Swordbearer is part of the glut of fantasy RPGs which came out in the early 1980s – in which I’d include DragonQuest, Powers & Perils, Rolemaster, Palladium Fantasy, and The Fantasy Trip. Sure, there’d been a sprinkling of new fantasy RPGs over the course of the 1970s, but it does seem like there was a little bubble around 1980-1983, especially at the upper end of the market – you can see for yourself on the year-by-year breakdown on John Kim’s highly useful RPG encyclopedia.
Why this would be the case you can ascribe to a number of factors; the spike in the commercial fortunes of D&D with the release of the mega-popular Basic Set in its different versions (Holmes, Moldvay, and Mentzer’s iterations doing increasingly well) made it clear that there was a gravy train to catch if you could write a suitable ticket.
At the same time, the success of RuneQuest demonstrated that there was a hunger in the market for fresher, more innovative fantasy RPGs, a hunger which was perhaps exacerbated by the release at the end of the 1970s of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. The Basic Set was explicitly for beginners, and those who looked past it to B/X D&D would find a game which was essentially a clarified restatement of OD&D – hardly something to satisfy the appetites of gamers dissatisfied with the same old way of doing things – and AD&D, whilst tremendously popular, was also rarely played rules-as-written.
Those who were entirely happy with some version of D&D for fantasy genre roleplaying were unlikely to be lured away, but even from the game’s early days there were folk especially when TSR was keeping them occupied with a constant flow of content, but with RuneQuest demonstrating that you could have a perfectly good fantasy RPG without many of D&D‘s sacred cows, it became evident that there was a demand for fantasy RPGs with more cohesive, polished, and modern rules than early D&D‘s idiosyncratic hodge-podge of different rules systems spun out of spot rulings, which AD&D had done little to harmonise. Games like RuneQuest and Traveller already made AD&D‘s nigh-total lack of a unified skill system or resolution mechanic seem a bit old-fashioned already, and the fact that many games in this new wave would have just those features suggests that they were the new hotness when it came to design.
Swordbearer was Heritage Miniatures’ 1982 contribution to this field, and was primarily designed by B. Dennis Sustare, otherwise famous for Bunnies & Burrows. A minor credit is given to Arnold Hendrick, who was part of the management team at Heritage at the time; one suspects his major contribution is a note on the first page strongly advocating the use of miniatures with the game, given the company’s primary focus.
From the perspective of a miniatures company, it would have likely made sense to put out their own RPG rules to stimulate the sales of their fantasy miniatures line, just as you’d have your own Napoleonic rules to help promote the sales of your Napoleonic miniatures but not sweat it too much if people were using your models for other games, so long as they’re buying the minis. As it stands, Heritage did not survive very long after the release of Swordbearer, but Fantasy Games Unlimited would put out a new edition (though I see little evidence that it isn’t just the first edition with an updated format) and, thanks to Scott Bizar making as much of the FGU line as he still has the rights to available for purchase via PDF, this is the version of the game which is easiest to get these days.
The FGU version would come out in 1985, which is notable because that’s the year after they flat-out gave up on producing any new material for Chivalry & Sorcery; 1984 had only seen them put out the adventures The Dragon Lord and The Songsmith. It seems like FGU had decided that Chivalry & Sorcery had run its course, despite the comparatively plush presentation (and welcome clarification) of its second edition. This made it an apt time to bring Swordbearer into the product line, since pivoting to Swordbearer would at least mean FGU weren’t splitting their efforts between two games which were essentially competing with each other. They even actually put out a little support material for it – Arnold Hendrick’s Dwarven Halls supplement – which is a pretty clear indication that they had some hopes for the line at first.
Alas, it seems like it was not to be – but Swordbearer is still worth a look despite its commercial abandonment and the apparent lack of a fan community. (It absolutely baffles me that this game doesn’t seem to have much of a fan community but Powers & Perils, of all the goddamn things, still does.) Although FGU tends to have a reputation for presenting quite complex games, Swordbearer is what I’d consider an example of “good complexity” – Sustare having sound judgement on where a little complexity would be useful, where to leave it out, and where to put it in but signpost it as optional. Moreover, it includes a number of system ideas which were ahead of their time – it’s certainly no fantasy heartbreaker.
In some of its essential ideas, Swordbearer shows the influence of RuneQuest. Like RuneQuest, it avoids pigeonholing characters into character classes – Sustare goes out of the way to mention that he hasn’t specifically hardwired a “cleric”-type role into the game because the role of religion in society, its relationship to magic, and the general skills and capabilities of priests are setting questions for the referee to decide.
