30 June 2009

Pulp Heroes and Damage

The protagonists of classic ‘swords and sorcery’ tales are a remarkable lot.  They are a ‘cut above’ the common stock of humanity, physically and mentally superior to most people, although perhaps sometimes less prudent.  Even this occasional lack of prudence, however, is compensated with superior luck and drive.  Characters such as Conan, Kull, Fafhrd, and the Gray Mouser are capable of overcoming foes and surviving challenges that would easily defeat most common men.  Classic ‘swords and sorcery’ tales focus on highly exceptional and powerful individuals, not the ‘little guys’ of the world.  Even as neophytes, most ‘swords and sorcery’ characters are exceptionally tough and capable. 

To reflect this aspect of the ‘swords and sorcery’ genre, it is recommended that first-level player characters start with the maximum number of hit points possible for their class, plus five additional hit points (modified by their constitution scores, as appropriate).  Hit points should be rolled normally after first level. 

Only player characters and important non-player characters (namely, noteworthy allies and antagonists) should use this system for determining hit points.  The Game Master should roll normally for the hit points of ‘regular’ non-player characters, as well as most ‘monsters.’

Player characters’ hit points represent only ‘superficial’ damage (i.e., exhaustion, light bruises, minor scrapes, and so forth.).  Because of this, all lost hit points may be recovered by sleeping without interruption for eight full hours.  Resting (not sleeping), or sleeping for less than eight hours, will enable a player character to recover one hit point per full hour of rest or sleep.

Cure Wounds spells and potions of Healing do not heal hit points, but only lost points of Constitution (as explained below).  However, a draught of ‘strong drink’ (ale, wine, liquor) can ‘invigorate’ a character, enabling him/her to recover immediately 1d4 hit points.  Game Masters may also want to allow alchemists to sell ‘Elixirs of Invigoration’ for 200 to 300 gold pieces.  Drinking such an elixir might enable a player character to recover instantly 1d6 + 2 hit points.  Only one such draught, whether of strong drink or an elixir, will have this effect per day.

Once a player character’s hit points have been depleted, any further damage is done to the character’s constitution score.  Damage to a character’s constitution score represents ‘serious’ damage.  Every time a character takes damage to his/her constitution, he/she must make a saving throw (versus ‘death’ if using a system other than S&W) or fall unconscious.  In addition, a character that has taken damage to his/her constitution suffers a -2 penalty to all actions (including attack rolls and saving throws).  If a character’s constitution score is reduced to 0 or lower that character is dead.

Characters who have suffered damage to their constitution and have fallen unconscious regain consciousness after eight hours of rest.  If that character’s constitution is still reduced, he/she continues to have 0 hit points and suffers the -2 penalty to all actions until he/she can rest and recover.  Characters subsequently can recover one constitution point for every two days of complete rest (i.e., no travelling or adventuring).  The care of a doctor or other non-magical healer can improve the rate of healing to one constitution point per day of rest.  A character cannot recover any hit points until all constitution points have been recovered.

Game Masters should assume that most non-player characters and monsters are dead or unconscious when they reach 0 hit points or lower.  Only player characters and special non-player characters – important figures in the world, whether allies or antagonists of the player characters – should use the complete rules outlined above.

(Note: This house rule will appear as part of a longer article on 'swords & sorcery' adventures in Knockspell #3.)

29 June 2009

Swords & Wizardry Wins Lulu Competition

I already mentioned this, but it's now official, eh!  Lulu's announcement that Swords & Wizardry (the 0e D&D 'retro-clone') and Knockspell (the 'old school' FRPG magazine) won the May Lulu sales contest can be found here!

Well done to Mythmere, and all of the good folks supporting the Old School Renaissance! 

27 June 2009

Background Professions

Player characters weren’t always adventurers.  Before they decided to head off into dark mysterious dungeons or ogre-infested wild lands, they most likely started down one or more ‘respectable’ career paths.  In most ‘old school’ fantasy role-playing games like Swords & Wizardry and Labyrinth Lord, however, this aspect of a character’s early life has no effect on that character’s abilities.  This optional rule aims to rectify this situation. 

