Review Let's Read Sword World 2.5!

Iosue

Hero
The book then covers advice on four subjects: playing NPCs, judging Action Checks, playing Monsters, and Ending the Session.

Playing NPCs: The game explains that while technically "NPC" includes all characters controlled by the GM, in practice it doesn't include most monsters, which can be thought of as pieces on a board. Therefore, throughout the book, NPC refers only to characters important to the PCs' story. The book advises that the GM therefore put their efforts in making such NPCs memorable. Only NPCs that go on adventures with the PCs need to have a character sheet, and the book recommends that Fellows rules be used for such NPCs.

Judging Action Checks: As a general rule, the GM should tell a PC attempting an Action Check what the target number is, unless the PC shouldn't know if they succeeded or not. In some cases, a GM might make a Check for a character in secret, when asking for a role might give the PCs too much information. However, it cautions that this should be kept to a minimum, lest the players feel they don't have control of their characters. It also gives advice for "exceptional" checks, which we might call "improvised checks". Generally, the GM can try to map that to a particular skill. When a player is attempting something that doesn't seem to map to any one skill, but the character might have some kind of ability to do it, the game suggests making a check with Adventurer Level + a relevant ability score. The example given is that two characters are caught in an avalanche. The GM improvises a check by asking the characters to make a Ranger Level + Agility Check. One character has the Ranger Skill Package, and can do this, but the other character would have to make a bare 2d6 roll. The non-Ranger player alternatively suggests that they give up trying to escape, and instead dig into the snow and create a breathing space for themselves, to make it easier for the other character to find them. The GM asks for an Adventurer Level + Ability check, and if the character succeeds, he will get more time for the other player to find him.

Playing monsters: Here the game gives a concrete concept for encounter building: the PCs are assumed to win in combat (this does not necessarily mean they are assumed to accomplish the scenario!). Therefore the measure of the GMs skill is their ability to lose while maintaining excitement. An evenly matched combat, or something near that, should be attempted so that the GM can lose while providing the players with a sense of tension and the opportunity for enjoy thinking about tactics.

In terms of concrete advice, the book suggests a climatic battle, and 1 to 3 battles before that, adjusted for the style of game and level of the players. For the last, it suggests that for beginners, a few more battles can be stimulating, while a more mystery-solving game with fewer combats might appeal to more advanced players. For choosing the number and level of characters, it suggests as a standard guideline that a final climatic battle the boss monster should be 1 or 2 levels above the average adventurer level of the party. The number of enemies should be the same as the members of the party. Strengthening the boss monster with a Sword Shard is also recommended.

For the non-climatic battles, monsters of the same level and number as the party should be used, possibly with a boss monster that is one level higher (no Sword Shard).

For how to play monsters in combat, monsters have an intelligence level that should inform how they fight. Those with "low" or "animal intelligence" attack random targets. Those with "human" or "high intelligence," will know such tactics as focused fire, or targeting the healer. However, they may still make mistakes due to arrogance, carelessness, or bad information. The game suggests considering this pragmatically, as players will not enjoy the battles so much if foolish monsters fight unnaturally tactically, or if an intelligent enemy fights inefficiently.

Ending the Session: The GM should determine if the PCs accomplished the objectives of the scenario. The objectives may not be entirely clear in the beginning, or may even change in the course of the scenario, but the GM's decision should such that the players can get behind it. Achieving the scenario objectives is worth 1,000 XP, while not achieving the objectives is worth 500 XP. PCs also receive 50 XP per auto-fail, and bonus XP from defeating monsters (monster level x 100). The any Sword Shards retrieved can be turned in for 1d6 Prestige Points/Shard, or sold for 200 G. Gamel (money) must be split among the party, but each member receives the number of Prestige Points shown by the dice.

There is also a table providing basic guidelines for adventure rewards, additional treasure rewards, and Sword Shards per person by level. By the rules, Guilds do not give advances on rewards to characters. They will instead provide items which the players can pay for later. But the reason for this rule is amusing: it's to prevent the game from being delayed because the players get money and then immediately go shopping. As such, the GM is free to provide advances at his own discretion.

