Review: Swords Without Masters
by Ramanan Sivaranjan on March 16, 2017
After my Apocalypse World game I went to a panel discussion about GMing advice with Robin Laws, Matt McFarland, Anna Kreider, and a dude who wasn’t Emily Care Boss (who was sick). I enjoyed the talk, it was well done. The moderator Donald Fraser did a good job making the audience questions sound like they were all carefully chosen by him. I like when people are forced to write down their questions, thereby avoiding the risk of a crazy person rambling on.) Robin Laws is funny: I should check out his podcast. I had an hour break after the panel in which to have a beer and chat with John Willson about RPGs. While we drank Corey Ried popped by to say, “hey.” He was running the next game I would play, Swords Without Masters.
Swords Without Masters was written by Epidiah Ravachol. The only thing I knew about the game was that it was published in his zine, Worlds Without Masters. I had assumed it would be some sort of indie variation on D&D—that it was most definitely not. The game is firmly in whatever genre you would place Fiasco within. (I want to say Story Games, but that name feels meaningless: this game was also nothing like Apocalypse World.) Swords Without Masters is a story telling game. There is a loose framework of rules that exists to help give your story some direction.
Our session began with us figuring out what image best represented each of our rogues: Swords Without Masters is a game about rogues in the vein of Conan the Barbarian. I picked a classic Earl Norem Masters of the Universe painting—of course. Your character is a name and handful of narrative hooks—terse when compared to traditional RPG characters. It didn’t take long to get the game started.
We began on a battlefield surrounded by our enemies. A game of Swords Without Masters is broken up into a series of phases: Perilous, Discovery, and Rogue. We began in the Perilous Phase. As the name implies, this is when the characters face danger. The DM, called the Overplayer in this game, starts by rolling a pair of dice. Each die represents a mood, jovial or glum, so you better be able to tell them apart. The higher die’s mood wins, and the Overplayer begins narrating the hardships faced by the players keeping the mood in mind.
Corey didn’t waste time trying to front load a lot of explanation on the rules for the game. He’d tell us what we needed to know to keep playing. The game is simple to teach. In our first phase he let us know we could take control of the narrative by picking up the dice. There is a back and forth: the Overplayer narrating an escalating level of danger and destruction until the players jump in and push back. When you don’t have the dice your character can do whatever they want, but they ultimately need to be failing. Once you decide you’ve had enough of losing you can pick up and roll the dice. Your higher die becomes your tone. You tell the story of what’s going on, narrating how your character overcomes their obstacles in the style of the current tone.
I found the game challenging to play because coming up with an interesting story on the spot is tricky! (I’m both boring and unimaginative.) All of the players were initially hesitant about picking up the dice. This meant the situation we were in just got more ridiculous. By the end of the session we were more comfortable interrupting the Overplayer to take control of the action.
When you roll doubles your rogue is stymied. This means that whatever you had planned to do while in control of the narrative must fail. During this initial phase one player’s character was trapped while the other characters escaped. That’s how we chose to end the phase.
Stories need not be told linearly. We played the Discovery Phase next, travelling back to a time before the fighting when we were all imprisoned together. In this phase the rogues pass the dice around, rolling immediately, and narrating some new piece of information about themselves or the world. Whenever they do so they ask the Overplayer a loaded question about this discovery. (e.g. “Why didn’t my talisman protect me from the Titans?”) The Overplayed answers, thereby revealing more about the world and the conflict at hand. The Overplayer decides when this phase ends. When we played we usually ended things after each player had a turn sharing a discovery.
Our third phase was the Rogue’s Phase you take turns passing the dice around asking the other player how their character will accomplish some particular goal. (“How did you scale the unscalable wall?”) This phase is about highlighting how awesome your character is in the tone the dice command. You can also make demands of the Overplayer to learn more about the world and its other inhabitants.
The game continued on like this. The Overplayer decides what phases are played and in what order. During the game the players will write down the motifs they find most interesting about the story being told. There are also rules for tracking mysteries and morals based on your dice rolls. These are all called threads in the game. When you hit 9 motifs it’s time to wrap up the story. The players can now choose to reincorporate a thread into the story they are telling. Once they have done so they are no longer allowed to pick up the dice and drive the narrative. After all the players have reincorporated a thread into the story the game ends. This end game mechanic is smart: your story ends up feeling coherent because the conclusion draws from various threads raised earlier in the game. (Our game ended with us destroying the Arch-witch, though it took the sacrifice of one of the players to accomplish the goal.)
I find these narrative games very demanding. With traditional RPGs the story you tell is generally grows organically from play. (Well, at least in good games!) The scope of Swords Without Masters is so grand in comparison: I often felt stuck trying to come up with something to say or do. We were all quite over the top in how we played, but in hindsight we should have mixed in more modest and quiet questions and answers. I suspect if I had played more of these story telling games I’d have done a better job at that sort of pacing.
Having to narrate your lows as well as your highs is fun. The flipping of the tone from jovial to glum also works well. Your character sheet has a good list of words associated with each tone to help you when narrating. The loose structure helps ground what would otherwise be a bunch of people talking about how awesome their characters are—though there is definitely a lot of that going on.
I grabbed the game itself while writing this review. The rules are well written and clear. For each of the phases and rules I’ve mentioned above there are lots of examples of game play. There are also “advanced” rules that extend the game if you want something slightly more complicated.
This was a fun game to play, something I likely wouldn’t have done outside of a convention setting. (I liked having a chance to play all these different games while at Breakout Con.) This game will likely feel unsatisfying if you are looking for more objective challenges in your games than “tell a compelling story”. But, if that’s what you’re looking for this game works really well. Swords Without Masters feels different and novel.
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