Swords Without Master

Gather writing implements, scraps of paper, three or four of your cohorts, and two six-sided dice that you can easily tell apart to a table. A mahogany table adorned with thick, greasy candles and five human skulls. Failing that, a stout oaken table near a glowing hearth, replete with ale-filled steins and a succulent roast. Or, if you prefer, a tabletop chipped whole from a single obsidian stone, placed on the back of a coiled serpent of silver in a room high in a lonely tower shrouded in a prismatic fog.

Swords Without Master is a game of adventure, violence and wonder. Become rogues in a world of swords and sorcery, living by your wits and prowess, plunging into the unknown, and seizing from it untold treasures.

Who Do You Play?

Rogues in the traditional sense. In a world filled with lieges and serfs, rogues are neither and beholden to none but themselves. This makes them sexy, dangerous, powerful people living outside of society, taking what they need however they can. They may be at times a thief or a pirate or a sellsword or a bounty hunter, they may even occasionally be a slave or a king. But eventually, they will always find themselves back on the road surviving by their own wits and prowess.

The world is full of wonder and danger, that’s exactly why they walk in it.

As the Rogue Players play their roguesacting at times as author or audience, but always championing their characters–the Overplayer’s job is to present the dangers and wonders of the world. The Overplayer sets the scene and drives the story forward, but is not all powerful. Occasionally it will fall to the Rogue Players to tell us of a lost tribe of ghost people their rogue has heard tell of; or about the witch that haunts these woods, an ex-lover of their rogue; or of the ruin-covered blade their rogue has just plundered from a vine-choked jungle temple. All will work together to craft a thrilling sword and sorcery short story.

What Are the Rules Like?

Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth . . .
— "The Phoenix on the Sword" by Robert E. Howard

Bones & Tones

In Swords Without Master, the rules are less interested in whether your character succeeds or fails and far more interested in those “gigantic melancholies" and that "gigantic mirth." You do not roll to see if you can do what you were trying to do. Instead, you roll for your tone. And then it is up to you to decide just how to fit your rogue’s actions to that tone. It may mean failure for your character. It may not. The dice largely don’t care.*

Phases

The game hangs together in phases, which are specific sets of rules we use based on what is important at the time. The Perilous Phase, for example, is the phase in which the rogues’ lives are on the line. By contrast, the Discovery Phase is when we are about to learn something about the wonders of the world. The phases dictate who gets to input what and when. They tell us when to roll the dice and what we are rolling for. And they tell use how we help each other out. You are always in one phase or another.

Threads

As we play, we generate threads, which are notes on what has happened thus far. Sometimes the dice tell us to make threads. Other threads, such as the Motif, are voluntary, but necessary for the story to continue. These threads are the things we enjoy the most about the story that we’re telling. They are the moments where our rogues can learn important lessons. And they are the mysteries that we want to see unfold. Once we have reached the end of our adventure, we start reincorporating these threads, bringing them back to tie everything up into a cohesive whole.

How Does the Game Play?

The Overplayer begins by rolling for the overtone and then setting the scene. What follows from there depends on the phase you are in. The rogues may be in danger, reacting, overcoming and occasionally succumbing to some vile threat. They may be uncovering the secrets of the world. They may be demonstrating their particular talents and skills. Or they may just be enjoying the wine, song and other pleasures bought with treasures stolen from an ancient tomb.

A single pair of dice is rolled and passed among all the players. Whoever has the dice, has our attention. When and how these dice are passed depend on the phase we are in. Passed urgently to see a rogue save another from the reaper. Passed with a demand to see what a rogue is capable of. Passed because the Overplayer is hungry for more details.

As we move through the phases, passing and rolling the dice, we generate our threads. They keep the game on track. They focus on that which captures our attention—“serpent drenched altars,” “sword-wielding monkeys,” and “treasure embedded in flesh”—and make these the hallmarks of our tale. And when we have collected enough, we draw the game to an end.

As we end the game, we reincorporate several of the threads, the ones that stand out the most to us, and solidify their importance to the story.

PREP-FLEXIBLE

Swords requires absolutely no prep whatsoever. Should you have a rogue burning within you, it would take only a moment or two to commit them to paper. But if time is really tight, the Swords Without Master G+ community has gone through the trouble of assembling a legion of the more adventurous rogues in their Rogues, Eidolons & Simulacra chapter. Pick three or four of them and plunge directly into the unknown.

However, to appease world-maker in the heart of us all, Swords is also able to accommodate those lovingly detailed maps, carefully constructed fantasy communities and the monsters you have been concocting in the dark hours—as long as you are not afraid to let your fellow players and their rogues shape the world to their own wills.

FAST-PLAYING

Like a well-crafted short story, Swords covers a lot of ground in very little time. A typical Swords game takes about two to three hours, but can cover years of the characters’ adventures or the longest night of their lives. Experienced players will find it possible to play entire sessions in an hour or less, making it possible for us to have a weekly Sunday morning games that you are welcome to join, even if you have never played before.

Where Can I Get This Game?

Swords Without Master appears in issue three of Worlds Without Master