After all rewards are given, the players develop their characters, spending any XP on Skill Packages, and getting their 1 point bonus to an ability score. This encourages players to think about they want to further develop their characters, and incentivizes continuing on in a campaign.

Next up, a look at the Sample Scenario included in Rulebook I.
 

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Iosue

Hero
It seems to me that the Sample Scenario included in the ruluboo has two primary purposes: 1) outline how a scenario should be constructed, and b) provide an opportunity for the players to get used to how the various systems in the game work. To that end, it is extremely linear. The book also notes that everything is laid out in relative detail, to aid new GMs, but that when creating one's own scenarios, it's enough to simply prepare the minimum necessary information.

It begins with an outline of the scenario, which is titled "Eliminate the Barbaros!":
Summary: It's a two-part scenario, in between which the PCs can develop their PCs. The first part is a monster-fighting mission, while the second is an exploration/monster-fighting mission in a Shallow Abyss. Prep: It's a scenario for 3-5 PCs. Setting: The Burlight region. The PCs are adventurers registered to the Dragon's Fire guild, in Harves. First Half Introduction: Barbaros have been gathering near the outskirt village of Dale, causing problems. A commission has come in to the Dragon's Fire guild. The Barbaros sighted were goblins. This seems like a job that new adventurers can handle.

One thing I like about how official scenarios are presented is that they begin with a description of the scenario's "flow." That is, what the scenario is about, and what the major encounters and events are, in the generally most likely order.

For this first half, the flow is as follows: Introduction, arriving in Dale, departing to find the goblins (first encounter), finding the goblin's hideout, fighting the goblins. The scenario is then laid out along those lines. Each section has some description for the GM to read, and then further details on NPCs to talk to, what kind of checks might be made, and what the results of those checks would be. The encounters are against Algorithmic Goblins (number of each particular monster = No. of PCs - 2). Some further complications are introduced as the scenario progresses: a young boy named Al went out three days ago to fight the goblins and has been missing since. Neither he nor his remains are found in the hideout, but a letter in the Barbaros language is found saying, "The new base is almost taken. The brat is tough. Food running out. Steal some from the village." This leads into the second half of the scenario.

As it turns out, the PCs hear from the mayor's daughter that Al went to some old castle ruins north of the goblin hideout, and there was a Shallow Abyss there. So the second half flow becomes: at Dale, going to the castle ruins, exploring the Shallow Abyss, escaping the magic castle, and the conclusion. When the PCs enter the Shallow Abyss, they find the inside has taken the form of the castle that once stood there. They explore the castle grounds, have two fights, save Al, and escape.

It's all very straightforward. Even the castle proceeds quite linearly, with a couple of short branches, but ultimately proceeding in a straight line from the open field before the castle to the central tower.

IMO, the adventure works in establishing a baseline for beginning players and GMs, much like the Haunted Keep of Moldvay Basic. The PCs are broadly constrained by the scenario, but within that there are some degrees of freedom. They can take on the goblin hideout straight on, or try sneaking in from the back. Whether Al lives or dies in the Shallow Abyss depends on the PCs choices. At every chokepoint, there are multiple ways to get through them. I do wish the book said something to the effect of, "This scenarios is intentionally linear, but you can create even more complex scenarios."

The chapter ends with a short section on Campaigns. It defines a campaign as continually playing scenarios with the same characters, and recommends that GMs make up further scenarios themselves. The first official replay is recommended as a reference, and it notes that the first major supplement (handling Gransele, a kingdom shown but not described in Rulebook I) has numerous scenarios that would fit as continuations of this one.

Next up, the biggest section of the Game Master chapter, and the final part of the book, the Monsters section!
 

Iosue

Hero
Next we have the Monsters section. As a linguistic side note, "monster" translates the Japanese term 魔物 mamono. First, it notes that each monster belongs to one of the below eight categories:

Barbaros - The races of Ignis, the Second Sword. Have been given increased power through Impurity, which is noted in their entries. Most have two arms and two legs, but some have extra limbs or wings, and their size is quite variable. Intelligence is also variable, from childlike, to equivalent to humankind. They will always have an Impurity of 1-4. Individual Barbaros may have higher Impurity than is listed, but they will never have more than 4.

