Mar 5, 2011

Thoughts on Swords & Wizardry Complete Rulebook

I've had some time now to read through Swords & Wizardry Complete Rulebook, and played a few sessions using it. It is a solid well-written retro-clone, and extremely conservative in it's interpretation of the classic rules. But, for my own personal preferences I still prefer the S&W original core rules.

As readers of this blog may know, I started this blog because I was so impressed by the original Swords & Wizardry RPG. The writing was so efficient, it felt like the Strunk & White's version of OD&D. Yet still maintained enough character that it was enjoyable to read. The layout was clean, the font size ideal, the organization superb. I still use it as my primary reference during play.

I suspect the S&W Complete Rulebook is a reaction to the call for more information to fill the gaps left by the original S&W. What I saw as a virtue of the original I think was seen as a weakness by some critics. And I can certainly see how S&W could be a great foundation for a more complete edition. Which is why I was so excited to get and play it.

The cover was my first indication that something was wrong. While the art itself is perfectly fine, and the logo much more legible, it did not seem to fit the feel of the swords & sorcery world the original evoked. It felt more Cthulhu-esque.

Opening up the book I was greeted with a dense wall of 9pt text. This did not bode well.

I was hoping for an improvement, instead what I was seeing is something that looked less well layed out. Font sizing was unpleasant - body text too small, headers strangely too large, kearning and leading too tight. It all added up to a less pleasant reading experience, and less friendly for use at the gaming table.

The character class choices were fine: Assassin, Cleric, Druid, Fighter, Magic-User, Monk, Paladin, Ranger, and Thief. Best thing is the avoidance of the Gygaxian "sub-class" nonsense. And I like that the first person "You are a..." was kept. But in order to cram so many classes into a small number of pages the spacing between paragraphs was removed (for example under Thief Class Abilities).

Races, similar to classes, had a fine set of choices: Dwarfs (I'm so used to Tolkien's Dwarves that Dwarfs sounds clumsy), Elves (why not Elfs?), Half-Elves, Halfings, and Humans. I wouldn't have minded a few more like Gnomes, Half-Orcs, and a personal favorite: Half-Ogres.

The multi-classing rules show where S&W is too conservative in its interpretation of its' source. I think they are still a mess and cause inequalities in character advancement and abilities. We had a Half-Elf Fighter/Magic-User who seemed to dominate the game. And this by a player who is usually a bit timid.

Alignment: this section didn't do much for me, but I loved the illustration on that page! In fact several of the illustrations were quite good.

The equipment section stands out. I like how a few more useful items were added and the list didn't turn into an everything-and-the-kitchen sink catalog.

Weight and movement section was very well written, and concise. This was perhaps one of the best summaries of what often turns into bogged-down bloat in other RPG's.

Combat presents 3 alternate methods, this coupled with the ascending/descending armor class options, makes the rulebook come across as indecisive and too much trying to please everyone, which usually ends up pleasing no one. I would prefer to see the designer choose the best one and stick with it. Optional rules are best left on the cutting room floor, or possibly as a free downloadable expansion.

High Level Adventuring: one of the things I expected from this book was, like the cover says, it would be "Complete". An impossible task for an RPG, but I would think the following things are essential for an RPG to have that moniker: cover all the classic classes, cover all the classic character races, cover all levels of play from beginning to "immortal", cover all regions of play from Dungeon, to Wilderness, to City, to Extra-Planar, and cover all forms of combat from martial to magical to psychic. Swords & Wizardry Complete Rulebook is far from complete in this aspect.

The last thing I'd want is an 800 page tome written in wall to wall 8pt font in order to be "complete", but I was hoping for something more complete and written in that wonderful "Strunk & White's" concise manner the first S&W RPG was written in.

I didn't mean for this to be a review, just some random thoughts, so I'm going to summarize now.

If this overview was too harsh, I didn't mean for it to be. It really is well written and a great addition to the retro-clones already available. It has a place on my gaming shelf, and I might occasionally pull it down to reference something. But, I don't plan to use it at the gaming table (though since it's on my iPad, I guess I will always have it available just in case).


  1. Thanks for the review, Thomas. It seems to me that 'filling in the gaps' defeats the purpose of what Swords & Wizardry was trying to accomplish. I think I'll just stick with my S&W Whitebox.

  2. So I take it that you'll be sticking with S&W 'core'?

  3. S&W core, with some Labyrinth Lord and Advanced Edition Companion.

  4. Actually I use a melange of editions and retro-clones in play.

  5. Interesting review; I have to admit that S&W Complete is what finally sold me on S&W. Previously I had seen the Core version which I thought would work well as an introductory game but lacked the extra features I wanted. I do agree that the Complete rules could have used more elaboration on extra-planar adventuring than is offered within, but so far the optional rules features have been a real success in my gaming group, which picked and chosed from what everyone liked the most. As for the multi-classing....can't really comment; even back in the day I ditched class/race restrictions by and large, and the S&W Wednesday group has done the same. As for the cover I quite liked it, but I'm also an old Lovercraft fan so there ya go.

  6. I made a treasure generator (using S&W Core Rules) that you may be interested in. Do people still roll for treasure? You can change the % chance of getting a magic item vs gem/jewelry, so it's also useful for getting a randomized item if you want to include one in a treasure parcel, even if you don't strictly randomize all treasure.

  7. Hey just wanted to let you guys know about a new Swords & Wizardry SRD site built using the Complete rules. The site is at Please spread the word if you like what you see!

    -John Reyst