Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells - Rules-light fantasy roleplay

Although I have more reviews in the queue from both Olde House Rules and Trollish Delver, I thought I'd shine my light on something from another publisher for the moment. That something is Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells from Old Skull Publishing.

Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells is a rules-light fantasy roleplaying game that marries tried and true design of decades past with inspiration coming from such places as Dungeons & Dragons and The Black Hack, both popular games in their own right. What Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells offers is a kind of middle ground between such games - it is more robust than The Black Hack, for example, while being far more concise and compact than the current edition of D&D. Is there a market for this kind of product? For me, yes, there absolutely is. I love D&D in most of its incarnations and I like (and own) a great many OSR games, but I've often felt overwhelmed when running many editions of D&D RAW (i.e., rules as written) and find that many OSR systems are just a wee bit too handwavey for some of the people I play with. As it turns out, Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells is the cure for what ails me.

The core mechanic of the game consists of rolling a d20 and comparing it to one of four attribute scores that are determined by rolling 3d6 (attributes being Physique, Agility, Intellect, and Willpower), with a roll equal to or less than the attribute score being considered a success (higher rolls are better, as long as they are equal to or less than the attribute score being tested). The referee, conversely, usually tries to roll above a character's attributes scores (or, at least, their die roll result). There are a few ways that this roll can be modified, from basic difficulty modifiers being applied by the referee to rolling Positive and Negative Dice (this is basically the advantage and disadvantage mechanic introduced in D&D 5th Edition, and it works just as well here). Finally, in some instances, a player can "push the roll" - re-rolling the dice by risking worse consequences if they fail the roll a second time.

Two other die rolls, while not part of the basic mechanic, do play an important role in the game. These are the Usage Die roll (a concept that you may recognize from The Black Hack) and the Luck Roll, which is a roll made on a die type specified by the character's Archetype. Usage Die rolls work pretty much like they do in The Black Hack, serving as an alternative to literal bean counting when it comes to keeping track of expendable resources. When a resource is uses, roll it's current Usage Die type and if the result is a one or a two, the Usage Die type is downgraded. If the Usage Die is a d4 and it is downgraded, the resource is expended. When making a Luck Roll, if the player rolls a result of one or two, luck turns against their character. If they score any other result, their character has luck on their side.

Characters in Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells are defined by attributes (explained above), a chosen Archetype (Warrior, Specialist, or Magic-User), a Vocation (a specific subset of their Archetype), and a Complication.

Archetypes are, as you might have guessed, merely classes by another name. Archetypes determine what a character's Luck Die is (a d6 or a d8), how many Hit Points they gain per level, what special abilities they have, and what their Prime Attributes are (these are important for character advancement as discussed later).

Vocations are, as mentioned above, a specific subset of a given Archetype. For example, the rules state that a Warrior can be a Barbarian, a Knight, a Soldier, a Mercenary or any other such thing. Mechanically, a character gains the benefit of a Positive Die when rolling to resolve action related to their Vocation.

Finally, a Complication is just what it sounds like. Something that hinders a character. There's a neat table that allows you to randomly roll up a Complication, though you can always just make one up, so long as the referee agrees to it. In play, a player may invoke their character's Complication to improve their Luck Die by one step (i.e.,die type) and, in return, the referee can use that complication at any time in the future to sock it to the player character.

Weapons and Armor are handled in a pretty basic way, with weapons coming in Small, Medium, and Large varieties and Armor coming in Light, Medium, and Heavy varieties. Weapons do random damage of a given die type and armor reduces damage dealt to a character by one point (for light armor) or a specified die step by heavier armor (e.g., 1d8 damage is staged down to 1d6 damage by -1d armor). Shields add Negative Dice to an attacker's roll to hit, with larger shields adding more such dice. And, with that said, I guess this is a good time to discuss combat!

For starters, combat in Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells is a "theater of the mind" affair, utilizing a system of four abstract ranges - close, nearby, far, and distant, instead of inches, hexes, squares, or some other system of measurement to determine movement on a tabletop. I personally prefer this approach, not because I dislike miniatures, but because miniatures can be a huge financial investment and, frankly, I don't have the money to spend on games that I once did. If you, too, are gaming on a budget, this may be something of a selling point.

Time is measured in two ways - Action Time and Narrative time, with Action Time being the focus here (Narrative Time is time outside of combat, measured in turns of roughly 10 minutes, though the referee can extend such turns to accommodate any larger scale they see fit). Action Time is broken up into rounds, each of which lasts roughly 10 seconds and during which I think a character can take one action. I couldn't actually find the number of actions a character is allowed to take during a round of Action Time explicitly stated. This is a small oversight, though one you may wish to rule on as the referee before play actually begins, so your players will be aware of it.