Fauna - All animals except for humankind, Barboros, and Mythic Beasts. The fauna of Raxia includes megafauna and other animals not seen on Earth. In principle, Impurity is 0. In extremely rare cases, they may have Impurity of 1-4, but this will always come with some kind of transformation.

Flora - Unlike Earth, the flora of Raxia includes some that can move, or who eat humankind or animals, and could thus be considered monsters. In principle, Impurity is 0. In extremely rare cases, they may have Impurity of 1-4, but this will always come with some kind of transformation.

Undead - The bodies of the deceased reanimated by the power of magic or mana. The possess tremendous Impurity. Intelligence can vary, but most undead seem to act with a deep-seated hatred for the living. They are immune to poison and illness, and minor mental effects. Impurity is always 5.

(Sidenote: Interestingly, "nosferatu" are introduced in Rulebook II, but these are not undead, but rather classified under Barbaros. However, their victims arise as low-intelligence "blood suckers," which are undead.)

Magical creatures and Magitech - Magical creatures are the strange abominations created during the Magic Civilization, while Magitech were created in the Magitech Civilization (natch). Both do not have any intelligence of their own, but rather follow the orders of those that created them. Both are immune to poison, illness, and all mental effects, and can be detected by Sense Magic. Impurity is always 0.

Mythic Beasts - These are creatures that we would consider imaginary creatures on Earth. On Raxia, the difference between them and animals is that mythic beasts have a certain level of intelligence, some even on par with humankind. In principle, Impurity is 0. In extremely rare cases, they may have Impurity of 1-4, but this will always come with some kind of deformation.

Demons - Monsters from another dimension. Intelligence can vary from animal-like to superhuman. They operate on a unique value system that, from the humankind perspective, can only be appraised as twisted and evil. They always have an Impurity of 0.

Humankind - The races of Lumiere, the First Sword. Some have fallen into evil. In principle, have an Impurity of 0, but if resurrected may have Impurity of 1-4, which will come with some kind of deformation.

The next section discusses adjudicating Monster Knowledge Checks. Essentially, anytime characters come across a monster, in or out of combat, they can roll a Monster Knowledge Check. Each monster has knowledge check target number in their description. If the players beat tie or beat this number, they get to look at the monster's stats. If the monster has been augmented with Sword Shards, they get that information, as well. This applies even to original monsters created by the GM. Next to their knowledge check target number, monsters also have a Weakness target number, which is a few points higher. If a Sage beats the Weakness target on the monster knowledge check, they party knows the monster's weakness, typically given as a +2 damage vs certain types of damage. Successful monster knowledge checks mean the characters always know those monsters, but successful Weakness knowledge checks last only till the end of the session. The game also explicitly allows player knowledge to be valid, although there's no guarantee that the player's knowledge is accurate.

All monsters have fixed values for their initiative, and also have fixed values of 7 + their bonus for attacking, evading, and resisting. The GM can use all the fixed values, or they can roll for all checks, or any combination of the two. The game suggests that using fixed values for unimportant monsters, and rolling for leaders and boss monsters, is a good mix.

Generally, monsters die when they reach 0 HP, but the GM can elect to use the Life-or-Death checks if they think it might be interesting. Finally, defeated monsters provide bonus XP of their level x 10, given to each member of the party (not split). The game explicitly notes that this should be given even if the PCs overcome or bypass the monsters without fighting or killing them.

The rules for augmenting monsters with Sword Shards are pretty simple. 1-5 shards give a +1 to monster resistance checks, 6-10 give a +2, and so on. Also for each shard, monsters get 5 additional HP and 1 additional MP. Augmented monsters do not provide any extra bonus XP, though.

Finally, we come to my favorite rules for monsters in Sword World. Large and powerful monsters are presented as multi-part monsters. Rather than be solo monsters with minions, each part gets its own turn. So for example, a Griffon has three parts: the body, and two wings. Each part gets a turn, so in effect the single monster acts as three. Each part has its own to-hit bonus, evade bonus, damage bonus, armor protection, HP, and MP. If a spellcaster wished to cast, say, Nap on the monster, they would need to augment the spell so that it affected three targets. Each part of the monster usually has special attacks or abilities. The Griffon's body has a double attack (if the first attack is successful, the Griffon gets to do another attack). Meanwhile, the wings provide flight to the Griffon, allowing it bonuses to attack and evade. If one of the wings is reduced to 0 HP, this ability is lost. (The surviving wing can still be used to attack, though!)

