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02 Jan 2017

Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells: Sword & Sorcery Turned up to 11

I am fed up with being a hero. Who wants to be the knight in shining armor anyway? I don’t want to save the world but loot treasure, kill evil sorcerers and plow through their minions. Let’s talk about Sword & Sorcery today. It is about fast-paced action. You play larger than life adventurers with mighty swords and doubtful morals. But do you need a lot of minutiae to “hit it with my axe”? Battle Maps and hours of real time to play one combat scene? Blah, that’s not my idea of fun. The genre calls out to lightweight games. And when I’m talking about lightweight I don’t mean a one-pager. Kudos for Sorcerers & Sellswords for pulling it off. But ultra rules-lite is not everyone’s cup of tea. I’m talking about 50 pages of gaming goodness you can get for free. Yep, you heard that right. Head over HERE to download Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells (SS&SS) (aff). SS&SS is a tasty OSR game with snug mechanics. It is akin to D&D clones but geared towards pulpy action.

The Rules

Your grandma could learn this game. You have 4 Attributes: Physique, Agility, Intellect and Willpower. Roll 3d6 in order. When you want to do something, roll lower than or equal to an Attribute. Players also have a Luck Die. A roll of 1 or 2 is bad. Then you downgrade your die (a d8 becomes a d6 etc.). The Referee may give you a difficulty modifier to add to your roll. And if you fail, you can Push Your Luck. Try again but risk harder consequences. And that’s almost all you have to know. SS&SS has a unified core mechanic and doesn’t come with a lot of exceptions. There are 3 Archetypes (classes): Warrior, Specialist, and Magic User. They have different Special Abilities, Hit Die sizes, Prime Attributes (important for leveling up) and different die sizes for the Luck Die. Check out my playtest write-up for some sample characters. Thank God, there are no clerics. Make one up from the three Archetypes if you like. I dig character creation. Author Diogo Nogueira took a page out of Whitehack RPG. Each player can choose a Vocation. Your Warrior can be a Barbarian or your Specialist can be an Artificer. Whatever floats your boat. Moreover, you roll on a table for a Complication. Want a character hunted by a Chaos Cult or addicted to Lotus Powder? Done. In true old-school style, there are extra rules for fighting and Saving Throws. The game forgoes rules for exploration, social conflicts etc. Players use the base mechanic for attacking. Test Physique for melee attacks and Agility for ranged attacks. A test against a Powerful Enemy is more difficult. Every HD above the character adds +1 difficulty to the roll. Initiative is simple. You go in the order of Hit Die size. So a Warrior with a d10 goes first. Players deal damage according to their weapon type. Small weapons do 1d4, medium 1d6 and large ones 1d8 damage. Weapons are available to all classes. Larger ones are just more expensive. Armor reduces damage. Heavy armor also limits your Agility score. This is important because monsters have to roll over your Agility score to hit. Powerful monsters hit more easily than common foes. Shields look too powerful to me. Shields give Negative Dice to the attacker. That means that a Small Shield gives you roughly a +5 bonus (for 1 Negative Die). Medium and Heavy Shields are even more potent. Only Heavy Shields limit your agility. “Theater of mind” is the catchphrase for combat movement. There are three abstract distances. What about Healing? Magic healing does not exist. You can take a Short Rest or a Long Rest. Hello D&D 5e. A Short Rest heals 1d4 if you succeed on your Physique test. If you repeat a Short Rest during the day, it gets more difficult. You can stay at a safe haven for 1 day and have a Long Rest. This gives you 1 HD back. I find it interesting that you need a safe haven for a Long Rest. So you cannot do a Long Rest while adventuring. Characters are unconscious at 0 HP. They can roll on their Luck Die if they receive help within an hour. They lose one point of either Agility or Physique and get 1d4 HP if the roll is successful. If not, they are dead.

What About Magic?

Spellcasting requires a Willpower check. Magic is powerful but dangerous to use. On a spell failure, you can either lose the spell for the day or you can keep the spell and accept a complication by the Referee. In either case, the spell still fails. There is a table for spell fumbles. No Vancian magic. You have 50 spells that are all available from the beginning. The Magic User chooses the Power Level. The more bang you want for your buck, the tougher it is to wield magic. I like how the author used ideas from Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG for the magic system. The player has more freedom to choose but can’t rely on spellcasting alone. Spell failure is just too common. All things considered, casting is costly.

The Referee and Her Rules

The Referee gets a list of 50 example monsters. Stat blocks are like in other old-school games. So you can steal from other monster books. Roll HD with a d8. Damage is stepped according to HD. A 1 HD monster deals 1d4 damage, a 7 HD monster 2d8. There is an app a table for that. The rest is standard fare: random encounters, monster morale. There is no separate chapter for the Referee. The game assumes that you know what you’re doing.

Character Development

I was concerned about higher level play. The game favors high Ability Scores. Luckily, it takes a long time to get there. You need some adventure sessions (no XP) to level up. You get +1 HD each level. You can try to improve one attribute of your choice and your Prime Attributes. You can only improve an Attribute by +1 per level, so it is not that easy to get higher stats. You must roll higher than your current stat with a d20 to get the improvement. Attributes cap at 18. The Appendix is a nice perk for the Referee. It comes with a Random Adventure Idea Generator. This way, the Referee can put the rubber on the road fast. The rules just have enough meat to feel fleshed-out. Yet, a lot comes down to fictional positioning and GM’s call instead of finicky rules. Rated M for Manly SS&SS wants you to hit stuff with a hammer and not worry about the details. It is about rulings, not rules.

Look and Feel

A handy layout and evocative artwork round out this ruleset. The author is not a native English speaker and sometimes the translation is funny. Nothing too jarring, though. The Sword & Sorcery feeling oozes through with every page. Well done.

Some Kinks

Combat doesn’t feel heroic enough for me with low-level characters. My fix: steal the Fray Die mechanic from Scarlet Heroes (aff). (Every round a PC can roll that die and do damage to any target within range that has equal or fewer hit dice than the hero has levels. There are some special rules for spellcasters. Just check the free Quickstart.)

Final Thoughts

Mighty thews power Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells. You’ll get everything you need to play. It doesn’t come with batteries (a.k.a. its own campaign world) though. The game will be familiar to D&D old-schoolers and is laser-focused on the Sword & Sorcery genre. SS&SS has excellent character options, distilled rules and an elegant magic system. Plus, it stays consistent in its workings. That makes it easy to learn and easy to run. The price is hard to beat. Grab your axe and go slay some foes. Ask yourself:

  • Do you like Sword & Sorcery?
  • Do you like rules-lite games?
  • Do you like old-school games?
  • Do you like free/PWYW games?
  • Are you short on time?

Have you answered yes to one or more questions?: Go to DriveThruRPG or RPGNow to download the PDF (affiliate links). Pay what you want.
Or buy the print edition at Lulu. If not, check the Archives for other articles. Thank you for reading this review!