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RPG» Forums » General Discussion » General Role-Playing

Subject: Let's Read Swords Without Master! rss

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Alex Nguyen
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INTRO
In this thread, I'll be taking Swords Without Master, reading it cover-to-cover*, and posting my thoughts.

You can think of what follows as a long, rambly review. Anyone who wants to comment, ask questions, or generally kibbitz, please jump in! If you have the book* yourself, then follow along and share your thoughts!

Much like how Swords Without Master is inspired directly by Swords & Sorcery, this is inspired directly by Let's read Mouse Guard! Check out the Master List of "Let's Read" Threads for the full list.

Welcome to Let's Read Swords Without Master; feel free to subscribe and follow along.
Opposing viewpoints not only welcome but appreciated!

* There's no actual cover/book since this is a game found within Volume 1, Issue 3 of the Worlds Without Master E-Zine.
§ I hope I don't screw up.
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Alex Nguyen
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LET'S START
Firstly this is a leisurely 32-pages! But it's dense with ideas that should birth much discussion, or at least impart some wisdom on how we like or don't like to play our games.

Secondly it might be worth mentioning this is a no-prep game; those familiar with such things know what's implied and what to expect.

When I hear a game is no-prep I feel like one or more of the following is likely accurate:
* The whole table has authority over the story right off the bat.
* Character creation is super-light.
* There's still room for the GM to use existing plot-points/maps, or to come up with stuff ahead of time. See John Arcadian's Islands [Unframed: The Art of Improvisation, 21] or Apocalypse World's Fronts.


SWORDS WITHOUT MASTER
A game by Epidiah Ravachol
Illustrated by Storn Cook, Ed Heil, & Chris L. Kimball
Quote:
We begin with examples of the types of tables that might be acceptable to play on! Awesome.

A mahogany table adorned with thick, greasy candles and five
human skulls.

Failing that, a stout oaken table near
a glowing hearth, replete with ale-filled steins and a
succulent roast.

Or, if you prefer, a tabletop chipped
whole from a single obsidian stone, placed on the
back of a coiled serpent of silver in a room high in a
lonely tower shrouded in a prismatic fog.


Page 1 starts as we'd expect: a call to gather the usual stuff. Players, pencils, dice, etc. Immediately the reader is fixed with the tone of the material (see sidebar).

Already my mind is racing back to images from reading sword & sorcery novels from years past! Very exciting.

Here we also learn that the GM role is called the "Overplayer" and the players are "Rogues". Fine with me.

At first glance:
* I see Overplayer and I read on. No preconceptions. It's just another name for gamemaster, however;
* I see Rogue and I'm thinking, "is this going to be like Blades in the Dark and we're thieves running heists?" Don't worry fellow reader, a Rogue in this context is not a D&D Thief. We'll find out more about this later.


The art on this page gives us a hint of the mechanics. There are (suitably fantasy looking) people with dice: a woman with a light die, and a gentleman holding a dark die. The game does indeed depend on 2 dice, as we'll find out soon enough.

OBJECTIVE
We're told that we'll be telling a tale of sword & sorcery. What a surprise. The knee-jerk reaction here would be to say, "well d'uh" and move on, but it might be nice to pause to make sure everyone kinda knows about the subgenre of Sword and Sorcery and how it differs from High Fantasy for example.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sword_and_sorcery

What does no-prep imply to you?
Do you fall into the camp of folks who gets annoyed at having to call themselves something other than DM/GM?
Other thoughts so far?
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USP45 wrote:
What does no-prep imply to you?


Someone should ideally be familiar with the rules, but other than that there is no time needed to get ready for the game.

Quote:
Do you fall into the camp of folks who gets annoyed at having to call themselves something other than DM/GM?


I think it's funny, although if someone really insisted on it, it would be annoying.

Quote:
Other thoughts so far?


I am skeptical of such a short game.
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USP45 wrote:

What does no-prep imply to you?
Do you fall into the camp of folks who gets annoyed at having to call themselves something other than DM/GM?
Other thoughts so far?

