October 2, 2010

Questing with Shadow, Sword & Spell

When I first heard about Shadow, Sword & Spell on an podcast episode of Atomic Array, I was intrigued enough to get a review copy of it even though I've had no clue what 'humanistic pulp fantasy' means. I'll admit that I've never heard of the names of the authors and their works which inspired the system but the rules itself were easily flipped through (144 pages if you discount the 13 pages of Table of Contents), despite having a busy work schedule.

Shadow, Sword & Spell
is the fantasy incarnation of the 12 Degrees system by Rogue Games. The core mechanic of task resolution is centered on 2d12s where rolling a number lower than the target number indicates a success and vice versa. One interesting thing of note is that players are always aware of their target number which can be calculated from their sheet.

However, the key here is the degree of success with each point difference away from the target number producing a gradual differences in the results of success or failure. The rules also rewards Dramatic Successes (rolling 1s on both dices) and punishes Dramatic Failures (rolling 12s on both dices). How wide the differences in the results should happen is mostly 'impressionistic', as the book says, and is left up to the GM which is commonly the case for most parts of the game.

Except in combat where every degree of success really counts and it could potentially end an opponent's life with just a few hits. This would certainly fit right into the alley of someone who loves their combat to be fast and gritty and healing wounds between combat is time consuming. Another interesting form of 'combat' is the social interaction where players would have to 'attack' an NPC's 'social hitpoints' with social skills before they change their attitudes towards the PCs.

The point-buy based mechanics of character creation for Shadow, Sword & Spell is relatively easy and straightforward which can be modified by backgrounds that works like alignments; by combining two keywords that produces various modifiers to the character's abilities.

It also incorporates a system that requires players to to think more about their characters in order to gain Hooks. Hooks are character traits that can be used at opportune moments during the gaming session that reflects their character's background, training and personality. Hooks can be used to earn Action Points, which is the currency that players could use gain some narrative control such as to modify target numbers, gain re-rolls to a test and even edit a scene that the players are currently in.

There is no level-up system as players spend experience points to buy more ranks to improve their character's skills and abilities.

Spellcasting can come with a hefty price which has a physical cost with each casting while more powerful spells can cost the sanity of the spellcasters.

Shadow, Sword & Spell also dedicates a large section to poisons and diseases which I admittedly ignored for the most part but it also has rules for creating them which means that it plays a significant role in the game.

For the gamemastering section of Shadow, Sword & Spell, it comes with a setting which gives you an idea of what are the sort challenges that you can find in pulp fantasy but the ruleset by itself is pretty self contained that it isn't tied to the setting to be functional. Running your first session of the game shouldn't take much prep because it also comes with a complete sample adventure and a mini-bestiary.

Overall, I'm not so sure if Shadow, Sword & Spell is really meant only for humanistic pulp fantasy although it has the rulesets that supports that genre well. Especially the 'humanistic' part because I could very well add 'races' as backgrounds and it will work fine.

I think what we've got here is a decent and relatively easy toolkit with removable parts that can twist into something else altogether. I really like the 12 Degree system but while leaving the decision of each degree up to the GM, I hoped that the guys at Rogue Games could give a clearer and slightly more stricter guidelines on what each degree of success and failure can be.

Don't forget that this is only just the basic core rulebook and from what I head in the Atomic Array episode, the Advanced rulebook will have something interesting rules to expand an already potential ruleset.

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