Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Swords & Wizardry Appreciation Day: Let Me Tell You About My Game...

A lot of people are writing today about Swords & Wizardry, and that's a pretty cool thing. You can find an ongoing list of all of the posts over at Erik Tenkar's Tenkar's Tavern (the premier OSR blog nowadays, in the opinion of this non-OSR person). There is a lot of enthusiasm and excitement going on for the game. Today only (April 17, 2013) there are also a couple of sale going on (the links to and coupons for I posted last night) from Frog God Games and the Swords & Wizardry SRD site. I would also suggest checking out the storefront of +Matt Finch, the creator/developer of Swords & Wizardry. It's nice to give him some direct support for the cool work that he has done for all of us with this game. If you go the route, be sure to use the 20% off coupon for April: APRILBOOKS13, and get a discount that doesn't cut into Matt's profits. Show some love for this great system that you can get into for free.

Also be sure to check out the Google Plus Swords & Wizardry Discussion community on G+. It is unofficial, but Matt and some of the people from Frog God Games all post there, and it is a good place to get questions answered from Matt and from fellow fans. There's also a lot of cool new rules discussion and material posted to the group as well. At the risk of sounding egotistical (I founded the disclaimer), the Community has really evolved into a premier place for talking about the game online. It has started hooking up community members in games too, which is pretty awesome.

Sunday I did a "pre-mortem" post getting a little bit into what got me started down the road of Swords & Wizardry fandom that led, in a way, to today's appreciation happening. A few months back, a conversation between +Erik Tenkar and myself lead to the first Appreciation Day, that time for the Basic Fantasy RPG (another OSR retroclone). Basic Fantasy nearly became the system that I ended up using for my return to running games and my first ever online gaming experience.

Today, I am going to take a slightly different approach for the Appreciation Day than some of the other bloggers. Instead of talking about rules or mechanics, I am going to talk about my first (but not last) Swords & Wizardry game, run via G+ Hangouts on the Air. For the longest time I was incredibly skeptical about running a game online. I just didn't think that it would have the same energy or enjoyment to it. I was so incredibly wrong about all of that. I think that the Google hangouts are a great tool, and for me at least, do a great job of simulating the face to face experience. And considering that our group has a couple of people from California, a Canadian and others scattered around the country...this is a group that never could have happened other than through online play. I have to say that I have made some new friends through this, and developed an appreciation for Swords & Wizardry along the way.

One of the great things about playing via Google+ Hangout is that we can record our games. This may or may not be great to everyone, but your mileage will vary. It is nice to have something tangible (as tangible as electrons at least) that you can point to when people ask question like "So, what is this game and how do you play it?" I can give a link and people can experience the awesomeness of the group in action. Above isn't our first session of our campaign (we had been playing for about a month or so by the time that G+ started offering the Hangout on the Air option), but it was our first recording. It took a couple of weeks to convince everyone that we should a) livestream our gaming and b) put it up on YouTube (yes, that's a link to a playlist of all of the videos that we recorded...including a couple of Lamentations of the Flame Princess games as well) for everyone to see in the months and years to come.

Obviously, mistakes were made during play. I misruled things a few times, but overall we tried to not let things breakdown and we kept playing through things. There was a sort of reverse learning curve to the game, as a couple of the players had to unlearn some of the habits that they picked up from years of playing more recent editions of D&D. The acceptance of an old school game wasn't entirely universal, but I think that the dynamics of the group, and the fun that we were having, overcame some of those things eventually.

