Saturday, September 13, 2014

Game Review: Swords & Wizardry White Box

This is the first in a series of reviews of some of the so-called 'clones' of old school editions of Dungeons & Dragons. Let me first define some terms:

A clone is a game that adheres closely to the mechanics, substance and/or presentation of a particular edition or editions of Dungeons & Dragons such that without the legal protections of the Open Game License and the Systems Reference Document it would clearly be violating copyright law.

A retro-clone is a clone that on the main strives to emulate a particular edition as precisely as possible.

A neo-clone is a clone that uses an edition or editions as a template but is designed to differ substantially from the original.

The original is the edition the clone is, well, cloning.

Now on to the review.

Game: Swords & Wizardry White Box (2009).

Availability: Softcover: $9.99. Hardcover: $18.99. Boxed Set: currently unavailable. PDF: Free.

Status: Neo-clone.

Original: The Three Little Brown Books (1974), or more accurately, the first two of the three--Men & Magic and Monsters & Treasure.

Introduction: Swords & Wizardry (2008) was the third major retro-clone to be published after Labyrinth Lord (2007) and OSRIC (2006). A year later in 2009, Swords & Wizardry White Box was released, authored by Matt Finch and Marv Breig. Unlike other clones, Swords & Wizardry never tried to emulate one particular edition of OD&D. Rather the intention was to emulate a style of play over a particular time period. If Swords & Wizardry as a whole embraced a sort of average of the original 1974 edition + the supplements + Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, White Box was an attempt to dial things back to the minimalist mechanics and presentation of the 1974 version. So, although it's not specifically designed to be a clone of the three little brown books, we'll use those as a point of comparison.

Comparisons with the Original:

1. The first thing the reader notices is that, unlike the original, Swords & Wizardry White Box is extremely well organized and presented. Now, don't misunderstand. I never thought that that was a major fault of the three little brown books. But some do. White Box has an attractive and readable contemporary font and layout. There's a full table of contents for the entire game, and so on.

2. White Box adheres to the minimalist mechanics and substance of the original. There are approximately the same number of items of equipment for purchase, spells, monsters and the rest. However White Box comes in at only about 70% of the word count of the original. This is primarily because most of the material in the third of the three little brown books--The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures--is absent from White Box.

3. White Box maintains the six classes of the original, including preserving the idea of race as class, jettisoned in the later editions. Ability Score adjustments and bonuses are slight, as in the original, but altered somewhat. The confusing 'point swapping' mechanic for the purpose of upping one's experience point bonus, is dropped in favor of giving a +5% adjustment to high wisdom and charisma scores. And an optional adjustments for high or low strength scores is added.

4. Unlike in the original, weapons are given variable damage rolls, though this is done in a simple and elegant way, more like the Moldvay/Cook Basic/Expert set than the proliferation of possibilities offered in Greyhawk and even more so in AD&D.

5. Spell lists are very similar to the original with only a few small differences. The number of monsters is approximately the same but includes a greater diversity than the three little brown books. About half are from the original with the rest coming from the supplements or even the Monster Manual. This is a good example of where, to frame it positively, Swords & Wizardry White Box is less interested in historical purity than, well, fun.

Minor Annoyances:

(I will include this section in all reviews, no matter how much I like the game overall.)

1. In a number of places White Box goes out of its way to, in its own words, present 'options for your consideration'. For example, you can give Fighters with a 15+ strength a +1 bonus on attacks. Or not. Or make the requirement slightly easier at 14 or even 13. I used to like this. Now I don't. Do not misunderstand. That White Box, like the original, stresses that the referee and players can and should modify the rules according to taste is absolutely correct and laudable. But, before I do that I want to know what the authors think. After all, presumably they know much more about the mechanic than I do. They thought about it, wrote it and playtested it. They're the authors after all. So while I reserve the right to change things, I have a rational interest in knowing what they prefer.

2. White Box 'rationalizes' certain mechanics of the original, such as the saving throw system. As opposed to the five categories of the original--Save Versus Death Ray or Poison, Save Versus All Wands - Including Polymorph and 'Paralization', Save Versus Rusting, Magical Vibration Attacks or Coughing Fits (okay I made up that last one) and so on--there is only one saving throw number that increases (or decreases) by 1 per level. Different classes get small bonuses on some kinds of saving throws. Parallel to this is a general smoothing out of the attack bonus increases per level. Personally I find chunky and discontinuous increases preferable (for a variety of reasons) and I would rather, say, save versus Dragon Breath than, well, just make a saving throw. It's increases the fairy tale otherworldly vibe for me. But I admit that I might be in a minority on this. I could mention 'descending armor class' but I won't. I don't want to seem too much a curmudgeon.

3. Why oh why do most old school games list all spells alphabetically, as opposed to listing them alphabetically only within the spell levels? Since almost all do it, many must like this approach. I don't.

4. White Box also rationalizes the way magic items are 'assigned' to treasure hordes. Again, when I first read the rules, I thought they were an improvement. Now I think the Swords & Wizardry system is a needless and confusing complication. And without being too ideological about it, scaling the power of magic items found (as part of the official mechanic) is too rational and new school for me.

