One of my design goals going into Swords Without Master was to make it prep-flexible. MonkeyDome is a game that requires only the slightest bit of preparation, all of which can be done by the group sitting at the table in the half hour leading up to the game. This is absolutely lovely, but I wanted to push that boundary out in both directions for two reasons:
- What’s “low-prep” to some, is prep-intensive to every other reasonable person in the world. You know how if you’re not really into cooking, your gaming group orders out for game night? That’s exactly how the non-gaming world sees even just 30 minutes of prep. Why plow through this if someone else is willing to do the work for you?
- You know how if you’re into cooking, you start to look forward to game night as chance to share a new recipe with all our friends? That’s exactly how I see prep work when I’ve got the leisure time to do it. Why plod along in someone else’s dreary creation when I’m perfectly willing to create for myself?
So Sw/oM had to have a prep dial, and it had to start close to zero as possible.
“The City of Fire & Coin” is, among other things, my way of snuggling up with that zero-prep slot. All the prep you need for the adventure is to collect three other friends, something to write with, and a couple of six-siders.* That’s it! You don’t have to make characters. You don’t have to read the adventure. You don’t even have to read the rules! Combine all that with the ability to control the length of the game, and you’ve got an ideal pick-up game that can be played whenever and wherever the desire strikes.
- Got a two-hour layover on your way to GenCon this year? The City beckons.
- Need to entertain some dinner guests while your spouse slips out the backdoor go pick up some take-out? The City beckons.
- Co-workers corner you at the company picnic and demand to know just what this whole roleplaying thing is all about? The City beckons.
- Confined to quarters on a Carnival Cruise because of an outbreak of spinal meningitis? The City beckons.
- Your high level Pathfinder Fighter just whiffed a few to-hit rolls and now you have approximately an hour and a half before it’s your turn again? The City beckons.
- Waiting in line to get tickets to the premier of The Hobbit? The City beckons.
- Don’t know what to do on your regularly scheduled game night because one player had to cancel at the last minute? The City beckons!
That last one in particular is going to be very useful. Tuck that into your game night toolbox right now, because that’s going to make you a hero someday.
But zero-prep only gets me so far. It’s perfect for when I need a hit and I need it now. But I love the lonesome fun of meticulously pouring over maps, sculpting monsters from my brain clay, and devising grand treasure worthy of the quest. This isn’t prep work, this is foreplay. It’s designed to get in the mood so I’m ready to embark when adventure calls. And I want . . . I need Swords Without Master to be foreplay friendly.
Because Sw/oM is all about the short story, the only things we can know about the world you adventure in are those things that happened in the game. As you play, you may hint at a greater world and the mysteries hidden in it, but until you are face-to-face with those mysteries, we can never know the truth about them.
So when I say the prep dial on this game goes from zero to foreplay, this is what I mean. The creation of vast tomes and minutely detailed atlases will not aid you in this game. You need maps filled with flags and place names that scream out for exploration. You need hints and rumors of things that lurk just beyond the known that have yet to completely take form. You need the promise of glories and riches but you need to wait and see for yourself just what sort of glories and riches might fulfill that promise.
Sw/oM works best when your prep is foreplay. When it asks questions rather than answers them. I’ve piled into the rulebook plenty of little mini-games and rules and bits of advice and techniques to help you produce such foreplay. Right now I’d love to share them all with you, but we’re going to have to wait a while. Our reward will be all the better for it. Meanwhile, here’s a peek at what’s to come; a little tease; a rules slip, if you will.
The Lore Phase & Lore Thread
Anyone can call for a Lore Phase, but there’s a catch. You can never call for a Lore Phase while you’re playing the game. Lore Phase can only occur outside aSw/oM game.
You will need a scrap of paper, a pen or pencil, the usual Glum and Jovial dice and two other players. These players need to be from any game you’ve participated in. Indeed, they need not have played Sw/oM or any other roleplaying game in their lives. The can be total strangers to you, as long as they’re willing to play out this Lore Phase with you.
The player who calls for the Lore Phase is the Overplayer. Instead of rolling for Overtone and creating the thunder, the Overplayer starts a Lore Phase by writing a question about the world on the piece of paper. This is also the start of your Lore Thread. You’re going to want to leave some room under this question.
The question may be about anything. Something mentioned in play, but never fully addressed. A shadowy bit of your Rogue’s history. Something from this world that you’d like to see in your rogue’s world. It can even be a Mystery thread from previous game or something entirely new. “Why has no one seen the face of the Shining Lord?” “Where are my little brothers?” “What is buried beneath these standing stones?” “Who commands those aberrant beasts that thwarted us?” “Why has the Western Empire ceased its expansion?”
Now the Overplayer hands the dice to one of the other players. That player rolls and offers up a hint in the tone of the dice. This hint cannot directly answer the question, but it will be related to the answer. The answer is, in fact, unknowable at the moment, so we need not even know how the hint is related to it. All the player needs to provide is a hint in the correct tone that sounds provocative.
If the Lore Thread began with the question “Where are my little brothers?” example Glum hints might include “Their names are no longer spoken in your homeland,” or “The pact with the night giants is no longer being honored.” Example Jovial hints might be “The People of Kauruntia are all but conquered, their last refuge at this very moment being under siege” or “There is a jewel-crusted ziggurat to the south which can only be seen at dawn.”
After each hint is given, the Overplayer writes it down under the question on the Lore Thread. The Overplayer now has the option to end the phase. If they do not, then the player with the dice must pass them to any other player, including the Overplayer.
And the cycle continues with the new player rolling the dice and giving a hint in the appropriate tone. If the dice tie, that means the tone is the opposite of the previous tone (or the player’s choice if it is the first time the dice have been rolled) and this hint is the last hint in the phase. There are no Morals or Mysteries rolled during the Lore Phase.
My advice to the Overplayer is to end the Lore Phase sooner rather than later. Any more than two or three hints may make for a crowded Lore Thread. Once the phase has ended, either by Overplayer decree or because of a tie, the Overplayer collects the Lore Thread and saves it for their next game.
You can play a Lore Thread in any Sw/oM game by putting it down on the table before the game is played. (Incidentally, Lore Threads are not the only threads that can be played this way.) And just like any other thread, the Lore Thread can be reincorporated during the End Game if someone has narrated an answer to it or offers further hints.
* For many of you, you have access to all three of those things on the same device you’re using to read this. This device might even fit in your pocket or book bag. You might even take this device with you wherever you go. I wonder what adventures you might find if you carried a copy of “The City of Fire & Coin” on that device too. You should probably go download it now, right?