Kickstopper: The Old School Distilled

I’ve mentioned Necrotic Gnome’s B/X Essentials booklets before – yet another retroclone of the Moldvay/Cook version of the D&D Basic Set and Expert Set rules. This is an edition of the game which has been widely cloned in OSR circles, because it avoids the excess complexity of 1st edition AD&D, is comparatively easy to add to, and in its own right represents a pretty decent clarification and revision of the OD&D rules and the best of that game’s supplement line.

At this point, then, it’s no longer enough to simply provide a reasonable clone. Labyrinth Lord is a very generic one but messes with some of the numbers a bit out of a concern that using the same numbers as B/X would cause legal issues, though this feels to me like an overabundance of caution; I suspect its place in the market comes from a certain first mover advantage, with “Compatible with Labyrinth Lord” being pretty generally understood to mean “Compatible with B/X“. Everyone else who wants their B/X retroclone rules set to get traction needs to come up with some sort of unique selling point.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess managed to get some name recognition from a rather shallow veil of 16th-17th century aesthetic trappings and some gruesome “negadungeon”-type modules, though the shine seems to have come off the game due a variety of factors as of late. Adventurer Conqueror King System, which gained a bit of traction thanks to its attention to the stronghold and domain management endgame, though many are not thrilled about supporting its author, Alexander Macris, due both to his engagement with the Gamergate controversy and willingness to do business with and promote the work of Milo Yiannopoulos. Various other retro-clones have tried to weak the system or include an interesting setting in some fashion.

B/X Essentials was constructed from the ground up with an eye to presentation, and specifically presentation with an eye to being useful at the gaming table. It’s not meant to teach you the game – though it wouldn’t be impossible to pick up the premise using the booklets and perhaps some actual play videos to help you along if you were really stuck – so much as it’s meant to be an easy reference resource for people who are already broadly familiar with the basic underpinnings of the game, with each page spread laid out with an eye to making looking up information fast and easy. Fidelity to the original rules is prioritised, though this does entail making a few judgement calls in situations where the original B/X rules contain obvious errors or omissions.

The original run of booklets did pretty well, but of course the eyes of dozens of customers are going to pick things up which a small press outfit is going to miss. It was decided to create a new, improved version of the rules set – Old-School Essentials, renamed because Necrotic Gnome plan to expand the game line to cover not just material in the original B/X rules, but other genres on top of that. And they’d take to Kickstarter to try and fund the new core set, which is where this Kickstopper article comes in…

Usual Note On Methodology

Just in case this is the first Kickstopper article you’ve read, there’s a few things I should establish first. As always, different backers on a Kickstarter will often have very different experiences and I make no guarantee that my experience with this Kickstarter is representative of everyone else’s. In particular, I’m only able to review these things based on the tier I actually backed at, and I can’t review rewards I didn’t actually receive.

The format of a Kickstopper goes like this: first, I talk about the crowdfunding campaign period itself, then I note what level I backed at and give the lowdown on how the actual delivery process went. Then, I review what I’ve received as a result of the Kickstarter and see if I like what my money has enabled. Lots of Kickstarters present a list of backers as part of the final product; where this is the case, the “Name, DNA and Fingerprints” section notes whether I’m embarrassed by my association with the product.

Towards the end of the review, I’ll be giving a judgement based on my personal rating system for Kickstarters. Higher means that I wish I’d bid at a higher reward level, a sign that I loved more or less everything I got from the campaign and regret not getting more stuff. Lower means that whilst I did get stuff that I liked out of the campaign, I would have probably been satisfied with one of the lower reward levels. Just Right means I feel that I backed at just the right level to get everything I wanted, whilst Just Wrong means that I regret being entangled in this mess and wish I’d never backed the project in the first place. After that, I give my judgement on whether I’d back another project run by the same parties involved, and give final thoughts on the whole deal.

The Campaign

The Old-School Essentials Kickstarter ran from April to May 2019, gaining almost 3000 backers and raising €160,390, and was assessed by Shannon Appelcline’s Year In Review article for 2019 on as the 19th biggest RPG Kickstarter campaign. This is damn good going for a rerelease of a set of rules which are widely available for free, and is a testament both to how the buzz created by B/X Essentials and the praise for the clear, easy to use format of those booklets paved the way for the Kickstarter, and for the appetite there was out there for a nice, integrated presentation of the rules which wasn’t trying to add its own schtick to them and was as pure and direct a clone as possible.

What Level I Backed At

Elf: The Rules Tome plus the Black Box. Shipping will be charged in BackerKit, after the campaign.

Rules Tome deluxe all-in-one hardcover
All Rules Tome physical upgrade stretch goals
Black Box containing 5 deluxe hardcover rule books
All Black Box physical upgrade stretch goals
Rules Tome PDF
Black Box book PDFs

Delivering the Goods

Delivery was predicted in October 2019, I actually got my stuff in November 2019. That’s damn good for a project of this nature, all in all. Necrotic Gnome kept up clear and unambiguous communication throughout, and showed an impressive level of attention to detail.

