Simon Washbourne, who puts his material out under the Beyond Belief Games name, might be mostly known for Barbarians of Lemuria (which has an original system), but he has a fine sideline in Dungeons & Dragons reskins. I’ve previously reviewed Woodland Warriors, his Swords & Wizardry-powered take on Redwall; some time after producing that line, Washbourne seems to have found himself bitten by the Swords & Wizardry bug again, leading to the creation of a triptych of games all coming out in June of that year.
(It didn’t stop there – in August Washbourne would put out Stone & Wood, an adaptation of Swords & Wizardry to the setting of the Thomas Covenant books following in the footsteps of his D20 take on the setting, Chronicles of the Land. But whilst, like the three games reviewed here, Stone & Wood was released as a free PDF, Washbourne has wisely not tried to actually sell hard copies of his Stephen Donaldson-inspired fan works, whereas these three games have printed copies available via lulu.com).
Each of these games combined some handy innovations over baseline Swords & Wizardry with features unique to the game in question in order to adapt it to a genre distinct from standard D&D fantasy. As such, it’s worth taking a look at each to see what they have to offer.
Blood & Bullets
This is easily the sparsest of these three games, its page count barely reaching the low 30s (and that’s including the obligatory regurgitation of the OGL). It also, to me, feels the least necessary, since superior Wild West-themed games drawing on older editions of D&D are available – Washbourne wrote one himself as a Woodland Warriors supplement, TSR’s Boot Hill stripped out classes and levels but betrayed some very D&D-esque mechanics if you poked around in there, and so on.
As the first of these games published, it seems likely that Blood & Bullets was the first written, and it does seem to serve as a testbed for ideas which later become central to the two subsequent games. The most significant development here, reiterated over the other two, is Washbourne’s brainwave of turning Swords & Wizardry‘ s single-save system into a substitute for a skill system.
The single-save system is one of Swords & Wizardry‘s rare moments of innovation. I don’t mean that in a bad way, mind – it’s just that as a retroclone S&W isn’t really expected to innovate, but combining all the eccentric saving throw categories of TSR-era D&D into a single score (tied to class and level), with situational penalties or bonuses applied where emulation of early D&D really cries out for it is a sharp move.
Where Washbourne’s inventive contribution comes in is combining that with a 3E-style approach to attributes, where each of your six attributes generates a bonus or penalty from -3 to +3. This devises a neat universal action resolution system for D&D without going to the extent of grafting on a skill system, which would add an additional layer of crunch: simply decide which attribute suits an action best, roll and apply the appropriate bonus or penalty, and see if you beat your saving throw target. Combat is unchanged, and some class abilities are automatic whilst others are triggered by appropriate saving throws.
This does mean that there comes a limit where at a sufficiently high level your saving throw score is so low you rarely fail at anything, and also means that characters who start out with high saving throw scores rarely succeed at much except in combat or areas where high attributes give them an advantage. Early on, then, niche protection is enforced in this way, whilst later on it breaks down but it matters less because everyone is awesome at everything, and Blood & Bullets (along with the others) offers a level scale that runs up to around level 10 and suggests you stop there, though it seems unlikely that many campaigns will last that long.
Offering three broad Western-themed classes – Shootist, Gambler, and Trailblazer – and some vaguely sketched-out adventure generation material, Blood & Bullets has nice mechanical ideas, but unlike the other two games it doesn’t latch on to any ideas stirring or offbeat enough to really make me want to select this over Boot Hill, Aces and 8s, Deadlands or Woodland Warriors: Out West.
Sabres & Witchery
This, however, is more like it! Sabres & Witchery takes the base of modified Swords & Wizardry cooked up for Blood & Bullets and applies it to the concept of wandering monster hunters traipsing around neglected European backwaters somewhere between the mid-1600s to early 1800s. This is a subgenre which Washbourne identifies mostly though its cinematic incarnations, ranging from Hammer-era British horror classics like Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter, Blood On Satan’s Claw and Witchfinder General to more modern iterations like Brotherhood of the Wolf, Van Helsing, or the movie version of Solomon Kane (though he also suggests it could be used for less horror-oriented material like Michael Moorcock’s Von Bek novels or the Pirates of the Caribbean movies).
