Wednesday, November 16, 2016

A review for the Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells RPG

Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells (SS&SS) is a "rules light sword and sorcery role playing game with Old School spirit", which is a very accurate description of this new RPG. It isn't a retroclone (maybe you could call it a “second” or “third generation” retroclone) but it does attempt to capture the general OSR feel and style (in fact, it borrows mechanics from others famous games, especially The Black Hack). My main interest with the SS&SS is because it is – as far as I know – the only OSR game published by brazilian authors in english. This review is based on the PDF offered through DriveThruRPG/RPGNow.

SS&SS's core mechanic is quite simple: roll a d20 against an Attribute. You succeed if roll equal or lower. This is like The Black Hack and it is an approach that I enjoy – simple and very easy to teach.

SS&SS also employs Usage Die (again from The Black Hack). The Usage Die is a clever mechanic used to keep track of ammo, food and other expandable resources. Basically, you roll a die and if you get a 1 or 2, that resource is spent. Otherwise, you just keep rolling.

SS&SS also uses Positive and Negative Dice, which is a just different name of D&D 5E's Advantage and Disadvantage mechanics (at the first, the new nomenclature caused a bit of confusion for me –  I thought it would be something like Shadow of the Demon Lord's Bane/Boon Die).

Other core mechanics is Pushing the Roll – a gambit mechanic where you ask for a second chance, but if you fail the referee can choose something particular nasty to happen to your PC. Again, simple and very easy to implement.

The last core mechanic is the Luck Roll. This mechanic is basically SS&SS's take on Luck Points/Attribute - it’s determined by the chosen Archetype (Class) and it works like Usage Die. It kinds of overlaps with the Pushing the Roll rule, although Luck offer a few twists to the PCs.

SS&SS uses 4 Attributes (generated by rolling 3d6): Physique, Agility, Intellect and Willpower; and 3 Archetypes (Classes): Warrior, Specialist and Magic User (cool, no Clerics!).

Each Archetype determines your Hit Dice (and thus Hit Points), Luck Die and Special Abilities.

The Archetypes' Special Abilities are iconic and seem to me be partly inspired by DCC RPG (like the Warrior's Improved Maneuvers, the Specialist's Luckiest of Them All and the Magic User's Blood Sacrifice). They are short, easy to use and just flavorful (in other words: I loved them).

After picking an Archetype, you must define your Vocation (for example, you're a Warrior with the Berserker Vocation or a Magic User with a Necromancer Vocation). Vocations are open-ended backgrounds/concepts that are used by the PCs to gain Positive Dice

The next step is rolling a Complication for your PC, which is a nice way to spice the character's background (in part explaining why you’re an adventurer). “Nice” stuff like been addicted to Sorcery, in debt to a corrupt noble or hunted by the Assassin's Guild. The cool part about Complications is that you can trigger them, once per session, to improve your Luck Die (in exchange, the referee is given free rein to place the Complication somewhere in your near/far future).

Weapons in SS&SS are simplified and divided in 3 categories. Armor reduce damage and shield (my favorite rule here) gives you a number of Negative Die to use on a roundly basis against attacks.

SS&SS has an interesting approach to Initiative. If I got it right, it's based on the Hit Dice size (which usually means Warriors go first). Ties are settled by an Agility checks. Agility also works as AC here, since armors reduce damage. SS&SS employs simple critical and fumble rules. Healing uses a Short/Long Rest dynamic. The game also uses a Powerful Enemy rule, also taken from The Black Hack.

Spellcasting in SS&SS requires a Willpower check. SS&SS has a simple but evocative rule for failing at spellcasting: the magic doesn’t work and the Magic User can choose between losing access to the spell for the day or not. If he chooses to keep the spell available, he suffers a complication devised by the GM. The book offers some guidelines, but this is by far may favorite part of SS&SS as it kind of allows you to run a "light version" of games like DCC RPG or Warhammer Fantasy. And yes, things get better (or should I see worse?): if the Magic User rolls a natural 20, he must check on a Spell Catastrophe table (sweet!).

SS&SS Spell List is short on description but more than enough for any referee running such light games. We're also offered guidelines on how magic item should work (and the price that PCs must pay to use them).

The next part deals with Opponents, with a short list of adversaries and basic rules for creating them (again we see a strong influence of The Black Hack).

Leveling Up is based on the number of adventurers survived and employs an Improvement Roll rule (can you guess from which game?).

SS&SS closes with an adventure generator appendix and a (very good looking) character sheet.

In end, SS&SS presents an interesting variant on The Black Hack, with more crunch and a stronger flavor toward Sword & Sorcery and Dark Fantasy. You can use it with minimum effort to run Warhammer Fantasy, DCC RPG adventures, Conan, Lankhmar, The Black Company and similar settings… I see myself using even for The Witcher and with minimal fuss it’s easily adaptable to other low magic genres, like Lord of the Rings.