In addition, by providing all characters with at least one ‘background profession,’ this optional rule should provide greater depth and personality to the players’ characters.  Consider, for instance, the following party.  Cormac the fighter was once a hunter who was raised near the Highland Forest, hence his skill in tracking prey and moving stealthily in hill and wood.  In contrast, his ally Elowyn, also a fighter, was once a scholar in the city of Bookbridge, hence her wide-ranging knowledge of different esoteric subjects.  Elowyn’s sage-like lore intimidates her companion, the magic-user Alaric, whose own background as a petty noble in the court of the Duke of Briz means that he knows much of current politics and fashion, but little of ancient eldritch secrets, despite his arcane training.  Finally, their holy ally – the rotund Fredigar, priest of Muirgen, Mistress of the Sea – spent years as a merchant and sailor before being called to service by his goddess.

With this optional rule all characters start with at least one ‘background profession.’  More precisely, players may either choose one career from chart I or two careers from chart II below (the background professions on chart I are slightly more useful for adventuring characters).

It is assumed that characters abandoned their professions in order to become adventurers before progressing beyond the ‘apprentice’ stage (or equivalent).  Thus a character who has the background profession of ‘alchemist,’ for example, would not be as skilled at alchemy as most ‘professional’ (non player character) alchemists.

A character’s background profession(s) can enable that character to do or know certain things that other characters cannot do or know.  For example, a frontiersman may know whether a kind of wild berry is poisonous or not, or a doctor may know how to treat a particular infection.  A character’s background profession(s) can also give that character a bonus (typically equivalent to +4 on a d20) when attempting certain kinds of tasks.  For example, a hunter may receive a +4 bonus when trying to track a monster outdoors.  If a character has two professions, any bonuses from those professions are not cumulative (so a character with both the ‘farmer’ and ‘sailor’ background professions, for instance, would not gain a +8 bonus to his/her attempts to predict the weather, but only a +4 bonus).  Similarly, if a character’s class and background profession provide a bonus for a particular kind of task, these bonuses are not cumulative – instead, the character simply uses the higher of the two bonuses.  (For example, my version of the ‘thief’ class provides a character with a +3 bonus to picking locks.  If such a character also has the ‘locksmith’ background profession, that character would have a +4 [not a +7 bonus] to attempts at picking locks.) 

Ultimately, of course, it is the Game Master’s decision whether or not a character’s background profession confers any special advantage in any particular situation.  Similarly, it is up to the GM to determine whether a particular background profession is available to a character.  The GM may decide to prohibit certain races from having certain background professions (for instance, the GM may decide that dwarf characters cannot have the ‘sailor’ background profession).

Background Profession Charts

Players may select (or roll for) either one profession on chart I or two professions on chart II.

Chart I

1 Alchemist [Requires Intelligence of 12+]

2 Aristocrat

3 Doctor [Requires Intelligence and Wisdom of 10+]

4 Frontiersman [Requires Constitution of 9+]

5 Hunter [Requires Dexterity of 9+]

6 Scholar [Requires Intelligence of 12+]

Chart II

1 Blacksmith [Requires Strength of 10+]

2 Farmer

3 Fisher

4 Fletcher/Bowyer

5 Gambler [Requires Intelligence of 9+]

6 Leatherworker/Tanner

7 Locksmith

8 Mason

9 Merchant [Requires Wisdom of 9+]

10 Minstrel [Requires Charisma of 12+]

11 Sailor

12 Sentinel

List of Background Professions

Alchemist [Requires an Intelligence of 12+]

Alchemists are skilled at identifying elixirs, poisons, potions, and so forth.  (Normally there is no bonus to the roll, except for +1 if Intelligence is 13 or greater, but only alchemists can try this.  If an alchemy lab is available – typically only found in towns with populations of 2500 or more – the alchemist gains a +4 bonus, but must pay 30 +2d10 gold pieces per day to rent necessary supplies.)  Characters with the alchemist background profession start with 1+1d3 potions (to be determined randomly or by the GM).


Aristocrats have knowledge of court etiquette, heraldry, recent history, and politics.  They are skilled at difficult riding manoeuvres (+4 bonus) and mounted combat (+1 bonus to hit when on a trained warhorse).  Characters of an aristocratic background start the game with an inherited high-quality weapon, shield, or suit of armour (player’s choice).  Because of its superior quality, this item will have a +1 non-magical bonus (i.e., the weapon will have a +1 bonus to hit but not damage, or the shield or armour will grant a +1 bonus to AC).    Aristocratic characters also start with a bonus of 2d20 gold pieces.

