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neuzd offers a dandy Traveller system generator for 1st edition Mongoose Traveller, and it’s free.

What makes it so dandy? For starters, it’s dead simple: click link, get system. The abbreviations for bases and trade codes appear on every output screen (you’ll have to reference the rules, or the web, for the UWP and other codes).

It also hits all my high notes for a random generator: just the right amount of inspiration, quirky without going too far off the rails, and never boring. As an example, here’s the first system I generated while writing this post:

The Bbj Iisog System

“Bbj Iisog” is a great name, weird and not at all one I’d have thought up on my own. There’s a scout base here, and the trade codes signify garden, high population, industrial, and low tech.

Unpacking the UWP stats, there’s a rundown starport on a medium-size wet world with a tainted atmosphere. That world has a high population (1-10 billion) and is governed by a charismatic dictator; the law level is moderate. Its tech level of 4 puts it at the level of atomic science and internal combustion engines.

So, a garden world — that has a tainted atmosphere — with a huge population, one shitty starbase, a dictator, and not much in the way of advanced technology. My brain goes straight to an atmosphere that has a low-level soporific effect on the population, keeping them alert enough to work but docile enough not to rebel — which is handy for the planetary dictator, since there are a lot of people to control. That same atmosphere is what makes this world so fertile: They grow stuff here that can’t be grown anywhere else, and in abundance.

What will the PCs do when they arrive? If they’re in bad shape, they might be stuck for a little while (not much in the way of services at that starport). The planet is ripe for a revolution, but how do you foment one when the very air fights against you? (Sure, everyone has filters, but they probably don’t work all the time — and I bet the dictatorship has a hand in that.) It’s also ripe for stealing some of the weird plants they grow, or running tests to try to find a way to synthesize their growing conditions elsewhere — or a host of other possibilities.

Sectors and sub-sectors, too

But wait, there’s more! This generator also does sub-sectors and sectors, and you can toggle settings for population density and sector location. And on top of that, it can also just spit out name lists for you to use as needed.

Want a ton of systems all at once, with hexes (ready for you to hand-populate your game map)? This generator delivers. And again, I love the names — here are a few from a sample system I generated:

  • VHS-592
  • Garcia’s Field
  • Silva’s Dead
  • Concentrate XCVIII
  • Activity Glamorous
  • Chdydmbahk

Maybe “Activity Glamorous” doesn’t work for your game, and that’s cool: Just hit the link again, and it’ll generate a whole new sector.

The only thing I wish it did was produce a permanent URL for whatever you generate, but for such an otherwise robust (and free) tool that’s more of a quibble than a complaint. This generator is excellent.

Pair the neuzd Traveller system and sector generator with a character generator (like Frank Filz’s generator, or Devil Ghost’s generator[1]), and you’ve reduced the handling time needed to make stuff in Traveller — without reducing the fun factor.

[1] I like these both so much that I wrote Yore posts about them: Filz, Ghost

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I’ve added a couple new books to my list of my favorite free & PWYW RPG products on DriveThruRPG (covering about 3% of the 7,500+ products available) that are both so good that I want to talk about them here.

The first is Dead Friend: A Game of Necromancy, by Lucian Kahn, which is a two-player RPG — one of my favorite types of game.[1] One of you plays a necromancer; the other plays the necromancer’s dead friend. It reminds me of Murderous Ghosts (which I love), and I can’t wait to try it.

In it, you place a ritual symbol in the center of the table, surround it with a ring of salt, move coins around, hum, make strange utterances — and try to pursue wildly opposed goals — like “bring your dead friend back to life” for the necromancer, and “kill your friend” for the dead. It’s a polished and fantastic-looking little game, too.

The other is John Battle’s Two OSR Dungeon Crawls, which provides what it says on the tin. Bland title aside, these are both fascinating dungeons. It would benefit from some editing and a nicer layout, but the content is delightful — so delightful that I dropped it right into my “I’d love to run these modules anytime” folder.

My favorite of the two is The Globe, which involves an enchanted snow globe, a tooth-stealing lich, a host of mummies, a truly terrifying variant of mummy rot, and some deeply creepy moments. It also includes something I’m always excited to see in any dungeon crawl: potentially campaign-shaking consequences based on how the PCs handle it.

