Recently I got hit with a real bout of nostalgia. Browsing around DriveThruRPG I looked at, and read the histories of, scores of old D&D products that I missed out on the first time around. I remember the ads and being intrigued, but either cost or over-investment in other games held me back. So I succumbed to the urge to look deeper and pick up a few.
However, my old AD&D 2E books are long-lost and while my 1E books are great to have on the shelf, they’ve got a bunch of outdated stuff I wouldn’t feel wildly comfortable with these days. With that in mind I looked around the OSR titles to see what appealed most, and Necrotic Gnome’s Old School Essentials had received much praise. It’s for a version I never played (having started with the BECMI Red Box), but the oft-touted advantage of some of these games is how compatible they are with other older D&D content. What I found in these pages was a clean, concise, and modern version of classic D&D, that gives plenty of options for play and actually avoids a number of problematic elements of earlier editions.
OSE is a repackaging, with some cleanup, of the old B/X D&D rules. It’s a streamlined and rules-light version fantasy roleplaying game designed to facilitate a smooth play experience and promote a style of “rulings over rules,” as not every eventuality has had a mechanic assigned to it.
If you’re just getting into roleplaying games, the book recommends watching live-play, or joining an established group as the text itself lacks the traditional example of play that is semi-ubiquitous. It does, however, define what the game is: a fantasy adventure game where “adventurers” explore wilderness and dungeons in search of wealth and wonder, all taking place in a world of the fantastic in the players’ imagination. I think it’s a pretty good summary of what these games are like, though I may be in too deep to know how it would look to a complete newcomer. What I do like, however, is it clears the table and effectively creates a blank slate for new players to explore and make their own, much as many of us did when we first began – so there’s a deliberate design goal in play here that evokes the era in which the game first appeared.
Gamers returning to this style of play are reassured of the faithfulness of the rules to the original version and that they are very compatible with material from older editions of D&D, which is one of the draws for me, and I do like knowing that it’s relatively compatible with current OSR material, allowing me to pick and choose (and promote) what I want from that design ethos.
If you started with D&D in any of the post-2nd Edition games, you’ll find some deceptive familiarity in these rules. It uses a lot of the same language, but there are no feats, no Advantage/Disadvantage, separate races and classes, proficiencies/skills, etc. Compared to the last 20+ years of D&D-esque fantasy roleplaying it’s very stripped-down, although therein lies the draw.
Characters have the 6 standard ability scores. They have Classes, Levels, Saving Throws, Hit Points and Armor Class – but races are classes unto themselves, so Elf is a Fighter-Mage type, able to use swords and spells skillfully, while decked out in armor. The traditional Fighter, Mage, Cleric, Thief (not Rogue) are all default Human (Elf, Dwarf, and Halfling make up the three demihuman classes.) HP and Saving Throws are dependent on Class, some Classes have a maximum level they can reach (14 is the general maximum, so Elf at 10 won’t be too far behind), and the nonhuman Classes have an Ability Score requirement – rewarding lucky rolls during character creation.
Since there are no skills, Ability Scores specify what situations they benefit, though they cover the same basic situations you might expect from 3.0-5th Ed. However high scores also gain you more experience, so you’re rewarded additionally for those rolls and it encourages you to place your higher rolls on your “prime requisite”, even if there’s only minor mechanical benefit.
If you’re unfamiliar, you might wonder how things balance out between Classes when Elves can run around in plate armor casting spells – each Class has its own Experience track, so Elves need 4000 for 2nd level and Fighters only 2000. For long-term play, that also helps balance level limits, as characters will roughly keep pace with each other. I think my favorite part of this design though is the XP track for Magic-Users (mages). They need 2500 for 2nd level, have the worst combat skills, and lowest HP. They also don’t have many spells at low levels and can only prepare 1 at 1st level with no 0-level spells or Arcane Rays to back them up.
So why play a Class that a housecat could kill in the first encounter? Obviously as they get to higher levels they get more powerful and their high-level spells can be encounter-enders when only Clerics can heal and there are no meta-mechanics to get out of danger. This helps reinforce the rarity of magic in one of these worlds (few can live long enough to become masters) and the fear of powerful wizards trope (because once they become masters – look out). I don’t mind the more recent developments for spellcasting Classes, and know these earlier versions weren’t perfect, but there was a purpose behind the design and it’s actually pretty awesome. OSE preserves that awesomeness in its rules.
