Hoops & Sorcery

Now that the free preview is finally out, I can start digging into the specifics of Swords Without Master in these posts. So let’s start by talking about this:

Our objective is to toil and struggle together to craft an enthralling sword and sorcery short story.

This is the most important sentence in all of “The City of Fire & Coin.” There’s a ton of things packed in there that may require some unpacking, and I’ll probably get to all of that in future posts, but right now I want to focus on the fact that it is an objective. Like a boardgame or a sport, Swords Without Master has a win condition.

The goal posts for that win condition are set by the participants in the game. I can give you some idea of what sword and sorcery is like. And I can give you some idea of what a short story should look like. And I can even give you some idea of what makes one enthralling. And you can bet your bonnet you won’t be able to shut me up about all these things and more. But ultimately, what qualifies for a win here will be up to you.

In this way, Sw/oM* is a bit like a triathalon. There are people who enter triathalons to be the first across the finish line. There are those who are just trying to beat their previous time. There are those who just want to finish or to prove to themselves they can overcome some personal difficulty. Each person is in that race for their own individual reason. And their reasons must be a compelling reasons, because each and every one of them is going to piss themselves while competing. That’s World of Warcraft levels of commitment right there.


You don’t have to piss yourself to enjoy Sw/oM, but you should strive for your goal. And hopefully enjoy the striving so much, you’re willing to piss yourself. But hopefully you don’t piss yourself. I’m just saying it works best if you come at it with the sort of commitment where you’re willing to just piss yourself if that will make your game better. Which it won’t! I can’t stress that enough. Do not piss yourself!

Actually, let’s forget about the pissing and triathalons altogether. The metaphor is kind of getting away from us. Besides, what I really want to talk about is basketball.

The rules to Swords Without Master will not help you achieve your goal, whatever it may be. They will not help you write your story. They will not help you make it enthralling. And they will not help you make it sword and sorcery. That’s simply not their job, anymore than it’s the job of the rules of basketball to help you score points.

Sure, the rules of basketball tell you how to score points. But the majority of the rules seem to be about how you can’t score points. You can’t handle the ball this way. You can’t hold onto the ball for that long. You can only have so many teammates helping you at one time. You got to stay within these bounds. You can’t headbutt that dude just because he was between you and the basket. The basket must be high enough to frustrate the dunker in most of us.

These are not arbitrary rules. They have purposes orthagonal to the goals of the players on the court. The system is not concerned with anyone’s winning or losing. It’s designed to make the path to victory interesting and to ensure we’re all playing the same game.

The rules in Sw/oM have a similar relationship to you and your quest. They serve to make the journey more interesting and to make sure you’re all traveling in the same direction.

Now you’re going to have yourself some fun the first few times out. You’re going to be all, “Woo-hoo! Look what I can do!” But eventually you’re going to want to dig in, see what you can really do, how far you can go with this system. Tighten up your game, as it were, if we can stretch this basketball metaphor to the breaking point.

When this happens, you’re going to start using the Rituals, Styles and Campaigns. These are techniques you can adopt to shape your game and hopefully improve it. I’m sure there are equivalent techniques for basketball that I should mention here, but I have to confess we’ve reached the limit of my very finite knowledge on the subject. Let’s just say that they’re the difference between the Washington Generals and the Harlem Globetrotters.

I’m going to tease you with a couple of these and then shut up. Let’s say your Rogue is a mage of sorts. In fact, let’s just say you’re playing Muaphet and you find yourselves in the middle of a Perilous Phase with a bunch of cultists and a giant, rotting snake that has a noxious green gas pouring from its molted body. You want Muaphet to cast a spell to make all this go away, but you don’t want it to be that boring. So you invoke the Ritual of the Long Spell. This tells your fellow players that you’re going to describe Muaphet in a corner of the room concentrating and mumbling over his spell. They should totally defend him. And the Overplayer should totally threaten him. And when people are tired of running around, dodging snake and slaying cultists, they hand the bones to you to end the phase. Then it all comes down to this. Roll well, Muaphet, roll well.

Okay, let’s go to a different game. You and your companions are super psyched to play some Swords Without Master, but you want a game where magic is rarer and comes at a high cost. You could just all agree to make Rogues with no magical qualities, but by their very nature, Rogues are made of the rarest stuff. So it’s perfectly acceptable to play a Rogue who makes nefarious deals with older gods to do her dirty magical work. So you invoke the Dark Pact Campaign in which you all agree not to use sorcery unless a Moral is rolled, and then the consequence is related the dealings she made to secure the lost god’s favor.

* In case you were wondering, I pronounce this swôrds.

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