For a preview of Swords Without Master, check out “The City of Fire & Coin” Introductory Adventure. It contains all the rules you need to play in an easy to use, read-as-you-play format. And it’s free!
This is a bit of an emergency page as Swords Without Master is suddenly in front of a larger audience than I expected. I’ve hobbled it together by copying and pasting from a number of different sources. Hopefully it will give you some idea of what the game is about. Please let me know if you feel otherwise.
What is Swords Without Master?
- It’s a sword & sorcery game, with a focus on the short story end of the genre particularly inspired by Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd & Gray Mouser series.
- It is very prep-flexible. Swords requires absolutely no prep whatsoever, but is able to accommodate those lovingly detailed maps, carefully constructed NPC communities and a well designed monsters you’ve sunk all that time into.
- It’s a fast playing game. Like a short story, it covers a lot of ground in very little time. Typical Swords games take about two to three hours, but can cover years of the characters’ adventures or the longest night of their lives.
- It’s a descendant of the game MonkeyDome. You should check it out, it’s free. Swords Without Master greatly expands upon the MonkeyDome foundation, but it is still firmly set in it.
In Swords Without Master you play rogues. Not in the D&D sense, but in the traditional sense. You are sexy, dangerous, powerful people because in a world filled with lieges and slaves, you’re neither. You live outside of society, taking what you need however you can. You may be at times a thief or a pirate or a sellsword or a bounty hunter, you may even occasionally be a slave or a king. But eventually, you will always find yourself back on the road surviving by your own wits and prowess.
The world is full of wonder and danger, that’s exactly why you walk in it.
As the Rogue Players play their rogues–acting at times as author or audience, but always championing their characters–the Overplayer’s job is to present these dangers and wonders of the world. The Overplayer sets the scene and drives the story forward, but is not all powerful. Occasionally it will fall to the Rogue Players to tell us of a lost tribe of ghost people their rogue has heard tell of; or about the witch that haunts these woods, an ex-lover of their rogue; or of the ruin-covered blade their rogue has just plundered from a vine-choked lost treasure vault. You will work together to craft a thrilling sword and sorcery short story.
Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth . . .
Thus Robert E. Howard introduces us to Conan in his very first tale, “The Phoenix on the Sword.” In Swords Without Master, the game is far less interested in whether your character succeeds or fails and far more interested in those “gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth.” You do not roll to see if you manage to do what you were trying to do. Instead, you roll–before you even make a plan to do whatever it is you might want to do–to determine the tone of your action. And then it is up to you to decide just how to fit your rogue’s actions to that tone. It may mean failure for your character. It may not. The dice largely don’t care.*
The game hangs together in phases, which are specific sets of rules we use based on what’s important at the time. The Perilous Phase, for example, is the phase in which the rogues’ lives are on the line. By contrast, the Discovery Phase is when we’re about to learn something about the wonders of the world. The phases dictate who gets to input what and when. They tell us when to roll the dice and what we’re rolling for. And they tell use how we help each other out. You are always in one phase or another.
As we play, we will generate Threads, which are bits of paper with little notes scribbled on them. Sometimes the dice tell us to make threads. Other threads, such as the Motif, are voluntary, but necessary for the story to continue. These threads are the things we enjoy the most about the story that we’re telling. They’re the moments where our rogues can learn important lessons. And they’re the mysteries that we want to see unfold. Once we’ve reached the end of our adventure, we start reincorporating these threads, bringing them back to illustrate just what the story was about and bring everything to a solid ending.
The Overplayer begins by rolling for the overtone and then setting the scene. What follows from there depends on the phase you’re in. The rogues may be in danger, reacting, overcoming and occasionally succumbing to some vile threat. They may be uncovering the secrets of the world. They may be demonstrating their particular talents and skills. Or they may just be enjoying the wine, song and other pleasures bought with treasures stolen from an ancient tomb.
A single pair of dice is rolled and passed among all the players. Whoever has the dice, has our attention. Again, when and how these dice are passed depend on the phase we’re in. Passed urgently to see a rogue save another from the reaper. Passed with a demand to see a rogue exercise certain talents. Passed because the Overplayer is hungry for more details.
As we move through the phases, passing and rolling the dice, we generate our threads. Along with the Overplayer, they keep the game on track. We focus on that which captures our attention–”serpent drenched altars,” “sword-wielding monkeys,” and “treasure embedded in flesh”–and make these the hallmarks of our tale. When we have collected enough, it’s time end the game.
As we end the game, we reincorporate several of the threads, the ones that stand out the most to us, and solidify their importance to the story.
From start to finish, nothing needs to be prepped, but if we wanted to, we could prep as much as we wanted. A map. Monsters to encounter. Treasure to be found. Intrigue to be had. A specific arc to the story. Whatever suits are fancy at the time.
I’m working on that. Watch this blog for the latest breaking details. First there will be a preview, called “The City of Coin & Fire.” It’ll be the second chapter of the final book, and be a way for you and your friends to learn to play an entire game of Swords Without Master as you read it aloud. After that I begin the long and arduous task of assembling the entire book. Hints to what that’ll look like are hidden within this blog.
There’s contact information in the right hand column. I recommend trying the forum first before personally emailing me.
* Occasionally, they care, but it’s a fairly rare occurrence.