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Friday, 14 January 2011

Keeping Fantasy Dark And Low

If you happen to have an interest in the post-Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition movement that embraces the play of “Edition 0” games that hark back to the game as it was back in the 1970s, the likelihood will be that you read James Maliszewski’s blog, Grognardia. For several years he has been providing a commentary on the movement as well contributing to it himself in the form of The Haunted Chateau, but his first fantasy RPG is anything other than a “Retroclone.” Except that is, for the fact that the first book is subtitled the “Basic Core Rulebook.” Co-authored with regular collaborator, Richard Iorio II, Shadow, Sword, & Spell: Basic Core Rulebook is a human centric fantasy RPG in the pulp mode of Robert E. Howard as well as Clark Ashton Smith and H.P. Lovecraft. What this makes Shadow, Sword, & Spell is a fantasy RPG without playable fantasy races – so no Dwarves, Elves, or the like; with magic having a potentially deleterious effect upon the caster; and its more outré elements tend to be dark and dangerous. In general this is “low fantasy,” though not gritty as the rules have a capacity for action and heroics, and its focus is upon character and foibles as much it is on dark mysteries.

Anyone familiar with other 12° System RPGs from Rogue GamesColonial Gothic and Thousand Suns, will recognise much in Shadow, Sword, & Spell. The core mechanic is simple, roll and add the results of two twelve-sided dice to try match or roll lower than a Target Number. Most tasks will be determined by adding an attribute and a skill together. For example, our barbarian from the North below, has been employed as a caravan guard and has to defend it against a bandit attack. Hefting his trusty axe, Hafnyr must roll against a Target Number of fifteen, equal to the total of his Brawn and his Melee skill with battle axes, in which he has specialised. Had Hafnyr only had time to draw his knife, then the Target Number would have been lower, just thirteen. Fortunately for Hafnyr, his player rolls low, getting a result of six. On most skill rolls, a player only needs to know whether he fails or succeeds, but in combat, whether physical, mental, spiritual, or verbal, the number by which he succeeds, or rolls under the Target Number is the “degree of his success.” This value will determine how much damage is inflicted. In Hafnyr’s case, his degree of success or nine, is multiplied by his battle axe’s Damage Value, which is six, to give a result of fifty four. Sadly, the bandit fails his Defend roll. Even after deducting twenty points for the Armour Value of the bandit’s leather jerkin, this is enough to kill the raider stone dead.

Where physical damage reduces a character’s Vitality, in social contests a character’s Resolve is reduced. Instead of the results of a weapon attack determining damage, in Social Contests, social skills such as Bargain, Diplomacy, and Intimidation are used instead. Reducing a character’s Resolve and his attitude towards you will change, the aim usually being to reduce to make the character friendlier towards you. In most games these rules would work against just the NPCs, but under the 12° System an NPC can affect a player character in the same way. This can be a problem for the player who does not like to lose control of how his character feels, but these rules actually makes social interaction more combative, strengthens the role of NPCs, and presents a player with more of a challenge in roleplaying his character, because the character is being influenced rather than the player.

Shadow, Sword, & Spell being a dark and dangerous fantasy game, it requires a Sanity mechanic. A character’s state of mind is measured by his Sanity, which he loses points from when he casts spells or when he fails a Fear Test, which is made against his Will. Fear Tests are made for certain situations – the GM will have to decide what as no real guidelines are given, as well as for encountering certain creatures, such as a Giant or a Mummy. Just a single point is lost when a Fear Test is failed or a spell is cast, but the latter sounds somewhat lenient, especially when you consider the grasping nature of a spell like “Eldritch Tendril.” In addition, if a Fear Test is failed, a character suffers a penalty to all Target Numbers for that day. Should a character ten points of Sanity then he might gain a Disorder, such as an Obsession or a Phobia. Should a character’s Sanity ever fall to zero, it resets at its original value, but at one point lower. So example, the first time that Hafnyr’s Sanity falls to zero, it resets at thirty four. In addition, the character also gains a permanent Disorder.