I asked the players to comment on Swords & Wizardry and our campaign, and these are the comments that I got from them. First off, I'm going to put Ethel's comment up (she goes by +solange simondsen on G+, which is her Second Life screen name), because she was the reason that I started this campaign in the first place:
I mentioned to Chris Helton one day the OSR gaming he was talking about sounded fun and he offered to start a game I could play in. That seemed like a lark and that was about a year ago, and the gaming group is still going. I had never played any kind of D&D or tabletop RPG, but I’ve always been a lover of games - board games, video games, word games. But that really didn’t prepare me much for what was ahead.
Before the first game, I read over all the rules and tried to make sense of what all the monster tables and lists of spells were for. OK! I was ready… That first night on Google+ I met my fellow gamers and we rolled up our characters. They knew everything; I was completely unprepared. I kept forgetting (and still do sometimes) how saving throws work. They knew all the monster abilities and were blithely arguing with the GM about why they should get a +1 to hit and I was couldn’t really decipher the hit table. In fact, I was having trouble telling a d8 from a d10. Lucky for me, the gamers in our group were some of the most generous, patient and good-natured people you’d ever want to meet. I am still kind of iffy, but after a year of gaming, I’m slightly less of a derp than when I started.
Looking back, I can see pros and cons with starting out with Swords and Wizardry. What’s great about it is also what made it hard for me at first. It is rules light, easy to grasp and simple to dive right in. Being rules light also means, though, that you have to be inventive, bring some background knowledge to the game, and not rely on the book to resolve every question. But having just read what I wrote, maybe that was a positive even for a first-timer. All the discussions about how things could or would work, the stupid mistakes that wound up working out in spite of myself, all the laughing and poking at each other we all did… A lot of that would have been lost if we had been following a more prescriptive system. And that wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun.  
So, right from the trenches we see that Swords & Wizardry can be used to make someone with no experience with tabletop RPGs into a gamer. I honestly think that Ethel sells herself a little short, after 30+ of gaming I still have brain farts about what to do and not to do at times (I think our game play videos have plenty of evidence to show that), and she took to gaming like a fish to water. Yeah, there were some hiccups. Gaming, for better or for worse, does have a lot of jargon to it that a new person has to learn and over come, but like she said, I think that the group really came together and tried to help her out and smooth over some of the rough patches. Ethel has even run a few sessions of her first adventure (which you can catch near the end of the playlist of our videos). It only took a short while before she was in there, making Monty Python jokes and acting all gamer-like with the rest of us.

+David Rollins, who played the party Cleric, had this to say:
The thing that affected our play as a group most was the streamlined nature of the rules. There was a lot of room to improvise creatively and use items and the environment in creative ways to increase our effectiveness far beyond our collective hit dice. In Chris' campaign we found ourselves seriously outclassed on a a few occasions but managed to avoid the TPKs with some out-side-of-the-box tactical play that was not covered by the rules. Instead of covering everything the rules left room for creative solutions.
In my case, I played a cleric. With no spells until 2nd level but the power to turn undead my character started as a holy warrior who stepped to the front in the battle against chaos. Spells and turning became something to be called on only in cases of great challenge in battle. With fast advancement my character had multiple hit dice before any other party member giving him the hit points to remain a viable front line fighter even though his attack bonus did not keep pace with the actual fighters in the party. This is a very different animal from the tough casters that clerics became in the later editions. It was a blast playing an uncompromising holy warrior on a mission!
David was also the person who helped mentor Ethel's new gamer. He helped with explanations and patiently explaining things multiple times (if needed) in order to help her out. Plus he also embraced some of my weird approaches to fantasy game worlds, and I think that helped things a lot. David really helped to push my campaign in new directions, when I thought that I was going too far already, by taking some of my weird plot ideas, and weird dungeon crawling ideas, and running with them.

+Josh Thompson, the player of the party Thief, said, in his succinct style:
My time with S&W has shown me that you don't need a complex set of rules to have  complex setting and characters. If anything, the non-intrusive rules have allowed such areas to deepen. Also, the hallways are very cozy.
+Jeremy Whalen who, sadly, no longer games with us, provides a bit of a counter point towards the game. Showing how things can vary within a group. Jeremy provided the muscle to our early adventures, with his Fighter Goreaxe.