Each multi-part monster has a core part. If this core part is reduced to 0 HP, the monster is defeated. Depending on the monster, ignoring non-core parts to focus fire on the core might be a good idea. But for others, it may be necessary to take out one or more non-core parts in order to get to the core. Dragons, for example, (in Rulebook II), are so large that their head part (the core part) cannot be targeted by melee attacks until the torso is reduced to 0 HP.

5e gives its solo boss monsters extra attacks and typically extra non-turn actions to overcome the parties numerical superiority, but I like Sword World 2.5's implementation as another way to skin that cat. There's some interesting design space for parts, as well as special abilities.

Next time, we look at the Monster Data, the final section of Rulebook I.
 



Iosue

Hero
So how is the Monster Data presented? First, the monsters are organized by the categories mentioned before: Barbaros, Fauna, Flora, Undead, Magical Creatures, Magitec, Mythic Beasts, Demons and Humans, and within those categories listed in order of Level, then alphabetically (technically, Japanese syllabary order). Following this main section are stats for Familiars, which uses the same data format.

Each monster is presented in a stat block format very similar to D&D 4e. It starts with a banner with the monster's level and name. Next comes a box with background stats:
Intelligence - None, Animal, Low, Human, High, or On Orders. Senses - Five Senses, Magic (sees amount and movement of mana), or Machine (uses sensors and cameras). Reaction - The monster's initial reaction to PCs: Friendly, Neutral, Hostile, Depending on Hunger, and Depending on Orders. Impurity - 1-5. Language - Any languages the monster may speak. Habitat - Where the monster is typically found. Knowledge Check/Weakness - The target numbers for knowledge checks by the PCs, explained earlier. Weakness - The bonus to to-hit or damage if the Sage's knowledge check beats the Weakness target number. Initiative - The number the PCs need to beat with an initiative check to go first in combat. Always a fixed value. Speed - Expressed in m/10 seconds (1 round). This becomes important when the Advanced Combat rules are used. Finally, Life and Spiritual Resistances, both bonus and fixed value (bonus + 7).

Then comes a box for the basic data. This has as many rows as the monster has parts. Each row lists the Attack Method (weapon, teeth, etc.), To-hit bonus (and fixed value), Damage dice (all monsters do 2d6+X damage), Evasion bonus (and fixed value), Protection (damage reduction value, in this book 1-5), HP, and MP.

Then comes a box for Special Abilities which notes any special attacks, special combat abilities, and so on that any part may have. Then comes a box for Spoils. This is a table with 2-4 cells, listing the treasure or items the party can take from the defeated monster, and a die result to indicate when those are available. So a typical listing might be Automatic: rusted weapons 2-9: Nothing 10 or more: spectacles bag (30 G).

Below that is Commentary. This is descriptive text about what the monster looks like, what it normally does. Most monster stat blocks take up half a page, so if you come to a full page stat block, you know the monster's going to be a big deal.

Going over them by category we have:
Barbaros: Twenty monsters from levels 1 to 6. Some are D&D stand-bys: kobolds, goblins, gremlins, (lesser) ogres, and trolls. In addition they have various bolgs, which appear to fill the rolls of the hobgoblin and bugbear. Kobolds maintain the Basic D&D image of being dog-like humanoids, rather than the reptilian humanoids of WotC-era. By which I mean, they are literally anthropomorphic dogs. There are also many kinds of Hoods. Hoods are a kind of goblinoid that wear hoods, and have some particular weapon. So there are Arrow Hoods, Dagger Hoods, Saber Hoods, and Shield Hoods. There are two particular boss monsters: Diablos and Drakes. Drakes are like half-dragons; they have a human form and a large draconic form. In human form they have horns and leathery wings, but otherwise look like beautiful humans. They are born with magic swords, and losing this sword means becoming an outcast (i.e., showing up in a supplement for monster PCs!) They are the lieutenants and captains of the Barbaros hordes. Diablos are new to 2.5, since Alfleim has demons. Diablos are half-demon Barbaros, with both a human form and a demonic form.

