There’s a dichotomy in the range of RPGs: if combat is important to a game, it must be tactically deep, and therefore long and complicated; alternately, if combat is resolved quickly and without fuss, then it can’t be a game where combat is important or satisfying. In an age where even the most action-packed movie blockbusters are still 75% “talky bits”, rarely is it considered that games about violence should resolve that action with a fast pace that matches the narration.
Swords Without Master is an exception.
Buried in Issue 3 of Worlds Without Master by Epidiah Ravachol (the Dread guy), the game tackles swords and sorcery action adventure by dividing the game into three phases with distinct rules, similar to how combat in D&D is essentially a separate mini-game. The limits of player narration are both extremely rigid and entirely freeform. If in the Rogue’s Phase you are asked, “Show me how you fail to catch the evil king”, then the king is gone and you cannot stop that… but you can narrate almost anything else along the way. I struggle with games that are too freeform – it turned me off Fiasco, for example – and certainly unconstrained narration will strike many players with analysis paralysis. For me, the few rules that Swords has to define structure are precisely sufficient to give me enough to bounce off of, inspiring a quick burst of punchy but evocative description. It just works.
I should admit I’ve only played Swords with the basic rules, and the extra content is probably worth experimenting with. For example, a common complaint is that Swords doesn’t provide enough opportunities for players to roleplay together and speak in-character – the optional Respite Phase is designed specifically for this. Personally, I’ve shied away from extra rules, because the game’s stripped-down nature is part of its charm. Unless you’re an experienced indie roleplayer, there’s already enough going on in the basic game that is conceptually unfamiliar.
Could this game support an ongoing campaign? That is the justification for making most RPG combats so damn complicated – to provide sufficient mechanical crunch that you’re discovering more stuff to enjoy sessions later. Whilst I’ve never been tempted to taking a group of Swords characters through an ongoing story, I’d happily play one-offs of this game over and over, so it’s certainly not light on replayability. Another lesson unlearned from blockbuster cinema: continuity is over-rated.
(I never review a game I haven’t played or run. Check out https://michaelduxbury.com/category/reviews/ for more RPG reviews.)