[Swords without Master] Pulp-adventures in the Red Desert

As a somewhat fanatic enthusiast of old, verbose pulp-fantasy stories I have always wanted to play a game that emphasizes the tropes of the genre properly. Recently I have had few short stories to work on this genre so naturally I procrastinated by searching a pulp fantasy game to play.

Ended up buying Swords without Master from a friend's suggestion and what a rush it was. A game that seemed to dip strongly into the very heart of the genre.

Organized a game soonish with three players. The players were seasoned story-game -veterans, yet not very much into pulp fantasy genre. No matter, I constructed a loose setting of a vast desert kingdom with a dictatorial "God-Sultan" that pretty much ruled over the whole continent, and then Laputa-inspired "Heavenly Atlantis", an ancient city in the clouds that was frantically sought after by the Sultan.

Characters were a sex priestess, darkish young swordsman with a gloomy song of a siren and a scorpion assassin who resembled a gym ball. Very pulpish and clear-cut characters. Players didn't stop there, but rather created connections between the world and their characters. The priestess followed a sect that worshipped a second sun (and yeah, the player wrote the sun on her character sheet to stop the GM from messing with it, not that I would have as the idea was brilliant). The cult was also oppressed by the ruler, so that tied her directly into the premise of the story I had in mind. Others worked in similar fashion, creating a vivid picture and broadening the world on their part. Game itself worked very well and created an astoundishing tale of swashbucklery, sexually oriented magic and ruined civilizations that ran its course in two gaming sessions.

I am looking forward to playing this game again soon as it differs mechanically so much from story games I have played before, and works in a genre I am very much into. Our combined efforts created such a sweet situation, I'll probably write a scenario based on it into my own entropy-game.

There are few things that didn't work out so well. Firstly, the game doesn't address the issue of "adventuring party" at all, but rather trusts the players to grasp the idea from traditional roleplaying. I think it could be worth a word or two to address how to construct this in against a pulp fantasy background. We managed well, but this is because I had very experienced players.

Secondly, we seemed to roll a lot of morals-results and it became increasingly difficult to address them into abstract lessons. This might be just a fluke of dice as the probability to get such a result is 1/6. Still, it was bit cumbersome.

Thirdly, we didn't quite grasp the meaning of the motifs in the first session. We catched up in the second and did quite well, but I can easily see a situation where the game hangs up if players forget the elements in the heat of things. This is something, I think needs practice and would probably go a lot smoother in the second run.

Are there any other players of this game in here? I would surely like to hear your experiences with it.

Comments

  • I like that game a lot, and any problems I've had with it are similar to yours! I tend to think of those as "first-time problems", but having mostly played that at conventions and such, it was always somebody's first time!

    After a handful such "first times", I set my mind on these practices:

    - I make a big deal of Motifs (and lead by example, accordingly, writing down a lot myself) and try to downplay the importance of everything else;

    - by "downplaying the importance of" I mean, keep it limited in scope and scale: not every twist has to be a big twist, not every Perilous Phase has to be a big fight everybody participates in, not every Mystery can be solved, not every Moral has to be a big deal, etc.

    - The "adventuring party" doesn't have to be a thing, or if it is, just say so. One way to start the game is with a Perilous Phase and the Rogues just happening to be there, not necessarily together, not necessarily on the same side - if they end up working against each other, cool. Another way to start it is to just say: "You're in this together, as partners in crime. I don't know how long you've known each other, I don't know whether you trust each other, that's on you. You don't have to like each other, just have a reason to be working together right now." Either way, that's something the Overplayer effectively establishes in framing the very first phase!

    - Starting with a Perilous Phase is not necessarily the best idea. It makes it easier to put the Rogues together fictionally, but rules-wise it's the most complicated phase to explain-as-you-go (which is because, to have a satisfying Perilous, Rogue players must be able to control the pacing, not the Overplayer or the rules-text). Thus...