Like RuneQuest, it has a percentile-based skill system to form the basis of action resolution, with your baseline percentages determined based on your attributes (and opportunities to increase skills through usage as in RuneQuest), but it excludes some skills from this system: it makes the entirely reasonable point that in some areas of expertise it’s not so much a matter of “how well can you exercise this skill?” and more a matter of “do you possess this knowledge or don’t you?”, so some skills work on a “Yes/No” basis: if you have the skill, you succeed at the endeavours it covers, if you don’t you can’t attempt them.
Like RuneQuest, it takes the view that any thinking creature is a character in its own right, rather than a mere monster, and offers an interesting range of playable entities. There’s even a parallel in terms of offering a whimsical “cute fuzzy animal gets a badass humanoid version in the game” option: where RuneQuest has its iconic ducks, Swordbearer has Bunrabs – rabbit people, in other words, appropriately enough given Sustare was the mind behind Bunnies & Burrows.
In other respects, Swordbearer takes an interestingly different approach. Character generation involves a certain amount of point-buy, an approach which The Fantasy Trip and Champions had pioneered, and there’s a nice approach to encouraging a certain amount of useful specialisation: outside of combat skills, all the skills are arranged into different “spheres” representing broad categories of professional expertise, and as part of character generation you choose two of these to represent what you’ve been doing with your life prior to game start: buying skills within your specialist spheres is cheaper at character generation than buying out-of-sphere skills. This allows much more freedom than a strict class-based system (especially the rather rigid, choice-free classes D&D boasted in this era), but helps encourage sufficient specialisation to avoid spreading your options too diffusely.
There’s also a social status system in place of in-game currency. Eliminating all the book-keeping necessary to keep track of every copper piece an adventurer’s toting around, characters simply have a social status rating, and items have corresponding social statuses. If you have the social status, you can afford to buy the item, and if the adventure is taking place at your home you are assumed to be able to quickly get your hands on anything which would be within your ability to afford. This is reminiscent of the purchasing system which Fantasy Flight Games would use in the Rogue Trader RPG.
Rather than having a laboriously detailed encumbrance system, when you go travelling you just have a set limit of 10 items you can take with you when you set off. (Some items, such as clothing, don’t count to this total.) This is a massive simplification – and a welcome one – compared to other games of the era which required extensive bookkeeping of encumbrance (or, in practice, had people ignore the limitations of personal carrying capacity altogether).
The flashiest and most often commented-on aspect of the system is the magic system, which is based around seeking and exploiting “nodes” of magical energy. This is not only kind of interesting and innovative in its own right, but it also provides a neat motivation for magic-users to go adventure – those nodes aren’t just going to fall into their lap, after all!
As far as Dwarven Halls goes, it’s a brief module offering a broad description of a human-dominated land and a detailed description of a nearby culture of dwarves. It’s quite nice that Hendrick recognises that culture reflects broad generalisations, rather than confining requirements, and that any culture will have individuals who don’t follow its baseline assumptions. One nice thing he does is give NPC stats both for notable individuals and for general types of character, and the statlines for general categories specify gender in terms of which gender in the culture in question typically ascribes the profession in question to, rather than making it a universal rule – for instance, dwarven metalworkers are usually male, but right next to the entry for average metalworkers is a writeup of a master metalsmith who is a woman, and the clan leaders are a mixture of men and women. That’s pretty good going for 1985.
Hendrick also points out that much of the information in the supplement would, in other games, ordinarily be the purview of referees only, but gives rules for how players in Swordbearer games can buy the appropriate knowledge skills to be able to use this information in-game. This novel idea seems to be a very early implementation of a similar “pay character points for IC information” mechanic used in the likes of Weapons of the Gods and 5th Edition Vampire: the Masquerade.
On the whole, it’s a pity that Swordbearer never managed to get more traction under either of its publishers. It is probably close enough to RuneQuest in its overall approach that most roleplayers seeking a better-engineered fantasy rules set would have just used RuneQuest in preference to it, but some of its original ideas mark it out as a pioneering system and demonstrate that Sustare was a pretty capable game designer – certainly much more capable of recognising and implementing a genuine improvement to the standard fantasy RPG framework than the authors of many heartbreakers. So far as I am concerned, the only heartbreaking thing about Swordbearer is its obscurity.