Sword World 2.5: An Overview, Part One

Sword World 2.5
You have come to a World of Swords! ::swordcrack::

This is a review (more of an “opinionated overview,” really) of the Japanese role-playing game Sword World 2.5 (aka ソード・ワールド2.5). This review is based on the heroic work of the Sword World Translation Project who can be found on Reddit and Discord, if you so desire. I’m not any part of their project, but they’re pretty cool.

I thought when I started this that I was just gonna do a quick skim, since the full fan translation is already available for free online (Google Drive link). But the more I dug into it, the more I found to write about. Sigh. Please enjoy the following word salad, and I hope it makes you want to look at the real thing.

Chief translator Auquid’s YouTube channel has a lot of good beginner information about how to play, so check it out if you’re not put off by text-to-speech narration.

Beware! If you’re the sort of person who bounces off of anything with manga- or anime-style art, this one will springboard you into low orbit. Please read advisedly.

Game History

Flashback time! ::waving hands:: Deedlit Deedlit Deedlit

Sword World traces its lineage all the way back to the original Japanese printing of BECMI D&D in 1985. A Japanese gaming group called Syntax Error played a D&D campaign and transcribed their sessions, to demonstrate how those newfangled role-playing games work. These transcripts were serialized in a computer magazine from 1986 to 1988, proving that nerds know nerds.

The DM, a writer named Ryo Mizuno, thought, hey, this could work as a novel. So he wrote a fictionalized account of his games titled War Chronicles of Lodoss Island. Poor English translation turned this into Record of Lodoss War.

It was a giant hit. Western-style fantasy had never really gotten much popular traction in Japan before, so it hit Japanese culture in the late 80’s the way Tolkein hit the English-speaking world in the 60’s. The Lodoss series became a phenomenon, and many more successful novels, movies, manga, anime, video games, spinoffs, etc. followed.

Syntax Error, now Group SNE, pitched an official RoLW setting for D&D. TSR laughed them out of the room. Group SNE made up their own rules system with blackjack and hookers and published the Record of Lodoss War Companion in 1988. This version felt like a weird union of D&D and RuneQuest, with a stodgy percentile dice mechanic. Later, they invented a more streamlined 2d6 system and released Sword World TTRPG, still set in the world of RoLW, in 1989. It’s been the #1 Japanese-made fantasy role-playing game ever since.

In 2008, Group SNE threw out the aging RoLW-related setting for a new world called Raxia, added a whole slew of new races and abilities, and published Sword World 2.0. A decade later they released Sword World 2.5, which is mostly backward compatible with 2.0 but smooths out various exploits and power bumps.

The setting of SW2+ feels more whimsical and varied than SW1.0. I’ve seen SW2.0 described in tone as Final Fantasy to SW1.0’s DragonQuest.

The Books

The game as she is (dis)played

Sword World 2.5 Rulebooks
The Three Nakama

SW2.5 has three core rulebooks. Book I introduces the basics and gives enough info to play up to level 6. Book II eases in some more complex game concepts, adds new races and classes, and includes spells/techniques/feats/etc. up to level 10. Book III does the same up to level 15. Anyone who ever played BECMI D&D will immediately see parallels.

The physical books are published in bunko format, which is A6 size (about 4″ by 6″) and softcover, and cost 990 yen (about $7.50) apiece. All three books run over 400 pages each. Interior art is black-and-white and rather sparse. This lies in stark contrast to most Western publishers’ tendency to make core books big, slick, flashy, and expensive. The low economic bar to entry probably contributes to the game’s continued popularity.

Each book is divided into five parts: Characters, Game Rules, Data (spell lists, combat feats, weapons lists, etc.), World, and Game Mastery. There’s no separate MM/Bestiary or GM’s Handbook or anything like that. Books I and II complement each other very well, and together feel like a complete game. Book III, while still packed, feels more like a higher-level appendix.

The World part of each book deepens the lore with history and descriptions of the regions of the continent of Alfleim. Book I highlights the Burlight Region, which is pretty fantasy-generic. Book II introduces the Dorden Region, a prairie criss-crossed by magic-punk railroads. Book III adds several northern territories that were ravaged by a joint monster-daemon invasion called the Diabolic Triumph.

Game Mastery sections include a mini-adventure that highlights the new concepts introduced in that book, and a whole bunch of monster listings. There are over 280 monsters described across all three books, which doesn’t even include “bossified” versions the GM can create by infusing them with sword shards.

While it’s nice that a group can just grab the first book to get started, in practice there are problems. Some classes have gaps in Book I that only get backfilled when they introduce more advanced rules in later books. The most egregious example is the Conjurer class, which, if you only go by the information in Book I, is way underpowered compared to other magical traditions. When you get to Book II, only then do you discover that Conjurers can create golems and undead minions. Just, y’know, oh HERE’s the big deal with that class. Hope you haven’t been struggling to be useful!

The books do cram a lot of information in a small space, with plenty of examples and flowcharts. They also tend to explain everything very, very precisely. Every description feels like someone’s trying to head off rules lawyers at the pass. If you prefer loose, broad-stroke game systems, this one may not resonate with you.

The System

Pull out the Yahtzee box, it’s time to play Sword World

Characters have six ability scores: Dexterity, Agility, Strength, Vitality, Intelligence, and Spirit, on a roughly D&D-esque scaling. Each race generates scores in different ways, which we’ll get to later. For now, just know that some scores can go way above 18. Each ability score also has a Modifier, found by dividing by 6 and rounding down.

SW2.5 uses a super simple system for skill resolution: 2d6 + relevant Class Level + relevant Ability Modifier versus a Target Number provided by the GM. Ties always go to the passive side. Rolling 12 is an automatic success and 2 is an automatic failure. Anyone who rolls a 2 gains 50 XP instantly.