Blacksmith [Requires a Strength of 10+]

Blacksmiths can repair metal weapons and armour with proper equipment (costs 10% of ‘market’ weapon/armour price for supplies and to rent forge; normally takes one day per item).  Blacksmiths can also determine the correct value of non-magical weapons and armour within 10%.

Doctor [Requires an Intelligence and Wisdom of 10+]

Doctors can bandage wounded characters with proper equipment.  A doctor can heal 1-2 hit points after one turn of applying a bandage or a salve.  Alternatively, a doctor can treat an unconscious character, returning that character to consciousness after applying a bandage or salve and using smelling salts for one turn.  Doctors can heal a character in this way only once per combat.  (A ‘medical kit’ with 10 bandages, 5 salves, and smelling salts, costs 15 gold pieces; characters with the doctor background profession start with one free kit.)  Doctors can also try to draw out poisons (+4 bonus) and treat many natural diseases (+4 bonus).


Characters who were once farmers are skilled at predicting weather (+4 bonus) and at bartering (+4 bonus).


If near a body of water and properly supplied (with a net, etc.), former fishers can capture enough fish to feed a 3+1d4 people for a day.  Fishers are also skilled at swimming (+4 bonus).


Characters who were once fletchers/bowyers can make 1d4+1 scores (i.e., 40-100) of arrows or bolts per day with proper equipment (costs 10% of normal price).  Such characters also are skilled at repairing damaged arrows and bows (+4 bonus).  Fletchers/bowyers can determine the correct value of non-magical bows within 10%.

Frontiersman  [Requires a Constitution of 9+]

Characters who grew up on the edges of civilization are skilled at finding their way in the wilds (i.e., they cannot become ‘lost’).  Frontiersmen also have knowledge of natural herbs and poisons (+4 bonus if roll is required), knowledge of regional wildlife (+4 bonus if roll is required), and are good at predicting weather (+4 bonus).

Gambler [Requires an Intelligence of 9+]

Characters who once made their living by gambling obviously are skilled at such games (+4 bonus).  They may earn (or lose!) 1d100 – 20 silver pieces (-19 to 80 silver pieces) per week by playing such games in any decent-sized town (normally a population of 2000 or greater), but may not adventure during that period.  (Note that there is a possibility that a gambler may lose silver pieces during a period of gambling thanks to an unlucky streak.)

Hunter [Requires Dexterity of 9+]

Characters who were once hunters have good knowledge of regional wildlife (+4 bonus if roll is required).  They are skilled at tracking creatures (any land-based animal, humanoid, or monster) in the wilds (+4 bonus), and are good at hiding and moving silently in the outdoors (+4 bonus).


Characters who were once leatherworkers can repair any leather good, including leather armour, with proper supplies (costs 10% of normal price; normally takes half a day per good).  Leatherworkers can also determine the correct value of non-magical leather goods and hides within 10%.


Locksmiths are skilled at repairing and disabling most mechanical devices, such as locks, mechanical traps, etc. (+4 bonus).


Masons receive a bonus (+4) to notice unusual stonework (including secret doors, stone traps, sloping passageways, etc.). 

Merchant [Requires Wisdom 9+]

Merchants are knowledgeable of the regional economy and current politics, and are good at bartering (+4 bonus if roll required).  Characters with the merchant background profession start the game with extra ‘supplies’ (player’s choice of kind of goods) worth (2+1d4) x 20 (i.e., 60-120) gold pieces.

Minstrel [Requires a Charisma of 12+]

Characters who were once minstrels are knowledgeable of regional culture, court etiquette, and current politics.  They know how to play one instrument (player’s choice), and own that instrument (decent quality – worth 20+2d20 gold pieces).  Minstrels can earn 2d12 silver pieces per week from performing (the character cannot adventure during this time) in any decent-sized town (population 1000+).  Minstrels can only earn 1d12 silver pieces per week in smaller locales.


Former sailors are skilled at predicting weather (+4 bonus) and swimming (+4 bonus).

