Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Review: B/X Essentials

To celebrate 40 years of playing D&D I am doing a year-long celebration I am calling Back to Basic.  While I got my start on Holmes Basic, it is the Moldvay Basic and Cook/Marsh Expert that really lit my fires.

It should be no surprise then that I am a big fan of Gavin Norman's B/X Essentials (soon to become Old School Essentials) line. 


Gavin has been producing some great content for a while now via his Necrotic Gnome label. His Theorems & Thaumaturgy and Complete Vivimancer are among my favorite Old-School books.

His Kickstarter for Old School Essentials is funded and going into its last days now.  While this is going on you can still get copies of B/X Essentials.

For these reviews, I am using both the PDF and Print versions of these books.

B/X Essentials is a redesign of the classic "Basic/Expert" rules using OGC sources.  The books are all digest-sized, 6" x 9" format.  All of the books feature fantastic full-color covers from artist Andrew Walter and color accented interiors; limited to mostly pale green.
A moment about these covers.  They remind me of a surreal 70s version of Lord of the Rings meets Elric; easily some of my most favorite covers of in all of the Old-School movement.
All the books are extremely modular. This was a design goal by Norman and it pays off.  Everything is easy to find.  Sections usually take up a page or multiple full pages. If you were so inclined you could cut up your books (!) or print out the PDFs and reorganize them as you see fit. Really at this point, the only thing that could make these books easier to use is having all the content in a spiral-bound volume so it can lay flat at your table.

B/X Essentials: Core Rules
The Core Rules weighs in at 34 pages and gets to the very heart of the B/X Essentials line.  The essential Essentials as it were. It covers Ability scores in general, sequences of play and all the basic rules needed.  Combat is covered separately. Magic also gets a bit of coverage here in general terms and including how spells can be researched and magic items made. 
The rules have been "cleaned up" from their obvious predecessors.   Focus is on readability and playability here.  In fact all the entries under the basic rules are alphabetical, so finding something say like Movement, is easy.  In the original rules it took a bit of digging to actually figure out how much a character moves.  This was vastly improved in later editions of the game, but here it is very succinctly spelled out. Other rules are equally made clear.
Since the "Basic" and "Expert" rules are combined here there is an economy of word usage here.  As much as I love my Basic and Expert games, sometimes you need to consult both books when a situation comes up.

B/X Essentials: Classes and Equipment
The Classes and Equipment book comes in at 44 pages.  It begins naturally enough with character creation.  Some details, such as Ability scores, are detailed here, but also give a call back to the Core Rules book.  Still, though everything is here to make a character.  For practice, I made a 7th level Cleric just using this book. It went extremely fast and very little need to flip pages back and forth.  I just needed to use the Spells book to pick out spells.
The modular design of the B/XE system extends to this book as well. Each class begins on an even-numbered page and extends to the next odd-numbered page.  You can then hold the book flat, put it up two-pages at a time on your screen,  and read everything you need in a glance.   I really appreciate this level of attention paid.  Many books do not do this and in fact, look like they were just run off on Word's PDF converter.  There is more attention put into the layout here than in most products and to me, that is what sets this above the others.
The classes represented here are the 7 classics; Cleric, Fighter, Magic-User, Thief and the three demi-humans, Dwarf, Elf, and Halfling.  True to B/X these are "race as class" classes.
Equipment, money and of course weapons are covered in the next half of the book.

B/X Essentials: Cleric and Magic-User Spells
Cleric and Magic-User Spells would have been my favorite book if B/XE had come out in the 80s.  Right now it also has my favorite cover from the entire series. Seriously, I love it.
The book itself has 34 pages and covers all the Cleric and Magic-User/Elf spells in the game.
All the usual suspects are here.  Again when making my recent Cleric I used this book. 
The modularity again is a huge boon for this book and game.  Adding a new class, like the proposed Druid and Illusionists? Add a new book easy! 

B/X Essentials: Adventures and Treasures
At 48 pages this is one of the two larger books in the series. This book deals with adventuring and what sort of things you can find on those adventures. So there are traps, monster tables, and all the treasure types and magical treasure.
Again we see where combining the Basic and Expert rules gives you a much better idea of what is going on in these "dungeons".
This is also my second favorite cover of the line. 

B/X Essentials: Monsters
Ah, now this is a book I would have loved back in 81.  Also coming in at 48 pages this book is about monsters and nothing else.
Stat blocks are concise and there is none of the bloat in the descriptions that appear in later editions (ok to be fair that bloat was demanded by players).   The book is fantastic with my only reservation in I wish it had been illustrated more.  But even that is fine.
I can easily see a "Monsters 2" and "Monsters 3" sometime in the future for this line.

In truth, I can't say enough good about this.   Is it 100% brand new material?  No, but that was also never the design goal.  The books do exactly what they say they are going to do.  If I were starting with a new group using B/X-flavor D&D I would be hard-pressed to come up with a reason NOT to use these books.

B/X Essentials: Demihumans of Dolmenwood
This free product is only 8 pages long and is only in PDF. It is the only genre and world-specific book in the line covering the Dolmenwood, the shared setting used by Necrotic Gnome.   This book includes two new races, the Fairy Elf and the Woodgrue, both fairy races of the Dolmenwood.  There is also a listing of some Fae lords and ladies.



A Bit about OSE
Old School Essentials expands on these rules and reorganizes them some more.  There is a Basic Rules that takes place of the Core book and then a Genre book that covers classes and other "D&D" like topics.  I imagine that different genre books will have other rules and classes.

Old-School Essentials: Basic Rules
This free 56-page book covers all the basics of the OSE line.  Picking it up you can see the stylistic changes from B/XE to OSE.  Also this book covers just about everything you need to play right now.  It includes the four human classes, some rules, some spells, some monsters, and treasure.  Enough to give you a taste of what OSE will be like.
It has the same modular design as B/XE so finding things is simple, leaving more time for play.
There is no interior art in this free version, but that hardly detracts from it.

I am really looking forward to seeing OSE out.  But until then I am going to enjoy playing with B/XE!

1 comment:

JB said...

Do Gavin's books differ significantly (or at all) from the original B/X volumes in terms of content? Does he change or add to the existing B/X spell, monster, and treasure lists? Just curious.

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