Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Some thoughts about Shadow, Sword and Spell

Shadow, Sword and Spell is a fun game. Or at least I had a fun time playing a recent two adventure mini campaign.  Though I will say that I really enjoy playing games and I find that in many instances the actual game being played is secondary.  Get some decent players, let them do what they want and see where it goes.  Generally a pretty good recipe for a fun night.  But every system certainly brings new things to the table and enables different styles of gaming.  SS&S is designed to emulate pulp fantasy, the world of down and out heroes and low magic.  And it does those things pretty well.  Having just finished up this short game I have some recent thoughts about everything.

The best thing about the game are the character Hooks.  At creation each character writes down five hooks that are essentially mottos or backstories or convictions or whatever that guide the character and also allow them more success when the player can tie it into the story.  SS&S is a game of grayish morality, I sort of assume that every character fits into what would be a traditionally neutral alignment.  Not to say that that no one is good or evil, but in pulp fantasy characters usually fall into a lifestyle of supporting their own agenda.  So without the need for alignment Hooks serve as a way to ground the characters in some sort of belief or goal and keep them consistent.  And the fact that it can have an actual impact on gameplay (by providing bonuses and rerolls) is really great.  It’s a functional, fun and flavorful replacement for alignment and I think it’s great.  Truthfully, when I play D&D I usually exempt characters from having an alignment (except for clerics) because it’s pointless.  But the hooks are awesome, especially when the player announces they are using one in a dramatic voice. Which is something that should always be required. 

Action Points are the other part of the game that I like a lot.  Each character starts the game with a certain number of Action Points which can be used to increase the chance of success on any sort of a roll, or to “edit” the story to their advantage.  It’s the editing that I find most interesting.  Being a GM isn’t always the easiest and most rewarding profession and sometimes we don’t always come up with the best stuff.  So with an Action Point a player can jump in and add something to the world that makes the game better. I am totally into this.  It can’t be something earth shattering, but the devil is in the details and so is most of the fun.  I also really like the idea of trusting players to fiddle with the world I created and insert something into it.  It’s bad enough that players never do what you want them to do, but now they have a game mechanic to veto me! How exciting. In the game we just played the Assassin type character wanted to investigate a merchant who was sleeping on the third floor of an inn.  I had assumed that he would sneak into the place, pick a lock, do all of those normal skullduggery types of things.  But no, turns out some stone masons had been doing some repair work across the street and had left out their scaffolding, which was just the right height to look into the merchants open window.  Come on, that’s pretty cool for a player to be able to do that. 

While I admire the effort of creating a new type of system, the 12 Degrees system is just sort of odd.  It’s a basic rolling for a Target Number concept, but success is measured in degrees of success.  If the target number is an 18 and you roll a 14 you have four degrees of success and will perform the action better than someone who only got two degrees of success.  For starters, with just about every roll it’s favorable to roll low.  There is something counter intuitive that just feels wrong about rolling 2d12 and hoping for two 1’s.  It’s fun to roll big numbers!  I do like the idea that success and failure is measured in degrees rather than just the typical binary style of pass/fail that is present in most games.  But it needs work.  For one, rolling 2d12 produces a ton of rolls in the 9-15 range of numbers.  So the result is that a character who has a +23 on their melee roll (which is about as good as it gets) isn’t really that much better than a character that has a +20.  In essence it pays to be really good at things, but probably not worth the investment to be legendarily great at something.  It’s a minor point certainly, but it got to me. 

Perhaps the strangest component of the rules of SS&S is the economy of actions as it relates to combat.  In most games characters can usually do a single thing in a round of combat, with this increasing as characters gain more power and thus more skill at combat.  Makes sense.  In SS&S it seems as if a character can take as many actions as they want in a given turn! Crazy! Of course it comes at a cost, but the cost, honestly, doesn’t seem all that high.  For each additional action that a character makes the target number lowers by 2, which in turn makes it harder to succeed.  I suppose the catch here is that defending oneself is considered an action so if a character decides to make four attacks on their turn when it comes time to defend against the enemy’s axe they will be making that roll at -10 (since it’s their 5th action of that round).  Okay, I see why you wouldn’t go crazy.  Or do I?  See, since defending is an action by continuing to attack you are essentially crippling your opponents ability to counterattack by making them spend all of their actions to protect themselves.  Or they choose not to defend and most likely get killed.  This system seems particularly awful when someone is outnumbered since the larger group can just keep spamming their actions and killing the ability of the defender to do anything.  It’s just odd.  Why would someone be able to attack that many times?  It also greatly increases the value of initiative since the person who attacks first sort of gets to dictate the terms of combat.  In some ways it make sense but it also goes a long way to make combat totally bizarre.  Role playing games don’t need to be an accurate simulation of how melee combat should work, it needs to make the game work and I think that the combat system in SS&S does not work. 

Another issue with the game that does warrant mentioning is that the rulebook is wildly inconsistent and does not do a good job of explaining a lot of stuff.  There are mistakes in it, contradictions aplenty, and it sort of feels incomplete.  The version I have may be an older one so it’s possible that this issue has been corrected since I originally bought it, but some of the mistakes are really obvious and probably should have been caught by someone before going to print.  It is worth mentioning that I’ve emailed Rogue Games about some clarifying some of these questions and Richard Iorio (the game’s creator) has gotten back to me almost immediately with an answer. That’s very nice of him. 

The Magic system in the game feels more like an obligation for a fantasy game than something that actually fits into the game.  For one, the cost of having some magic ability and knowing a spell or two is so prohibitive that it severely limits a characters ability to really do much else.  (In the game that I just ran I did make a sorcerer style character but I tweaked the rules a bit so that they would be able to do something other than just cast two spells.)  And two, casting spells costs Vitality which makes them sometimes as lethal to the caster as they are to the victim! And none of them are really all that good.  I understand that magic is not a big part of the Pulp world (and is actually one of the reasons why I like Pulp so much) and I wish that the game just didn’t include it, or at least limited it to demons and other weird shit like that.  But can a fantasy RPG not have magic? I suppose it could, especially for the audience that wants this type of game.  And if it wasn’t available to PC’s it would be so much scarier and more menacing when it was encountered since it would be so foreign to the party.  And the game would have to change it's name to just Shadow and Sword.  Which isn't all that bad.  

I would feel weird if I didn’t mention the premade adventure that comes with the basic guidebook.  It’s fine, if a bit complex for a starter adventure.  In a nutshell people are being poisoned and the party has to figure out why.  Turns out it is in the wine that everyone is drinking,  The name of the adventure?  It’s In the Wine.  That’s weak. Make sure the players don’t even know the name of the adventure you are playing.  And strangely, there is also an adventure for the system about poisoned stew.  The name of that adventure?  The Stew.  Apparently the world of Shadow, Sword and Spell is lacking a competent Food and Drug Administration. 

This doesn’t sound like a glowing review of Shadow, Sword and Spell but I do think that the game is a lot of fun, mainly due to the hooks, actions points and the theme of the world.  Rules are very fungible as far as I am concerned. I frequently add and drop things from games all the time so it’s easy for me to look past the clunkiness of the 12 degree system.  If you, or the people you play with, are rules lawyers then I suspect that you will either become frustrated with SS&S or break the rules and find all sorts of loopholes in creating powerhouses.  But if you just want to have a fun gaming experience you could do way worse than this game.  Have fun!

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