Of Adventurers, Conquerors, and Kings

Here’s a conversation that sort of starts over on The Mule Abides. Tavis, an erudite thinker on the topic of games and a man who certainly knows what it means to play, and I share a great many interests and something of a common ancestry in the world of roleplaying. Late last year, at AnonyCon, we enjoyed a game of Swords Without Master together. It was actually kind of an amazing game–with our heroes being flung around an ancient treasure room by giant animated statues and then later picking gems and other bits of treasure from each others’ flesh as they fled down the jungle river leading from the temple and that was all before they were beset by the ghost tribe, hand-sharpened teeth glowing in the fog . . .

I could go on and on. And we did, that night, and afterwards at the con.

The game was a personal victory of mine, because of the type of player Tavis is. He’s an open-minded gamer, willing to try all sorts of new forms of game and play, but his heart belongs to his true love, the primogenitor of the hobby: D&D. There’s a little Tavis in me, hell probably in all of us, and I wanted to see if Swords could seduce him.

Now, I’m no homewrecker. I wasn’t trying to break Tavis and D&D up for good. I just wanted to see if what I saw in the game was real. There were promises made when I was young and first came across the hobby. Promises made by the fiction in Appendix N, by the art in the game, and by the metal I was listening to at the time. Promises of violence, adventure and wonder that were never quite answered by the mechanics of D&D, or any other game, not for me, not until Swords began to form.

Sure, I found plenty of violence, adventure and wonder along the way, playing a multitude of games, but these were turning out to be very specific promises. I clearly feel Swords answers these promises, but I’m a little too close to it to judge. So I love testing the game on players like Tavis, players who I think have heard the same promises. Tavis obviously had these promises fulfilled with D&D, but I was delighted to see he could find them answered in Swords as well.

Over on The Mule Abides, Tavis quotes me talking about a moment during the design of Swords when I felt compelled to hack at early D&D.

I had a moment, last year, while working on Swords, where I found myself compelled to hack D&D. It was like I was exorcising a demon. With both Sw/oM and the hack, I was striking at the very roots of my gaming in an attempt to capture the essence of what lured me into this hobby. And what I was finding was two completely different games. Swords answered all the promises in one way; and something in that Basic-Expert-Companion set combo felt like the other way to answer them. ACKS looks like it’s hitting right on that second way. I’m excited about that.

For me, where the mechanics of D&D and the promise of the fiction diverge, the mechanics begin to promise their own thing. Flipping through the old books, perusing the levels I’d never reach (at least not in that edition) I’d dream of the tower my magic-user might one day build, or the army my fighter might amass. There were glories to be won beyond treasures that lay abandoned beneath the earth. Something for the adventurer to become if he or she survived long enough. Something to fight and struggle for.

All of these promises–from the mechanics, the fiction, the art, the music–intermingled in my mind for decades. And so, when it came time to design Swords, I found I had to hack and toy with D&D as well, perhaps to reassure myself that I wasn’t abandoning one dream for the other.

Adventurer Conqueror King seems to be hitting exactly what I was striking at while I hacked. A game about characters whose concerns and influence change as they grow in ability and renown. Where this growth, this struggle, is the game itself. The promises I found in D&D‘s mechanics. And I’m pretty damn excited about that.

ACK has just over a week left in its Kickstarter. If you’re as excited about it as I am, I recommend getting in on it now, so you can get a piece of that mass combat supplement. You’re going to have a hard time conquering without mass combat.



  1. Tavis · July 28, 2011

    Oh, Eppy, Eppy. That’s a beautiful post, alive with the metal music of D&D: the drums marching relentlessly to KILL this ORC and TAKE his GOLD to BUILD your KEEP much LATER, and the operatic voices wailing the agonies and ecstasies of Story Now. But so dated! We made that bonus goal, like, yesterday. Everyone is already getting the mass combat supplement, it’s old hat. All the cool kids are talking about the second bonus goal, where you get a pair of sandbox maps done by Dungeons & Dragons panelist Chris Hagerty. Tbe GM map is done in ziptone Judges Guild style for maximum scientific realism, the player’s map is the same region with medieval distortion of space and Bayeux Tapestry arrow-to-the-eye, this-is-why-clerics-have-maces lettering.

