Backswords & Bucklers

Backswords & Bucklers


While trying to select the product I wanted to review first, I decided to make things easier on myself and choose something about which I can think of almost nothing negative to say.

In the words of the publisher Tied to a Kite Games

“Backswords & Bucklers is a new, completely self-contained Swords & Wizardry: Whitebox variant, a framework designed to run Fantasy Elizabethan games.

Inspired by works such as Michael Moorcock’s Gloriana and Sir Walter Scott’s Kennilworth, Backswords & Bucklers is a game of adventure set in Gloriana’s Britain. The basic game contains complete rules for the game with Fighting Man, Scoundrel and Wise Woman classes, and focusses on running games set in the Underworld of London; where Dungeon Delving is replaced with Tavern Trawling. It contains a modified combat system, appropriate weaponry (including matchlocks) and money, sample magic items and tables to inspire the referee with ideas for jobs; as well as a sample tavern complete with rumours and a short adventure.”

A serviceable enough description for an elevator pitch, but it doesn’t quite explain why, I at least, am so enamored of this little game. So I’ll use it as a framework to organize my paean of praise.

Backswords & Bucklers (hereafter B&B, with apologies to that venerable game about rabbits) is a S&W Whitebox variant but one which has ruthlessly stripped out or changed everything in that already sparse ruleset that didn’t serve its stated purpose of running “Fantasy Elizabethan” games. Specifically, urban underworld “Heist and Job” games.

The standard setup for the game is to have the protagonists be a sort of freelance deniable ops unit, or in the words of the game, a group of “Basterds for Hiyer,” which maintains a sort of unofficial office in a local tavern or public house.

With very little effort one could profitably swipe and re-skin plots from Cyberpunk, Leverage, or even Shadowrun… But that won’t be necessary as B&B contains a “roll all the dice” table in the main rulebook (as well as an entire supplement, Tavern Trawling,) designed to rapidly generate all the necessary elements of such a plot, right down to the identity of the, quite possibly two-faced “Mr. Johnson” seeking to retain our “heroes” services.

The three classes available in the core game are simple yet flavorful. An interesting spin that I’ve not seen in another OD&D derived game is that each only gains experience from performing actions relevant to their niche, which can occasionally drive play in intriguing ways.

The combat system has perhaps undergone the greatest amount of revision from Whitebox. AC has been completely thrown out. Armour reduces damage while the target number to hit an aware and mobile opponent is determined by adding their BaB to 10, thus making fighter types even nastier in a stand up fight. Hit Points are very much a measure of a character’s ability to avoid being meaningfully struck and recover comparatively quickly. Any attack which reduces a character to zero (called a “downright blow”) will, depending on the type of weapon involved, incapacitate, gravely wound, or kill the character outright. Serious wounds will need to be treated by a “Wise Woman/Cunning Man” or perhaps the local barber. If the wounded character manages to survive such treatment, recovery will keep them sidelined for weeks.

B&B is low prep, quick playing, with rules that while nearly as light weight as David Black’s excellent The Black Hack (which I’m sure I’ll get around to writing about in the not too distant future) still manage to convey a substantial amount of flavor.

At the outset I said I could think of almost nothing negative to say, so here’s the almost.
The game is playable straight out of the core book, and there have been a very worthwhile supplement and an adventure issued, making for a wonderfully complete experience… but near the back of the core book is printed:

“The following volumes are planned for this series:
Men of Magic: Introducing the Magic-User class and its various specialities;
including Sorcery, Alchemy, Demonology and Clockwork.

Tavern Trawling: Providing expanded Tavern Trawling tables, Tavern generation (and their patrons) and other adventure ideas.
The Company of Maisters: Providing further options for combat and the Fighting Man class, including the ability to progress through the ranks of the Company of Maisters, the body that governs the teaching of defence in Britain.
The Book of Goods: Expanded price lists, and more detail on money.
The Book of Trades: Introducing the Tradesman class and listing a large number of possible trades, including special rules for employing them.
Men of Birth: Introducing the Gentleman class, and the Courtly Intrigue tables for a different style of campaign.
Men of the Sea: Introducing the Seaman class, and rules for exploring the rest of the world by sea.”

And folks, I’d really love to get my hands on some of those books.

When the worst thing I can honestly say about a product is that I want more, I’d call that a ringing endorsement, especially when the core book can be had for free as a PDF. So if you haven’t already, go grab a copy, take a look, and let me know what you think.

It is my intent to do at least one of these a week on the blog, so please let me know what sort of of information you’d like to see more or less of in future reviews.

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