Other elements I enjoy about this version is the three-alignment-system of Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic that pay lip service to morality (Good/Evil) and focus more on how one perceives society and the nature of the world. Chaotic characters may act “evil” to a Lawful character convinced in the greater good, but the Chaotic character doesn’t recognize a “greater good” and believes the universe is random/unfathomable. The inclusion of an amount of domain-level play is also really appreciated. It hasn’t been part of a core rulebook for some time, but it used to be that at 9th level a character could found a stronghold and start recruiting people to staff it. It gave a goal and reason for all this dungeon-delving and allowed you to establish a high-level character in the world, opening up to all sorts of new stories and adventures.
There’s a lot of attention given to logistics, even if some are optional rules (Encumbrance). Wilderness and dungeon-travel and exploration have spot rules to cover most every situation. There are rules governing waterborne travel (there are also vehicle rules), getting lost (fantastic inclusion!), encounters and pursuit of fleeing parties, and more. You’ll find that timekeeping is crucial, whether in the dungeon or wilderness, and having sufficient supplies is necessary. On the GM’s side, they’ll be tracking a number of other elements besides the party, so the old responsibilities of party mapper and caller are reintroduced.
Combat is pretty simple and straightforward, with the rules clearly explained. There’s always been a lot of talk about how frustrating descending AC, THAC0, the Attack Matrix tables were and while I don’t personally mind them, optional rules are included for Attack bonuses (by Class/Level) and ascending AC, which I ultimately prefer. As Ability Score tests are performed by rolling below the score rather than against a difficulty number there’s no unified rolling convention to mess with anyway.
If you’ve never used descending AC, Armor Class used to be better if it was lower (think “1st class, 3rd class, etc). You then checked your Attack Matrix table for your class to cross reference the target’s AC and see what number you needed to equal or exceed on a d20 roll. THAC0 was a later version that gave a number to each Class from which they would subtract the target’s AC to learn the difficulty number. THAC0 would decrease over levels at different rates, depending how martial your Class was. The optional rule is closer to what people will be used to today. Armor Class is the target number and your Class gives a bonus to hit based on level (plus Strength/Dexterity modifiers).
For the Referee there is a huge bestiary with very simple stat blocks, cramming a lot of potential foes for your players into the pages. There’s guidance on random encounters, both of “monsters” and NPCs with Classes and Levels, also of Strongholds, should the PCs wander into lands under the control of others. What these also help do though, is allow a lot of improvised play or sandbox play. The PCs go off in an unanticipated direction? Roll up some random encounters and weave a story from those. The random tables continue with Treasure and there are some fantastic items to delight your players (or inflict upon them if you remember cursed items).
There’s some pretty solid advice on how to run a game or design an adventure – standard nowadays but it would have been exceedingly useful when the game was first released. I got a massive nostalgia hit reading the Dungeon and Wilderness design sections as, like many of us, I spent an exceeding large amount of time drawing on graph paper. For the 3.0+ crowd – there are no Challenge Ratings to help balance an encounter, so that needs to be taken into account. Hit Dice can give a rough approximation of relative power, but the game just isn’t designed for that sort of balance – there may be some trial and error (and dead PCs) before this part is locked down (or the closest it will get to being locked down.)
The book ends with the author’s notes, which I found really interesting. They cover where things were cleaned up from the original rules, any optional rules that were included or made not optional and why. Good insight to have for a product like this.
For some people, the earliest versions of D&D were sufficient for their wants, but for others adding the prefix “Advanced” made us curious what lay in store and what new possibilities awaited. I played a little 1st edition AD&D at conventions, however my primary game was AD&D 2nd edition. The Advanced Fantasy Rules are not a direct port of the 1st ed rules, but instead they’re an application of similar concepts to the OSE rules – as if they were the core B/X rules to be expanded upon. This is a sensible design goal, as the 1E/2E rules did have issues with balance and some more unusual elements (the Player’s Handbook didn’t include the Attack Matrix, for example). This method helps keeps everything in line with previous OSE rules.
The Player’s/Referee’s Tome are stand-alone products from Classic Fantasy, but there are expansions if you already own the latter and want to add to it. With similar clarity and layout to the original product, these books present the rules in an easy-to-understand way.