The classes offered up here are broadly in keeping with this concept. Notably, the Hunter class seems to actually be a purer rendition of the cross-and-stake-wielding vampire hunter archetype than the original Dungeons & Dragons cleric is – which is interesting because the cleric was supposedly inspired by Peter Cushing’s take on Van Helsing. Here, the Hunter enjoys clerical Turn Undead powers, but otherwise is not a spellcasting class; magical and clerical spells are mingled together in a single spell list which is the purview of the Magus, who unlike his D&D brethren can read out spells of any level from books or scrolls in addition to casting their memorised spells – though casting non-memorised spells in this way risks spell failure and accompanying dire consequences.
As well as providing a suitably atmospheric range of classes, Sabres & Witchery also offers a selection of monsters – both originals and D&D stalwarts – given a treatment intended to tease out their folkloric and mythic aspects. Between that and two sample adventures (one of which, by Washbourne, looks genuinely fun, one of which by E.P. Donahue seems a bit railroady and relies on the cardinal sin of making PC inaction and watching NPCs interact the point of the adventure’s climax but gets some points for being based on one of the few Robert E. Howard stories of Solomon Kane to not be based on caricatures of African culture) there’s plenty of material to give you some ideas for setting and atmosphere, though I suspect people won’t be very enthused about this game unless they’ve already encountered some of its influences and dig them; personally, as a shameless fan of Hammer-era costume drama horror, I find it right up my alley.
Ancient Mysteries & Lost Treasures
This is another one which, like Sabres & Witchery, is probably much less exciting if you aren’t into the very specific subgenre it caters to – namely, jetsetting action thrillers with a dash of conspiracy theory and unconventional theories about history, in the vein of the books of Matthew Reilly, movies like National Treasure or games like the Broken Sword point-and-click adventure series. It was Matt Reilly’s name on the back cover which caught my interest in this game and its siblings, actually, because material like his Jack West Jr. series are a guilty pleasure of mine (along with several friends and acquaintances).
AM< describes itself as a game which has only one character class. Some may argue that this effectively means it isn’t class-based at all (though it is level-based), but to be fair to Washbourne it does kind of make sense to regard all PCs as belonging to one particular character class, since it is assumed that all player characters will, broadly speaking, be part of a very specific profession. That is the noble calling of the Adventurer-Scientist, an individual inspired to undertake dangerous missions of exploration for the sake of scientific curiosity. This concept is specific enough to tie you into the particular genre but broad enough to take in characters as diverse as Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon (mostly academic, a bit adventurous) and Matt Reilly’s Jack West Jr. (a little academic, mostly adventurous). (It also means that all the party members probably have the same Saving Throw score, which helps ensure everyone feels included in the sleuthing and science-ing part of the game.)
Character customisation essentially comes down to a feat-like system, although grossly simplified from the implementation of feats in 3E and 4E. When you create your character you get to choose from a list of scientific specialisations (which give you +2 on rolls in which that knowledge could be useful) and class abilities to customise your character, and as you level up you get additional picks. Neatly, this lets players (or groups, if they want to go with a particular group concept) favour or avoid particular powers if they want to steer their PCs in a more academic or a more asskicker direction.
The assumption of the game is that your party of adventurer-scientists are in a race against time to uncover the titular ancient mysteries and lost treasures, with your rivals being members of some sinister conspiracy or other. A range of exciting locations, classic conspiracies (yes, the Illuminati, Cathars, and Knights Templar are all represented) and interesting mysteries and treasures are offered, as well as a sample adventure which riffs on the classic Rennes-les-Chateau mystery which inspired The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. Opponents tend to be wild animals or agents of the conspiracy (ranging from simple goons to elite black ops teams). Again, this whole affair probably seems trite if you don’t dig the source material, but if you are fond of the subgenre you’ll probably like this simply because of the enthusiasm Washbourne himself betrays for it – and the idea of how a single-class D&D-alike presented here could work is interesting in its own right.
If you really like the particular subgenres that these games cater to, or if you want to drop some multiverse-hopping refugees into your Swords & Wizardry campaign, these games are certainly worth a look. Beyond Belief has them up for free download here, and they’re brief enough that even the time investment to read them is modest. For my part, I’ll pass on Blood & Bullets but am glad to own Sabres & Witchery and Ancient Mysteries & Lost Treasures.