Not Good, but Profitable
I like Swords and Wizardry. It’s a fairly rules-light system even in its Complete version, though some simplification or rationalization of game mechanics could still be done. That’s more a result of hewing to the original source material, which was of course a design mission for the game. But Erik, Tim, Peter, and others have played S&W Complete through many adventures.
Sword and Wizardry Light, and now it’s “Extra” version, which adds material rather than being Extra Light, is a rules skeleton by design. It’s got a bit more – such as the ranger and paladin classes – than the basic four of the SWL set. But it really does work best when all of the concepts in playing D&D are already reasonably well known, and also when the players are not shy about roleplaying disadvantageous ability scores with no mechanical support.
You roll 3d6, either in order or assign as you like. We’d decided on race/class before the game started, with Peter an Elf/Mage, me an Elf/Ranger, and Tim a Halfling/Fighter. I rolled 3d6, mostly hit 9-12, but picked up two 15’s, which are good for +1 to something. In my case I did DEX (for my bow) and CON (for HP).
The system only uses 20-sided and 6-sided dice, and d20s are only used for attack rolls and saving throws. Everything else, from Hit Dice to initiative to damage, are d6s. I’m cool with that. I play GURPS.
The lack of explicit mechanical support for things like attribute rolls and even penalties for low scores does suggest that you could even simplify further, though, basically doing away with some of the scores after you roll them, only noting functional bonuses, and moving on. That makes it somewhat interestingly the most FATE-like of the OSR games, since everything really depends on your roleplaying your character as you picture them, and the bonuses are mostly irrelevant to anything: a +1 on 1d20 is a 5% success boost.
We were playtesting a short adventure that Erik was finishing up. He managed to get an almost-perfect adventure length. We had three hours, it took three hours. That’s remarkable; mine always go over-length.
It was basically structured in three parts. The meeting with the town official, who gave us the job. The initial encounter with the ogre and goblins, which very much did not go as expected, and then clearing the tomb of the undead, which nearly killed at least one of us. I think I was down from 8 to 2 HP, and Tim got KO’d to exactly 0 HP, but we were able to stuff a healing potion into him at the right time, so no casualties. But it was close.
This adventure was unexpected to me in a way, because I was just expecting a hack-and-slash “kill the ogre” game, and what we got (somewhat thanks to a timely Charm Person) was somewhat filled with shades of grey. The Ogre and goblins were afraid of the undead. They were doing what they were doing because the goblins offered tribute to the ogre, who liked that sort of thing, and when it got started they kept doing it, which meant a source of money. The undead in the old dwarf-cave were the real threat. The resolution was tinged with pragmatic politics of power.
Really, that’s a lot to pack into a short adventure. I’m not sure if Erik planned it that way, or it just evolved naturally. Doesn’t matter, really: we had a great time.
After doing so much work on mechanically intensive games like Dungeon Grappling and Dragon Heresy, and of course GURPS, the bare-bones format is both liberating and challenging. The GM is going to be making stuff up and acting like, well, the master of the game, a lot more than the rules-arbiter role that you can get with a more “a rule for everything, and everything a rule” type set (and those have value too, since mechanics and action reinforce each other).
The game supports very minimal preparation (we could have all started with a blank paper and still been playing in 30min), and there are no complicated rules to memorize. SWXL is a great set for running short adventures and working on your improv skills, as both player and GM. I think it will make a great convention game, and could even be run as a continually-running pick-up game, which would start early, end late, and as each PC dies (and the number of HP is low enough, and the dice swingy enough, that that’s nearly inevitable), a new player replaces the old. With the right setup for the adventure, the new guy shows up, rolls 3d6 in order, makes perhaps four or five choices (race, class, weapon set, gear set, maybe spells), and steps in.