Posted on September 12, 2008 by Flames
There has over the last couple of years been a resurgence of various “Old School” games to hit the market. We have companies dedicated to giving us the feel of the first time we have gamed with newer rulesets, companies that give us updates on old rulesets, and companies again that publish supplements for older games. The fact that these companies can co-exist in this market must mean there is at least enough financial interest to give this resurgence some credibility.
So to the ranks of Castles and Crusades, OSRIC, HackMaster and whatever old game Mongoose is re-releasing this month we now have Jason Vey’s Spellcraft & Swordplay. S&S (from here on out) attempts to emulate the style and feel of the original “white box” D&D rules. Now I am in no way going to attempt to compare Vey’s work to Gygax’s. Nostalgia factored in, the original rules are on par with the Declaration of Independence, and almost sacrosanct document that can no longer be touched by the likes of us mere gamers and mortals. Taking out the Nostalgia, the Original Rules are a mishmash of text, hard to read with bad, even for the time, art. Now don’t get me wrong. I love my Original Rules. But at times I find it difficult to remember how I even learned how to play using them, let alone maintain a game. That is where S&S comes to our rescue. The feel is old, but the rules are modern, or at least as modern as the 2.5 version of the Open Gaming License. In its 107 pages you have everything you need to play a game minus dice.
S&S from what I can tell sets out to perform two important tasks. The first is to provide us a game that feels like something older than it is; to capture that gee-whiz nostalgia of the 1970’s. The second is to give us a functional game that can be used in the same way we use the various incarnations of D&D now. I’ll talk about how well is does, or doesn’t do, either job.
S&S “feels” a lot like the old rules. The first third is dedicated to character creation. It is roughly analogous to “Men & Magic” and about the same size. We have our introduction that tells why this book is here. Section on ability scores and what they can do. There are entries for the four core races (humans, elves, dwarfs, and Halflings), Warriors (not Fighters or Fighting Men), Priests, Wizards, Thieves and Assassins, all the things we remember as kids or have been told about. Some things have been renamed (my OD&D had Clerics and Magic Users and it was not till 2nd Ed that I had Priests and Wizards) some oddly so (Crypto-Linguistics? I am going to need some more levels in Read Languages to figure that out!) but the spirit is there and that was point. Classes each have their own advancement tables as in days of old, though the hit point calculations are weird, but they are in line with OD&D rules (I just had forgotten how it was done). Though I missed the level names. Spells are a simpler deal. Levels and description, that’s it. Part 2, Combat and Confrontation is a little more modern than it’s old school counterpart, showing it’s modern sensibilities. It is in fact truer to a more modern concept, the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Ability checks for the most part replace all skills. Armor Classes though go up instead of down (so 7 is better than 3) and start at 1, not 10. Speaking of which attacks are on a 2d6, not a d20 which harkens back to an earlier game, Chainmail, in fact nearly every die roll here is d6. Old School indeed. Part 3, Monsters and Magic is the “Monsters & Treasure” or “Monster Manual” portion. All stats are in a table at the beginning of the chapter, with descriptive text and some pictures following. It does make it awkward to read, but again this is the same as the OD&D books. Monsters are followed by a listing of magic items.
Where S&S attempts to sit is in the same place in the player’s heart between Castles & Crusades and OSRIC. Like OSRIC it is an attempt to recreate the mechanics with modern notions. It even looks similar. And like Castles & Crusades it is attempting to be a full game, not a “fleshed out SRD” like OSRIC. S&S then is OD&D or even a Chainmail RPG with a modern viewpoint.
It would be hard to judge these rules on read through alone. The proof is in the playing. The truth is it plays fine, no better and no worse than any other version of D&D. Combat is lengthy, but is was long in OD&D as well. Since nostalgia is very much on my mind while reading through this I re-rolled up my first character ever, a human cleric. I was careful to read through as I stated up my new character, decades of creating characters sometimes I tend to jump through it too fast. In this case I found S&S to be better than its OD&D counterpart. The rules are clearer and easier to understand. Outside of that its just like D&D. And that is sort of the point isn’t it. The nostalgia kicked in pretty hard too when rolling up that Cleric, er, Priest. For some a smell can trigger a strong memory. This time it was the sound of dice hitting the table. That was worth the price of the book alone almost.
This book has a lot of style. It manages to invoke the feel of the old OD&D rules, but yet still be good looking enough to respect the sophistication most RPG players expect these days. I liked the wood-cut style clip art. It really looked great and added an extra something to the rules. I also like the Elmore art, but not both of them together. I would have rather had one or the other. In any case the art is an improvement over OD&D (which is really not fair to say). This book just looks really good. The PDF is crisp and easy to read one my screen. My past experiences with Lulu tells me the book version will be equally as nice. There is no color art work save for the cover, but that does not detract from the book really, in only enhances the overall feel I think. The style and layout of the book reminds me a lot OSRIC. At one point I was even comparing the two side by side just to see how well they compare to each other. 4 out of 5.
This one is harder. While the book is small (107 pages) everything you need to play a basic game is there. Compared to modern sensibilities of 240+ core books (or three of them) then this game seems to be a little light and “missing” things. Plus there is nothing here that we have seen before, sometimes a half a dozen times before. But it is hard to call these criticisms when they are so obviously part of the design of the game. So judging it on those merits it has plenty of substance. There are still some decisions I would not have made, the combat system not seen since Chainmail is one example. The real question here is not about its style or substance but why you would want to play this game. I am tempted to give it a 4 out of 5, but in truth there is just not enough of it here. This is a game in need of supplements or at the very least a bunch of prior gaming experiences to draw from. That is not to say a newbie can’t play it, they very easily can and (let’s be honest) a lot of us WERE those newbies with a game like this. I give it a 3 out 5 just so expectations are managed here. I’ll give it a three and you’ll feel like you got more rather than me giving it a 4 and you feeling like you missed something. What I would have liked? A Character sheet. Sure I know that it was not in the original rule books, but you could buy them. A sample sheet, even a rough one would have been cool.
Why Play It?
Why buy or play this game? Well if you have every edition of D&D then there is nothing new here. If you are happy with the version you are currently playing, then there is very little here to entice you. If you liked the old rules but don’t want to play them due to not having them anymore or having them locked in a hermetically sealed glass vault then these are for you. If you never played the old OD&D and would like to see how it worked, or if you played it back in the day and don’t want to shell out a few hundred bucks on eBay, then this book will do you rather nicely. If you want a good way to spend an afternoon or evening with something not totally new, then this is a good choice as well. All of this aside S&S works great as a good little Fantasy RPG. It is playable, it is fun, and it just happens to feel very similar to game I played when I still had a Walkman, a Member’s Only jacket and way too much mouse in my hair. Today the Walkman is dead, couldn’t get into that jacket to save my life (but I bet my son could) and hair? Well. I have S&S, and that at least is something to tide me over an afternoon.
A fun retro-clone that works as its own self-contained game or as a clone of OD&D.
Full Disclosure Notice: This review is based on the PDF version of the book and on previous versions in which I was a playtester.
Full Disclosure Notice 2: I have played all editions and versions of D&D and I enjoy them all. BECMI, 1, 2, 3, 4 and Original all sit on my bookshelves in perfect harmony.
Review by Timothy Brannan
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