My glum and jovial discovery of Swords Without Master

Frostfire Monkey by pierdrago. Used without permission

Swords Without Master is a game by Epidiah Ravachol designed to emulate the classic sword-and-sorcery, weird fiction, pulp adventure tales typified by Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Cimmerian stories. I’ve mentioned the game before (in my post on using pictures as aspects in Fate), but I’ve finally played it properly and now I want to talk about it.

The overtone

Overall, I like Swords Without Master. I think it’s a great game and it excellently captures the feel of the genre it’s trying to emulate. I would happily play it again as either a Rogue or Overplayer.

I had more mixed feelings about my first experience of the game. That’s not a big problem. Mixed feelings are entirely appropriate for Swords Without Master, which is all about tone (usually jovial and glum) and how different tones intersect in cool ways.

In this post, I’m going to talk about some of my first impressions. And because I’m fairly certain that most (if not all) of the issues I had with it can be resolved with more experience, I’ll talk about some things I’d do differently if playing again. Hopefully it will help other players that are thinking of trying the game have a more unambiguously jovial first session.

Character creation

Players in Swords Without Master take on the roles of Rogues. Rogue creation, as I mentioned in my previous post on picture aspects, starts by selecting an eidolon or a simulacrum. That is, something from the real world that reminds you of your Rogue. Mine was this picture of a Frostfire Monkey by pierdrago from DeviantArt. The Rogue I made from this was Frostfire, worshipper of Goddess Apex of the Blue Flame.

I had expected most of the players to pick eidolons that were actual depictions of their Rogue, but in fact I was the only one to do so. I found that interesting, and it definitely showed that thinking outside the box for eidolons can really pay off in terms of interesting character ideas.

There were three other Rogue players, whose eidolons were two songs and an art form:

  • Draka, the King of Rebels, whose eidolon was the song “Part III: The Lamb and the Dragon” from the rock opera Broken Bride by Ludo;
  • April the Fleeting, whose eidolon was the song “Arms Of A Thief” by Iron and Wine; and
  • Kintsugi, whose eidolon was the Japanese ceramic art of kintsugi, which was described as the art of repairing objects by filling the cracks with gold.

Can I talk about Kintsugi for a moment? Because someone really needs to paint a picture of this character. Kintsugi is a construct or golem, streaked through with gold where his body has cracked during his millennia of existence. Set into his chest is a weave of five interlocking rings, which are both part of the system that gives him life and represents the vanished civilisation that he once served. He wears a silken kimono and wields a gigantic flat-ended sword called Certainty, which is etched with all the promises he has ever made (I’m thinking something like Hardedge from Final Fantasy). He carries the last surviving scrolls of poetry by Bashō. Even Kintsugi’s feats heroic were written in haiku! And here they are:

Murmuring poetry,
Through strain and cracks of metal
Weathering the storm.

Striking like lightning,
A sudden violent motion
Of dark steel, bright gold.

Kintsugi is the most memorable character from that game. It helped having a strong visual (even without a simulacrum of the character), but it also helped having every item on his list of All That Deserves a Name be attached to his character. The things he named were his five-ring weave, his sword Certainty, and the scrolls of Bashō. These all appeared actually in gameplay, not just as backstory material. In contrast, Frostfire’s list of All That Deserves a Name included the Goddess Apex and two locations that we did not visit (and could never have realistically visited in a one-shot). While these informed the character and the overall story of the game, they didn’t actually show up in the session we played. For a one-shot, I would definitely recommend picking at least a few things to name that are physical objects that your Rogue owns and uses.

Group character creation

The individual Rogues were all cool characters. Unfortunately, the character creation process in Swords Without Master does not include a section for tying your characters together as a group or party. (This is a bugbear of mine, and I’ve blogged about it before.)

In fact, the character creation process in Swords Without Master has the opposite effect, and actually works to ensure that characters are not unified. I mentioned the list of All That Deserves a Name above. Each player must write such a list for their Rogue, and this is the main way that you create and express the backstory of your character. These things then become narrative property of the player that created them: they have the affordances and constraints of a Rogue, and other players can only bring them into the fiction if the player who created them gives permission. This is a good way of ensuring that all players have equal narrative authority, but nothing can appear on more than one list. No two Rogues can share the same thing that deserves a name. There is therefore very limited commonality.

