White Box Omnibus for Swords & Wizardry (Review)

There are some small publishers in the OSR scene who constantly manage to chunk out good stuff. James Spahn from Barrel Rider Games is one of these guys. A while ago, he dominated the Top 100 at rpgnow with his Swords & Wizardry White Box series – and justifiably so.
Let’s take a look at the compilation of his recent works: the White Box Omnibus (aff). It is still in the Top 10 charts at the time of writing.

What do you need to know?

The White Box Omnibus (WBO) is an add-on for Swords & Wizardry WhiteBox. The Whitebox is a simulacrum of the original D&D from 1974 which only uses the first three books and none of the later supplements.
The base of Whitebox is a complete albeit very rules-lite game. You have the three base classes (cleric, fighter, magic-user), demi-humans (dwarves, elves, halflings) and the game stops at level 10. The game mechanics are streamlined and very simple.

WBO adds more class options, more treasure, more monsters, three adventures and a gazetteer/mini-campaign setting to the mix. You can buy the products separately but I would recommend the Omnibus as a compilation for USD $9.99 (PDF). Print versions are also available. The WBO also includes some additional material not included in the separate downloads, for instance, the monk class.

White Box Omnibus

Appearance

The PDF has 131 pages total including cover and OGL at the end of the book. Unfortunately, there are no electronic bookmarks. The cover with the old-fashioned red font evokes a nostalgic feel. The art is top-notch with some of my favorite OSR artists: Luigi Castellani, William McAusland and others. Maps are by Dyson Logos and Matt Jackson, two of the best cartographers out there. This is really a quality product you are getting here. The layout stays simple with one column, a simple and good-to-read font, boxed text, and tables.
All in all, a very pleasing product.

Content

As the WBO is a collection of six previous releases it follows the same structure:

  1. Class Options
  2. Magical Items
  3. Bestiary
  4. The Wererat’s Well (adventure)
  5. The Wizard Tower (adventure)
  6. The Dragon’s Hoard (adventure)
  7. Appendix I: The Willow Valley Gazetteer (mini-campaign setting for the above-mentioned adventures)

Class Options

The first part, Class Options, is my personal highlight. James Spahn manages to expand the game without it getting cluttered.
The base classes get some character specializations. For example, clerics can focus on battling the undead and become an Undead Slayer or fighters can be Swashbucklers by forgoing the use of heavy armor and getting specialized in two-weapon fighting.
Next up, you have 6 new classes: bards, druids, monks, rangers, paladins, and thieves. James Spahn really knows his Swords & Wizardry. The classes are well-written with simple rules but some flexibility. I like how iconic abilities are absorbed into a single skill. For example, the Bard has Lore to discern histories and magical items. That really reminds me of Bardic Lore in Dungeon World, a nice catch-all for what a bard can do.
I especially like how the thief turned out. Like the bard and other classes, he has an iconic ability which is called Thievery. All the special skills a thief has in old school D&D are covered by this ability. Mechanically, you roll 1d6 and if your roll is equal or lower than your Thievery rating you succeed. The ability levels up during play.
The classes all feel familiar and have a niche without looking too over-powered.
Additionally, there are also house-rules given for each new class. For instance, the ranger may cast spells at level 5 or the thief can learn how to use poison.

Magical Items

This section provides you with a list of different items: armors and shields, potions, protection scrolls, rings, staffs, wands, weapons and miscellaneous stuff.
Again, this part of the book is very good. There are some really nice and/or unique items. Armor has Leaf Walker Armor (enchanted by fey magic) or Shadow Leather (enchanted with illusionary magic) or a Throwing Shield (think Captain America).
Perhaps you want to drink a potion of Boulder Hurling if you’d like to redecorate your house? With it you can throw boulders as a fire giant.
Adventurers might also find the Wand of the Tomb Robber quite handy as it can transform into useful adventuring tools.
Another unique item is the Club of the Treant which can transform into a tree creature. I also like the Sling of the Meek which grants bonuses if you wield it unarmored.
The miscellaneous item section contains some interesting material, too, for instance, the Pipes of Charming (Medium).

Again, this section is well-written with a good item selection.

Bestiary

The Bestiary contains 33 monster entries, from Angels to Water Weirds. It’s a mix of well-known monsters like the Mimic or the Golem and original ones.
There is some good stuff here, for example, the Rust Monster: it’s an armadillo-like creature (awesome, right?) that feeds on metal.

The Adventures & Appendix

WBO also includes a short adventure series for levels 1 to 9.
The first one is called The Wererat’s Well and is an introductory adventure for low-level characters. It’s more or less a dungeon crawl and comes with a nice map by Matt Jackson.
The second adventure in the trilogy is The Wizard’s Tower, based on a map by Dyson Logos. It’s for characters between 4th and 6th level. First, you need to travel to the tower and there might be some interesting encounters in the elvish forest. Second, this adventure is full of riddles, traps and stuff that evil wizards would hide in their lairs. I like that a lot, it’s pretty deadly.
The last adventure, The Dragon’s Hoard, was written for PCs of 7th level to 9th level in mind. Another nicely written dungeon crawl as a great finale to the series.

Last you have the appendix with the Willow Valley Gazetteer. The adventures are centered around the town Willowford in the Willow Valley. The appendix contains history, a map of the village and the information about NPCs.

I always find it difficult to rate adventures which I haven’t run myself. Just from reading I would say they look solid if a bit dungeon crawly.

In conclusion, it’s a nice package.

Who is it for?

Swords & Wizardry WhiteBox is an old school D&D game for people who like less complexity in their games. While it is a complete system it doesn’t have fiddly bits. Instead, it is a rules-lite engine on which you can build upon. It’s flexible but you might need to houserule it yourself to customize it to your needs.
The WBO is for folks who like the premise of S&W WhiteBox but want more options and more stuff. Especially the first section with the class options is a really nice addition to your game. It opens up more iconic D&D classes while still staying simple in its rules.
I asked James Spahn if he sees an overlap to S&W Complete and he said that he focussed on the more streamlined and unified core mechanic of WhiteBox.

[…]
The big thing for me with S&W White Box is that it’s even more streamlined than S&W Complete, more uniformed in its core mechanics. I tried to keep that in mind when writing the Omnibus.

In S&W all the hit dice are d6, all the weapons do a d6 (+/-1), so there’s a certain simplicity of play. I wrote the classes in the Omnibus with that in mind. […]

So, at least as far as the classes go, it allowed me to:

  1. Show that simplicity can be a strength of a gaming system
  2. Provide options for gamers who felt limited in their character selection as presented in S&W WB
  3. (on a more personal note) Give the game more familiarity with gamers who were used to games like OSRIC, AD&D 1st/2nd, S&W Complete, without over-complicating thing.

For me, the WBO is like playing S&W WhiteBox PLUS. It feels like the middle-ground between the slimmed-down WhiteBox and the slightly more complex S&W Complete.

TL; DR

The White Box Omnibus is a wonderful supplement for the Swords & Wizardry WhiteBox. Especially the Class Companion is a must-buy. The rest of the content is also nothing to sneeze at and a nice addition to your base game. The options expand the game without bloating it up and thus stay in the spirit of WhiteBox.


Links:
White Box Omnibus: rpgnow & drivethrurpg (aff)
previous releases of the White Box series (aff)
Swords & Wizardry WhiteBox (free PDF)