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Saturday, 2 October 2010

White Box Fever III

Last month in September, we saw the re-launch of Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition from Wizards of the Coast with the publication of the Dungeons & Dragons Red Box Set, the first entry in the Dungeons & Dragons Essentials line. To celebrate that fact, Reviews from R'lyeh is running a series of reviews devoted to RPGs that aim to bring new players into the hobby. So far I have got to date with the Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game Starter Set for Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition, slipped back in time to look at the hobby’s second fantasy RPG in its most recent edition, Tunnels & Trolls v7.5, and come up to date with a look at Tower of the Stargazer and New Weird World, the two scenarios that come in Weird Fantasy Roleplaying, the very latest retroclone. This week we step forward to go back in time – or is that the other way around? – to review the original Dungeons & Dragons or an “Edition 0” retroclone of the original Dungeons & Dragons. The game in question is Swords & Wizardry: White Box Edition from by Brave Halfling Publishing and based on Swords & Wizardry published by Mythmere Games.

Swords & Wizardry is essentially available in two forms. The standard core rules are available in print and at your local gaming shop, and present a game similar to the Dungeons & Dragons of the late 1970s and 1980s, Swords & Wizardry: White Box Edition apes the original of 1974. It does so to the extent that it actually does come in an A5 sized white box, the contents of which are a pamphlet, four little white books, a pad of character sheets, a pencil, and a set of good polyhedral dice. Bar the dice, almost everything is in black and white, greyscale being used to mark the tables and the sidebars that the author uses to provide further explanation, suggestions, and so on. The four books are Book I of IV: Characters, Book II of IV: Spells, Book III of IV: Monsters, and Book IV of IV: Treasure. Each is staple bound with a card cover, each has an excellent pen and ink cover, and together the four booklets are a nod to the “Little Buff Books” of the original Dungeons & Dragons.

The starting point for Swords & Wizardry: White Box Edition is the pamphlet, the author’s “A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming.” As much a manifesto as an introduction, this guides the reader through four “Zen Moments.” These stress the game’s lack of rules, the reliance upon the skills of the player versus those of his character, that characters are heroes rather than superheroes, and on the game world being an unbalanced world rather than being a balanced gaming experience. There are tips for both the player and the Referee, and where appropriate, there are examples, these being used to compare and contrast the modern gaming experience with that of old style. This gets the boxed set off to an excellent start, though not in my copy which has the front sheet printed twice... Anyway, the Primer is available to download for free here.

Starting with Book I of IV: Characters, the most obvious difference between Swords & Wizardry and the retroclone of your choice, is the lack of the choice. There are just three classes, the Cleric, the Fighter, and the Magic-user, and there are just the three races, Dwarves, Elves, and Halflings. Both Dwarves and Halflings advance as Fighters, but Elves can choose on a day-to-day basis to alternate between the Fighter or Magic-user classes, or in a variant, advance as a Fighter-Magic-user combination as in Basic Dungeons & Dragons. The variant casts fewer spells than the standard version. As with other retroclones, playing anything other than human means that a Level limit is imposed on the character.

Mechanically, the rules and numbers are kept simple. For example, depending upon how well a player rolls, his character can only gain a +1 bonus or -1 penalty from an attribute. Further, the Hit Dice for all characters is based on the humble-sided die rather the polyhedral dice as is standard. Similarly, all weapons do damage based on the six-sided, with a penalty or bonus added to the roll depending upon the weapon.

For combat, there is one interesting wrinkle. Armour Class can be ascending or descending according to the Referee’s whim. In other words, Armour Class can either get better as it goes down from 9 to -2 for descending, or better as it rises from 10 up to 21 for ascending. Of course the first, descending Armour Class is very in keeping with Dungeons & Dragons right up to the advent of the Third Edition, while ascending Armour Class is thoroughly modern, and while I prefer it, it feels at out of place in a Retroclone. Book I of IV: Characters is rounded out with a short example of play.

So having looked at Book I of IV: Characters, here is a sample character. Tainrach is a sickly, skinny fellow who had neither the brains to be a Magic-user or the calling to be a Cleric. He proved to be good with a bow, and so joined a company of bowman for several years before deciding to strike out on his own. He can hold the line as with any other man-at-arms, but is more effective at range.

Tainrach the Archer, Level 1 Fighter
Str: 10 Int: 13 Wis: 14
Con: 6 (-1) Dex: 15 (+1) Chr: 10
Hit Points: 5 Save: 15 (+1 vs. Death & Poison)
Armour Class: 4 (5) Ascending Armour Class: 15 (14)
Long Sword (1d6), Long Bow & 20 Arrows (1d6); Chainmail, Shield; Quiver; 20gp

My first impression of Book I of IV: Characters was of a lack of choice. The most obvious omission is the absence of a Rogue or Thief type Class. On the one hand this does limit choice, but to be fair this is very much a design choice upon the part of the author. The lack of the Thief Class enforces one of the “Zen Moments” discussed in the game’s “A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming,” as it removes the reliance upon character skills and forces a player to think his way around situations where a Thief and his skill rolls would normally shine. If the book lacks anything it is an example of character generation, and while I might dislike the use of the six-sided die as the basis for all character Hit Points and all weapons, both keep the game simple.

Book II of IV: Spells is the second book for the players and lists all of the spells for both the Cleric and Magic-user Classes. The spells are listed alphabetically, and all have relatively clear and straightforward descriptions. The first book for the Referee is Book III of IV: Monsters, and besides listing all of the game’s monsters, discusses how to be a Referee, designing adventures and campaigns, and handling Experience Points. Again, this advice is kept short and simple, perhaps the most pointed being that Swords & Wizardry: White Box Edition is written for the Referee who is a good storyteller and likes to be creative on the fly. Otherwise, the game is not for you. None of the monsters are illustrated and the descriptions are perhaps a little succinct. Nevertheless, there is a good selection here, enough to keep a game going for some time.

Lastly, Book IV of IV: Treasure lists all of the loot that a party could want. There is everything here from the humble Potion of Healing to the fearsome Deck of Many Things with classic magical items aplenty. The book does not merely contain descriptions of the many items, but also contains a set of tables to help the Referee generate each monster’s loot. Primarily this loot will be in the form of coinage, but an interesting touch is that any magical items reduce the monies in the treasure pile.

If there is one thing that I would have liked to have seen in Swords & Wizardry: White Box Edition is another book, which would have been Book V of V: Adventures. Swords & Wizardry: White Box Edition feels complete, but a book of scenarios would have rounded it and made it a fuller game. Its minimalist approach though is refreshing and the inclusion of “A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming” not only highlights the differences between modern and old style gaming, but is an excellent introduction to roleplaying circa 1974. Which is, after all, what Swords & Wizardry: White Box Edition is. It is not an introduction to roleplaying, but an introduction to the beginning of roleplaying as much as it is an exercise in nostalgia, one that takes the modern gamer into the past.

In essence, Swords & Wizardry: White Box Edition exemplifies the “white box” game. It is utterly nostalgic and there is an air of mystery to it more than any “wow!” factor. This and the lack of colour is likely to be off putting for anyone new to the hobby, but for its intended audience is an fine introduction to, or a reminder of roleplaying when it began.