Scholar [Requires Intelligence 12+]

Characters who devoted their pre-adventuring years to study are knowledgeable of a wide range of topics, including culture, geography, history, religion, etc. (+4 bonus if roll is required).  Scholars also are knowledgeable of certain legends, including those concerning powerful monsters, ancient heroes and villains, powerful relics and magic items, etc. (+4 bonus).  Scholars can try to identify a magic item (no bonus to roll, except for +1 if Intelligence is 13 or greater, but only scholars can try this) if appropriate libraries and/or colleges are available (typically requires a town with a population of 5000 or greater, takes one week of research per item, and costs 50+1d20 gold pieces).


Characters who were once sentinels or guards are trained to be observant (+4 bonus to rolls to notice unusual things).

Note on Rolls

As noted in the various descriptions of the background professions above, characters may receive a bonus (typically +4 on a d20) when attempting certain tasks associated with their background profession.  This system uses characters’ saving throws as a general task resolution mechanic (a house rule that I presented earlier).   Below is a summary of that system.

Roughly, under this system, when attempting a particular task, the player rolls 1d20, applies any relevant attribute modifiers (a bonus of +1 or a penalty of -1, depending on the attribute score), and any general modifiers that the GM judges appropriate (typically ranging from -10 to +10).  If the modified roll equals or exceeds the character’s saving throw number, the task is successful.  Using this system, any bonus derived from a character’s background profession (typically +4) is applied to the character’s saving throw roll.  

For example, a character with an Intelligence score of 14 and the ‘scholar’ background profession attempting to remember the history of a nearby ruined temple would roll 1d20, add her intelligence bonus (+1), and add +4 because of her background profession.  (For this example we will assume that there are no difficulty modifiers.)  If her roll +5 equals or exceeds her saving throw number she successfully remembers the history of the ruined temple.

Final Notes:

A slightly different version of this house rule appeared as an article in Fight On! #5. 

One difference between this version and the Fight On! article is that in the published version alternative ways of using the background professions are outlined (i.e., systems that do not use the Swords & Wizardry saving throw system as a ‘general task resolution mechanic,’ e.g., a d6 system).

Another difference between this version and the article that appeared in Fight On! is that the latter included the background professions ‘brigand’ and ‘burglar.’  Since I have added a version of the thief class to my own game, however, I decided that these background professions were no longer necessary.  Nonetheless, if you would like to use this system, do not own Fight On! #5 (shame on you!), and do not use a ‘thief’ class in your game, below are the missing background professions:

Brigand [Requires a Strength of 9+ and a Dexterity of 9+]

Characters who once spent time as brigands are skilled at hiding, moving silently, and ambushing opponents (+4 bonus).

Burglar  [Requires a Dexterity of 12+]

Characters who once spent time as burglars are skilled at hiding and moving silently (+4 bonus), and at opening locks, finding traps, and disarming traps (+4 bonus).  Characters with the burglar background profession start the game with a set of good lockpicks (+1 on d20, or +5%, non-magical bonus).

24 June 2009


My last post was on the 'roguish' nature of most 'swords & sorcery' characters.  I also recently presented my version of the 'thief' class.  This picture by D. A. Trampier captures exactly what I think of when I think of 'thief' characters  in older versions of Dungeons & Dragons.

22 June 2009

Everyone can Backstab ...

... because everyone is a rogue!

In a classic 'swords and sorcery' setting -- such as R. E. Howard's "Hyboria" or F. Leiber's "Nehwon" -- pretty much every protagonist is a 'rogue' in the broad sense of the word.  That is, either you're a charming rogue, capable of overcoming foes and surmounting dangers that would defeat a lesser mortal, or you're a soon-to-be-dead-or-forgotten pleb.  

Adventurers like Conan and the Gray Mouser don't fight nice.  They use every advantage at their disposal to overcome their foes.

In order to simulate this aspect of the 'swords and sorcery' genre, I've decided to let any character of any permitted class -- fighter, thief, or magician -- to 'backstab' an opponent, should the opportunity arise.  If the character can attack from behind, or without being noticed, that character enjoys a bonus to hit (+2 to +4, depending on the circumstances, as the Game Master decides), and rolls two damage dice upon a successful hit (e.g., if a fighter were to backstab a brutish oaf with a longsword, and that fighter successfully hit the brutish oaf, the player would roll 2d8 for damage).

Good guys finish last in the world of 'swords and sorcery'!

Post Pacing

Phew!  I've been posting at a pretty rapid rate since starting up this blog last week.  Time for a pint of Guinness ...