[1] When I first started gaming, one GM and one player was the only way I played for a couple of years. In retrospect I don’t know why I didn’t try to link up the separate friends I gamed with, but the intimacy and tone of two-player gaming is so fantastic that it just never occurred to me.

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I tried to get into Flash a few years ago, with its New 52 incarnation, and it didn’t grab me — but the itch remained. This week I sampled a Geoff Johns issue, then a Rebirth issue, then a couple issues of Flashpoint[1] — and with every one, I became both more intrigued and more confused.

But I homed in one one villain, Reverse-Flash, who sounded like something I hadn’t seen in a superhero comic before: a time-travelling mirror of the Flash, who uses his speedster power to destroy Flash’s life from the future.[2] So cool! I love time travel, superheroes, and creative exploration of the possibilities of superpowers; combine all three, and you have my interest.

Where to start?

I went down that rabbit hole, eventually reaching this excellent Comics Alliance guide to the character, eras, and best runs of the Flash, and came out with a consensus on where to start: Mark Waid‘s 100-plus issue run on the title (followed by the Geoff Johns run, and then on to Morrison and Millar, Rebirth, and New 52).

I deeply enjoy falling in love with a new-to-me superhero/superteam, and in recent years I’ve had a fantastic experience doing just that with hundreds of issues of Fantastic Four, Green Lantern (the topic of one of the most popular posts on Yore, Green Lantern trade reading order: Geoff Johns’ run and all concurrent Lantern TPBs), Deadpool, and Swamp Thing; all signs point to the Flash being just as rewarding.

Context

I also love context, and find that having some helps me appreciate new-to-me comics and characters on their own terms. Comics Alliance had my back here, too:

The Flash, perhaps more than any other character in DC Comics’ stable, represents the strength of the legacy hero: the passing of the mantle from mentor to protege, with each successive version having their own strengths and weaknesses.

And:

Let me be clear: if you buy only from one section of this Flash comics list, make this that section. Waid’s Flash is the best Flash, period.

That bit was what really sealed the deal.

Born to Run

Last night I got a few issues into Waid’s run, and it’s amazing. It opens with an overview of the three Flashes, and then a history of the then-current flash, Wally West — and that sounds like a lot of exposition, but it’s deftly and beautifully done (and perfect for a newcomer).

Like Green Lantern: Secret Origin or the start of John Byrne‘s run on Fantastic Four, Waid’s Book One TPB tantalizes while guiding me through enough Flash background to get my feet under me; there are references I don’t yet get, but which I’m sure a longtime fan would know well — but they’re revealed and paced perfectly. It feels like a perfect on-ramp.

Waid’s run entire run isn’t collected into TPBs yet, but the first three books are. Book One is where I started, and now that I’m strapped in I can’t wait to see what the rest of the ride is like!

[1] Yes, Rebirth and Flashpoint are also Geoff Johns runs; I was bouncing around looking for recent comics as possible starting points, and he’s done a lot of them!

[2] I’m confident I’ve grossly oversimplified Reverse-Flash here, but I’ve been trying to avoid spoilers before getting to see him in the comic.

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Thanks to Bryan Shipp over on G+, I just checked out this Gary Gygax interview from 1979 on Jon Peterson’s site — and it blew my mind.

Here’s Gary on game prep:

“Two to three hours per hour of play is generally what the dungeon master has to prepare with. He sits down and draws out the dungeon maps or, it could be a village that he is going through, trying to find someone. There’s no question that one of the reasons, as I was mentioning earlier, the young people play more than older people do, is because they have more time.”

That’s right: “Two to three hours per hour of play.” This level of game prep is unfathomable to me. For a four-hour session, that’s 8-12 hours of prep, a 2:1 or 3:1 prep:play ratio!

Looking back at a recent tremulus campaign I ran, I did a couple hours of campaign prep — not session prep! — and that lasted me for around a dozen two-hour sessions, for a ratio of 1:12 prep:play. For the Urban Shadows game I’m running right now, I think I did about three hours of prep — including making my own reference sheets for the game — and we’ve had 12 sessions of about 2.5 hours each, a ratio of 1:10.

But in terms of session prep, my preferred ratio is 0:1 prep:play. I was in the 1:1 range for a long time, when I thought I had to do that; I eventually moved to 1:6, which was a big step for me — but still not enough. For the past several years, my preference has been to sit down and see where the game takes us, just like the other players.

