The early 80s were a funny time in gaming, both for me personally and for the hobby generally. By "funny," I mean a combination of "interesting" and "unusual." Gaming, particularly fantasy gaming, was now firmly ensconced as a popular pastime, with everyone trying to cash in on the craze. And there was lots of experimentation with different rules, formats, styles of presentation, and so on.
The result was a kaleidoscope effect, making my visits to places like The Compleat Strategist simultaneously exhilarating and confusing. What were all these different games and which ones would I like? There were reviews in Dragon and White Dwarf, of course, as well as the opinions of the guys in the game store, but, even then, I knew that reviews didn't tell the whole story and that the opinions of reviewers didn't always jibe with my own preferences.
There was also the fact that, then as now, D&D exerted a strange effect over most gamers. By 1982, D&D was starting to feel a little "stale" to me and I was keen for new gaming horizons. It's not that I didn't play other RPGs -- I did, particularly Traveller and Call of Cthulhu -- but D&D was my introduction into the hobby and had left its mark on my imagination in a way no other game ever would. Consequently, even when I was looking to replace D&D with another game, D&D was still there in my mind. It was the game against which I was judging other games and I know now that that probably lessened my ability to give other RPGs the fair shake they deserved.
It was in this context that Swordbearer entered my life. I knew Heritage Models quite well, having purchased many of their miniatures and having enjoyed their Dwarfstar microgames like Barbarian Prince and Outpost Gamma (both of which, along with the rest of the line are available as free electronic downloads at this site, thanks to the kindness of their current copyright holder, Reaper Miniatures). So, when I saw this odd little boxed game, which proclaimed its contents to be "realistic, fast-playing, complete, expandable," I picked it up, hoping to find a game to cure my D&D malaise.
I read Swordbearer with great relish. Consisting of three landscape-format books of varying length (illustrated throughout with black and white art by the then-unknown Denis Loubet), Swordbearer wasn't quite what I expected. The game has no classes, being a skill-based one in which any character can conceivably learn any skill. The system isn't particularly complex by today's standards, but it seemed a fair bit more involved than D&D. That made it harder for me to get into it than I'd hoped, but I soldiered through nonetheless. The magic system is interesting and based on a node system that's inspired by a modified version of Asian elemental theory. There's also spirit magic that's based on the four humors of classical Western medicine.
What set Swordbearer apart, though, was its broader "social" focus than D&D. There were many, many more playable intelligent races, including the bunrabs, an obvious nod to designer Dennis Sustare's earlier Bunnies & Burrows RPG. This made it possible to create a campaign that felt very different than the implied pseudo-medieval setting of most of the fantasy RPGs with which I was familiar at the time. There were also rules about social status that tied into the game's abstract wealth system, as well as just what being a member of a particular social class meant in the context of the game world.
All of this may seem like old hat nowadays, but, in 1982, it was a revelation to me and it gave Swordbearer a "serious" feel to it that both impressed and frightened me at the same time. I very much wanted to play Swordbearer, but didn't think I was "good enough" a referee to do so, a feeling I'd also gotten from RuneQuest, another game I owned but never really managed to play. Looking back on it now, I feel bad I never had the chance to try out Swordbearer with my friends. I think, even though the gravitational pull of D&D ultimately proved irresistible, my gaming would have benefitted a lot from having had the chance to test out some of Swordbearer's innovations.
After my recent interview with its designer, I dusted off my copy from the garage and have begun re-reading it and it's quite the trip down memory lane. It's also sparking some ideas in my head that might see use in my Dwimmermount campaign. Copies of the game pop up on eBay fairly regularly and the ghost of Fantasy Games Unlimited (which published the game's second edition) sells both PDF and print copies here. You might consider picking up a copy, if only to see firsthand some of the diversity the gaming of the early 80s had. It really was a magical time, both for the hobby and the industry, and we shall not see its like again.