Fauna: Eight monsters from levels 1 to 5. wolf, giant gadfly, giant lizard, purple ant (1 meter long!), grey lynx, pack leader (leveled up Wolf), dinos (pronounced dee-nohs rather than "dai-nohs", basically fantasy velociraptors), and sand worm.

Flora: Three kinds of man-eating plantlife.

Undead: A pretty typical crew here: skeleton, revenant, ghost, zombie, and phantom. Interestingly, the strength of revenants and ghosts depends on who they were in their previous lives, since they retain the Skill Packages and abilities they had in life. (Fun fact about SW zombies: if you dry out their eyeballs and grind them down, it makes an effective medicine. But nobody wants to take it...) Some Sword World additions are dried corpses (like zombies, but their skin is dried and leathery, rather than rotting and squishy) and dullahans.

The dullahan is quite interesting! I was not aware of it before, but this originally Irish bogey is the basis for the Headless Horseman. Now, as near as I can find, the headless horseman has not had great purchase in western RPGs. In D&D, the only instance I can find is a brief appearance as a Darklord of the roads of Ravenloft during 2e. But, a dullahan did appear in Final Fantasy III (original, not the version released in the US for the SNES). There, the dullahan was actually a woman. But she was described as a kubi-nashi (headless) kishi (horseman, mounted warrior). However! It so happens that the word kishi is also used to mean "knight." So even though the original Irish dullahan is not a knight, and certainly not armored, dullahan began being depicted in JRPGs as headless armored knights. And Sword World went all-in on that! In Sword World, dullahan are great headless armored warriors with chariots drawn by headless horses. That's so metal.

Magical Creatures: Six of these. The ones most familiar to us are the gargoyle and the homunculus. There is also the ghast and the ghast knight. These are strange shadowy creatures with the shape of a human child, but with really thin limbs relative to their body. Here we also find cheapstones (fist sized stones that mindlessly roll around and bump into you) and SW's answer to the mimic, the door imitator. The door imitator looks just like a door, but when it detects an intruder trying to open it, it slams into them really hard.

Magitech: Four of these, from levels 2-5. You have the drun, kid-sized robots with swinging hammers for arms. The zerlay, humanoid-shaped robots with cannons on their back that shoot light energy (get it?). Bulldrun, which are larger drun that can launch their hammers at targets and then retract them. And shazerlay, large versions of the zerlay.

Mythic Beasts: Four of these, levels 3-7. Deela (a kind of cute harpy), hell hound, thunderbird, and griffon.

Demons: Three of these, levels 3-5. The elbirea are child-sized shrimp-like creatures with mana-obstructing poison. One is not typically a problem, but in groups... Otherbeasts is something of a catch-all for a wide variety of Abyssal beasties of low intelligence. The ones in the book go out on all fours (and the illustration of them in the box set I have is distinctly dog/hyena-like), but they can take other forms as well. Finally, the nazrak is a 5-meter tall, one-eyed, two-tentacled octopus-type of creature.

Finally, we have Humankind: Only two of these, the 2nd-level scoundrel foot soldiers (basically brigands), and the 5th-level highly-skilled mercenary. Despite the colorful names, the book notes that these can basically be used as templates for any kind of fighter or soldier.

Reading these monsters, one thing I missed was some kind of Size stat. Some of them had clear measurements for height or length, or at least a note about scale. But some monsters are apparently meant to be big, but it's not clear how big.

And that concludes Rulebook I! But it's not the end of the Let's Read! In the next installment, I'll give a very general overview of the contents in Rulebooks II and III, and in the final installment I'll introduce the box sets they have developed, because these are truly mind-blowing.
 

