Right now, Swords Without Master by Epidiah Ravachol is my favorite roleplaying game and it’s not particularly close. This is super interesting to me, as I think there are those people who wouldn’t even describe Sw/oM as a roleplaying game (more on that later… maybe).
Given my fondness for it (and the fact that I am hacking it left and right) I thought it would be interesting and instructive to see why it works.
So what’s so great about Sw/oM?
It focuses on the story.
Yes, lots of hippie/indie/story games focus on the story, or at least claim to. Swords is different. It has a few things in place that mechanically make it about the story.
The glum/jovial dichotomy is at the heart of the game. This is important for many reasons, but none more so than the fact of what it displaces. Namely:
>lack of focus on pass/fail
Swords Without Master is like a really good teacher; it’s not really concerned with the simple binary success or failure of your actions, but rather with how you’re doing them. What you’re doing usually works, and when it doesn’t it’s equally awesome because of failure’s rarity. Swords is not a test to pass, but rather an experiment to conduct.
The cool bits you create come back, just like it an honest-to-god story. This is not only supported mechanically, it’s mandated – if you don’t write down the awesome bits and reuse them, the game never ends. Elements reappear, preventing the game from becoming “just some stuff that happened.”
It’s clear Epidiah spent a lot of time looking at the best examples of short stories he could find and reverse engineering a game out of them.
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It’s short playing
If you’ve played before, the whole game should clock in at under two hours easy. The Sunday Morning Swords crew averages about an hour and a half. For a busy professional, shaving two hours off of gaming time is huge. I can literally play twice as much. How does it achieve such a short run time? Part of it is the above focus on story. We ruthlessly zoom in on what is interesting and what advances a narrative. That scene where you debate whether or not to save the Halfling village? Cutting room floor. The argument about splitting loot? Expurgated. Chargen is also super quick, being based off of art and only requiring a few blanks to fill in. Finally, it’s got that ticking timer built in so the end is a goal that you can see, as well as manipulate.
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It is enormously satisfying to play.
I have played and run close to two dozen sessions of Swords and out of those only one could be said to be less than satisfying. Impressive numbers! But why? Well, bullet point number one’s “focus on story” has a lot to do with that, but also you get to do cool stuff. I mean, a lot of cool stuff. There is no system of skills, attributes, etc. telling you that you’re not allowed to do the coolest thing you can think of. So do it!
That reincorporation from bullet point one? It makes for an incredibly gratifying story arc (almost) every time. You may be playing Swords and thinking “Meh, this is alright, I guess,” but then, oh but then my friends, some element enters and something clicks and suddenly you’re playing THE BEST GAME EVER OH EM GEEEEE. Important questions meet important answers and loose ends get tied up. There is a logical end point and you don’t just stop because you’ve run out of time. There is a sense of closure that we all crave, but so rarely get from anything, let alone roleplaying games.
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It works as a one shot or campaign
If you’ve read this far, you know Swords works wonderfully as a one shot. It may come as a surprise that it works just as well as a campaign. I’m not sure you could do it as a traditional, one event after another campaign (I should try), but as an anthology it is just about perfect. And really, who would want to read the boring parts between adventures, anyway?
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So that’s what I love about Swords Without Master. What am I missing that you love?