Initiative in Action Time is determined by the number of Hit Dice combatants have, though whether combatants act in ascending or descending order of HD isn't actually stated in the rules (I'm going to assume it's from highest to lowest). If a player character has the same number of HD as an enemy opponent, then the player character's Agility is tested (per the basic mechanic) and, with a success, they will act before their opponent. If that roll fails, their opponent acts first. If two player characters have the same number of HD, then you are instructed to compare their Agility scores (it doesn't actually tell you what to do after that but, again, I'm assuming that the highest value acts first) or make an Agility test if they have the same Agility rating. And here, I'm going to provide my first real critique of Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells.

To be frank, I find the process(es) for determining initiative over-complicated and think there are a lot of ambiguities therein. I'm not a fan of guessing what the designer is thinking instead of having specifics spelled out, especially in a product that I've paid actual monies for. That said, it's a relatively small sin and, so long as your players trust in you to make consistent judgments, it probably won't be an issue during actual play. On the other hand, if they are sticklers for playing games by the Rules As Written, you may want to go over this section of the rules with them beforehand and decide as a group on how you'll fill in the blanks (because there are blanks).

Player character attacks are resolved by rolling a test against either Physique (for melee attacks) or Agility (for ranged attacks), and can be modified by range (melee attacks may only be made in close range and ranged attacks gain a Negative Die when made in close or distant range). Further, powerful enemy opponents are harder to hit than a normal enemy. Enemy opponents merely need to roll above a character's Agility score to land a blow in combat and, again, powerful opponents gain an advantage. Finally, attack rolls can be either Critical Hits or Fumbles, though I'll dispense with discussing the mechanics for such things in depth here as they're nothing remarkable (just be aware that they are included, if you're a fan of such things).

Player characters deal damage (in the form of Hit Points subtracted from their opponent's Hit Point total) per the weapon they wield (as previously discussed) or spells they cast (as I'll discuss in short order), while enemy opponents deal damage (also subtracted from their target's Hit Point total) based on how many Hit Dice they have. Specifically, the referee rolls a given number and type of dice for enemies to determined how much damage they inflict in combat, with low HD enemies inflicting less damage and high HD enemies dealing more. You may find this latter method of determining damage dealt by enemies as being similar to that found in The Black Hack and it is, but it's also a perfect fit for Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells. I really like this method of distinguishing enemies from player characters, as it allows me to easily create opponents on the fly (and many of them, should the need arise).

Enemy opponents, when reduced to zero Hit Points, are dead. Player characters, on the other hand, have a chance to survive if they are reduced to zero Hit Points, when they are considered to be unconscious and dying. If they receive any kind of aid within an hour, their player may make a Luck Roll to see if they survive. If this roll is successful, the character immediately regains 1d4 Hit Points, but gains a Negative Die to all actions for the next hour and permanently loses a point of Physique or Agility. If the Luck Roll fails, the character is dead.

I like that the rules for death in Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells afford heroes a chance to survive, without making survival a foregone conclusion. Also, I like that these rules make being heavily injured in combat carry lasting consequences even if one does survive. While these rules for death are pretty heavily inspired by Dungeons & Dragons (and, I think, particularly the 5th Edition of that system), they vary enough for me to call them out here. They're simple yet effective and show that combat is something to be taken seriously. Especially given the rules for healing.

What about healing? Well, there just isn't any magic healing. Period. Magic, being the product of pure chaos is, as it turns out, not great at mending broken things. Including characters. No, instead, injured characters regain lost Hit Points by resting. There are two kinds of rest - Short Rests and Long Rests. Short Rests take about 10 minutes and, if completed, a character's player makes a Physique test with a difficulty modifier equal to the number of short rests already taken that day. If successful, they regain 1d4 Hit Points. Long Rests take a full day in a protected place away from danger and, if completed, automatically allow a rested character to regain one Hit Die in Hit Points and recover one point of an attribute score that has been diminished (two points, with a successful Physique test).

Magic in Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells is, as hinted at above.... sinister. Specifically, magic is the product of pure chaos; powerful but very, very, dangerous. Where casting spells is often (but, in fairness, not always) a fire and forget affair in many classic fantasy roleplaying games, here the player of the casting character needs to make a Willpower test with a difficulty modifier equal to the spell's Power Level in order to successfully cast a spell (more powerful spells are, appropriately, harder to cast). Slip up (i.e., fail a roll) while casting a spell? You risk losing the ability to cast that spell for a day or allow the referee to introduce a complication of their choosing. Roll a result of natural 20, a Fumble? You suffer a randomly rolled spell catastrophe (some of these catastrophes are more catastrophic then others). There are a few other considerations when casting spells, but the above is the core of the spell casting system in Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells. So, what about the spells themselves?