I played Goreaxe as a traditionally grim warrior as intent on inflicting harm as on protecting his compatriots and surprisingly enough his family back in town even though we only touched upon that specific aspect when I was with pleading with Chris to spare Goreaxe from a failed save that should have resulted in his untimely but richly deserved death.  "What about my wife and kids? Seriously they need me!" (btw that worked, Goreaxe survived!)
I really enjoyed my role and the system was certainly quick and easy but I think it may have been a bit too streamlined. One specific incident sticks out in my mind.
Early in our campaign we were exploring a dungeon, hot on the trail of the mysterious chaos that threatened the region, when we burst through a door and confronted a pack of lizard men (if I recall correctly). Goreaxe rushed forward and attacked, as intent to kill his enemy as on protecting his party. The initial flurry went well enough but when it came time for our opponents to attack they simply did an end run around Goraxe to hit the soft wizard left behind in the doorway. I objected and sought to interpose Goreaxe in someway but apparently they were too quick for him as. I felt quite impotent as the wizard took the beating that should have been for Goreaxe. Mechanically S&W just didn't’ work that way and it left me, as a player, somewhat frustrated by the oversight. Now to be clear I do not advocate for systems that attempt to codify every eventuality as that is simply not practical. What should have happened? Well I think it came down to narrative and presentation. When I objected Chris simply indicated the rules did not support that and then proceeded to keep the game moving however I was disappointed, and for a few moments, my happiness index fell.
The lesson here, if I may be so bold, is that when systems don’t cover intended character actions, or player desires, it is up to the GM to find a way to handle the situation that maximizes everyone's fun without derailing the session. I moved on after a few moments of irritation because, as a player, my responsibility was to help Chris make the game enjoyable for everyone, not just myself. Also, the wizard deserved a beating.
+Stacy Dellorfano (the first person to join our core band of adventurers) added:
The best thing that I could possibly say about Swords & Wizardry (and it's a good thing), is that I've barely noticed the system, been too busy beating shit up. :)
Honestly, it seems like we mostly came to very similar conclusions about the game and its approaches, and found that it was a style that suited us as a group, once we were all able to get into the mindset and allow ourselves to stretch our muscles. Swords & Wizardry supplied us with a light and flexible ruleset that supported us when we needed it, and also got out of the way when we needed that. I honestly don't think that our game would have been the same, or as much fun for any of us, if we had used a different game. Swords & Wizardry has officially become my go-to fantasy game, and I don't see that changing any time soon.

As a GM, and as a game designer (both hats were worn in our previous campaign), Swords & Wizardry provides a solid, but light, foundation that encourages me to hack it and do with it as I want. That was demonstrated in some of my different approaches to a traditional dungeon crawl, and interaction with the characters and the world. Our next game is going to be based on S&W as well, but we are going back to the Whitebox rules as our foundation. I'm also using the encouragement of the players to hack things a bit more extensively than we previously did. I am adding a skill system to the game (adapted from a Basic Fantasy RPG hack), doing away with the Cleric as a class, and adding other little mechanical bits and pieces. Ironically, during the time that we have been playing this game I discovered and fell in love with the world of the Warhammer Fantasy Role-Playing Game and have started tracking down some of the early edition material for it. While I like Swords & Wizardry as my system, I am finding that a non-D&D type of setting suits me, and my fantasy interests better. In our next campaign, Demon Codex, I am going to embrace a lot of that and turn this game into my game, and then by extension into our game.

It has been a fun road. Not only has Swords & Wizardry introduced my friend to the wonderful world of gaming, but it has also allowed me to meet some great new people and game with them. It has also let me find a community of people interested in this game, and their different approaches have shown me new and different ways of looking at the game. It has also allowed me to meet and pick the brain of Matt Finch (who will be appearing on a future Dorkland! Roundtable). It also led, indirectly I guess, to so many bloggers talking about a great game on this day.

Thank you, everyone, for contributing to a great community and for helping to make such a great day.