The voice

There’s more gold in them that hills, too, like this excerpt:

The dungeon master’s voice usually gives out before everybody’s ready to quit. That’s the end of an adventure.

What a marvelous image — and a great example of the spirit and enthusiasm of play!

Tests

I like this quote as well:

This is a – people like take to tests. We’re trained to in school. So it’s a testing type of a game and a fun game where you compete – but not against each other, as a group, so a group can work together and find a lot of enjoyment rather than making enemies, saying, “Hey I won the game.” Because you all play and you win as a group.

The whole interview is a spicy meatball, and there’s even a transcript if (like me) you prefer to read than listen to audio.

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My online group just wrapped up our second playtesting session of Brad J. Murray‘s upcoming space-fantasy RPG Elysium Flare, and I wanted to talk a little bit about it. The current public playtest draft is v4, available for free on Brad’s Patreon.

Background

For context: Our sessions are short, and we’re talkative; so far, we’ve made three characters, their ship, and the association (organization) to which they belong. I’m the GM.

System-wise, Elysium Flare is Fate-based, but lighter than both Fate Core and FAE (and much lighter than, say, Fate 3.0). It also adds new elements, and so far the ones we’ve had contact with look like subtle changes but are actually quite impactful. More on that in a moment.

What’s awesome about Elysium Flare?

The setting is what drew me to the game, and I think it’s what hooked the other two players in my group as well. Broadly, it’s space-fantasy: there are starships, alien species, mystical arts, and psychic powers, and no one worries too much about why things work the way they do. On the soft/hard SF spectrum, it’s extremely soft.

But it’s the little things that make it sing.

Delightful species

For starters, this is a game where the playable species are sentient gas, robot, bear-person, bug, starfish, “grey,” and plain ol’ human. I waged a fierce internal battle between playing a gas (Orpheani) or a bear (Aukami), and wound up playing a starfish (Aarun) because they’re amazing too.

Physics galore

Into that mix, add one of the game’s tweaks to Fate: three kinds of physics. In addition to the physics we’re used to, faith and arcana operate as a separate set of physics (mystical), and psychic powers under a third (psychic); these also map to stress tracks, so for example robots (fabs) are solidly grounded in the natural, and have no tracks for psychic and mystical — they’re vulnerable to those types of physics. That looks like a little thing at first, but it turns out to be a really fantastic piece of game tech.

That allows for tremendous variety in characters, skills, stunts, ships, and throughout the setting. For example, our trio (the GM makes a character too, as a handy NPC and to facilitate Fate’s interconnected PC backstories) flies around in The Shrine, a literal ship-temple that once belonged to a fallen species; its engines are some sort of mystical power source, but the guns we bolted on run on natural physics.

Working for the man

The same is true of associations, the larger organizations to which the PCs are assumed to belong. By the point when these enter into the character creation process, my group had already settled on being scruffy space scoundrels operating alone; it felt dissonant to map that to a broader association. But after we created our ship, we revisited the idea and neatly slotted ourselves into an association of greedy antiquarians who needed a plausibly deniable “black ops” arm for acquiring artifacts.

That was in no way what we expected we’d be doing when we first sat down to make characters, and Elysium Flare is brilliant at facilitating those kinds of surprises. The way associations work is part of that: From a list of terms like criminal, military, commercial, and ancient, you choose three — any three. One is your remit, which has a complication aspect associated with it, and is also a skill; the other two are skills.

We chose academic for our remit: the greedy antiquarians. For skills, we picked criminal (we’re the shady arm, after all) and administrative, because — another surprise — we wound up creating white-collar space criminals, the sort more likely to roll up with forged codes that claim we already own the thing we’re there to steal. (We’re not Indy, we’re Belloq.)

One surprise after another

Elysium Flare is freewheeling in its approach (and charmingly conversational in its tone), and that carries through to every step of character creation. We made three wildly different nutjob characters, and somehow wedded them to one another, then to a ship, then to a purpose, then to an organization — and nowhere along the way could we have predicted where they’d wind up. I love that!

Before the next session I’ll use the system creation rules to gin up a star system, and for in-character play I’ll just poke their association’s complication and start in media res, with the crew of The Shrine rolling up on a world where there’s something they want to steal. I can’t wait.

