Spears & Spells
Spears & Spells is an Old School Renaissance-style RPG. It’s not a narrative game, but… As I read it, I had the impression of an OSR game that went on a few dates with a narrative game, and while still on the OSR side of the world, it seems to have come away from the experience a little changed.
It’s not a retro-clone but is clearly from the same family. While inspired by Old School Renaissance games, Spears & Spells does things a little differently, setting it apart from other games in this genre. Most Old School Renaissance games are extremely close to one or more incarnations of D&D. Spears & Spells is close enough to games like Swords & Wizardry that you could likely convert adventures for that game on the fly; a Spears & Spells character is quite different from a D&D or Swords & Wizardry character.
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The book begins with a short discussion of design principles. Though this isn’t a complicated game, it does assume basic familiarity with roleplaying games. Like many other Old School Renaissance (OSR) games, it emphasizes player skill as being important, if not more so, than character skill. The game’s core mechanic is task resolution, which involves rolling one or more d6s, attempting to roll below the character’s stat. A character’s initial stat range is 3 to 18.
Spears & Spells is a player-facing game and expressly encourages “failing forward” with failed rolls progressing the story forward with complications. This design choice also means that players will roll their attempts to avoid being hit when characters are in combat—referees do not roll. In a reasonably lite game such as this, foes have minimal stats like Health Points, difficulty to hit, and damage dealt per attack (recalling that characters need to roll to avoid being hit). Task difficulty ranges from 2d6 (easy) to 5d6 (sheer folly). The more difficult the task is, the more dice rolled. Equipment and combat are handled extremely abstractly—characters default to doing 1d6 damage with weapons, spells, etc., being treated as a sort of “gateway” to attacking in specific ways. Oddly, it reminded me of Fate’s Aspects, something I’m a little surprised to be writing in an OSR review.
Characters in Spears & Spells have four self-explanatory stats: Brawn, Agility, Smarts, and Spirit. Although there are no classes, each character starts with 1d6 Talents (with rolls of 1 treated as 2). Talents grant bonuses to rolls under certain circumstances; they also give access to supernatural abilities, among other benefits. Health Points start at the average of Brawn and Spirit.
Talents are an essential part of character customization. Depending on the Talents chosen, you can create something resembling a wizard, a thief, etc. I find making the number of Talents random an odd choice as it can lead to a large variance of characters and a general disparity of abilities.
While classless, the game has levels, with characters leveling up whenever the group feels it is time. Leveling up gives you three specific improvements:
- Gain 1d6 Health Points
- Gain 1 new Talent
- Try to improve a stat – it improves by one if the result of a 3d6 roll is greater than the stat’s value.
Characters accumulate treasure in the form
s of wealth and magic items. Given the game’s abstraction around equipment, I’m uncertain there’s much need for coins and gems, but magic items remain helpful in gameplay. There are guidelines for converting other OSR magic items and generating your own such items.
The game ends with a sample adventure, “Oxius’s Tower,“ dealing with the characters’ brief wilderness journey to a magical tower partially occupied by bandits. It’s a fairly straightforward adventure but nicely done and would make for an enjoyable session of play.
This review is limited to the PDF version. However, A print-on-demand version is also available. Spears & Spells is a brief game with 64 pages, including covers. The text and artwork are all in black and white, with an art style I’d best describe as variable quality. The book includes art from six artists, all with different styles. Some illustrations look akin to notebook doodles, while others have better eye appeal and are highly detailed and well-executed. The PDF is bookmarked, though with many strange artifacts – several bookmarks per page with names like “_3x6gf3piss8g”.
Is this a game for you? One of the things I wrestled with while reading Spears & Spells was thinking about who it was for. If you’re looking for a straight OSR game that clones or greatly resembles older versions of D&D, it’s probably not for you.
In my introduction, I mentioned getting some impressions from the narrative side of the gaming world. While there’s nothing so rigid as the Aspects and Stunts of Fate, if you’re at your best letting descriptions trigger an effect, this likely has something to offer you. Otherwise, you might find it difficult differentiating the archer who does 1d6 damage with their standard attack from the martial artist or spellcaster who does the same.
Some of the decisions the game makes are not ones I’d have made. For example, I referred to the random number of Talents. Like most old-school games, adjustments are easy enough to make. I’d say you’d have to be comfortable fine-tuning and adjusting the game on your own, whether on the fly or with some preplanning.
While I cannot pinpoint any significant or revolutionary takeaways on gaming, I do find myself walking away with some interesting ideas. It’s probably not my go-to for old-school fantasy, but I’d gladly join in a game of it
~ Daniel Stack
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