Good stuff!  Well, this pace cannot continue for long, alas.  

My plan is to finish posting all of my house rules for the Swords & Wizardry game (the OD&D 'retro-clone') over the next couple of weeks.  Most of these house rules, with varying amounts of tweaking, can also be used for OD&D, Classic D&D ('Basic/Expert' D&D and 'Rules Cyclopedia' D&D), and AD&D (1e, and perhaps 2e as well, although I'm not as familiar with the latter edition).  The overall aim of my house rules is to create a game with a stronger 'swords & sorcery' ethos, while still retaining a high level of compatibility with 'core' (pre-3e) D&D (and AD&D) products (especially monsters and modules).  

Once all of my current house rules are posted, things will slow down quite a bit.  My other main goal in the near future is to revise my campaign setting, 'Ilmahal,' and I hope to have that done by mid-August.  I would like to finish earlier, gentle readers, but 'real work,' and my upcoming nuptials, prevent more timely progress.  

More general posts, of course, will be delivered here whenever whim and energy coincide to produce magic!  (Er...) 

21 June 2009

The Thief Class (Akratic version)

My version of the thief class relies on using the saving throw system in Swords & Wizardry as a kind of ‘general task resolution system,’ that is, as a system for determining whether a character succeeds at a particular task when his/her success or failure is not certain.  (This system is explained here.) 

My interpretation of the thief class is inspired primarily by the fictional characters of “Fafhrd” and the “Gray Mouser,” as found in the stories by Fritz Leiber, as well as other roguish characters from classic ‘pulp’ swords and sorcery fiction.  Consequently, I understand the thief typically to be a good fighter, a roguish scrapper capable of standing his own ground in most cases.  Therefore, the thief is understood to be a ‘sub-class’ of the fighter (fighting-man) class.  Except for the special restrictions and abilities noted below, the thief follows the rules (including experience point requirements and attack rolls) for fighters.

Prime Attribute: Dexterity, 13+ (5% experience)

Hit Dice: 1d6+1/level (Gains 2 hp/level after 9th)

Armour/Shield Permitted: Thieves may use their special abilities only when wearing leather armour or no armour, and not using a shield.  When wearing armour heavier than leather and/or using a shield, they may fight as normal (as a fighter), but may not use their unique abilities and advantages (including their combat advantages, as described below). 

Weapons Permitted: When using two-handed weapons, thieves may not use their special abilities and advantages.  They may use any one-handed weapon without penalty, including a weapon in each hand (more information on this below, in the description of thieves’ special abilities).  The one exception to this rule is short bows, which thieves may use without penalty.  (If using the ‘Class-Based Damage’ system that I presented in the first issue of Knockspell, thieves use the ‘fighter’ chart – except for large weapons.  When using large weapons thieves only do 1d8 damage.)

Saving Throw: As Clerics (i.e., starts at 14 at first level, and improves by one every level thereafter, until level 11, when the thief’s saving throw is 4, and no longer improves).

Establish Thieves Guild (9th level): Instead of establishing a traditional stronghold like regular fighters, thieves may, upon reaching ninth level, establish a guild in any urban area of appropriate size (population 3,000 or greater).  Upon establishing such a guild, the thief typically will attract 4+1d6 thieves as followers (levels 1-4; roll separately for each thief).  (The GM may decide that additional thieves will join the guild in very large cities, e.g., cities with populations of 20,000 or greater, and that fewer thieves will join the guild in smaller settlements, e.g., towns with populations less than 8,000.)  Additional thieves may join the guild later, if it proves to be successful (GM’s discretion).  However, if the town or city in which a thief establishes a guild already has a well-organized thieves guild in it, the GM may want to role-play the subsequent conflict between the two guilds (or negotiations over ‘territory,’ etc.). 

Races: Thieves may be of any race (Elf, Dwarf, Halfling, or Human), unless the GM judges otherwise.  Non-human thieves may progress to any level, but have a Hit Dice of only 1d6 (and gain only 1 hp/level after 9th).

Thief Special Abilities

Thieving ‘Tasks’ – Climbing, Legerdemain, Opening Locks, Perception, Stealth, and Traps

The thief enjoys a +3 bonus to any roll involving the following categories of tasks (using the saving throw system described earlier).