There are some rough edges in the rules, as I expect from a game currently undergoing playtesting — but I’ve watched Brad iterate through several drafts now, and every time things get smoother.

If Elysium Flare piques your interest, check out the v4 playtest draft and see what you think of the game.

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As of this writing, there are 7,597 free and pay-what-you-want (PWYW) PDFs on DriveThruRPG, and depending on when you’re reading this there are probably many more than that. That’s a daunting number, and there’s a lot of free stuff that frankly looks like pretty weak sauce. It’s hard to know where to start.[1]

I thought it would be useful to create a curated list of the free DTRPG products there that I like (which I also do for RPG books on Lulu, where the problem is searchability rather than volume), so I started one. I spent several hours going through the entire category — all 7,500+ products — and then several more hours going back for more organic searches, as well as checking out suggestions from folks online (thank you!).

This turned out to be a fun project, and what shook out was two lists, one for RPGs and one for supplements. Together, these two lists represent roughly 3% of the free/PWYW products available on DTRPG.[2]

What’s on the lists?

I like and recommend everything that appears below, and I extra-super-duper-like the starred entries. If you’re curious why I like something, I eventually rate and comment on every gaming book I own; here are my RPGGeek ratings.

Both lists are in alphabetical order. In general, neither includes previews, quickstarts, micro-supplements (d100 Fantasy Roofing Tile Materials, et al), character sheets, or the like.[3] If you have a suggestion for either list, let me know in the comments (and thank you!). (Lists updated: May 9, 2018.)

Free and PWYW RPGs

  1. Atomic Highway
  2. * Babes in the Wood
  3. Basic Fantasy RPG 3rd Edition
  4. Blood & Treasure Complete
  5. BLUEHOLME Prentice Rules
  6. * Cepheus Engine System Reference Document
  7. Dark Dungeons
  8. * Dead Friend: A Game of Necromancy
  9. Delving Deeper: The Adventurer’s Handbook, The Referee’s Guide, and The Monster & Treasure Reference
  10. * Dog Eat Dog
  11. Encounter Critical
  12. English Eerie
  13. * ESCAPE Short-Play RPG
  14. * Exemplars & Eidolons
  15. Fate Accelerated Edition
  16. * Fate Core
  17. Fleshscape
  18. Forthright Open Roleplay
  19. * Galatea’s Mirror
  20. 44: A Game of Automatic Fear
  21. Godbound
  22. High Moon: The Great Werewolf Robbery
  23. King Arthur Pendragon, 1st Edition
  24. * Labyrinth Lord: Revised Edition
  25. * Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Rules & Magic and Referee Book
  26. Maze Rats
  27. Mini Six, Bare Bones Edition
  28. Mutant Future, Revised Edition
  29. The Nightmares Underneath
  30. * Old School hack
  31. OSRIC Pocket SRD
  32. * The Petal Hack
  33. * Pokéthulhu Adventure Game (3rd Edition)
  34. The Pool
  35. Queer Messes
  36. * Risus: The Anything RPG
  37. The Role With It System
  38. * Seppuku: Fury of the Samurai
  39. Shamblington
  40. Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells
  41. Sixtacular SRD
  42. Songbirds
  43. Spirit of the Century
  44. * Stars Without Number: Revised Edition
  45. * Swords & Wizardry Complete
  46. Swords & Wizardry Core
  47. * Talislanta Campaign handbook, 2nd Edition and The Chronicles of Talislanta, 5th Edition, plus all the other free Talislanta products[4]
  48. * Tenocha: Heroic Adventures
  49. 13th Age System Reference Document
  50. * Tequendria: Fantastical Roleplaying
  51. * Troika!
  52. ViewScream
  53. The Void
  54. White Box: Fantastic Medieval Adventure Game
  55. White Star: White Box Science Fiction Roleplaying
  56. Worlds Apart

Free and PWYW supplements

On this list, the system (or broad “mechanics umbrella,” like OSR) appears in parentheses after each supplement.