No-prep means no one has to do anything before play except at least one person read the rules thoroughly.

I could care less what you call me, and in fact it can be helpful to use a different term if the powers/role is non-traditional (as it is in Swords).

I have played this game several times (including once with Epidiah himself as Overplayer) and enjoyed it tremendously, so I'm holding my thoughts for now.
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USP45 wrote:
What does no-prep imply to you?


Generally I think it implies a greater emphasis on player agency and shared world building. But it doesn't always have to be the case - Mutant: Year Zero is a zero prep game, but comes with enough charts to allow the GM to create a zone sector on the fly.

Quote:
Do you fall into the camp of folks who gets annoyed at having to call themselves something other than DM/GM?


I quite enjoy it!

Quote:
Other thoughts so far?


I read through SWM ages ago but have kind of forgot most of the details. It's going to be nice going through it again with some added discussions. Contrary to Dysjunct I love short games! If you can't compress your game down to 30 pages there's a decent chance it's too long.
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I'm indirectly answering the questions: I think that these Let's Read series are great, in part, because people are covering a lot of games that I am extremely unlikely to run or play. Short games, No-prep, and cute GM names are some of the things that often indicate that to me.

But it's very interesting seeing what people have to say about them, and I really appreciate the effort and discussion.
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OVERVIEW
Page 2 begins the Overview --> a summary of how everything plays out in the 2-3 hours of real-time game-play that’s an average session (that’s not actually mentioned here; I read it online somewhere).

We start every session with a die roll that determines the Tone for a while. It constrains our story telling while tugging at our creativity.

Quote:
Whether the game begins on blood-caked desert sands while your rogues desperately push back against a band of screaming devils or under the Aurora Borealis as your rogues slip silently from chill waters to board a slumbering longboat depends upon that first roll and the tone it dictates.



I don't know much about — and didn't hang around — the Forge back in the day (I hear reading some of the archives can be enlightening even though there seems to be at least 1 school of opinion of gamers who say, "it's all pretentious garbage!"); I've gotta think that the ghosts of conversations at the Forge about why we game and how to get to that sweet spot haunt this section of Swords Without Master. Right off the bat the idea of being told what Tone to start talking in really appeals to me (as an Overmaster or Rogue). It’s the very first step we take on the journey from differentiating an RPG from free-form.

More about Tone later.

PHASES
If the Tones are the soul of Swords Without Master (SWM from here on out), then the Phases are the beating heart of the game. We will always be living in one of three phases:

* The Perilous Phase, wherein the rogues’ lives are in danger.
* The Discovery Phase, wherein in the world is seen through the eyes and experiences of the rogues.
* The Rogues’ Phase, wherein the rogues are unleashed to do what they do best.

There isn’t an order to these. And you might follow one with the exact same phase after.

THREADS
Every once in a while, the game taps us on the shoulder and says let’s do some stuff that will tie the tale together. In the heat of the moment we create threads:

* The Moral, wherein the rogues suffer the unintended consequences of their actions.
* The Mystery, wherein the unknown briefly reveals itself.
* Motifs, wherein the moments that most exemplify the glory of sword and sorcery are recorded.

The OVERVIEW continues by telling us how the end will work: we’re still living in Tones and Phases, but the Threads start tying everything together to bring the story to an end organically using mechanics!

... and that's pretty neat if you think about it. Writing-theory/rules tell us stuff like (this is off the top of my head and simplified so correct me please!): "write in 3 Acts" and "don't introduce new stuff past the half-way point". But how do you do that in the heat of the moment in a NO-PREP game? This is how! (Heck, even HEAVY-PREP sessions miss the mark on this often.)



ROGUE CREATION PART I of IV
Rogues, Heroes, Eidolons & Simulacra

Also on Page 2 is the first piece of character creation. It's set aside in a large upper side-bar that's consistent in layout across the entire game. When we revisit this for reference we can follow the layout trail to read that stuff in order all at once if we prefer. On an initial read though, I like the pacing of splitting up that stuff, while reading about other mechanics.

