Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Mini-Interview: Matt Finch

I recently had the opportunity to ask a few quick questions of Matt Finch, who wrote the Core Rules for Swords & Wizardry retro-clone RPG.

Jim: What motivated you to develop Swords & Wizardry? Why the three different rules-sets? How did that evolve/happen?

Matt: Most people think of Original D&D in one of two ways: either as the first three books of the original boxed set, or as the full set of books and supplements. In between those two extremes, there's a third significant step which happened with Supplement 1: Greyhawk. The Greyhawk supplement made a fundamental adjustment to the underlying rules of the game, shifting lots of the numbers upward from a d6 into the full range of polyhedral dice. Weapons and monsters did different amounts of damage rather than 1d6, and character classes suddenly got different-sized hit dice. Unlike add-on elements that came in later supplements, such as new character classes, monsters, magic items, etc., this particular change was structural. It created a true second version of OD&D, for all intents and purposes. When I started working on Swords & Wizardry, to create an OD&D clone, one of my primary motivators was the creator of the Knights & Knaves Alehouse, a gentleman named Jerry Mapes. Jerry's health was failing, and one of the things he regretted was that his preferred version of D&D, which was OD&D, hadn't gotten a retro-clone to allow publishers to pick it up and create resources for it. With his help, I started working on Swords & Wizardry. My first effort focused on that middle version of the game, the post-Greyhawk structure in which the numbers have been ramped up (along with various other alterations made in that supplement), but not containing all of the sub-classes that were added in the later supplements. This is how I ran my games, and I've discovered that it's actually a pretty common point where OD&D gamers settle. Tim Kask, for example, also runs his game at the "3 books + GH" spot.

Anyway, that was the first version, the Core Rules. Jerry wasn't very happy with them, though. He was a WhiteBox player, and one of the things he really liked about OD&D was the simplicity of the way it worked BEFORE those structural changes took place with the Greyhawk supplement. So (since Jerry's health by this time effectively prevented him from writing), he suggested that Marv Breig would be a good partner to work with on creating a "WhiteBox" version of the game. Since I prefer the Core/Greyhawk version of the rules, I wasn't confident that I could reproduce the magic-of-simplicity that Jerry was seeing in the WhiteBox rules. Marv did a phenomenal job of creating the WhiteBox rules, working backward from my Core Rules to excise out the Greyhawk influences and then to flesh it back out into a true version of WhiteBox-style OD&D.

That's how the first two versions of the game developed.

The third, "Complete Rulebook" version was driven by the fact that neither the WhiteBox nor the Core Rules of Swords & Wizardry contained "everything." At the point in time just before TSR changed tracks toward the idea of a comprehensive, official set of rules (AD&D), OD&D had developed into a far more fleshed-out game than it was at the time of the Greyhawk supplement. Rangers and illusionists had appeared in the Strategic Review, monks and druids had appeared in later supplements, and the overall set of options was relatively close to what would become AD&D. Many S&W players wanted to try out the OD&D rules at full throttle, with all the whistles and bells that came in right up until the change-over to AD&D. When Bill Webb and I made contact about working together with Frog God Games, the opportunity to produce a "Complete" version became possible. It's very popular, especially with players who began with AD&D rather than OD&D, because it has most of what they consider to be core elements of the game without the layer of additional complexity that was added in the OD&D to AD&D shift.

Jim: Your 'Quick Primer for Old School Play' remains an excellent introduction for potential new players, or for DMs/referees looking to try-out an old school rules-set like OD&D. What was the hardest part of writing the Primer?

Matt: I took my best shot at that with the Old School Primer. It's very hard to put DM advice into words, because it intellectualizes something that doesn't actually happen at a theoretical level.

Jim: How is an old school 'referee' different from what is currently expected of a 'DM'?

Matt: The task is the same; the musical instrument is what's different. A technique that works best with one musical instrument may be a "bad habit" when playing a different instrument. There is a generally different approach used when playing a game that has very abstract and open-ended rules from the approach taken when playing a game with a more comprehensive set of rules. In both cases, the task is to bring life to the imaginary situations that arise in the game, but the tools are different.

Jim: There seems to be a lot of emphasis on the Pulps (Conan, Elak, Thongor, Bran Mak Morn, etc.) and the Weird (HPL, Clark Ashton Smith, etc.) in many old school games/rules-sets, why do you think that is?

Matt: I'm not sure it's true, at least not if the point of comparison is Tolkien. I think old-schoolers are focusing on those elements because they offer a lot of ground that hasn't been covered, as opposed to the Tolkienesque elements which were so comprehensively adopted into "official" D&D that they have become "standard."

In terms of my preferences for the literary inspirations for D&D, I tend to be a stick-in-the-mud. :) I like what's already there without really feeling the need to seek out new approaches to it. I think that my own campaigns tend to be more along the lines of Vance and Leiber, but that's because they tend to focus on lots of unique and strange things, both individuals and places. They are strange without really crossing all the way into a different genre.

Thanks again to the Matt Finch for taking time out from his very busy schedule to do this mini-interview. Good luck with the marathons!

Swords & Wizardry WhiteBox ruleshttp://www.swordsandwizardry.com/?page_id=6
Swords & Wizardry Core ruleshttp://www.swordsandwizardry.com/?page_id=4

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