Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Swords & Wizardry Appreciation Day

For those who pay attention to such things, the Swords & Wizardry “retroclone” rules is the system on which my superhero roleplaying game, Hideouts & Hoodlums, game is built. Why? Well, that leads to my Appreciation Day contribution…

The top 4 reasons why Swords & Wizardry was perfect for Hideouts & Hoodlums

1. OD&D Compatibility. At the time, the White Box edition of S&W was the closest thing to the Original Dungeons & Dragons rules being published. It has some serious competition for that title nowadays, but it is still a close fit.

2. Movement is just a number. In D&D, a character’s movement rate was expressed in a number of inches a miniature representing that character could be moved across a table (itself representing the battlefield) in one combat round/turn. This was kept for years and years as a hanger-on from the game’s roots in miniatures-based wargaming. In S&W, your movement rate may be just 12. 12 what? If you’re not using miniatures, it doesn’t matter. 12 is now just a relative number, higher than 9 and lower than 15. Combat is a swifter thing when movement is simply relative. “Your move is 9 and mine is 12, so you can’t catch me” is a logical resolution to a chase sequence that doesn’t even need a referee’s intervention.

Now, I didn’t keep these number values in H&H because I, perhaps foolishly, wanted those numbers to mean something and I wanted to be able to convert them into MPH. But I now see that S&W may have had it right all along. As long as all movement is relative, I don’t need to know MPH (except for long-distance travel, which is really a non-combat concern and doesn’t usually need mechanics). I could even eliminate numbers and replace them with slow, average, fast, very fast, and so on. Which I might. See if I’m not tempted.

3. Easier saving throws. Nothing, game mechanics-wise, sets the bar for how dangerous the world is for the characters in it than the saving throw mechanic. Once you taste poison, get hit with a spell, or spring a trap, how difficult it is to make the saving throw determines how likely it is your character is now dead. High saving throw numbers mean the world is a deadly place. And the challenge of that can be fun sometimes. But it is difficult to be the hero in a setting where most of what you accomplish is just surviving. That’s why it’s important to have low saving throw numbers. Your characters can still face deadly opponents, even supervillains, but they are aberrations in a world that isn’t trying that hard to kill your characters. This more accurately reflects the world most superheroes live in.

4. Splitting up the experience point bonus. For a long time, I disliked the inherent unfairness of the XP bonus for high ability scores. Maybe that comes from me being unlucky with dice and seldom having characters with high ability scores, but it seemed an unfair additional advantage for someone who was already getting a game mechanic bonus for the high ability score to then also get to advance in level faster. And that was true – in later editions of D&D where power inflation kept adding more bonuses but also giving the xp bonus. What I was failing to see was, originally, the XP bonus was the game mechanic bonus. Because, in OD&D, what is going up in level other than a +1 hit die bonus, maybe a +1 to hit, and maybe a +1 to saving throws (depending on which level you are gaining)?

Still, the XP bonus was awfully easy for many characters to get. If you were making a Fighter and you had just one high ability score roll (assuming you were allowed to assign your rolls), you would obviously choose to place it in Strength, your Prime Requisite score, and – tada! – you got a 10% bonus. The rest of your ability scores hardly mattered at that point.

What S&W does differently is it makes you work for that bonus a little. If your Prime Requisite is high, that gives you +5%. But it also ties an additional +5% to your Wisdom and Charisma scores each as well. Besides giving you a chance at an even bigger total XP bonus, and giving you a reason to put high scores in WIS and CHA when they otherwise gave you no or little game mechanic bonus, it also says something about what it should take to do well as a hero. Now it’s not just about a Fighter being strong anymore. He has to have the Wisdom to use his strength wisely, and the Charisma to get people to follow his lead while he’s doing it. And that says a lot about what being a comic book superhero means to me, despite being such a small game mechanic.

No comments: