Monday, July 5, 2021

Swords & Wizardry box set review

I've enjoyed the Swords & Wizardry ruleset and books pretty much since I found my way back to gaming and, specifically, into the preserved and remastered rulesets made possible through the OG.  I initially grabbed the free pdf, then picked up hardback rulesets.

I own two versions of the all-in-one hardcover rule sets (Erol Otus cover and Kaos Nest cover). I like the system for its OD&D simplicity and hackability, and a large number of my scribblings have used the system as a base. 

So when the Kickstarter for a digest-sized boxed set was announced, I jumped in for the 'wood grain' style box. Because nostalgia of original white box/45th +/- year anniversary (not that I owned the books or played in that milieu - I started with Holmes). I also appreciated the idea of the presentation of the multi-book digest format.

The project funded in March 2020, right about when other newsworthy events were happening. The planned fulfillment was October 2020, with the actual fulfillment occurring in the Spring 2021. Kudos on the team for their periodic updates and not going dark on the supporters during this time. The books and boxes were to be printed and prepped overseas, and delays occurred with production and shipping. 

So yes, I was pleased to receive it, even if somewhat delayed.

The box in its glory

The product consists of 'wood-grained' box reminiscent of the 1974 box set containing four softcover books: the Player Book, Spells & Magic, Monsters, and Referee's Book. Also included were a thank-you note from Matt Finch, character sheets, a set of dice, and a bookmark. Non-physical rewards included digital copies of the books and other player/GM aids. The reward add-ons included a book of additional monsters, a GM screen, and an intro adventure. The box is large enough to contain all items with room to spare.

The contents

So what's my takeaway? Well, it's a good product. But not a great product.

Before I detail further, I have to say that any product of this type will find it tough to compete with the fit and finish of the OSE products as a current 'standard' for published old-school D&D rulesets. Bluntly, if the Frogs had pushed this product out a few years ago, it would likely have been well-received and potentially influential.

However, Gavin took the B/X ruleset and moved it forward by recombination and organization, making a exceptionally usable product. Unfortunately, the S&W set doesn't feel like it significantly revisited the system or organization, but is more a repackaging.

The good (because it is still a good product, after all):

The multiple-digest format always had good usability at the table. Being able to toss out the player elements and hold the GM-specific information for use and reference has a lot of utility.

The art is solid and varied in style - Del Teigeler's character portraits are particularly fun and evocative. The art is strongest in the Player and Referee books, and a bit more sparse in the Monster and Spell books. 

So, the other grumpy bits:

First off, the smallish font size and glossy pages harm readability. And, admittedly, I am of an age where readers may be necessary. As are perhaps many of the other purchasers of said boxed set... know your audience...

Vs. OSE font size - sorry guys...

Likewise, the binding is saddle-stitched, so that's favorable, although I'm always a bit hesitant on the long-term wearability vs. a hardback or binding designed for lay-flat use. 

I purchased the add-ons in the KS package, including the DM screen. Unfortunately, it's of limited use, having combat matrices only. There are no other reference tables for at-a-glance use, such as reaction rolls, movement, initiative, thief and cleric tables, etc. Obviously, the screen was limited to maintain the digest-sized format for inclusion in the box set, but I do note that the pdf screen included in the stretch goals at least adds the cleric's Turn Undead table.

Supplemental items

The other two add-ons - Moar Monsters has a good selection of classic and new monsters to torment parties with, and The Baron's Gambit is a fairly straightforward adventure with a bit of a mystery. Depending on the party's actions and success, the village has the potential to become a base, and the eponymous Baron a potential patron. 

So all in all, a good product and presentation, but it left me a bit flat for what it could have been.


  1. Thanks for the review Vance. I didn't get on the KS, but I think I am happy with my old books.

  2. S&W was the first OSR game I bit my teeth into and I have a nostalgic love for the game but that said, I think OSE set the standard and bar very, very high. When this KS began I had a feeling it would not live up to this OSE standard, so I passed.

    Glad I did.

    1. Yep. Likewise, S&W was among the first retroclones I found. Unfortunately this product felt like they were cutting corners.

  3. I find that font particularly ugly. It's hard to read and looks unfittingly modern.

    OSE's font (and S&W old editions', for that matter) may be a bit "boring" and uninteresting but it's pleasant and readable. Boring fonts are good fonts.

    1. Agreed. I'm not a designer by any stretch of the imagination, but I appreciate good font.

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