This category covers attempts by characters to scale sheer surfaces, including walls and cliffs.  If a rope and grappling hook are available, though, the character normally need not make a roll in order to climb (although if the situation is very stressful, e.g., the character is being pursued by trolls, then the GM may judge that a roll is necessary).


This category covers tasks involving the skilful use of one’s hands when performing tricks (e.g., hiding a dagger from a guard), as well as attempts to pick the pockets of others without attracting notice.  Halflings (if understood in the ‘standard’ fantasy way) receive a +1 bonus to any legerdemain task.

Opening Locks

This category covers attempts to pick locks.  Halflings (if understood in the ‘standard’ fantasy way) receive a +1 bonus to attempts to pick locks.  If the thief lacks a proper set of lock picks, he/she suffers a penalty of -2 or greater (as the GM judges) to his/her attempt.  Especially well crafted lock picks may give the thief a bonus to his/her attempts.  Legends speak of magical lock picks that enable thieves to overcome even the most difficult of locks.


This category covers attempts by characters to notice hidden or concealed objects (e.g., secret doors or traps) or creatures (e.g., brigands waiting in ambush).  Elves (if understood in the ‘standard’ fantasy way) receive a bonus of +2 to all attempts at perception.  Dwarves (if understood in the ‘standard’ fantasy way) receive a bonus of +4 to all attempts involving perception vis-à-vis stone surfaces or objects (e.g., stone traps or secret doors).


This category covers attempts by characters to remain unnoticed, including hiding and/or moving silently.  Dark shadows or dense foliage may give characters a bonus to their saving throws, while bright lights or clear ground may give them a penalty (or even make an attempt at stealth impossible).  Halflings (if understood in the ‘standard’ fantasy way) receive a bonus of +4 to all attempts at stealth.  Wearing armour heavier than leather normally prohibits a character from moving silently.  Carrying a torch or other light source prohibits a character from hiding.


This category covers attempts by characters to disable or set traps.  The GM may sometimes judge a roll unnecessary, if the player describes his/her character’s actions in such a way that the GM thinks guarantees success or failure.  Dwarves (if understood in the ‘standard’ fantasy way) receive a bonus of +2 involving attempts to disable mechanical traps.

Exactly which tasks fall under the above categories is, of course, to be determined by the GM (although in most cases this should be obvious).  Moreover, it is important to keep in mind that any character of any class may attempt any of the above kinds of tasks – if the GM judges that it is possible for that character (e.g., the GM may decide that a character who has no understanding of locks simply cannot attempt to pick a lock).  These abilities are not the unique province of thieves.  Non-thief characters, however, simply do not receive the same bonus (+3) that the thief does.  Thus it is possible for a fighter with a good dexterity, and not wearing armour (or only leather armour), to be quite good at the ‘thief-like’ tasks summarized above, despite not enjoying the special bonus that thieves do.  (The character of ‘Conan,’ as described by R. E. Howard, can be interpreted as an example of such a fighter.)


The thief learns a new language at level 5, another new language at level 10, and a final new language at level 15.  At no point, however, may a thief exceed the maximum number of languages that he/she may know, as determined by his/her intelligence.  These bonus languages are in addition to any new languages that the thief may have learned ‘normally’ (based on the GM’s discretion or house-rules).

Reading Scrolls

At level 6, thieves with an intelligence of 12 or greater may read and use magic-user scrolls as though they were magic-users five levels lower than their thief level (thus a 10th level thief may use magic-user scrolls as though he/she were a 5th level magic-user).  There is always a chance that a thief’s attempt to use a scroll will fail.  The chance of failure = 5% + (2 x spell level) – intelligence bonus.  (Example: a thief with 14 intelligence attempts to use a magic-user ‘fireball’ scroll.  Her chance of failure is 10% [5 + 6 - 1].)  If a thief’s attempt to use a magic-user scroll fails, he/she must make a saving throw.  If the thief fails that saving throw, the scroll ‘backfires’ in a manner to be determined by the GM.  (For instance, if the thief in the previous example failed in her attempt to use the fireball scroll, and then failed her saving throw, the GM may decide that the fireball explodes right in her hands!)

Two Weapon Fighting

So long as the thief is wearing ‘light’ armour (no heavier than leather), and is not using a shield, he/she gains a +2 to hit (instead of the standard +1) when using two weapons. 

