'Retroclones', or attempts to republish out-of-print versions of D&D with various nods to modern sensibilities and mechanics, have proven increasingly popular over the last few years. One of the more original takes on this is Elf Lair Games' "Spellcraft & Swordplay" (S&S).
The original 1974 D&D rules assumed one would use the wargame 'Chainmail' to resolve combats and introduced an alternate system involving a d20 for those who didn't own the game. S&S explores what would have happened if the 'alternate system' never took hold and D&D remained closer to its wargame ancestor.
Within these 175 pages you'll find everything you need to play divided into three sections:
Swordmen and Spellslingers
Character creation starts off similarly to D&D, with six abilities rolled on 3d6. You then pick a race and class. Here we see the first major difference from most editions - all classes have d6 hit dice. A warrior, for example, starts with d6+3 HP while a wizard has d6-1.
We also see classes also get multiple attacks much faster than in most editions; A 3rd level warrior has three. This is a nod to the 1974 rules where a 3rd level fighting man fought as "3 men." Instead of getting improved to hit scores as one rises in level, they get more attacks. While at first glance this looks like a potential game breaker, it actually works quite well for instilling a gritty, fast paced pulp like atmosphere. Further, since (all else being equal) to hit scores never change, that means non-magical armor and weaponry is effective even at higher levels avoiding the sort of magic item inflation prevalent in D&D.
Spellcasters have to make a skill check (2d6+Int or Wis modifier) to cast a spell. Depending on the roll the spell may go off immediately, be delayed, or fizzle. If the spell does not fail it is not lost from memory, improving the potential effectiveness and versatility of spellcasters.
There are several 'elite paths' - subclasses available at 1st level (only) if you meet the prerequisites. These are Paladin and Ranger (off Warrior), Necromancer (Wizard), Druid (Priest) and Assassin (Thief).
Overall, this section is full of a lot of very interesting ideas. I wonder if the classes are precisely balanced - the assassin's instant kill ability in particular looks worrying - but one nice thing about rules lite systems like this is that it makes it very easy for the referee to customize.
Combat and Conflict
Part two deals with actual gameplay. Non-combat tasks are resolved using a statistic check: 2d6 + Attribute + 1 per 3 levels + 1. The referee imposes any modifiers based on how difficult or easy the task is, and whether your character has a chance of knowing what he or she is doing based on class, race and background. Saving throws are handled similarly.
Combat begins by rolling for initiative. As written, initiative is incredibly powerful due to the number of attacks combattants can get. A good house rule is to split combat into two or more phases. For example, if I won initiative and had three attacks, I might attack twice, have my opponent counterattack, then launch my third.
Attacks are handled by rolling 2d6 and comparing it to a chart that cross-references weapon with armor class/type. A dagger only needs a 7+ to hit an unarmored man, but 13+ (good luck) against plate armor. Along with the benefits I mentioned earlier, this means carrying multiple weapons on your person makes sense. It's now a good idea to actually bring a knife to a knife fight rather than an unwieldy spear (9+ to hit). My issue here is some weapons (like said spear) consistently have high to hit rolls and are simply inferior weapons.
Following combat, S&S goes into great detail regarding naval warfare. This is actually in keeping with the 1974 rules, but like the '74 rules it's more than is necessary in a basic set. I might have reserved this for S&S's first supplement, 'Monstrous Mayhem.' S&S then discusses vision, blindness and diseases.
Overall I like this section. It streamlines quite a bit while maintaining Chainmail's combat system. As mentioned there might be individual issues with some of the weapons and other details, but easily customizable and not game breaking.
Monsters and Magic
The last part begins with a chart listing various creatures and their stats and special abilities. This is followed by a key of how to read the chart, a comprehensive list of special abilities, and finally how to use these creatures in combat. I would have changed the order to discuss how to use the creatures first (since that tells me how well they fight), then the key, then the chart. Elsewhere I've read concerns that the special abilities aren't customized: A wyvern's darkvision, for example, is identical to a kraken's. That doesn't bother me, and if it did is easily changeable by an intelligent referee.
Following a page on monster creation and experience points, we now get into descriptions of the monsters themselves. Having the descriptions separate may feel odd to most D&D players, but is in accord with the 1974 rules.
Lastly we get to treasure, more specifically magic. Several items are described in detail. Lastly there are a few treasure charts.
The charts themselves are a little strange: You are supposed to roll 4d6 to determine what row to roll off of, and the range for coins goes from 5-22. The range elsewhere is even stranger, and I fear I don't understand the author's intent here. Unfortunately it isn't clear how to use the chart and I believe it may have been errataed for 'Monstrous Mayhem.'
The magic items may be where I have the greatest disagreement with the author: I believe they're overpowered - not for AD&D or later editions, and perhaps not even for D&D Basic, but for the 1974 rules. OD&D assumed very few if any modifiers to die rolls: +1 was typical for very high attributes. +2 was exceptional, and +3 might as well be an artifact. I can only guess at OD&D's intent, but I believe it was against dependence on magic.
S&S instead uses what became common practice of +5 weapons/armor being top of the line. In a system that uses 2d6 instead of 1d20 it's even more important to control these bonuses to maintain balance. Going into the math is probably not a good idea in a review: Suffice to say a +3 weapon in S&S is more powerful than it's +5 equivalent elsewhere.
Overall this was the weakest of the three parts, and I question magic item balance. As before, easily modifiable though I believe that is serious enough to warrant review.
S&S packs quite a bit into its pages. It's a complete system that's quite playable as it stands. If you're still not certain, at least grab S&S's Basic Rules which take you to level 3 and gives you a solid look at what this game has to offer. There is one supplement (Monstrous Mayhem) available while a second (Eldritch Witchery) is in the works.
[5 of 5 Stars!]