Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Review: Old-School Essentials

One of the hottest Old School Clones to hit the market recently has been Gavin Norman's Old-School Essentials.  Simply the game is a restatement of the Moldvay Basic and Cook/Marsh Expert Ruleset for Dungeons & Dragons.  It has combined, cleaned up and modularized.

It has also been a HUGE success.  First, there was his already well-received B/X Essentials line, then the crazy-successful Kickstarter which brought in €160,390 (or $175,000).  Now you can find it in your FLGS or for the next week as part of the Bundle of Holding.

Boxed sets are cool.
It really has been a well-deserved success.

For this, I am going to review both the hardcovers and the PDF releases.  But first a word on the physical, hardcover books and boxed set.   Gavin has really set a new bar in the elegance of rule presentations.  The books are clean, crisp and the layout is fantastic.  The hardcovers are solid and the boxed set box is both attractive and sturdy.  My wife even picked it up and commented on how gorgeous it is.

This is the new mark for Old-School gaming. These books, while lighter on the art, are some of the best put together books from any other Old-School/OSR publisher.  This includes LotFP, S&W (so far) and it even edges out Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperboria.  Sorry guys, but this is the new gold standard.



Old-School Essentials
The Old-School Essentials (OSE) is a re-organization of the Basic/Expert rules from 1981.  Thus the Core Rules feature the basic four character classes of Cleric, Fighter, Magic-User, and Theif.  There are also the three "demi-human" classes of Dwarf, Elf, and Halfling.   The rules are divided up into different books both in the PDF and Hardcover versions as well as a combined Rules Tome.

Old-School Essentials: Basic Rules
PDF only, 56 pages.
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.

If you are on the fence about OSE then this is the place to start.  Grab it and you will be up and playing in no time.
My only disappointment about this product is there is no print option!

Old School Essentials: Core Rules
PDF and Hardcover, 80 pages
The Core Rules weighs in at 80 pages and gets to the very heart of the OSE 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.   The focus is on readability and playability here.   like all of the OSE books every entry of a rule is presented on facing pages.  So you open up the book and everything you need on the subject is right there.  Only rarely will you need to turn the page.
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.  This book though is more than a handy index, it takes that notion from the B/XE Core Rules and expands it into a much more playable game.
The philosophy of the Core Rules is just that, everything you need to play regardless of the genre.  Included in the boxed set (and an expected purchase) is the Classic Fantasy Genre Rules.  This is what takes the Core Rules and makes it into a "Basic-era Fantasy Game".  So in simpler language, this is Basic D&D.  You do need a set of Genre Rules to be able to use the Core Rules, but there is enough there if you are an aspiring game designer to make up your own. Say Roaring 20s, or Space or Horror.  Anything really.
The book has some really, really great old-school feeling art as well. Just fantastic stuff really.

Old-School Essentials Classic Fantasy: Genre Rules
PDF and Hardcover, 48 pages
These are the rules to allow you to play in any sort of "Basic Fantasy" style game.  Here get our character classes of Cleric, Fighter, Magic-User, and Theif and The three "demi-human" classes of Dwarf, Elf, and Halfling.  If you are familiar with the Basic/Expert games of 1981 then this is home territory for you.  Human classes are limited to 14th level and demi-humans vary.
In addition to the classes (half the book more or less) we go into Equipment, mounts, hirelings and building strongholds.  So yes, everything that concerns players from level 1 to level 14 or retirement.
This is one of the three required books by the players.  The others are the Core Rules and then also Cleric and Magic-User spells (if they are playing one of those classes).
Like all the books in this series the layout is crisp, clean and a model of efficient use of words. From a User Experience point of view it is an absolute gem.
The art is likewise fantastic with full color spreads throughout the book.



Old-School Essentials Classic Fantasy: Cleric and Magic-User Spells
PDF and Hardcover, 48 pages
Cleric and Magic-User Spells would have been my favorite book if OSE had come out in the 80s.  Right now it also has my favorite cover from the entire series. Seriously, I love it. It just oozes eldritch weirdness.
The book itself has 48 pages and covers all the Cleric and Magic-User/Elf spells in the game.
All the usual suspects are here.  Cleric spells go to level 5 and magic-user spells go to level 6, just as expected from the B/X sources. 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 Druid or Illusionists? Add a new book easy!  In fact, we see that is exactly what was done.  Expandability is the key here.

Old-School Essentials Classic Fantasy: Monsters
PDF and Hardcover, 80 pages
Ah, now this is a book I would have loved back in 81.  Also coming in at 80 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 because the illustration we get are fantastic and very reminiscent of the old school monster books.
There are also NPC encounter tables and monsters listed by HD.  The utility of this book is top-notch.
I can easily see a "Monsters 2" and "Monsters 3" sometime in the future for this line.

Old-School Essentials Classic Fantasy: Treasures
PDF and Hardcover, 48 pages
Some games merge their Monsters and Treasures books and I can see the logic of that.  These are separate books and after using them for a while I like the separated.  Just like having a Monsters 2 or 3 books, more treasures can also be introduced.
This covers all the expected treasures and includes one of MY favorite things from early D&D, sentient swords.   The same clear and concise layout here as in all the books. Quite a treat really.
That cover might be my second favorite in all the series.