Artful Dodging

So long as the thief is wearing leather armour or no armour, is not using a shield, and is not wielding a ‘large’ (i.e., two-handed) weapon, he/she receives a -2 [+2] bonus to his/her armour class.

(Perceptive readers who own Knockspell #1 may notice that thieves automatically enjoy the benefits of the ‘swashbuckling’ fighting style described in my article, “Fighter With Flair!”  This is the only fighting style that they can use.  Unlike regular fighters, thieves do not have access to any additional fighting styles.  The thief class described above may be used with or without the ‘fighting styles’ system described in “Fighters With Flair!”)

(This version of the thief class was published previously in Knockspell #2.)

Saving Throws as a General Task Resolution System

All classes in S&W have a single saving throw that may be used as a general ‘task resolution’ mechanism.  Under this system, when attempting a particular task, the player rolls 1d20, applies any relevant attribute modifiers (a bonus of +1, a penalty of -1, or no modifier, depending on the attribute score), and any additional modifiers that the GM judges appropriate.  Very easy, but not automatically successful, tasks might receive a bonus of +10, while extremely difficult, but not impossible, tasks might receive a penalty of -10.  Less extreme modifiers should apply to rolls involving tasks of intermediate ease or difficulty.  The difficulty modifier is applied to the character’s saving throw roll.  (It is up to the GM to determine whether the player has knowledge of this modifier.)  If the modified roll equals or exceeds the character’s saving throw number, the task is successful.  An unmodified roll of a 20 always indicates success, and an unmodified roll of a 1 always indicates failure (otherwise, there is no point in making the roll in the first place, and the GM should simply decide that the character automatically succeeds or fails). 

For example, Nibold the Purple, a bold roguish warrior, is attempting to swim across a dangerous rushing river.  Because Nibold is a fifth level fighter, his base saving throw number is 12.  The GM judges that superior strength would assist anyone attempting such a feat, and thus allows the player to apply Nibold’s strength bonus, in this case +1, to the roll.  Because the river is flowing swiftly, and contains dangerous rocks and currents, the GM assigns a -2 penalty to the player’s roll.  Finally, the GM notes that Nibold’s background is that of a sailor, and therefore grants the character a +4 bonus to the roll.  This leaves the player with a net +3 bonus to his roll for Nibold.  The player rolls a 10 and adds 3 for a total of 13.  Since that exceeds Nibold’s saving throw number of 12, Nibold successfully swims across the river.  If the player had failed his roll, the GM may have decided that Nibold suffered 1d6 points of damage from being bashed about the rocks by the stream’s strong currents.  A roll of a natural 1 may have resulted in Nibold being knocked unconscious, and likely drowning to death, unless rescued by his compatriots (assuming that he has some nearby!).

Finally, GMs should always exercise discretion when using this system.  It should not replace common sense or player creativity.  If the task in question is one that any normal human being would typically succeed at accomplishing, then a roll should be unnecessary.  Avoid having players roll to determine if their characters can climb a ladder, jump across a three foot crevice, or swim across a calm pond.  Moreover, if a player comes up with an ingenious plan to overcome some difficulty or challenge, the GM may want to reward that player by allowing the plan to succeed without a roll, or, if the GM thinks that the plan is risky enough to require a roll, with a positive modifier.  Interesting and daring plans make the game more exciting for everyone, and thus generally should be rewarded by GMs.  (Foolish plans, on the other hand, are rightfully mocked!)

(Published in Knockspell #2.)

EDIT: In the third printing of S&W, fighters and magic-users both start with a saving throw of '15,' and improve by 1 per level until level 11.  Clerics retain their original saving throws.

19 June 2009

My Setting: Ilmahal

Here is the map of my 'homebrew' campaign setting, 'Ilmahal.' (I drew this map in September 2003.)

Below is a brief overview of the setting. I'm in the process of thinking about possible revisions to it, and so will wait a little while before posting more detailed notes.