There is a list of spells, naturally, but I'm a bit conflicted about it. On one hand, the spell list presents a good mix of both combat spells and non-combat spells, which is great. On the other hand, I see a missed opportunity here to make the actual spells.... more chaos-y, I guess. Don't get me wrong - several of the spells here are notably sinister takes on classic fantasy roleplaying game spells (e.g., the spell for opening locks, the aptly named Blood Key, requires the caster to sacrifice physical attribute points for each lock opened). The issue is that a large number of spells aren't really that sinister or chaotic. This isn't a big enough issue to warrant a strike against the game in my opinion, but it is something I thought worth mentioning. Creative referees will no doubt be able to add to this list or alter it as they see fit.

Magic items, on the other hand, are handled wonderfully - they're ultra-rare, grant relatively benign advantages to their users, and will probably twist their minds, bodies, or both in horrible, chaotic, ways. The actual rules leave the specific advantages and consequences of using magic items up to the referee, but I feel that this is appropriate, lest magic items be cookie cutter rewards on a list that players can become too familiar with. Magic items should, in my opinion, be unique - and Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells ensures that they will be.

Now, I've already discussed the specifics of how opponents work at some length, though there are two more features that deserve some attention - Reaction and Morale. These mechanics will definitely be familiar to those of you that have played classic fantasy roleplaying games, though I felt them worth mentioning in this review as I think that they're both awesome and underutilized in the majority of modern games that I have played.

Reaction refers to the disposition of potential opponents when encountered by player characters - depending upon the result of a 2d6 roll, they may be hostile or even friendly toward player characters. This makes encounters with opponents unpredictable and, more importantly, also makes potential opponents more than just two-dimensional walking bags of Hit Points to be destroyed on sight (although you can still totally play them like that and I won't think less of you for doing so).

Morale refers to the determination of enemy opponents to fight to the death (or their desire to flee, if you prefer). Unsurprisingly, most intelligent opponents won't just stand there and let you murderize them if they feel the tide of the fight turning against them. To determine whether opponents attempt to flee, surrender, or otherwise avoid continuing the fight, the referee makes a Morale test, rolling 1d20 and comparing the result to the opponent's HD+10. If he rolls higher, the opponent will attempt to get out while the getting is good.

Finally, the last word on the subject of enemy opponents is, perhaps predictably, a bestiary. Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells draws heavily from The Black Hack where the bestiary format is concerned, though I feel that the bestiary here better reflects a world of Swords & Sorcery than one of traditional High Fantasy, as is the case with The Black Hack. Further, I feel that the special abilities of opponents in the Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells bestiary seem more unique than those in The Black Hack bestiary. Of course, these observations may be entirely subjective and I may be entirely wrong (it has been known to happen). On a more objective note, the facts are that a bestiary is present and it does fulfill the role that a bestiary is intended to fulfill which, I suppose, is the important thing.

Waaaaaaaaaaay back near the beginning of this review, I mentioned character advancement. Well, here we are! It may be no surprise that characters in Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells grow by gaining levels, and the way these gains are implemented is similar to the way they are handled in The Black Hack. First, each adventure completed by a player character counts toward level advancement, with a specific number of levels being needed to gain a level (e.g., characters need to complete two adventures to reach Level 2). Second, every time a character gains a level, they also gain a Hit Die and you get to make an Improvement Roll for a chosen attribute, as well as their Prime Attributes (I told you these would be important). An Improvement Roll is simply a straight d20 roll, with the objective being to roll higher than the attribute score in question. If successful, you get to increase that attribute score by one point.

So, that's about it, with the exception of an appendix consisting of random tables for sparking adventure ideas, which is neat but I'm not entirely sure how to review.

Final Verdict:

There is a lot of meat here for the asking price of Pay What You Want (so, potentially free, but I'm here to tell you it's worth paying for). Despite some rough edges (particularly with regard to determining acting order in combat), Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells has a lot to recommend it if you're looking for a rules-medium fantasy RPG and especially if you're looking for a rules-medium Open Game Licence RPG. That's right! Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells is released under the OGL, meaning that you can hack it to your heart's content, legally! Seriously, give this game a look.


  1. Thanks a lot for taking a loot at my game, James! I am glad it was to your liking!

    Have you checked the Addendum yet?

    I am also Publishing a science fantasy version of the game called Solar Blades & Cosmic Spells (and all the rules come with examples now, yey)!


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