Sanity is regained at a rate per new day equal to a character’s Wits. What this means is that unless a game is being run that is heavy on fear and fright, a character is unlikely to suffer too greatly from Sanity loss and its effects. Spellcasting characters are more likely to suffer Sanity loss as they will be readily drawing upon powers from beyond to cast their spells and so placing their minds in danger. This seems in keeping with the genre, but it still feels to a softer approach to sanity than to be found in most RPGs. The entry for every spell gives a Sanity cost, suggesting that they should be different for each spell, but they are all listed at zero. Is there something missing here? (Personally, I would have expected to see the “degree of failure” rules used with Fear Tests to determine how many points of Sanity are lost, though this is a much harsher approach then the game’s pulp underpinnings call for).

In addition, every character begins the game with five Hooks and five Action Points. Each Hook is an interesting aspect or detail about the character, "I possess the tusk from a gigantic walrus that I hunted, but did not kill. He left me scarred and wants his tusk back." If relevant to a scene, a Hook can be brought by the character into play and combined with an Action Point for various effects. Conversely, the GM can also bring or compel that Hook into play during that scene, usually to a more negative effect. When this happens the player receives an Action Point to spend immediately. At their simplest, an Action Point can be spent to gain a small bonus to a roll, but when combined with a Hook, this bonus increases, a roll can be remade, or it can be used to “Edit” the game in small ways to the character’s benefit.

Character generation in Shadow, Sword, & Spell is a matter of deciding a Background and Background Modifier; assigning forty five points to five attributes – Brawn, Quickness, Toughness, Wits, and Will; spending a further forty five points on skills; and choosing Hooks that a player can bring to the game. A Background usually describes a character’s original culture and homeland, such as Barbarian or Civilised, and grants a language and two skills. A Modifier simply colours the selected Background, emphasising what it is best known for and providing some simple skill modifiers. The combination of Background and Modifier can give a variety of results, each a thumbnail portrait of a character’s origins, such as Barbarian and Maritime for the Vikings; Civilised and Martial for a Samurai-like culture; Civilised and Bureaucratic for Chinese-like culture; and Civilised and Decadent or Sorcerous for the Melnibonéans.

My first sample character is Hafnyr, a warrior and hunter from the icy climes of the North who has left his tribe to come South. He will not talk about why he left, though he pines into his cups about how much he misses the sharp cold, the blue skies, and the familiar warmth of the furs. He earns his keep as a mercenary, hoping one day to return.

Hafnyr, Mercenary from the North.
Brawn 11 Quickness 8 Toughness 11 Wits 7 Will 8
Vitality 55 Resolve 40 Sanity 35
Background: Barbarian Culture, Northern
Language: Words of the Eohiric [7], Trader’s Tongue [7],
Skills: Animal Handling [7], Athletics [11], Brawl [11], Defend [8], Dodge [8], Observe [7], Melee 2/4 (Axe) [13/15], Survival 3 [10], Throw [8], Track 3 [10]
Hooks: Suspicious of fancy words; Men of the South are weak; Women of the South are exotic and mysterious; My axe can speak for me; I will return to my tribe to claim my rightful wife

Magic in Shadow, Sword, & Spell is divided between Alchemical Arts and spellcasting. Each Art, from Acids and Alkalis to Elixirs of Health and Transmutation, is treated as a separate skill. While each Art takes a great deal of time use, Spellcasting is a matter of a few actions, plus of course, the loss of both Vitality and Sanity points. Less than twenty spells are given, but this is only the Basic Core Rulebook and more are likely to be found in future supplements. Anyway, these are enough to get a game going and keep it going unless every player wants his character to be able to use magic. The spells themselves are well explained and easy to use in the game. Some, like “Floating Disc” are reminiscent of classic Dungeons & Dragons, while others, such as “Eldritch Tendril,” hint at the game’s weird horror elements.

Our second example is Amaya, a young woman who has devoted herself to the goddess of healing. She was taken in as an orphan, though she grew up in the service of a sorcerer. Ill treated and ill trained, she has forgotten what magic she was taught, but learnt one spell since, that of healing. Last month she was bitten by what she thinks might have been a wolf, but she is not sure...