The island of Ilmahal is slightly smaller than the island of Britain. It resembles Britain in terms of geography and climate, except for the fact that Ilmahal has a number of small but imposing mountain ranges along its eastern coast. It exists in the northern part of the world of Ilden. Culturally and politically, Ilmahal resembles post-Roman, Dark Ages Britain. The southern portion of the island was once the northernmost province of a great empire, the Aphorian Imperium. After the collapse of the Aphorian Imperium, Ilmahal descended into a dark age of chaos and barbarian invasion. Two centuries ago the southern portion of Ilmahal was united into the Kingdom of Olbian, which resembled pre-Saxon ‘Arthurian’ England. Alas, Olbian collapsed after its second king failed to produce an heir. Since then, the realm has been divided amongst petty kingdoms, city-states, and bandit lords, all struggling against each other – and against the many vile sub-human tribes that ravage the land – for supremacy.

18 June 2009

Swords & Wizardry Conquers All!

It appears that Swords & Wizardry came in first place in Lulu's May sales competition! (Announcement here.)

It also appears that Swords & Wizardry will be picked up by a real RPG publisher, and eventually will be distributed in 'brick-and-mortar' stores, as well as more widely advertised on the web.  (Announcement here.)

These are exciting developments for S&W, at least to grognardly nerds like myself!  Congratulations to Mythmere (Matt Finch) for all his hard work on S&W over the past year.

Fighters with Flair!

One of the great virtues of Swords & Wizardry, Labyrinth Lord, and similar ‘old school’ games, is that elaborate rules are not relied upon in order to distinguish different fighters from one another.  Whether a player’s fighter character is like Aragorn, Conan, Robin Hood, or Sinbad the Sailor is determined primarily through role-playing.  Nonetheless, some groups may wish for some way to distinguish their fighter characters in game terms.  This optional system of ‘fighting styles’ for fighters is intended to satisfy this desire, while remaining easy and fast.  Using this system, not only will a Conan-like character differ from a Robin Hood-like character by means of role-playing, but also, as a tactical matter, through those characters’ somewhat different combat abilities.

If you use these rules, a first level a fighter can choose two different fighting styles.  The ‘berserker,’ ‘shield master,’ and ‘swashbuckler,’ styles can be chosen only once each.  The ‘unarmed combat’ style can be chosen only twice.  The ‘weapon mastery’ and 'weapon grandmastery' options can be chosen multiple times, but only once per weapon type (so a fighter could not choose weapon mastery in spears twice in order to gain a +2 bonus to hit with spears).

An additional fighting style can be chosen by a fighter character once he/she reaches level 4, level 8, and level 12 (so a 12th level fighter will have five fighting styles in total). 

Seven fighting styles are available (although, of course, the Game Master is free to design others for players to select):

1. Berserker.  The fighter gains a +2 bonus to hit and damage for the duration of one combat (melee weapon only), but suffers a +2 [-2] penalty to his/her AC while berserk.  Afterwards, the character is exhausted, taking a -2 penalty to all actions.  One hour of complete rest (no walking) eliminates the exhaustion.

2. Shield Master.  The fighter gains an extra -1 [+1] bonus to his/her AC when using a shield.

3. Swashbuckler.  So long as the fighter is wearing ‘light’ armour (no heavier than leather), is not using a shield, and is not using a large weapon, he/she gains a -2 [+2] bonus to his/her AC.  Also, when using two weapons the fighter gains a +2 to hit (instead of +1).

4. Unarmed Combat.  The fighter can do 1d6 of normal damage with only his/her fists and feet.  If he/she takes this fighting style a second time, this damage increases to 1d8.

5. Weapon Master.  The fighter gains a +1 to hit with any one type of weapon (axes, bows, broad & long swords, clubs, crossbows, daggers, darts, flails, great swords, halberds, hammers, javelins & spears, maces, quarterstaffs, short swords, slings, etc.).  Each type of weapon may be chosen only once by a character.

6. Weapon Grandmaster.  If a fighter is already a weapon master of a particular type of weapon (axes, bows, broad & long swords, clubs, crossbows, daggers, darts, flails, great swords, halberds, hammers, javelins & spears, maces, quarterstaffs, short swords, slings, etc.), he/she may become a ‘grandmaster’ of that weapon type.  A grandmaster gains a +1 bonus to damage in addition to the +1 to hit he/she already enjoys as a master of the weapon type in question.  Each type of weapon may be chosen only once by a character.

(An earlier version of this article appeared in Knockspell #1.  The 6th fighting style is new.) 

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I'm a Canadian political philosopher who lives primarily in Toronto but teaches in Milwaukee (sometimes in person, sometimes online).