  1. * Advanced Edition Companion (Labyrinth Lord)
  2. * Augmented Reality, The Holistic City Kit For Cyberpunk Games (universal)
  3. Bad Myrmidon (OSR)
  4. Better Than Any Man (LotFP)
  5. Big List of RPG Plots (universal)
  6. Blackmarsh (OSR)
  7. Black Pudding zine (OSR)
  8. BLUEHOLME The Necropolis of Nuromen (OSR)
  9. Book of Knights (Pendragon)
  10. Book 0: Introduction to Traveller (Mongoose Traveller)
  11. Broken System zine (OSR)
  12. B/X Essentials Core Rules and the other entries in the B/X Essentials line (OSR)
  13. Cities: Shadepoint (universal/OSR)
  14. Codex fanzine (various)
  15. * Convicts & Cthulhu (Call of Cthulhu)
  16. Convicts & Cthulhu: Ticket of Leave zine (Call of Cthulhu)
  17. Creature Compendium (OSR)
  18. Deluge (universal)
  19. The Doom-Cave of the Crystal-Headed Children (LotFP)
  20. * Escape from the Astral Spellhold
  21. * Fate Adventures & Worlds line — there are over 30 of these, all with excellent production values, but my favorites are Aether Sea, Behind the Walls, Blood on the Trail, Ghost Planets, and Straw Boss (Fate)
  22. Fate System Toolkit (Fate)
  23. * Fiasco playsets — there are over 25 playsets, but my favorite is Touring Rock Band (Fiasco)
  24. From the Vats (OSR)
  25. Frontier Explorer magazine (Star Frontiers/universal)
  26. Fundamentals of Tabletop Roleplaying (universal)
  27. The Game Master (universal)
  28. The Grey Knight (Pendragon)
  29. * The Gyre (Mutant Future)
  30. Hill Cantons Compendium II (OSR)
  31. Home by Dark playsets — try Them as a starting point (Home by Dark)
  32. How to Hexcrawl (OSR)
  33. * In the Shadow of Mount Rotten (OSR)
  34. Irradiated Freaks (Atomic Highway)
  35. * Kaldor Kingdom Sampler (Harn)
  36. * Lesserton & Mor and the Player’s Guide (OSR)
  37. A Magical Medieval Society: City Guide (universal)
  38. The Marriage of Count Roderick (Pendragon)
  39. Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad zine (OSR)
  40. The Metamorphica (OSR)
  41. * Murcanto’s Lair (OSR)
  42. My Life as the GM (My Life with Master)
  43. Narcosa (OSR)
  44. The One Page Dungeon Codex 2009, Deluxe Edition (OSR)
  45. * Petty Gods: Revised and Expanded Edition (OSR)
  46. * Planarch Codex: Dark Heart of the Dreamer (Dungeon World)
  47. * Proteus Sinking (OSR)
  48. * Ptolus: A Player’s Guide (Ptolus)
  49. Realm of the Technomancer (Labyrinth Lord/Mutant Future)
  50. Risus: Ring of Thieves and Toast of the Town (Risus)
  51. Roll XX and Roll XX: Double Damage (OSR)
  52. The Sandbox zine (OSR)
  53. Situations for Tabletop Roleplaying (universal)
  54. Skull Mountain (Labyrinth Lord)
  55. SlaughterGrid (OSR)
  56. Sleeping Place of the Feathered Swine (OSR)
  57. Slügs! (LotFP)
  58. Star Frontiersman magazine (Star Frontiers)
  59. Sword Breaker zine (Dungeon World)
  60. Tales of Gothic Earth (OSR)
  61. * Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque I, plus volume II and volume III (OSR)
  62. * Tenocha: Setting Guide (Tenocha)
  63. Theorems & Thaumaturgy Revised Edition (OSR)
  64. * 2017 Gongfarmer’s Almanac, Vol. 1-8 and older single issues (DCC RPG)
  65. * Two OSR Dungeon Crawls (OSR)
  66. Uresia: Lore and Curiosities (universal)
  67. Vaginas are Magic! (LotFP)
  68. Welcome to Dolmenwood (OSR)
  69. Wheel of Evil (Labyrinth Lord)
  70. White Box Omnibus (Swords & Wizardry)
  71. White Star Companion (White Star)
  72. Wrack & Rune (Labyrinth Lord)
  73. Yngarr zine (OSR)

Happy gaming!

[1] Fun fact: When you sort the free/PWYW category by Highest Rated, which sounds like a useful filter, the first product rated less than five stars doesn’t appear until entry 2,462 of 7,597 (as of this writing).