In our game, we decided (after Rogue creation was finished) that we had joined the same caravan and thus knew each other mostly because we’d been travelling together for a few months. But that didn’t give Frostfire any reason to care about any other character, or them about him.

In another game, I would recommend that players decide what sort of group they would like to be in even before picking eidolons. Perhaps even use one of the tricks I recommended in this group character generation blog post. Then consider collaborating on your lists of All That Deserves a Name.

If, for example, you want a villainous organisation that your group of Rogues is opposing, nobody should write down the organisation itself. Instead, have each Rogue write down some members of that organisation. This fleshes out the organisation (helpful for the Overplayer), unites the Rogues, and gives them a personal rival.

The three phases

As a default, the game has three phases, representing different parts of a story:

  • In the Perilous Phase, the Rogues are beset by imminent and constant danger;
  • In the Discovery Phase, the world is revealed through the eyes of the Rogues; and
  • In the Rogues’ Phase, the Rogues can cut loose and demonstrate how they are awesome.

(There are other specialised phases that can be used in longer campaigns, but we didn’t use any of them for our one-shot.)

This is a really interesting idea, and one of the main reasons that the game is so good at modelling its intended genre. We followed the advice in the book about starting our first game with phases in the following order: Perilous, Discovery, Rogue.

The Perilous Phase

We began with the Perilous Phase. Our caravan was on a mountain pass. We were stopped at a barricade by some people demanding a toll.

The Perilous Phase is about the Rogues being on the back foot, forced to be reactive instead of proactive. The danger should constantly demand action. It’s the perfect opportunity to start a session in media res, with a battle already underway.

Our game had a relatively slow opening as the danger ramped up. In this phase, Rogues can hold onto the dice before rolling, which is a signal to the Overplayer to keep laying on the threat and pushing harder and harder until the Rogues are desperate to roll. When the dice came to me, I held on to the dice for a while, hoping for more peril, but this felt like a selfish demand on my part that she should keep talking without a break.

The flip side of the lack of peril was that the Rogue players were not sufficiently involved in ‘slipping and struggling’, which is peppering the Overplayer’s narration with their Rogue’s reactions, trying to mitigate the worst of what the Overplayer is throwing at them. Even when the danger ramped up, we did very little slipping and struggling. In fact, in the whole game (in two Perilous Phases with each Rogue making about three Perilous rolls in total), I think it happened twice. I actually felt uncomfortable about interrupting, but in retrospect I realise that it’s a key part of the phase, and failing to do so makes it much harder for the Overplayer to maintain the tension and threat.

In future, for a Perilous Phase (especially one at the start of a session), I’d recommend opening in media res, and letting the Overplayer punctuate their description with prompts for the player. “The gorgons’ venomous arrows rain down upon you. Do you seek cover? As you hide, they slither across the rocky ground, quickly making up the distance. They’ll catch you if you stay where you are. In the still glassy lake you can see the reflections of their burning eyes, which will turn you to stone if you meet them directly. One meets your gaze in the reflection and dives in a graceful arc into the water, and vanishes. She’s seen you, and she could reappear anywhere. What do you do?” Of course, the people that the Overplayer is prompting might not have the dice and would thus be limited to slipping and struggling (only by rolling dice can Rogues succeed in this phase). It’s possible for the Overplayer to encourage that by focussed prompting (e.g. the “Do you seek cover?”). The Rogues’ responses should be brief (not a full narration), and the Overplayer should otherwise do as the book says and press every advantage and push until the Rogue with the dice decides to make a roll.

The Discovery Phase

We also limited ourselves in the Discovery Phase quite a bit. This phase is all about, well, discovery. World building. Seeing the fantastic setting through the eyes of the Rogues themselves.

We failed in that in most respects. We took the rule that Rogues with the dice should narrate something that the Rogue knows as an instruction to narrate something that the Rogue knows in their backstory. We revealed things about the Rogues’ backstories, which was mostly internal (although we enhanced this by revealing it in character through roleplaying).