I just said that

Most skill checks are class-based. For instance, a Pickpocket check adds your Scout Class Level plus your Dexterity Modifier. You can attempt skill checks if you don’t have the requisite class, but you make the roll “flat,” with no modifiers at all. So even if you have a high Dexterity, you can’t add that modifier to Pickpocketing if you don’t also have the Scout class.

In some cases, even if you have the right class, you’ll still incur a penalty if you don’t have the right tools. A non-Scout trying to pick a lock without scout’s tools might as well just go ahead and hope to roll a 12. (At which point I as GM would probably say, “Oh hey, it wasn’t even latched! Whaddaya know!”)

NB: There are no social skills (negotiation, intimidation, etc.). Interactions of this nature are expected to be role-played at the table. The closest thing to a social skill is the Detect skill check, which can help identify if someone’s lying or faking a condition.

Intro to Raxia 101

Yo dawg, I heard you like swords

Reportedly, when Group SNE started working on SW2.0, they asked themselves, “So why is it called ‘Sword World’ anyway?” then went totally ham on the answer.

The personification of Lumiere looking out at the reader
What’re you lookin’ at?

Raxia was carved out of nothingness by the three Swords of Genesis. Who or what did this is lost to legend, but they must not have been too keen on the final product, because they dumped the swords in the barren world and skedaddled. These swords, which were of course intelligent and immensely magical, still longed to be wielded. They seeded the world with life, in hopes that eventually something might pick them up and make them useful again.

After creating plants, animals, and various mythical beings, they eventually hit on the bizarre combination of thoughts, senses, and limbs called “humans.” One of these humans, a dude named Lyphos, found Lumiere, the Genesis Sword of Harmony, and received enormous world-shaping powers like unto a god for his trouble.

Luckily for everyone, Lyphos was a good guy who used his powers to help turn the world into a paradise. He discovered he could make copies of Lumiere, which were less powerful than the original but still had enough oomph to turn their wielders into gods themselves. Even third- and fourth-generation copies were powerful enough to trigger apotheosis. Eventually there were several gods running around, each with powers over various aspects of the world, working together toward a better future. The God of Fairies turned her human followers into elves, the God of Fire did the same for dwarves, and everything was harmonious and happy.

So you can pretty much imagine what happened next: a human with the totally-not-evil name Dalkhrem found the Sword of Freedom, Ignis. Dalkhrem was a petty and greedy person, wanted to gain all the power in the world, etc. etc. villainous backstory. Thus began the War of the Gods. Dalkhrem managed to sway many humanoids to his side and used his evil powers to taint them with soulscars. In this world, scarring someone’s soul also causes physical mutations, turning them into goblins and ogres and the like. These became the Barbarous, who harried the humanoids, or “small people,” while the gods were busy fighting among themselves.

During the war, someone stumbled across Cardia, the Sword of Wisdom. Rather than allow itself to be wielded against its siblings, Cardia exploded and all its mana flowed out into Raxia. In some places the mana crystallized into mako stones, which wizards can use as mana batteries.

After who knows how many thousands of years, the god war petered out. The Swords of Genesis went lost again, and the remaining gods either died, withdrew from the world, or entered a deep slumber to heal their wounds. A dark age followed for humanity, who still had to deal with the Barbarous without divine help.

Then humanity discovered how to manipulate the magic that Cardia left behind. Only a small percentage of people could actually cast spells, but it was enough to force the Barbarous back. Mages became sorcerer-kings who built grand empires all across Raxia.

About 3,000 years ago, the Magic Civilization abruptly ended at its height. Nobody is certain why, though this ending coincides with the appearance of the Abyss: a botched summoning opened a portal to another plane, and daemons came pouring out. The magic kingdoms worked together to create the Wall in the North Wall of the Abyss, which (mostly) contains the Abyss and the daemons within. The Wall is tended by Tiens, a nearly immortal race created by fusing humans with daemons.

Another thousand-year dark age ensued, until someone invented technology that could control magic. This so-called “Magitech” allowed anyone to use magic through a device called a magisphere. The proliferation of Magitech forced the Barbarous underground. Humanoids created a civilization with magical trains and airships and huge shining cities and all sorts of cool magipunk/Buck Rogers stuff.

Alas, this was not to last. 300 years before the game begins, gigantic earthquakes suddenly toppled the Magitech cities. A Barbarous horde exploded out from underground and nearly wiped humanoids off the face of the planet. The huge, organized invasion of the surface became known as the Diabolic Triumph. Barbarous invaders also breached the Wall of the Abyss in several places, and much of northern Alfleim fell before a flood of daemons.

Things looked grim until a small adventuring party defeated the Beast King of the Barbarous in single combat, decapitating their leadership (not to mention the Beast King). Rumors say the party was either welding Lumiere, the First Sword, or a previously unknown fourth sword.

The invasion may be over, but the world remains in chaos. Most understanding of Magitech died with the cities, towns were isolated, and the countryside is still lousy with monsters. The world now needs explorers, researchers, and warriors, good people willing to beat back the darkness, despoil ruins, fight monsters, save princesses, and restore the world for humanoids everywhere.

But who, I wonder, would dare enter the dangerous wilds for gold and glory?

:: looks directly at the PCs ::


Next time: Who are we? Why are we here?

Part 1: Intro to Sword World/Thumbnail History of Raxia
Part 2: Races and Classes
Part 3: Combat
Part 4: Gods and Spells
Part 5: Fellows
Part 6: Guilds and Monsters
Part 7: Conclusion

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