Amaya, Lay Sister of Adonael
Brawn 9 Quickness 7 Toughness 7 Wits 11 Will 11
Vitality 40 Resolve 55 Sanity 55
Background: Civilised Culture, Sorcerous
Language: Fleamish B [11], Trader’s Tongue [11],
Skills: Bureaucracy B [11], Diplomacy B [10], Divination: Augury B [11], Dodge B [7], Empathy B [11], Heal B [6], Resist U [8], Socialise U [6], Study U [8]
Spells: Healing B [11]
Hooks: Was it a wolf that bit me?; I am not pretty enough to attract a man; I will only use magic for good, never ill as my master desired; The church is my Mother now; I must never travel by the light of the moon

That said, buying spells in Shadow, Sword, & Spell is expensive, double the cost of buying skills. In addition, because both skills and spells are derived from a character’s attributes, the higher the attribute, the higher the base cost of the spell. In the example above, any spell that Amaya wants will cost eleven points, the same value as her Wits, while the base cost for any Wits skill is six. On the one hand, this means that any spellcasting character sacrifices at least one skill per spell known, hence the fact that in this case, Amaya only has skills at basic rank, and knows several skills while untrained in them (marked with a “U”). Had her Wits been set at ten rather than eleven, then her skills would be a little cheaper (basic rank cost of five versus six), her spell cheaper (ten versus eleven), and thus her player would have had a little more flexibility in creating her. The issue here is not with cost so much as the fact that anyone choosing to take spells needs to little more careful in how and on what he spends his skill points and in at what value he sets his Wits value.

Despite this being the Basic Core Rulebook, the rules do include options, usually ones that make the slightly grittier than its standard pulp style. They include making weapon damage more deadly, Sanity loss permanent, and allowing the sacrifice of all Sanity points to enter a berserk rage. There is also advice for the GM, primarily on the what makes the pulp fantasy genre of Shadow, Sword, & Spell different to that of any other fantasy RPG. The author provides a setting, a collective of trading cities that were once part of a whole nation. It comes complete with history and secrets, and its own pantheon of deities that include Azathoth, Cthulhu, and Shub-niggurath. This use of these Weird Fantasy elements is reinforced by the inclusion of Ghasts, Ghouls, Gugs, and Serpent People in its bestiary. It would have been interesting to see the use of the Backgrounds and Modifiers in conjunction with the provided setting though. The book also comes with a scenario, “It’s in the Wine,” a nice mix of mystery, madness, and action.

Shadow, Sword, & Spell does come with a final nod to the infamous “Appendix N” from Dungeon Master’s Guide for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition which provided the reader with a list of inspirational fiction. This game’s Basic Core Rulebook does come with its own Appendix N, a list of that has here been expanded from fiction to include non-fiction and gaming material too. This though, is a list that only someone of a certain age and pocket would enjoy, there being some quite obscure titles, certainly amongst the gaming entries. Of course, it would be interesting to see each of these entries discussed, but that might take up more space than there is here.

Physically, Shadow, Sword, & Spell is neatly, tidily laid out with plenty of art. While it decently written, the issue is one of editing. If there is one thing that Shadow, Sword, & Spell needs is another edit. The issue is never enough to render the book unreadable or the game unplayable, but it is disappointing.

Despite that disappointment – the next printing will be corrected – Shadow, Sword, & Spell is a pleasingly complete package. The rules for character generation manage to be simple, but even with Background and Modifier options given, they should spur a player’s imagination just working through the possible combinations. The rules themselves manage that fine line between having just about enough detail and too much without being too mechanically demanding, and whilst some might decry the lack of traditional fantasy elements, Shadow, Sword, & Spell is not intended to be played in the traditional high fantasy style. While there is just a single scenario for it at the moment, this game is simple enough to adapt other material to it. For example, if you also liked pirates you could take Green Ronin Publishing’s Freeport Trilogy, strip out the archetypal fantasy races, and run it with all human characters.

Ultimately, Shadow, Sword, & Spell is unfussy fantasy that focuses on the characters and their foibles in an earthier setting with dark secrets.


  1. Just two factual additions:
    1. There is another scenario for SS&S out already called The Stew, available electronically wherever our e-products can be found.
    2. SS&S: Basic just had a complete re-edit done and the new version is already available online for purchase. Prior customers should be able to download the updated file as well, and the print version of the re-edit should be back from the printer soon.

    Thanks for the review!

  2. Cool. I didnt know James had written this.