Recently, I had the opportunity to play and review the newest role-playing game from Rogue Games, Shadow, Sword, & Spell (SS&S) . This game is designed with an eye towards pulpy, human-centric fantasy, with easily learned rules and a low price tag £8.79 for the printed version. Let’s see how well it does in each of those goals.
For starters, this is a 142-page, digest-sized book, available in print and pdf. As mentioned above, the print is £8.79, but the pdf alone is available from sites like RPGNow for around £5. The paper used in the print product is of good quality, with a slightly antique look to it (at least in my printing). The cover is a glossy, red-and-black design, with the silhouette of a mounted warrior. Shadow, Sword & Spell is technically the “Basic” game; an “Expert” book, for ruling kingdoms, epic-level magic, etc., is due out in 6 month’s time, but the book definitely feels like a complete game.
This is human-centric, slightly pulpy fantasy, in the best vein of Robert E. Howard, L. Sprague de Camp, and Fritz Leiber. I’ve been working on a setting melding Earthsea with The Odyssey and the work of some of the fantasy authors aimed above, and so was quite interested in a game that names many of those authors in its “Appendix N” at the back.
The 12° System
SS&S uses the 12° System, which has seen use in other Rogue titles such as Colonial Gothic Revised and Thousand Suns. To resolve actions, one roll 2d12, and tries to roll under a Target Number (TN). The Target Number, or TN, is determined by adding in the relevant Stat + Skill, plus or minus any modifiers.
Example: I attempt to utilize my Diplomacy skill on some drunken, bloodthirsty caravan guards. My Wit stat is a 9, and my Diplomacy is a 5, giving me a TN of 14. If I roll a 13, I succeed. If I roll a 14, 15, or any number higher, I do not). Rolling a 2 on the 2d12 is a critical success; a 24 is a critical failure.
The reason this is a “degree system” is because success is counted in the number you roll under your TN. If I need to make a TN of 14 and I roll an 11, I have 3 “degrees” of success. The more degrees of success, the better your success is. This is usually just framed in general terms from the Game Master in normal play, but becomes very important in combat (more on that later). It’s a very simple system, intuitive and easy to pick up within minutes.
Your character starts with 45 points to put in 5 Stats: Brawn, Quickness, Toughness, Wits, and Will. The stats are pretty much self-explanatory, and will be used both for stand-alone tests, as well the basis of cost for your skills and a part of your Target Number determinations. You won’t find elves or dwarves as options here, though they wouldn’t be hard to add: this is human-centric all the way.
You also have 3 secondary stats, derived from the attributes above: Vitality, Resolve, and Sanity. Vitality is the amount of damage your poor body can take before calling it quits; Sanity ditto, but for the mind (this being sword-and-sorcery, there are plenty of Eldritch Horrors out there to be seen!). Resolve is used as measure of your conviction and will, and is used for the Social Combat presented in the Combat chapter.
After determining these, we jump into writing our Hooks. Hooks are roleplaying tools that describe something about a character’s history or story. These might be things such as “Slave at The Wheel for 15 years” or “The Exiled Heir of Skeldenland”. When the GM feels you bring these hooks (start with 5) into play in exciting or appropriate ways, you can be rewarded Action Points, which can be used for re-rolls, easing the difficulty of Target Numbers, and the like.
After we’ve begun to flesh out our character concept with these Hooks, we choose a Background. Backgrounds are made up of two parts: a Culture and a Modifier. Your culture might be “Barbarian”, with a modifier of “Haughty”. Or, I might have a character that is “Civilized”, but his home is also considered “Decadent”. Each part confers some small bonuses as part of the background and modifier. I really enjoy the mix-and-match of the two parts, which gives a bit more of a descriptive nature to the background than a single category alone would have.
Once you are done with this, it’s time to buy skills. Skill costs are governed by the attached stat; for example, Alchemy is governed by Wits, whereas Bargain is governed by Will.
When purchasing skills, also have the option of specializing in one facet of a skill at a higher rank than the original. For example, you can turn the Melee-3 skill into Melee-2 (Axes-4) This means in any other sort of Melee combat not involving axes, you’d have a skill rating of +2, but when wielding an Axe, you’d be at +4 with the skill instead.
Characters improve in this game by the use of the old standby of Experience Points (XP), which are generally awarded at a rate of 1-4 a session. These allow the improvement of stats, skills, and action points.
The remainder of Chapter 3 is all about use of skills and how to choose good Hooks. With that, our character is pretty much complete, except for his or her gear and weapons!
Economy & Gear
This chapter goes a bit into currency, then let us know the basics in money (75 silver) and equipment our character starts with. Weapons, armor, and basic adventuring gear are all included. This is a short, no-frills chapter, but I did like how it included the potential for coinage such as iron or brass–which might come into play, depending on what sort of age you set your game in.
Combat is also resolved by the skills system, meaning you add your Brawn + Melee, Quickness + Archery, or other skills as applicable. The number of degrees of success is how many times you multiply your weapon’s damage factor. For example, I have a spear as my weapon. The spear’s stats will look something like this:
Spear 4 (30)
The first number is the weapon’s damage factor. If I have a TN of 15 to hit (9 Brawn + 6 Melee), and roll an 12, I have 3 degrees of success. That means I would multiply my weapon’s damage factor (4) by my degrees of success (3) to get the total: 12. The second number of the weapon (30, in the example above) notes the max damage of weapon. That means my weapon can never get any higher than that, even if I have 9 or 10 degrees of success. Note a roll of 2 on 2d12 always does max damage; a 24 is a fumble.