That covers the "Core Boxed Set."



You can pick them all up in PDF at DriveThru or from Necrotic Gnome's website. OR get a physical box from your FLGS or again Necrotic Gnome's website.



Old-School Essentials Classic Fantasy: Rules Tome
PDF and Hardcover, 296 pages
If you are a fan of the old "Rule Cyclopedia" version of the BECMI rules then this is going to be a treat for you.  The Rules Tome combines all of the "Core" and "Classic Fantasy" rules into one large and gorgeous tome.  There are three different cover versions.  I have the foil JShields version, the Andrew Walter is the standard version and in many ways, I like it better!  It is the same art on the Box Set, so I am happy to have both.  This book includes:

  • Core Rules: Rules for character creation and advancement, adventuring in dungeons, the wilderness, and at sea, magic and combat.
  • Classic Fantasy: Genre Rules: Seven classic classes (cleric, dwarf, elf, fighter, halfling, magic-user, thief), complete lists of weapons and adventuring gear, extensive lists of vehicles, mounts, and vessels, mercenaries and specialists for hire, rules for stronghold construction.
  • Classic Fantasy: Cleric and Magic-User Spells: The complete set of 34 cleric spells (from 1st to 5th level) and 72 magic-user spells (from 1st to 6th level), for use by players or cleric, elf, and magic-user characters.
  • Classic Fantasy: Monsters: A selection of over 200 classic monsters to challenge adventurers of all levels.
  • Classic Fantasy: Treasures: A hoard of over 150 wondrous magic items.

So everything you need for a full fantasy game.
Should you get this one or the individual books?  That is up to you.  The combined volume is obviously cheaper.   But all are enjoyable.
I have a Rules Tome for me, a set of books for the table and a couple extra players' books (Core Rules and Genre Rules).



Old-School Essentials Classic Fantasy Referee's Screen
PDF only, 10 pages.
The one thing that B/X lacked was a proper GM's screen.  Yes, BECMI had one, but not B/X.  Well OSE has you covered, or screened as it were.
This product has 10 pages (1 cover, 1 OGL page and 8 pages of screen) for standard 8-panel, landscape orientation screens.  Purchase the PDF and print them out.  Easy.
The cover art is Peter Mullen's core art. So there are ways to get all the cover art...covered I guess.

All of these combine into a fantastic Old-School experience for those of us that grew up on B/X and for those that didn't.  It is just a really fantastic game.



But what if your tastes run to the Advanced end of the 80s RPG experiences?
Well OSE has not forgotten about you! The modularity of this rule expression pays off here when you can easily add on new rules, classes, and spells.

Old-School Essentials Advanced Fantasy: Genre Rules
PDF and Hardcover, 56 pages
Like many in the early 80s, I moved from the B/X version of the World's Greatest Game to the Advanced version.  But also like many, I never forgot my "Basic" roots and thought for all it's "Advancements" there was still something special about the Basic game.
Well OSE hears you.  The modular design of OSE makes adding material that is considered "Advanced" to be quite easy.  Granted this is not the first Retro-Clone to do this, but this one does it in such an elegant fashion.
Advanced Fantasy: Genre Rules adds new classes and new races. For new races we get drow, duergar, gnome, half-elf, half-orc, and svirfneblin (yes deep gnomes!)  Also true to the advanced rules this book pulls race and class apart.  In truth this was one of the major benefits of the Advanced game and that is true here as well.  For new classes, we get acrobat, assassin, barbarian, bard, druid, illusionist, knight, paladin, and ranger. There is also rules for multi-classing, something I always want to add to my basic games.  Some additional rules on poison and magic are also included.

Old-School Essentials Advanced Fantasy: Druid and Illusionist Spells
PDF and Hardcover, 48 pages
Much like the Cleric and Magic-User Spells book this one covers Druids and Illusionist spells.  Again the modularity of the game pays off here.  You can play Advanced Genre Druids and Illusionists OR you can just use the Cleric and Magic-User classes respectively and this book to play a Basic Druid and Basic Illusionist and not even buy the Advanced Fantasy Genre Rules book.  It would be better to pick up that book, but the way everything is written you do not have too.
This covers the usual suspects of spells again.  The Basic style presentation is fun and it is like seeing these classes and spells through new eyes.  It really is a testament to the system and the authorship.



These two Advanced books will fit in your Black Box set very easily.
Sadly no room for dice.



I have nothing bad to say about this set or these rules.
If I had ONE wish, and maybe only one, it would be for a spiral or coil bound version to have at my game table to lay flat.  But I suppose I could always print it out and put it into a three-ring binder.
I might just have to do that.


5 comments:

Wayne's Books said...

Very, very helpful summary of the Old-School Essentials game line. I was unclear on how they all fit together, and now I know!

Curtis Hooper said...

That black B/X cover is wicked. Where'd you find it?

Timothy S. Brannan said...

@Curtis Hooper. On Facebook years and years ago.

Curtis Hooper said...

Found it. http://peoplethemwithmonsters.blogspot.com/2013/06/cover-files-for-bx-d.html

Timothy S. Brannan said...

@Curtis, awesome!

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