Lacking Natural Simplicity

Random musings on books, code, and tabletop games.

Explicit Procedures in Old School Essentials and Swords & Wizardry

Nothing I'm saying in this post is new; I'm sure other people have pointed out these or similar things in the past. I'm just trying to get my observation down in concrete form.

Someone asked why Old School Essentials (OSE) gets so much attention in the OSR world, and why Swords & Wizardry (S&W) doesn’t get more. I like both games very much, and have pledged for Kickstarters for both systems, but I think that the reason that OSE gets more attention, especially from from those new to the OSR, is that OSE provides specific and explicit step by step procedures for running the game structures that are at the center of the game.

In the article from 6 September 2019, Game Structures — Addendum: System Matters, Justin Alexander talks about how the dungeon crawling structure that originates in Original D&D is completely missing from D&D 5E. (The rest of his series on Game Structures is also interesting.)

OSE preserves (as you’d expect as a faithful retroclone of the 1981 Moldvay/Cook/Marsh Basic/Expert edition of D&D) those procedures and presents them clearly. Much of the same information is available in Swords & Wizardry, but the reader has to synthesize most of it from paragraphs and pages of text, rather than having a step by step procedure to follow.

Old School Essentials.

Looking at OSE, there are at least 12 procedures, most of which have explicit lists of steps. (Page numbers are to the OSE Classic Fantasy Rules Tome.)

†  Indicates step by step procedures.

  1. Dungeon Adventuring†, p. 108.

  2. Wilderness Adventuring†, p. 110.

  3. Waterbourne Adventuring†, p. 112.

  4. Encounters†, p. 114.

  5. Evasion and Pursuit, p. 116.

  6. Combat†, p. 120.

  7. Strongholds, Construction†, p. 134.

  8. NPC Encounters, Adventuring Parties, p. 212. While not numbered this is sequence of bullet listed procedures for generating Basic and Expert NPC parties, and High Level NPCs.

  9. Designing a Dungeon†, p. 224.

  10. Designing a Wilderness†, p. 226.

  11. Designing a Base Town†, p. 227.

  12. Placing Treasure, p. 229.

    1. Rolling a Sentient Sword†, p. 272.

    2. Control Checks†, p. 273.

The fact that OSE has an online SRD is also an advantage; S&W used to, but it is not currently available.

Swords & Wizardry


In Swords & Wizardry there are only a couple of step-by-step procedures.

  1. Initiative and Order of Battle†, p. 35.

  2. Generating a Random Treasure Hoard†, p. 131.

Swords & Wizardry’s other procedures have to be extracted from one or more paragraphs of running text.

S&W tends to rely on examples and prose descriptions rather than explicitly numbered or bulleted lists.

“Monsters in the Dungeon”, p. 76, could easily have been part of a “Randomly Stoking the Dungeon” procedure.

Compare OSE's “Wilderness Adventuring” to S&W's “Wilderness Adventures” on p. 80. The OSE version is an explicit list of steps, while the S&W version is a wall of text.

Compare OSE‘s bulleted Morale procedure, p. 123, to S&W's, p. 39.

Compare OSE's “Rolling a Sentient Sword” to S&W's “Intelligent Weapons”, p. 138.

I'm sure that the designer of S&W and its ardent players use procedures much like OSE's to actually run the game published, internalized as good practice from the original games over the users, until they don't notice the lack of or more difficult presentation of these procedures in S&W.

Much of the credit for OSE's procedures goes to Moldvay, Cook, and Marsh, who designed the version of D&D it retroclones, but much also goes to the exceptionally clear presentation of those rules by Gavin Norman of Necrotic Gnome. The series of OSE adventures also published by Necro Gnome have also been excellently presented.

I have been pleased to see S&W's presentation improving over time (the use of two page spreads for most of the class presentations in the most recent S&W Revised was a great improvement), and I expect to see the presentation continue to improve.

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