add that I do generally agree with you and that Grognardia is one of the few blogs I look at at.

    I just don't think that standardized mechanics are necessarily opposed to the old-school ethos.

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  12. I just don't think that standardized mechanics are necessarily opposed to the old-school ethos.

    They're not provided the people using the rules have an old school mindset. My objection to them has always been that, particularly nowadays, many gamers look to rules as normative and the "ultimate authority" when adjudicating action in a RPG. Standardized mechanics create in a great many players an expectation about how things should be handled in-game that can be detrimental to old school play. I'd prefer to leave that out when possible to avoid this, but I agree that, in and of themselves, they're not necessarily opposed to old school play, even if they frequently are in practice.

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