This is a nice compromise for peeps like Kevin who like Character Creation right away, and peeps like me who don’t mind getting it in smaller bite-sized chunks.

We need to know what the Rogue role means and this is where we find out.

Quote:
The rogues are the heroes of our stories. They are heroes and rogues in the classic sense. Heroes in that they are able to perform mighty deeds beyond the capabilities of normal man. Rogues in the sense that they own no land and are not clearly employed in any respectable sense.

In a world where everyone is beholden to someone else—even the thieves to their guildmaster and the king to his subjects—the rogues stand free of such shackles. They live outside the master-slave relationship that is inescapable in the normal social order. This makes them dangerous, intriguing, seductive, and perhaps very useful.



We’re telling a story around heroes (as opposed to the average Joe peasant). Check.

The term Rogue isn’t referring to the High Fantasy archetype Thief. Got it.

In addition, there’s no morale compass attached to the title. A savior comes in many forms. Or maybe the selfish mercenary is exactly what she seems at face value. You will decide (or find out in play).

So how do you create a “Rogue”? Just say a thing and you’re done!

Specifically: an eidolon or simulacrum might be a song, book, painting, or whatever. It has to be of our world, and it has to imply a lot about what you want to play.

On eidolons and simulacrum

Simulacrum
noun
→ an image or representation of someone or something

Eidolon
noun
→ an ideal or idealized figure

This is really pretty neat. Similar to Risus clichés that depend on our collective knowledge of what the word "Spy" or "Wizard" implies for skills and such (Ghostly Pirate Wizard implies so much that we don't have to say out loud or write down ahead of time), SWM depends entirely on Eidolons (or Simulacra) for character creation. You name a thing (a picture, a poem, etc.) and we all at the table know most everything that's implied for your character at a glance! Easy peasy.

Want to play a character that’s similar to Conan the Barbarian? I remember spending a bunch of time as a kid trying to stat out a Conan-ish character with whatever game I was playing at the time (likely AD&D). It was admittedly fun, but we never finished because we could never agree on different facets of the game mechanics not really jiving with the character concept. In SWM, just say “Conan.” Done! Everyone knows what you’re talking about (obviously, you want to play a late-night talk show host).


I’m interjecting my opinion in snippets all over the place. Every once in a while though I’ll ramble a little longer. Does anyone mind if I use this swanky SWM coffee mug to denote when I'm giving an extended opinion? Yes/No? Annoying? Also, I don’t have a “happy” mug or a “sad” mug so it won't really be any reliable indicator of mood.

Oh yeah → I should have mentioned this disclaimer up front! I have never played Swords Without Master. I have never read through it entirely. This is a real read-through!

P.S. Are we really only still on Page 2?! I told you this was chock full of dense goodness.

What are your first impressions so far?

It might not be fair to ask this yet, because we have no details. We only have vague notions of ideas on what will happen when play begins.

Will these ideas ascend a great and wending walkway into glorious victory as we embrace and love them? Will we rage against them and impale them upon the parapets of a lost castle in the mists? Or worst of all, will they fade away from memory as we read on - the details not even a shadow of their potential?
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It all sounds really cool. Now I want to see how it does it!
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ALL THAT DESERVES A NAME
Rogue Creation Part II of IV

I lied last time, when I said all you have to do during character creation is say a thing. Your Rogue needs a name after all!

Now is the chance to name some other things as well: weapons, an enemy, a spell, etc. The list might ebb and flow as we go along and there are some rules associated with that, dependent on Phases of the game (which we’ll get to soon enough).

BONES AND TONES
The two tones we talked about earlier are:
1 Glum
1 Jovial

Before we’re even told what to do with the tones we can kinda guess/surmise. Heck we at least know the dictionary definition of the words.

We’ll be playing with two dice so agree with everyone before beginning which go with what. Black and white are perfectly fine but a cold blue and warm orange might suit your tastes.

High roll is the Tone.