What we should have done was describe the Rogues doing something (even if it’s just walking to a new area) and say what they saw and felt and experienced as they were doing it. That’s the real power and benefit of a Discovery Phase, especially since it takes pressure off the Overplayer to decide absolutely everything about where this is taking place and what’s going on. We relied a lot more on asking the Overplayer questions (the other half of an action in this phase), most of which were not sufficiently leading, and put a lot of the responsibility of worldbuilding on the Overplayer when the whole point of the phase is to alleviate that responsibility.

The Rogues’ Phase

In the Rogues’ Phase, Rogues get to show off how awesome they are. However, they can only do this in response to a demand from another player that the Rogue “Show us how you do this awesome thing.” That is, it’s the responsibility of other players to dictate precisely what awesome thing you do.

This means that the Rogue player won’t necessarily be demonstrating their Rogues’ awesomeness as they see it. They might want to do one thing, but the demand indicates that they have achieved something else.

This is a relatively minor point, and I think it will go away when players have been playing together long enough to know how the other Rogues will shine, but it might be frustrating in a one-shot with players who haven’t played the game before.

Morals

Morals and Mysteries are two types of story threads that appear when both dice show the number 3 or less. (Morals happen when the two dice show different numbers of three or less, and Mysteries happen when the two dice show the same number of three of less.) We didn’t have any Mysteries that I can recall, but we had a lot of Morals, and for some reason almost all of them were rolled by April the Fleeting.

I don’t have a lot to say about them. Like most parts of the game, I think they are something that you get better at with more experience. One thing I will say is that Morals were easy in the Perilous and Rogues’ Phases, when the dice rolling indicated that the Rogues had taken an action. It was not too difficult to pick an unintented consequence that might arise from an action.

In the Discovery Phase, however, dice rolling does not necessarily mean that the Rogues are acting, so picking unintented consequences could be very difficult. I’d be curious to hear if people with more experience know how to resolve this issue, because it’s one that I don’t see a solution to.

Apocalypse Now

The last thing I want to bring up is how the Rogue Draka took the trick Unparalleled at character creation. This meant he replaced one of his two tones (usually Jovial and Glum) for a third tone of his choice.

He replaced Glum with Apocalyptic.

Yes.

Usually, this third tone wouldn’t affect anyone else. He’d be Jovial when he rolled higher on the white die and Apocalyptic when he rolled higher on the black die, and the Overtone wouldn’t be affected… unless he rolled a double, in which case the Overtone would flip to Apocalyptic.

He rolled three doubles during the game. The Overtone for the game turned Apocalyptic three times. And because a double also meant that Draka himself had been stymied (failed to do what he wanted), Apocalyptic Overtones always flowed from the action and ended up being story-defining moments of brilliance.

The first time, the villain Paraskes started shrieking, causing the mountain to shake and crumble on top of us.

The last time it happened, Paraskes managed to summon an elder god from a lava pit that opened directly into Hell.

Picking Apocalyptic as a third tone was freaking awesome. And that’s all I have to say about that.


Image is Frostfire Monkey by pierdrago on DeviantArt. Used without permission

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5 thoughts on “My glum and jovial discovery of Swords Without Master

  1. Michael S. Miller September 10, 2015 / 8:26 pm

    Great review!

    For morals during Discovery Phase, I have two suggestions.

    The first is what you pointed out yourself: Discovery is about so much more than just remembering stuff that happened in backstory. A recent one had the rogues fleeing from incoming golems through an ancient temple. They discovered things in the hallways as they ran, like an engraving of why the temple was built, and a secret escape passage. Morals when there is action are, add you pointed out, easier.

    Secondly, if the rogue player opts for their discovery to be strictly internal, the unintended consequence should be tied to what they remember. Is their old foe hunting them even at this very moment? Is their loved one in peril? In remembering their curse did they accidentally speak one of its syllables and summon trouble?

    I definitely hope you play again. Swords plays like nothing else out there, but when it clicks, it is truly incredible!

    Like

    • Stephen October 7, 2015 / 10:38 am

      Those are great suggestions for the Discovery phase. I will keep them in mind when (not if) I play the game again. Thanks!

      Like

  2. Rob Deobald September 10, 2015 / 11:12 pm

    Well, I’m convinced that my next Rogue must try out Unparalleled!

    Like

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