If I’m the defender of an attack, I’m trying to get my own degrees of success on Dodge or Defend. Say I have a TN for my Dodge of 12, and get an 11. That’s one degree of success, meaning the attackers must subtract one degree from his total.
Multiple attacks per round may be taken, at a -2 cumulative penalty for each additional action attempted. Aside from this, combat is very straightforward, with the rounds and initiative we all know. The wide swing in weapon damage and the fact that you don’t have to be a passive defender really helps liven things up, though. It’s a fast, handy system, and I honestly wish I’d thought of it.
As a default, armor acts as a threshold; if my Armor has 15 points of Armor Value (AV), then the first 15 points of an attack don’t touch me. My group played with the in-book option of ablative armor, which definitely made the game more deadly. It’s an option I’d recommend at least looking at.
Damage to the body affects Vitality. With Vitality (think Hit Points), every 15 points of damage sustained means a -1 TN to all actions. This is enough to penalize wounded characters without making dying characters useless. At 0 Vitality, you are dead or dying.
The Combat section also deals with Social Combat, wherein you use Resolve attributes via a system checks to influence and/or change the opinion of others to your point of view. Some players might find this a little much and want to minimize its use; for others, especially those with dedicated “skill monkeys” in their group, might find it just what is needed.
The combat section is definitely extensive; it goes on to talk about Healing, plus Disease, Poison, Drugs, and types of damage (Falling, Burning) a character might take. It also contains some combat options (such as Shock rules) for making combat more lethal. This is a very full, very complete chapter, but nothing here is any harder to grasp than the basics of the game. As combat chapters can famously devolve in leviathans of special rules and confusing exceptions, I say well done.
As for Magic, the magic section is about 12 pages. There are Common Spells and Arcane Spells. Common spells are short-term duration, and are pretty modest in scope, as spells go. Arcane spells are the nastiness. Arcane Spells come with a price in Sanity, however–and Sanity isn’t infinite. All the spells in SS&S Basic are Common, with (I believe) the Arcane Spells coming out in Expert, due sometime in the next 6 months.
Spells have a rank like a Skill. When wanting to cast, you roll under Spell Rank+Will. For example, if I have a Will of 10, and Eldritch Tendril 3, I roll under (10+3=) 13 on 2d12 to cast.
All spells, Arcane or Common, take away a bit of Vitality (think Hit Points) when cast. There aren’t a ton of spells, but if that’s more your thing, it’d be easy to make more.
In addition to this type of magic, there is also Alchemy. I like this part–rules for brewing potions, acids, antidotes, power-giving elixirs, and vitriol (explosives) are covered. In addition, there is also alchemical metallurgy, which allows you to toy and change the base elements to create other items.
There is a setting included in SS&S for those who want something with which to start their own campaigns It isn’t hard-wired into the product by any means, but is a nice example setting GMs might take from or use bits of in their own campaign. Plus, if you’re stuck in creating your own world, you should find some inspirational bits here.
Shadow, Sword & Spell also includes a very to-the-point, but solid Game Mastering chapter, which nicely explores some of the themes of pulp fantasy. In addition, SS&S also possess a Creature/Bestiary chapter (very much in sword-and-sorcery vein, rather than D&D or Tolkien-derived), a chapter statting out potential NPCs/enemies (which I found rather nice), and “It’s In The Wine”, a short starting adventure. The aforementioned “Appendix N”, along with a copy of the character sheet (slightly pixelated in my copy) rounds out the book. The book doesn’t have an index, but with a descriptive Table of Contents and the way the book is laid out, this really isn’t missed that much.
Presentation is very nice in general, with one of my favorite cartographers, Robert Conley, getting the call for this product. Artwork is modestly distributed throughout, and is relevant and appropriate to the book. Sadly, as with many smaller-press games, there are some typos, which do hurt things in the wrong run. I have been told by Rogue Games a revised pdf will be offered to all purchasers, which is nice. The errors are of the type that will likely drive those who actively despise typos mad, but if you’re a bit more forgiving, you should be ok.
All in all, I really like Shadow, Sword, & Spell. It has a punching weight well above its $12.99 price tag and 142 pages of content. I’d say it’s one of the best deals I’ve had in gaming in recent years, at least. If you’re looking for a simple, cheap, easy-to-learn RPG that will allow you to play from Earthsea to Aquilonia, this could be what you’re looking for. Due to the typos, I’m giving it a 3.5 on Style, but a glowing 5 on Substance. In terms of bang for your buck, it isn’t going to get much better than this. Looking back over this, I’m impressed with just how much is in a book this size. Reading it, it doesn’t even seem like 142 pages, but a much shorter read–which is a good thing, I promise–that means it’s got a good flow and ease of reading. This is a game that manages to hit all the big points while remaining rules-light, which is quite an accomplishment.
If I can close with a personal anecdote, due to our GM getting sick at Gen Con, I had less than an hour to put together a 4-hour game for SS&S for 6 people. I was not only able to do so easily, but my players (who had no prior experience with the game) all got into the game and their characters very easily. It was one of the best convention games I’ve ever run, and further convinced me that Shadow, Sword, & Spell belonged in our gaming group’s regular rotation. It’s great proof you don’t need multiple tomes and 400-page books to make a great fantasy game.
This article has been kindly supplied by Zachary Houghton.