Tracing Magic Swords

Author: DHBoggs / Labels: ,

Zenopus comments have inspired me to post another old thread I wrote in relation to his asking about being able to date certain parts of the FFC.
Magic Swords is one of the trickier entries in the FFC, being not well organized and hard to follow, and not something most gamers are ever likely to have bothered with. 

There are actually two magic sword creation methods in the FFC "Magic Swords & Matrix" section, both quite different. The first is a list of ability categories, followed by the actual swords Arneson created using that list and wrote on index cards for the first or second year of his campaign using his Blackmoor rules of course.
The second, written "in the third year" under the heading of "Matrix" is a different and quite complex system.
On the face of it, given Arneson’s dating comments, the first of these methods should predate Gygax D&D, while the second could be either pre or post the publication of D&D, but should be within the Gygax era in any case.  Looking closer we see that the first magic swords list does indeed contain a lot of “weird” non D&Disms: +6 Appearance, Double Values, +9 combat increase, Magic Ability II, and so forth.  Many of them terms that are familiar from other early snippets.
 The second sword creation section from “the third year” is much more in line with D&D – but not quite.  In fact it turns out to be something Arneson must have developed in 1973 and submitted to Gygax during the writing/playtesting process.

How do I know this? -by clues left in the FFC text and by comparing it with the magical sword creation section in OD&D Monsters and Treasure pages 27-30.
Among the quirks found in the Arneson rules is a section describing the creation of Holy swords complete with “curate” not cleric spells.  The instructions further tell us “If the roll indicates no spel (I.e. such as a 5 on a level 4 curate….”  Not only is it weird that cleric spells are consistently referred to as curate spells, but in OD&D there are in fact 6 level 5 Cleric spells, so rolling a 5 would result in the sword having Speak with Plants.  No problem.
The only way these statements make sense in the otherwise fairly standard D&D approach of the sword matrix section is if they date to a time before OD&D's publication when clerics were referred to as curates and there were less than 5 level 4 cleric spells.  Interestingly, the D&D draft mss.(edit: Dalluhn mss) I’ve mentioned before, has clerics, just like OD&D, but it also only has 4 level 4 cleric spells….  Clearly the FFC swords text was prepared at a time during the writing process before those last two cleric spells were added to the level 4 list.

Yet, we can see these "Matrix" rules were written after there already existed at least a draft of the D&D rules because young Arneson references them several times, most explicitly in this statement. "Roll appropriate number of die on Spell Table in Magic Section of rules: Note that lower spells cannot be used for higher levels of magic but can be exchanged on a two for one basis for the next lower level of magic."
It follows that the FFC “Swords Matrix” section was written for Gary Gygax to add to one of his playtest drafts of D&D and not written after D&D was published.  We know Gygax got this sword section because the magic Swords section of M&T (p27-30) is, in fact, the same piece, steamlined and simplified and arguably quite improved by Gary, but clearly using much of Arneson's text and ideas while recasting some in his own fashion.  For example merging Arneson's several different type magic bonusues into two categories: ordinary and extroadinary powers.

Comparing the two texts side by side clearly shows the relationship between the two.  One example:

Arneson wrote:
"Should a player pick up a Sword that has Origins other than that of the player, that player cannot use that Sword. Also, if the player should pick up the Sword, then that player will suffer damage at the following rates: Law-Chaos- 2 die; Neutral-Law- 1 die; Neutral-Chaos- 1die; Chaos-Law - 2 die.

Minions that are directed to take up the Sword whose origins are different than that of the directing part and are not acting as free agents (i.e. they are under the player's power), will suffer damage at half the normal rates. In special cases (see Special Table), players may not suffer damage. may be forced to change sides, may be freed from any spells they are under, may lose or gain powers."

Rewritten by Gygax on pg M&T pg. 27 as:

"If a character picks up a sword which is not of the same alignment as he, damage will be taken as follows:

Law - Chaos: 2 Dice (2-12 points)
Neutrality-Law/Chaos: 1 Die (1-6 Points)

If a non-player character is directed to take up a sword the damage will be only one-half that stated above, for the party is not acting as a free agent. Additionally, the sword might cause the one who took it up to be freed from a spell, change alignment, or otherwise gain powers which would remove them from the service of their former master."

One cool thing about this is we get a direct look at Gygax's editing process. 

Interestingly this magic sword creation system survived - virtually unchanged and yet almost completely ignored in actual gaming - all the way through AD&D and the Rules Cyclopedia.


Lord Gwydion said...

Very cool sleuthing. I've developed a new appreciation for the magic/intelligent swords in the past few years. I really think there should be more of them in OSR games.

DHBoggs said...

Me too!

Andreas Davour said...

Interesting that Gary, known for some of the densest and opaque prose in gaming, here is clearer than Dave!

Unknown said...'s fantastic blog. i like this post. it's contains really nice information that enhance my knowledge...

Marketing Degrees

Post a Comment

About Me

My photo
Rural American father of three. Archaeologist, Anthropologist, Filmmaker, craftsman, and a licensed Real Estate agent.
Powered by Blogger.

My Blog List