  2. Anon · July 28, 2011

    As a fan of D&D but someone who knows nothing about “Swords without Masters,” I read your article and still know nothing about it. Is it a D&D clone? A retroclone? What? You refer to some vague promises about a million different times in the article, yet I still have no idea what you’re talking about. Please, if you’re going to write a blog, get to the point and speak plainly about it.

  3. Epidiah · July 28, 2011

    Dear Anon,

    My apologies. If you know nothing about Swords Without Master, you were not the target audience for this post. It was intended to bring ACK to the attention of Sw/oM fans, not the other way around. But that shouldn’t stop you from finding out more!

    To help get you up to speed:

    • It’s a game that I keep delaying the release of because my designs for what the final product should be keep getting more grand (and I’m just one dude who’s got other things to worry about from time to time).
    • It’s a sword & sorcery game that very specifically not just generic fantasy. It’s inspired largely by Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series, at to a slightly lesser extent the works of Robert E. Howard, Jack Vance, Charles R. Saunder, Tanith Lee, etc. If you’ve not read any Fafhrd and Gray Mouser, please do so now.
    • It is NOT a D&D clone or any other sort of retroclone. It’s a descendant of MonkeyDome, which is a post-apocalyptic dark comedy game that several friends of mine and I put together in a week. Swords greatly expands on the game, but holds dear its underlying principles. MonkeyDome is free and available near the bottom of this page: https://dig1000holes.wordpress.com/other-games/ You should totally try playing it. It’s a hell of a lot of fun.
    • If all of this still sounds like your cup of tea, this is the Swords Without Master category on my blog: https://dig1000holes.wordpress.com/category/swords-without-master/ It contains a bunch of other cryptic tidbits to frustrate you.

    Finally, if you’re on Google+, you should look me up, because I’m running demos of the game via the Hangouts feature. I’ve only done one so far, but it was a great success, so I intend to do more.

  4. anon · July 28, 2011

    Hi, thanks for your reply. I got here from rpg.net so I just figured it would be somewhat relevant to me. I like the idea of a sword & sorcery game, and I’ve read a little bit of Jack Vance, but that is all. The MonkeyDome link is interesting, but I don’t think this game is for me or my group. I dig the post-apocalypse, but it’s so free-form…. It’s more like a party game. It’s kind of cool in that you can tell weird stories with it, but without character stats and a system for resolving conflict, I wouldn’t classify it as a roleplaying game, at least not in the classic sense. True, the player with the dice gets a shot at putting out the Fire, but it’s not the same thing. If your new game is based on this, I can see why you said it’s *not* a D&D clone. Oh, one final comment – I thought the layout and presentation of your PDF was nicely done. I admire the motivation and skill it takes to put something like that together.

  5. Epidiah · July 28, 2011

    Thank you for your kind words. MonkeyDome was tossed together–from initial idea to completed product–in a week, a crazy, crazy week. I actually didn’t do the layout, but a friend of mine did, and I’ll pass the compliment along.

    MonkeyDome (and by extension Swords Without Master) is quite a distance from D&D, and it can look freeform from that distance, but there’s enough game there for it to feel like a roleplaying game, even in the classic sense. This is even more true of Swords, I believe. It is a very different way to get to a surprisingly similar experience.

    But! Sw/oM definitely isn’t for everyone.

    My plan, as you may have noticed in some of the other blog posts, is to eventually release a preview of the game. So folks can try it before they buy it.

    And I’ll be demoing the hell out of it, online and at conventions. So the curious can discover if it actually works for them.

    So if you’re still even the slightest bit curious, hit me up and I’ll see if we can’t arrange a demo.

    (And if Swords isn’t your thing, Adventurer Conqueror King probably is.)

  6. Epidiah · July 28, 2011

    In response to a crazy increase in attention Swords is getting, I’ve gone ahead jury-rigged a page to explain it all.

    Hopefully this will be of some help to the folks who are new around here. If you have more questions, feel free to ask.

  7. Alex · July 31, 2011

    Oh, Boys: THIS is MY game.

    I (and other Italian friends) are waiting for “Swords” from nearly a year.

    Epidiah, can you do a little promise about the definitive date of release of the game?

    Good Work!


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