Much of what’s in the Referee’s Tome is actually covered in the Classic Fantasy book, separated here to keep the page count of each product down. I won’t focus much on what’s included as it’s mostly the same as the earlier title, presented in an equally-useful way. There are 120 new monsters however, as well as some reworking of previous ones. You may be familiar with some under their more popular names, possibly renamed because they’re trademarked? The Multichromatic Dragon comes to mind, which I can’t wait to make the final boss in some lengthy game. These have all been included in the updates encounter tables in the book. 150 new magic items have been included as well, also brought over from the 1st edition game.
The Player’s Tome broadens the options for player characters in a way that will be more familiar to players of modern fantasy roleplaying games. If you like how Classic Fantasy did “race as class” that option is still here, along with a number of new options. Compared to modern games, I find it interesting that the Bard is a charmer and loremaster more historically-influenced than frp-influenced, who gains Divine magic instead of Arcane, and the Drow are just the Elf class with Divine magic instead of Arcane and an affinity for Spiders. There are a couple of things I want to note about how the stereotypically “evil/dark” races are treated: the Drow, Duergar, and Half-Orcs have no alignment requirements and their Bestiary entries are all neutral-aligned. It’s exceedingly refreshing that OSE dispatches with the ridiculous idea that all members (or even the typical member) of a race are one alignment. On top of that, there’s no thinly-veiled suggestion that Half-Orcs likely result from assault, rather it just states that their respective parentages are often in conflict.
The other method of character creation presented is more similar to recent rules, and that’s to divide race and class. Any “species” counts as Race and occupations count as “Class”. Not every Race can take every Class and there are maximum level limits for your Class depending on your Race, which is how it was done in the old days (for balance?) As an optional rule you can dispatch with that restriction (we always did).
There’s also an option for multiclassing for demihumans, where they can take up to three available Classes simultaneously and divide XP among them. In a more current turn, there’s nothing restricting which Classes can be combined, so a Drow Knight/Magic-User or Ranger/Assassin are viable options. OSE also shows itself to be on the modern side of things as Racial Ability Score adjustments don’t include any penalties to Intelligence or Wisdom, thereby suggesting an entire species is “not as smart” as others.
A very rudimentary skill system is also made optional, allowing Weapon Proficiencies and Secondary Skills. The former informs what weapons your character is skilled at using, and includes Specializations that allow a bonus to hit and damage. The latter is a hobby or occupational skill at a semi-professional level, like Miner, or Woodcutter. It fleshes out a character’s background a little and allows them to use it in appropriate situations.
Both versions of OSE were a delight to read and, while the B/X rules weren’t the version I grew up on they’re still very close, so I had a lot of fun reminiscing while going through the book.
The earlier D&D rules actually do play quite well when you get past the idiosyncratic design and don’t directly compare it to modern game design. Some may not like that there aren’t lots of options and tweaks for your PCs, but that’s just an opportunity to develop character outside of mechanics. The system is also really easy to houserule, so developing your own subsystems or options to suit your table should be easy, and exactly what was done in the early days. What’s especially great about OSE is that it’s really easy to read. It’s formatted well and the rules are written very clearly, noting where a “ruling” is required over a “rule.” The type is also sized where I can read the pdf on my phone without a problem, making it a very portable “pickup” game. I can’t help have fond memories resurface and unconsciously reach out for graph paper to start mapping a new wilderness and its associated dungeons, or delving into old books to gather a party of adventurers brave enough to delve into temples of elemental evil or to search about a seven-part rod.
The physical books are also brilliant. They’re hardcover and the rules books all have cloth bookmarks. Though a bit stiff, with more use I imagine they’ll sit open nicely on a table, but they’re easy to flip through as it is. Being small, they also take up less bookshelf space and are easier on my back when carried around. A definite perk is no space is wasted. The interior layout, I’ve already mentioned, is great, and the inside covers contain regularly-referenced charts and tables – meaning you don’t need to flip through or have a GM screen in front of you to access the most useful information.
If you want to experience the early days of the hobby through a modern lens, or are looking for a clear set of rules to help return you to when you first started dungeoning and dragoning, then check out Old School Essentials Classic Fantasy and Advanced Fantasy! Titles were provided for purpose of review.
For some weird fantasy in the OSE spirit, take a look at the fairytale setting Dolmenwood, also by Necrotic Gnome.
You can pick them up from the below affiliate links and help support this site and also order them in print from Exalted Funeral (Classic Fantasy, Advanced Fantasy Player’s Tome, Advanced Fantasy Referee’s Tome)
DriveThruRPG Classic Fantasy (PDF)
DriveThruRPG Advanced Fantasy Player’s Tome (PDF)