    - if there's just one player who doesn't know the rules, great, lead with Perilous - but if I'm the only one teaching everybody else the rules, I'll try to avoid that. Rogues' Phase is easiest to teach, but makes the least sense to start with, though you can jump off character creation if that has been choral enough. Discovery Phase is a reasonable compromise. Or, perhaps my favorite, I play a game of Invisible Empire first (which basically teaches Discovery phase), then riff off that.

    - 2 Rogues is so much closer to the reference stories than 3 or 4! It makes the game more authentic. It puts a bit of extra strain onto the rules, though, with the core loops made entirely predictable. I'm considering trying parallel tales sometimes, with no more than 2 Rogues in each, and Rogues' Phases as the only opportunities to "jump" stories.

    - It takes longer than it's supposed to! On your first few games as a group, at least. Learning - or teaching - the rules is some serious work, it adds up. I expect an experienced group who've "mastered" the game (emphasis on group: all of them!) to be able to pull off really sweet and to-the-point, very short stories - like, 2-phase stories or so. But don't count on that on your first couple games! Plan for them to be long (and possibly rambling).

    - It doesn't have to end well. In fact, the "ending" doesn't have to feel like an ending - oftentimes, it won't. Loose threads, anti-climaxes, missed catharsis, clipped denouement are to be embraced.
  • Ah, I was thinking that there's somebody who hangs here who's actually played SWM a bunch of times. Very good! It seems like an interesting game, I've just never gotten around to exploring it myself in practice. Rafu's advice seems point-on from my reading-only perspective, too.
  • Yeah, I kind of figured out it takes longer so I booked two-session game right from the start. I don't mind the game taking longer, it gives players more time to explore the setting and the story that is unfolding.

    We did get a great ending as well. Quite epic as the whole world changed, but that doesn't matter as long as we are not going to come back to the same world. If one would wish a larger campaign around the same game world the players need to make smaller moves when shaking things about.

    Good points, Rafu. I must ponder those whenever I get the next chance to play the game.

    One thing worth of mentioning I think that if you split up the party, then perhaps the phases can't involve the characters that are not present. We had one character locked up in a dungeon and others went to rescue him in a rogues phase. This seemed to work well, as all three got to answer a question and participate in the scene. But if the characters are all in different directions minding their own business it could become harder.

    Not that this is necessarily a big issue, but I tend to favor mechanics that make all players participate in the game the whole time.
  • One thing worth of mentioning I think that if you split up the party, then perhaps the phases can't involve the characters that are not present. We had one character locked up in a dungeon and others went to rescue him in a rogues phase. This seemed to work well, as all three got to answer a question and participate in the scene. But if the characters are all in different directions minding their own business it could become harder.

    Thinking about that a bit harder... "Splitting the party" is, like, the norm with a Rogues' Phase - no stretch at all.
    I'm guessing that could work for a Discovery Phase as well, if carefully set up (whereas it's impossible for Perilous, what with having one storm everybody has to respond to)... But that's beyond the point: three Rogues in the same story, acting toward compatible ends are still a "party", no matter whether they are physically found at the same location.
  • I played ad OPd Sw/oM a lot, one of my favourites. You could run the game in 2 hours.

    Perilous phase is the hardest to do, even with experienced Sw/oM players. It's better to start with Lore phase or Rogues phase (trying to get some 'flags' from players about the motivation of their Rogues)

    Another advice is 'Never argue about or second guess the tone uses'.

    You should all take a look at Gamma Thrones as well!
  • hamnacb said:

    You should all take a look at Gamma Thrones as well!

    I don't even know what this is! Please tell me more!
  • Gamma Thrones is an endless fantasy saga hack of Swords Without Master
    https://plus.google.com/+EpidiahRavachol/posts/dpUQPsYhRqj

    Very cool things IMHO. Also check out #Starward which mixes the best of Sw/oM and Vast & Starlit!
  • Thanks, @hamnacb :-D
    Boy, am I finding it hard to keep up-to-date on the Internet of "social networks"...!
    And how/where can I get Starward?
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