[2] This percentage takes into account not only the raw number of entries on the list, but those that include multiple products (issues of a zine, Fiasco playsets, etc.).

[3] I like all of those things, but if someone is looking for recommendations for cool stuff to check out, I’m not going to recommend a character sheet. This kind of support material is great, and I love that so much of it is on DTRPG.

[4] Talislanta creator Stephan Michael Sechi generously makes virtually the entire Talislanta line available for free, but not all of it is on DTRPG. (I hope he’ll eventually migrate it all there.)

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When I was in 4th or 5th grade, my art teacher gave me a copy of Squadron Supreme #12. Back then I devoured every comic I could get my hands on, so this being the final issue of a limited series I knew nothing about didn’t phase me — I dove right in. What I read was completely unexpected, and totally unlike any of the other superhero comics I’d read.

The final issue (SPOILERS) is a knock-down, drag-out battle royale between former superhero teammates — all deeply flawed human beings, all relatable in their very human failings. And in that battle, some of the titular heroes get killed by people who used to be their friends, or at least their allies. And not “comic book killed,” just plain ol’ killed.

My 8- or 9-year-old mind was blown. I’d never read a superhero comic where heroes fought each other for real before, and certainly never one where the marquee characters got killed (and didn’t come back). It stuck with me, and looking back on it I can see many threads connecting things I love as an adult with that issue of Squadron Supreme and its inversion of superhero tropes.

A few years back I remember that issue, and wondered why I’d never finished the series. So I bought a TPB collecting the whole series — and it was amazing. And then I bought a second copy, one from the first printing that — per his last wishes — incorporated Squadron Supreme creator Mark Gruenwald‘s ashes into the ink, because how could I not?

I also picked this up, a CGC-slabbed copy of issue #1[1], and added it to my wall of original art and other comics and RPG geekery. I love it, and every time I look up at it I wind up thinking about comics, and what I’m reading, and what I want to read next, and . . .

If you’ve never checked out Squadron Supreme, I highly recommend it.

[1] There are a dearth of CGC slab frames with UV protection (which I consider a must-have for wall hanging anywhere near windows), but I love the ECC Frames basic model shown here. They’re not cheap, but I don’t frame many comics; it’s worth it.

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I’ve decided to come out publicly as bisexual.

I realized I was bi at at 19 or 20, and came out to a handful of folks over the years, but it’s taken me until age 40 to get to this point. I didn’t think hiding part of my identity was setting a good example for my daughter, and I’m finally in a place — both mentally as a person and literally, in Seattle — where I feel comfortable being myself.

It feels beyond good to finally do this.

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Recently I’ve been thinking about this Paul Bowles quote, which I first saw on Brandon Lee‘s gravestone, in relation to gaming:

Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that is so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more, perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.

I don’t know about you, but my stack of “bucket list” gaming items — campaigns, megadungeons, settings, systems — is probably past the point of being feasible in my lifetime.

Some things on the list, like playing a MechWarrior campaign where we use BattleTech for the ‘Mech fights, I’ve been dragging around for years (roughly 25 years, for that one). Others are fresh, but I can feel them sinking comfortably into the warm, cozy blanket of wishful game-pondering.

If I turned myself to clearing the whole list, with a purpose and a fire in my eyes, and excluded all gaming that wasn’t bent to that purpose, maaaaybe I could get through it all . . . but I’d have fewer friends, and no lovely serendipitous gaming opportunities, and no con sessions, and so on. It’s in no way worth the cost.

So with 30-40 years of productive gaming time ahead of me — if I’m lucky, and stay fortunate, and don’t develop Alzheimers, and on and on — how do I chip away at the list? Do I chip away at the list? Do I even make a formal list?

I don’t know. I’m not maudlin about it, exactly, but it is a sobering thought. Only twenty more moonrises, and all that.

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Reading Rappan Athuk renewed my interest in checking out Swords & Wizardry, and it also made me curious about the differences between S&W Core and S&W Complete.[1] 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.

Classes

  • Core includes cleric, fighter, magic-user, and (optional) thief
  • Complete adds assassin, druid, monk, paladin, and ranger

Races

  • Complete adds half-elves

Combat

  • 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

Combat steps

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

High-Level Adventuring

  • Complete includes a few additional details about constructing castles.

Magic

  • 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)

Monsters

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.

[1] 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.

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