Depending on who rolled
Overplayer → the result is the Overtone; this defines the Tone for the Overplayer as well as anyone else who has yet to roll.
Rogue player → the resulting Tone is your own.

Once someone has rolled the dice it’s like you have the talking stick! You have the floor sir/madam.

Hmm, not what we might have expected
at first glance…
Quote:
Your Glum may gleam like the starry night and
your Jovial may be the dark crimson of freshly spilt blood.

Earlier I mentioned dictionary definitions; forget that. Narrating in Tones to me is shaping up to be one of the central joys of this game. It’s “an exercise in personal interpretation.” It might be as easy as Glum’s quiet to Jovial’s loud. Gentle weeping vs. open sobbing. A silent desert caravan passing in the night vs. elephant-drawn cargo wagons on a busy trade street.

The examples in the “Sensual Feast” sidebar give an excellent taste. It's the gray-green sky just before a storm vs. sun-drenched plains.

The takeaway here is probably to not strictly interpret Glum and Jovial; don’t over-think it. Let your creativity go free and run with the first thing that comes to mind. It’s pretty obvious that whispers from forgotten languages lives in the Glum column while a song sung in a major key goes in the Jovial column.

One thing to remember: if the Rogue player’s Tone does not match the Overtone, the easiest move is to start off narrating in the Overtone and then show everyone how at odds you are with the moment. The silence in the eye of a hurricane for example.


Ties, Stymies, Mysteries & Escalations
What if I rolled a tie? Each Phase handles this a little differently but basically:

The Overtone flips
Everyone’s tone shifts to this new one

If it’s a Player who rolled the tie, the Rogue is stymied; the Player has the privilege of narrating what happened whether it’s a temporary setback or outright failure. The scene escalates!

If the tie is a pair of ones, twos, or threes then the stymie is a Mystery and we don’t yet know why the Rogue was thwarted in whatever was trying to be accomplished. The reason might simply be unknown or of unnatural origin. We’ll talk more about this later when we delve into Threads (we’re starting to get a taste of how things come together).

If the Overplayer rolled the tie, don’t worry about it. No threads, stymies, etc.

Speaking of Phases, that’s next up!


Let’s exercise! Give your own example(s) of Glum and Jovial.
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USP45 wrote:
...

What does no-prep imply to you?
Do you fall into the camp of folks who gets annoyed at having to call themselves something other than DM/GM?
Other thoughts so far?


Some games are oddly serious about that first point. Not just "no prep needed," but "DON'T PREP." Which is odd and nearly impossible... before and between sessions of anything, I'll be musing over ideas even if I'm not committed to any of them. What I would "prep" is impressions - like the "Three dozen..." miscellanies also appearing in WWM.

A GM by any other name would smell as funky. But like you mentioned, it carries the tone. It also is simple in establishing that player as having a slightly elevated position without imparting "master" status.

Quote:
What are your opinions so far? (through page 2)

Interspersing character creation alongside the rules you'll be interacting with is an excellent tactic. More games, especially Beginner sets and Quickstarts should incorporate.
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Holy crap. Meanwhile over on Twitter.

Uncle Eppy (a.k.a @Epidiah, the Dread/Jenga guy, author of this game and Overeditor of Worlds Without Master) has been doing his own SWM read-through with intimate designer thoughts.

I'm kind of a Twitter newb but here's the deets:

His call-sign
@epidiah

The hash-tag
#SeptSwords

Some combination of search/filter on the above (or just see my link above) should reveal a treasure trove of pure awesome.

Thanks to fellow internet Rogue, Eric Farmer for nodding in this direction.

If you know how to get around on Twitter, let us know a good way to ingest this haha. I can sort of read along from the beginning Sept 1 but every once in awhile a click here and there reveals even more in the "thread" and then I'm lost down a rabbit hole of clicks.

Damn, I dunno if I should keep reading or not. It might color my commentary here.
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USP45 wrote:
Damn, I dunno if I should keep reading or not. It might color my commentary here.