kenada

Legend
Supporter
The dullahan is quite interesting! I was not aware of it before, but this originally Irish bogey is the basis for the Headless Horseman. Now, as near as I can find, the headless horseman has not had great purchase in western RPGs. In D&D, the only instance I can find is a brief appearance as a Darklord of the roads of Ravenloft during 2e. But, a dullahan did appear in Final Fantasy III (original, not the version released in the US for the SNES). There, the dullahan was actually a woman. But she was described as a kubi-nashi (headless) kishi (horseman, mounted warrior). However! It so happens that the word kishi is also used to mean "knight." So even though the original Irish dullahan is not a knight, and certainly not armored, dullahan began being depicted in JRPGs as headless armored knights. And Sword World went all-in on that! In Sword World, dullahan are great headless armored warriors with chariots drawn by headless horses. That's so metal.
FWIW, the dullahan is in both the Pathfinder 1e and 2e bestiaries. It’s been featured in a several adventures: Ashes at Dawn (Carrion Crown), The Asylum Stone (Shattered Star), and Rasputin Must Die! (Reign of Winter).
 


Iosue

Hero
Here's a summary of the contents of Rulebook II:

New races: Grassrunners are a legacy race from the first edition of Sword World. They are meant as halfling-analogues. However, they are extremely curious, are perpetually wandering, and have a bad habit of taking and walking off with things that interest them. Sound familiar? Lildraken are essentially human-sized, bipedal dragons. It's really interesting that both D&D 4e and Sword World 2.0, released the same year, included new dragon races for PCs. Parallel inspiration? We know that there is already some Dragonlance influence on Sword World, so perhaps that's where they came from. Meria are flower people. Although made up of plant matter, they look like regular humans, except for flower petals that grow from their shoulders, head or wrists.

New Skill Packages: Rulebook II introduces the Fairy Tamer, a kind of magic-user that can summon and channel the power of Raxia's fairies. In effect, it makes them elemental magic-users, as they can choose spells with from among the earth, fire, water/ice, wind, light, and darkness properties. Bards cast spellsongs that provide minor buffs and nerfs. But, they have a kind of Limit Break mechanic. Each time they cast a particular kind of spellsong, they build up one of three "musical elements". They can use these built-up elements to power attack magic called "Finishing Meters". Finally there is the Enhancer, a Table B skill package that provides special mana-powered buffs to Warrior Skill Packages.

In addition to these new Skill Packages, Rulebook II provides data for leveling up all Skill Packages to Level 10.

New rules: Three new Action Checks are provided: Performance (Bard skill + Spirit bonus), Swimming (Adventurer Level + Agility), and Inquiry (Skill Package of choice + Wisdom bonus). The biggest rules addition is Advanced Combat. Unlike the top-down zones of Basic Combat, the conception of Advanced Combat is more of a horizontal line, a side-view. Distance is measured in meters, but distance is only measured between characters. Lateral distance is not considered. So if Pete the Tabbit Sorcerer is hanging back, and Wolf the Fighter is moving forward to engage the enemy, Pete is the starting point, and you need to note how many meters away Wolf is, and then how many meters the enemy is from Wolf. With just these relative ranges, you run combat much as in Basic Combat. When two characters engage in a melee, they are considered located at the same point, and a Melee Area is created centered at that spot. Melee Areas consisting of 2-5 characters cover 3 meters on either side of the central point. At 6-10 people, it spreads to 4 meters on either side, and so on. There are many other subtle and interesting rules related to this combat that I'll only go over if people ask for it.

The Game Master section fleshes out the geography and lore of Alfleim, including descriptions of the Ignis gods, and their associated Priest spells. Some more areas of Burlight are described, as is Doden, the region to the north of Burlight. There is also a scenario for 7th level PCs (it's as linear as the the one in Rulebook I).



For Monsters, Fairies are added as a new category. All told, there are 31 Barbaros, 13 Fauna, 5 Flora, 13 Undead, 6 Magical Creatures, 7 Magitech, 6 Mythic Beasts, 12 Fairies, 7 Demons, and 4 Humankind, for a total of 104 monsters (in addition to the 57 included in Rulebook I).
 

Definitely there has got to be some place on the planet where role players see “character species has innate kleptomaniac tendencies” and don’t go on a trolling spree.
 

Wonder if they were influenced by Dragonlance's kender.

I remember seeing the dullahan in Final Fantasy Legend 3 (SaGa 3 in Japan) back in 1991...it was the most powerful cyborg you could evolve into. Guess it made an impression over there for some reason!

The lack of Japanese monsters like kappa and tengu makes me think they're engaging in a little exoticism here. ;)
 


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