Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Review: Swords and Wizardry White Box

This review refers to the Brave Halfling Swords and Wizardry White Box, which I have owned for over a year.* When I bought that (literal) white box, I didn't know for sure how I was going to feel about the rules inside, I just knew I was innately drawn to their rumored simplicity (being an emulation of the original LBBs).  I also knew I liked the "Imagine the hell out of it!" slogan I associate with Swords and Wizardry, and, like many of us, I consider Matt Finch's Old School Primer, included in the box, to be one of the most succinct and accurate descriptions of what makes old-school gaming what it is. 

But why White Box?  Why not Goblinoid's Original Edition Characters or the original 1974 LBBs themselves?

Well, I have read but never played any pre-Holmes edition of D&D, and much as I love the original LBBs' idiosyncrasies, I somewhat dread the idea of having to rely upon them during play.  I can imagine myself fumbling around looking for a key passage; these books' baroqueness makes fascinating reading but potentially cumbersome in-game reference material.  I admire James Maliszewski and other DM's who swear by the LBBs, but I am not ashamed to admit -- being more McCartney than Lennon as I am -- that I prefer my rulebooks to be well-organized and easily searchable in the heat of a session.  As I recently confessed, I am more pragmatic than visionary.

Part of my Dungeon Master's pragmatism extends to making sure that the game's rules are easily available to the players, and in this sense a retro-clone with a free rules pdf like White Box is vastly preferable to something truly out-of-print like the LBBs.

Regarding the Labyrinth Lord-compatible Original Edition Characters, I resist using those rules because I do not like the "take things away" approach to house-ruling or system-mashing.  If I want to run stripped-down, 1974-ish D&D, I want something that really is stripped down, not an aftermarket graft onto a more 1981-ish system that I am otherwise quite familiar with.  I want something new and wholly minimalistic.

Plus I am a bit of a product-hound and was drawn in by the pretty box and the dice!

Photo courtesy of Lord Kilgore.

In any case, I have Swords and Wizardry White Box, and I love it.  Here is a highlights reel of what I found between its covers:   

- Marv Breig's writing style is fast-paced and engaging.  No wasted words here.  I wonder how this would work for a neophyte roleplayer?  Is there enough information here to understand the game if you've never played it before?  I cannot judge, but as for me, I love it.

In fairness, the text issues a warning about this very thing, on p. 1 of "Book III: Monsters":

"If you’re not a good storyteller or if you’re not up to doing a lot of creative thinking on the fly, it might be better that you try a different game—one that provides more rules and guidance for every little situation that might arise. But if you’re a good storyteller, creative and fair, SWORDS & WIZARDRY: WHITEBOX’s small, Spartan rule-set frees up your creativity to create a fantasy role-playing
experience completely different from the type of game that depends on a multitude of rules."

Huzzah! That's for me!

- I also like the "Alternate Rule" sidebars and text boxes peppered throughout.  Some of them are purely practical, offering a straightforward rules variation, like the one on the Experience Point Bonus on p. 7 of "Book I: Characters."  But other ones suggest a rule and at the same time offer insight into the different historical versions of the game, as in the "Saving Throw Matrix" sidebar on p. 33 of "Characters" or the "Note" on Weapon Damage on p. 23 of the same (discussed below).

Next I want to highlight some ways in which White Box differs from Labyrinth Lord and the other post-Holmes D&D variants I have played to this point. These features stand out to me because they represent 1974-ish D&D rulings that I am curious to play and experience:

- Fewer classes: just Cleric, Fighter, Magic-User, Dwarf, Elf, and Halfling. No thief!

- No across-the-board non-XP-related attribute bonuses; DEX grants a missile fire bonus, CHA affects number and loyalty of retainers, and high CON gives a bonus to each hit die, but that's it (pp. 7-8). I knew the role of attributes in White Box would be further scaled down from that of Labyrinth Lord, and I am interested to find out what a game without STR bonuses for smashing down doors feels like. (Luckily, if I end up REALLY missing them, I can always houserule them back in -- "Imagine the hell out of it!")

- d6 Hit Dice for all character classes!

- Rather than array of saving throws divided by type (Spells, Wands, Poison, etc.), S&W White Box deploys a single saving throw per class. Saving throws are therefore listed on the xp table for each character class. However, each class gets specific bonuses to certain types of saves, e.g., Fighters get +2 vs. death and poison, Magic-Users get +2 vs. spells, wands, and staves, and so on. I like the sound of this -- we'll see if it is easier or screwier than the Saving Throw Tables given in Labyrinth Lord.

- No thief!

- Clerics get no spells at first level. A year ago, I would have said that this is harsh, but as a lover of the undead who DMs a party that includes a damn effective cleric, I can speak of the raw power a cleric wields. At least in LL, clerics are something of a triple threat: they have relatively decent melee combat ability, a fairly wide array of spells available, plus the ability to Turn the Undead. So I approve of this small limitation upon the cleric's power curve, and am eager to see how it plays out.

- I thought that White Box was going to use straight d6-only, non-variable weapon damage, and indeed there is an "Alternate Rule" sidebar about d6-only damage on p. 23. But the default system, which I like, is a slightly modified version of the LBBs' non-variable d6, i.e., some large weapons do 1d6+1, and some small ones do 1d6-1.

After reading and enjoying the four booklets included in my Swords and Wizardry White Box set, I became so inspired to play this ruleset that I ordered the single-volume hardback version of S&W White Box available on  I like the convenience of having all the rules in one easily-referenced volume.

Now that I've finally read the Swords and Wizardry White Box rules, I would urge you to do the same if you haven't already -- the free pdf is downloadable here. If you are interested in running 1974-ish D&D, but are daunted (as I am) by the presentation of the rules in the original LBBs, this could easily be the ruleset for you!

And anyone playing in my forthcoming ConstantCon game will be getting familiar with these rules for sure!

* Yes, it sat on my shelf for quite some time.  I looked through it cursorily a few times, and felt glad to have it, yet I also felt a bit badly for not using it and playing games with it.  In fact, I even momentarily considered responding to Michael Curtis' request to take it off my hands -- but in the end I'm SOOO glad I didn't.


  1. I love the S&W single save. I use a slightly stretched out version for the franken-clone I'm currently running and utilize it for any task resolutions, that should scale with level and needs some random adjudication.