5. White Box is somewhat schizophrenic as to its audience. In some ways it purports to be an introductory game--with its explanations of what role-playing is, the kind of dice used, and so on. But I can't imagine anyone unfamiliar with these sorts of games simply picking it up and playing it. Again, there is very little material--short of a view general paragraphs--on dungeon design, wilderness adventures or campaign creation. By contrast, the original game had all of that and more (though some would say it was frustratingly ambiguous or incomplete), going as far as presenting detailed rules for aerial combat and sea combat, among other things. Now, in regards to the last two features, I think it fair to say that few actually used those rules. So, from one point of view it makes sense to ditch them. But even if they weren't used, they still (in my view) served to spark the imagination of the reader. This is the sort of world we are in (Gygax and Arneson seem to be saying): the wilderness is dotted with castles where Lords challenge intruders to jousts, Viking longships cruise the coasts, and sieges often feature Balrogs hurling fire over parapets. Leaving that consideration aside and stepping back to the issue of game mechanics, how would novice players be in any position to make informed decisions on the options White Box puts up for for their 'consideration'? White Box is a great system for, say, an experienced referee to use with novice players. But that's different.

Major Triumphs:

1. For a few years, White Box was the only major game in town that emulated the really minimalist approach of the three little brown books. That there is now more competition is not a fault of White Box. It did it first.

2. In places, Finch and Breig precisely and evocatively describe the old school approach in words that have never been equaled:

The rules are extremely short, compared to the multi-paged rule-libraries required to play most modern roleplaying games. Yet this game contains within itself all the seeds and soul of mythic fantasy, the building blocks of vast complexity, the kindling of wonder. The game is so powerful because it’s encapsulated in a small formula, like a genie kept imprisoned in the small compass of an unremarkable lamp.

There’s not a lot of detail given about the monsters, because the more detail given, the more your own mental image of the fantasy world is going to be locked into a single track. We’re not going to say that giant ants are red, nocturnal, three feet long, and fond of eating Elves. Because in your mind, they might be blue, diurnal, five feet long, and eat only plants unless they’re attacked. Details about monsters toss roadblocks in front of your imagination. Yes, details can also inspire the imagination, but we’re making the assumption that if you’re interested in fantasy gaming in the first place, you’ve got a good imagination that doesn’t need details about the size of a giant ant.

I didn't include much of that sort of thing in my own 'minimalist' old school game, partly because I knew I couldn't possibly improve on the above.

3. The writing is punchy, crisp and fluent. And no, that's not a feature of all old school games--even of otherwise laudable ones. And yes, it matters.

4. The PDF is free. It sounds almost condescending to mention that, but it shouldn't be. Finch and Breig don't want to bilk you. They just want you to have as much fun playing it as they (I'm guessing) had writing it. I have no doubt it made a number of old school converts. I know that because I was one of them.

Overall Assessment:

That there are more Minor Annoyances than Major Triumphs is a feature of my review template more than anything else. Swords & Wizardry White Box is one of the best products the OSR has produced. Any clone of the three little brown books must take the measure of it, and will in some ways be measured by it. There are now other options out there that may appeal to slightly different audiences--Delving Deeper for historical purists (believe me, there's nothing wrong with that!) and my own humble effort, among others--but White Box is still the gold standard.


  1. Other point to mention, and I don't know if it's some mistake or some deliberate choice : the progression of the "to-hit" tables is very different from the LBB's alternate combat system tables , or even from S&W Core rules.

    1. Well, they're smoothed out. That's certainly true. But I think the slope and the average for all classes, except perhaps fighters, are more similar than they might initially appear. For example over the first ten levels, the average bonus for S&W vs. OD&D magic-users is precisely the same. For clerics, S&W gives a bonus of 2/10 of a point higher on average. For fighters, S&W gives a bonus of 5/10 of a point higher on average.

      I don't think the differences were created by mistake. The question is whether they were specifically designed that way because the authors thought them an improvement or if the original numbers were simply twiddled a bit, so to speak, due more to legal worries.

  2. It is, that is an important mechanical difference.

  3. This is a game that, much like yours, I was inspired to go ahead and purchase the hard copy after reading through the PDF. I love how it presents to the reader that a PC can be represented on a simple 3x5 index card. A minor annoyance for me was the slight variations found between the PDF version and the hard copy, namely the lack of interior color clearly seen in the PDF but which is not found in the hard copy ( print). But again, this is really minor when compared to the greatness that is this game.

  4. This is in my opinion a very fair review.

    While I personally prefer some of the other 'clones', mainly due to them not including 'modernisms', I really and truly appreciate the work that Mr. Finch and Mr. Breig have put into this game and, towards the OSR in general. Truly a breakthrough effort and one that championed the doorways that lead boldly into the halls of old school gaming. Halls I love to tread!

    Thank you for this review, Oakes. Looking forward to more from you. I very much enjoyed how you cleanly defined the product you have reviewed and I believe you did an excellent job of illustrating just 'how' it fits into the various types of clones. Cheers!

  5. I agree, this is a fair review. I purchased BFRPG instead of S&W because it gave me the B/XMoldvay rules set I always wanted. S&W didn't.

  6. One improvement White Box has over S&W Complete is that in the latter Fighters advance more slowly at mid- to high levels (in XP terms) than Magic-Users. White Box corrects this piece of counter-intuitiveness.

  7. A fine review overall. When Matt and I started this quest to create the WB rules I wanted to have a few things fit together. I wanted it to be close to the original source material in terms of philosophy and wanted it to be close to S&W mechanically. I had a great time writing the thing, but there were some features that a "steering committee" suggested which trumped some of my vision of "how I do it" and I suppose that's my only regret about how the game turned out. The Brave Halfling printings are my favorite of the various flavors of WB rules.

    - Marv