Please wait until you're done here if you can.
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FEATS HEROIC
Rogue Creation Part III of IV
You have an eidolon or simulacrum to imply your character concept. And you’ve named stuff. Next up: acquire a get out of jail free card!

Imagine a dire situation.

Perhaps a phalanx of spearmen has you cornered in a narrow mountain pass. Or a priest of a long-forgotten god has just whispered your name to a hunting beast. Or a rockslide threatens to entomb you in a desert cave.

How would your Rogue deal with this? Write these down as “Feats Heroic”, one for your Jovial nature and one for your Glum nature.

One time in the game after casting the dice, you may cross out one of these Feat thereby invoking it. Ignore the result of the dice and everything that goes with it (e.g. tone change, threads created). Continue your narration IN THE TONE OF YOUR FEAT, incorporating it into the story. That’s your get out of jail free moment.


I’m not sure how often these come up in actual play (having not actually played). Also, at this point in the read-through I don’t know what threads are yet to know why I’d want to avoid creating them! I think threads are a good thing (for a player telling a story); maybe they’re not always a good thing for the Rogues themselves…


THE PHASES
(Rules of Order… wherein we go through the etiquette of playing. We’ll meet the actual Phases next time.)

Earlier (in the overview) we mentioned that if the Tones are the soul of SWM, then the Phases are the beating heart of the game.

1. Roll for the Overtone. Remember that everyone is in Glum or Jovial. Sometimes a Rogue might be in opposition or discord to the Overtone. And if someone’s roll results in a tie, the Overtone flips. “After making this roll, leave the dice upon the table. Do not pick them up until the Thunder roars.” I dunno what the Thunder is but I like the sound of it!

2. Choose the Phase. SWM (at first glance) probably positions the Overplayer and the Rogues on relatively even footing if we’re to believe that it’s a no-prep / storytelling game. This is one area where the Overplayer has full privilege though. Whenever it’s time to choose a Phase, the Overplayer gets to decide.

If in doubt:



3. Set the Scene. This is straight-up something you’ve done hundreds of times before as a DM in another game. BUT do it while hitting the Overtone. This is the who, what, why, and where part. As you can probably tell by now it’s okay to go overboard with your Sword and Sorcery dialect at this point.

4. Let Peal the Thunder. Yay it’s the thunder part. Overplayer picks up the dice; that can’t be good.

Quote:
The Thunder is some threat in the near distance that the rogues may or may not have to contend with. This could be something specific, like a dust cloud on the horizon that denotes a horde of foes riding hard to meet the rogues in battle; or it could be something vague but foreboding, such as the sound of scratching in the walls. The lives led by rogues are dangerous lives. So there is a Thunder in each one of the basic phases—a constant reminder that a threat awaits them at every turn.



It’s fun in RPGs to crank up the heat, but it’s not always super fun if it’s always happening. Pealing Thunder to me seems like a great middle ground. It reminds us that heat exists to crank up. It makes us think it up, and because we did it’s a tangible thing that exists in our craw ready to be unleashed, and yet we’re free to enjoy it as only another fancy set piece if we desire. On the hand, ignore it and it’ll likely bite you. Leave the explanation for later. Go to town with your creative juices, not worrying about the details.

Things to ponder: it may be a Rogue Player who reveals the truth of the Thunder! This is not one of those “GM tries really hard to create elaborate plot and either it falls flat or players ignore” moments. This is “quick moment of creativity” owned by Overplayer and Rogue alike.

Lastly, the Thunder is thunderous because the Overplayer picked up the dice and everyone knows to pay attention to something that might come back later. It is NOT the Thunder because it need be literally thunderous. We could as easily be talking about the innocent smile of a dotard (that is later revealed to be the alien mastermind) as we could be a glowing purple tower in the distance after an earth-shaking lightning strike (that is never revisited again).

5. Enter the Phase. We’ll meet the actual Phases next time. Just know that each Phase has its own rules and etiquette. Any particular Phase might last the length it takes to slit a guard’s throat, or it might last for most of a session!
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