I’ve been interested in Swords Without Master for years now, but until this game, had yet to play. Swords Without Master was originally released in Epidiah Ravachol’s zine Worlds Without Master, issue #3. Mostly I’d heard of the reputation that this was a seminal story game that played out stories of sword and sorcery with touchstones from Conan, down towards the strange mix of spells and pseudo-tech of He-man.
I finally prioritized this goal of playing by reserving my weekly “night out” to play in a Gauntlet Hangouts game put up by Pat Perkins, who has been doing an ongoing series of this game. I was pleased to see that I’d be playing with my friends Lu and Ary, so that was just icing on the cake! (We had a fourth, but he had to drop due to technical issues.)
Pat started by asking us about our favorite cartoons growing up. We had answers of He-man and TMNT, Scooby-Doo and Thundarr the Barbarian, and mine being the D&D Cartoon and Gummi Bears.
We quickly made some characters, which involves you first choosing an eidolon, a real-world object, image, or other thing that provides you an image of our “rogue”. Pat sent over a Pinterest board of images, and I quickly found a fantastic image of a character I’d like to explore. It was great seeing the other player images, as Lu chose the bird-like head of a strange staff, and Ary had an eidolon which was the picture of a weird grub/insect. We spent the first part of the session fleshing out these characters with their traits (things defined as “All That Deserves A Name”).
As an example, my character was Roalla, and my important qualities included: Hoor tongue, a strange hallucinogen, Pouri the ever-present life-force that elludes which is my source of strange magic powers, and Numericology, the study of the math that binds the universe, which I had studied in some college in the past, before my travels.
Lu’s character was literally a staff which controlled the mind of the poor wizard who had last grasped it, and Ary’s was a strange insect-worshipping grub-riding barbarian, of sorts. Overall a very interesting and strange party to start!
Pat gave us a few options as quests to embark on, and we chose one that would involve finding a hidden cemetery. I won’t go into the details of the quest, because someone has done the work for me! Thanks Pat for your great game writeup (follow that link for those details). Additionally a link to the actual play video - again beautifully curated by Pat - is down below for your viewing pleasure, if you are interested.
So, instead of going into write-up of game details, I will go on to say my impressions of the game itself and its mechanics. I think one of my friends on the Gauntlet said it best (maybe Sid?): It’s crunchy. Crunchy for a story game. There’s a surprising amount of game mechanics that you have to deal with, such as the on-going realization of Motifs which players and GM re-incorporate in scenes and inform the pace of the game, and the dice results which dictate the tone (Glum or Jovial) as well as a set of other conditions during ties, and low rolls. But that said, all these things just tell how you in what manner to “story game”, almost like a set of scene prompts. So, yes, there is a bunch of stuff going on, but it really boils down to being very conversational. It definitely leans towards having a high creative load (similar to Fall of Magic, as an example, even though that game is the furthest from crunchy). It a;sp appears to allow the GM to be very reactionary, and very much in a conversation with the players, in a similar way to games such as Ten Candles (and to an extent like some PbtA and other “conversation” games).
I’ve since read the rules of it (having purchased the zine issue some time ago), and it’s definitely not something I can run without referring to them, at this point, and would require a bit of taking my time with the game the first time around. (Probably worthy of my special cheat sheet treatment, in fact!) Normally I get very excited to run a game, after I’ve played it, but in fact I’m a little more interested in playing it some more. I know Epi runs a Sunday Morning Swords type thing, but that schedule doesn’t really work out for me… but perhaps one day soon.
Here’s the video for those interested: