Reading Rappan Athuk (paid link) renewed my interest in checking out Swords & Wizardry (paid link), and it also made me curious about the differences between S&W Core and S&W Complete. I searched for a simple summary of those differences and kept seeing variations on this: “Core is the 3 LBBs + Supplement I (Greyhawk); Complete is 3 LBBs + the classes, spells, monsters, treasure, and some additional rules from all supplements to the LBBs.”
I wanted something a bit more definitive, and when I glanced through both books the classes jumped out at me as the only substantial difference — so I decided to do a quick side-by-side analysis. I compared the latest printing of both books, the 4th printing of Core and the 3rd printing of Complete.
If you’re new to S&W, or want to compare versions on your own, the game is free and you can grab almost every printing here (with thanks to Smoldering Wizard for collecting those links).
Quick and dirty
Here’s the TL;DR version of what I found:
- Complete includes more classes
- Complete includes one additional race
- Combat in Complete alternates sides for movement/missiles and then again for melee/spells, while in Core each side does everything before the other side goes
- PCs die at -1 in Complete vs. -[level] in Core
- Complete includes rules for siege, aerial, and ship combat
- Core and Complete include the same monsters, spells, and treasure (except for Complete having druid spells)
The additional classes are by far the largest difference, followed by the variations in combat and dying and the special combat rules that appear in Complete.
Marginally less quick and dirty
Here’s a more detailed look at the differences I found when comparing the two versions. I didn’t do a deep dive and compare monster stats or spell descriptions because that wasn’t what I needed at the moment — I needed a snapshot to tell me which edition I would prefer.
- Core includes cleric, fighter, magic-user, and (optional) thief
- Complete adds assassin, druid, monk, paladin, and ranger
- Complete adds half-elves
- The first three steps (surprise, declare spells, initiative) and final step (end of round) of combat are the same, but the default approach to the middle steps differs (see below)
- In addition to offering Holmes as an alternative combat sequence (which both do), Complete also offers Core’s approach and a third variant
- In the Special Situations section, Complete notes a house rule about critical hits and fumbles, and also clarifies spellcasting in melee with a note about wands and staves
- Under Damage and Death, dying is different:
- In Core, 0 HP means unconscious and bleeding out 1 HP/round, with death at -[level]
- In Complete, 0 is unconscious, -1 is dead, and bleeding out is noted as a house rule
Here’s a breakdown of the first bullet, the middle steps of combat. In Core, the middle steps are:
- Initiative winner does everything (move, missiles, melee, spells)
- Then initiative loser does everything
- Then folks with held initiative go
In Complete, the steps are:
- Initiative winners move or fire missiles, then initiative loser moves or fires missiles
- Initiative winner makes melee attacks and their spells go off, then initiative loser does the same
- Held initiative doesn’t exist
- Complete includes a few additional details about constructing castles.
- Complete adds Gate as a level 7 cleric spell
- Complete includes druid spells (since it includes the druid!)
Designing the Adventure
- There’s an additional dungeon example in Complete
Special Combat Rules
- Complete includes siege, aerial, and ship combat in the Special Combat section (both include mass combat)
I looked at the monster lists by challenge level, and wherever they varied I confirmed that both books do in fact include those monsters. In Complete, the variations are:
- Dragons don’t appear in the Monsters by Challenge Rating lists (they do in Core)
- CL 1 adds the lethal variation of giant centipedes
- CL 2 adds lethal giant centipedes
- CL 5 adds giant leeches
- CL 9 subtracts giant fish
- CL 10 subtracts baalroch demon, which becomes CL 13 (although its description says 17)
- CL 13 subtracts dragon turtles, which become CL 12
- CL 14-16 adds dragon turtles
There are alphabetization errors in both versions’ monster lists, so my guess is that dragons were an unintentional omission from Complete’s lists. The leech, centipede, turtle, and fish look like cases of Complete correcting omissions from the lists in Core (since both books have those monsters, and their CLs are identical). I’m not sure what to make of the baalroch demon: He’s CL 10 in Core, and appears at CL 10 on the list; in Complete, he’s CL 17 and appears under CL 13.
Hack to taste
S&W is designed to be hacked to suit one’s personal preferences, and if I were to sit down and run an S&W game right now I’d probably grab Complete and just eliminate all classes except the original three (cleric, fighter, and magic-user).
Complete already uses my preferred approach to combat and dying, and given that the rest is functionally identical I’d rather have the small amount of extra material (castle stuff, aerial combat, etc.) just in case it came up. Both versions share Matt Finch‘s excellent writing, a conversational tone, clean layout, and clear rules, and of course you can just as easily drop the bits of Complete you like into Core (and so on).
Having now spent quite a bit of time with different versions of S&W, I’ve found that I love the clarity and spark of the presentation in the 3rd printing of Complete — the 2017 version helmed by Stacy Dellorfano, with layout by Leigh Tuckman. Given that it was only a buck during the KS and the every other printing is available for free in PDF, I hope this one will eventually be available for free as well.
 S&W WhiteBox is a different animal from both Core and Complete in ways that are much easier to evaluate (all weapons do d6 damage, most monsters have one attack, flatter power curve, etc.), and in any case Rappan Athuk is written for S&W Complete; the easiest course being to run it with Complete, that’s what I wanted to look at.
The Unlucky Isles [affiliate link], the first system-neutral guidebook for my Godsbarrow fantasy campaign setting, is now on DriveThruRPG.