There was even an issue where a printing error where the Advanced Fantasy: Druid & Illusionist Spells book had the title Advanced Fantasy: Genre Rules printed on its spine by mistake – in future, a sure way of being able to tell you’ve got a first printing of that! – which Necrotic Gnome main man Gavin Norman treated more seriously, and took more input from the backers over, than I’ve seen other Kickstarters use in handling much more serious screwups. In the end, the majority of backers took the reasonable view that they didn’t particular care, which is good because it would be a shame for such a conscientious small press company to lose out big over this when they are so concerned about producing the best product they can within their means.

Reviewing the Swag

Rules Tome & Boxed Set

Old-School Essentials‘ core materials come in two forms; the Rules Tome is a hardback book with two ribbon bookmarks (one blue and one red, in honour of the colours of the Zeb Cook Expert Set and Tom Moldvay Basic Set), and the boxed set is a handsome little box containing the hardback booklets that comprise the core system (and just enough room to incorporate a few supplements besides), all in a nice A5-ish size and presented with delicious monochrome art which manages to balance an old-school style with more new-school diversity in the characters depicted.

(And diversity among the artists too: when Necrotic Gnome were called out on not having any women providing art for the project, they stepped up and commissioned some pieces from female artists. A little clueless of them to get into that position in the first place, but it’s still nice that they did the right thing when it was pointed out how skewed their initial procurement process had been.)

By and large the presentation here is a refinement of the approach of B/X essentials, concentrating largely on providing an accurate a retro-clone of Moldvay/Cook D&D as can be provided, with additional tweaks to provide additional options here and there (such as optional rules for ascending Armour Class, for those more used to that), resolve inconsistencies and ambiguities, replace elements which were clearly missing from the original presentation, and so on. If you are interested in precisely what changes Gavin Norman has made, he outlines them here, and it speaks highly of the original B/X material that he didn’t actually have that much in the way of ambiguities or omissions to resolve in the first place.

The other part of the extra value added by Norman is in the layout, with Norman striving to ensure that any particular two-page spread is as informative and as easy to refer to in actual play as possible. In general, in fact, if it is possible for a subject to be fully addressed within a single page or two-page spread, Norman does so, minimising page-flipping and text searching during gameplay.

In the boxed set the breakdown of books is somewhat different from B/X Essentials. In that version, the breakdown of booklets went Core RulesClasses and EquipmentCleric and Magic User SpellsMonsters and Adventures and Treasures; here, the boxed set books consist of Core RulesClassic Fantasy: Genre RulesClassic Fantasy: Cleric and Magic-User SpellsClassic Fantasy: Monsters and Classic Fantasy: Treasures.

This reflects the somewhat more ambitious scope of Old-School Essentials than B/X Essentials. The intention of the B/X Essentials line was to reproduce the rules to Moldvay/Cook-vintage D&D and that was it; with this game line, Necrotic Gnome intends to put out genre-specific supplements that extend beyond B/X. For instance, the two Advanced Fantasy books included as additional rewards in this campaign are intended to incorporate some of the expanded options available in AD&D into Old-School Essentials, and Necrotic Gnome have made passing reference to planning supplements geared towards adventure in Asian-inspired fantasy settings which, contextually, would seem to be an attempt to give a B/X-styled take on the ideas in Oriental Adventures. Beyond that, one can imagine them doing a range of other such supplements to retro-clone other games which TSR put out back in the day in systems broadly comparable to Basic D&D, such as Gamma World for sci-fi post-apocalyptic adventure or Boot Hill for Westerns and the like.

Norman teases out the genre-independent materials for the Core Rules in part from the Core Rules materials from B/X essentials, in part from the procedures in the Adventures and Treasures booklet; overall, the core rules relate to ability scores, ability checks, and the fundamental procedures of play. The Genre Rules for Classic Fantasy consist of a few bits from the B/X Essentials Core Rules which were more genre-specific and the material which used to be in Classes and Equipment (subject matter which is intrinsically genre-based). If you have been gaming intensively with B/X Essentials the rearrangement may take a little while to adjust to, but it still seems like a logical breakdown, and opening out the system to accept different selections of genre rules is, I would argue, useful enough to be worth it.

What reason is there to opt for Old-School Essentials over any other retroclone of Moldvay/Cook? As with B/X Essentials, the optimisation for rapid lookup and clarity of rules text at the table is one of the key selling points – whilst other retroclones might bring a bit more of a flavour of their own to the table, I know of none which has the same clarity of presentation, to the point where it’d be tempting to use these books for lookup in actual play in any game based on Moldvay/Cook, regardless of the core book being used. Not only is the cloning about as close as any extant clone (I don’t see much reason to use Labyrinth Lord in preference to this, for instance), but I’d actually find these book easier to use at the table than the original Moldvay/Cook rulebooks, what with their slightly awkward division of the rules into two books divided by character level rather than subject matter.

Advanced Fantasy: Genre Rules & Advanced Fantasy: Druid and Illusionist Spells

The Advanced Fantasy books are the first supplements to take the Old-School Essentials framework and branch them out beyond the bounds set by Moldvay/Cook. As the title implies, the focus is on incorporating some of the options included in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons into Old-School Essentials. Rather than trying to drag in the whole teetering structure of AD&D however, Norman has a lighter approach.

For instance, whilst a few new combat options are included here, the AD&D combat rules aren’t replicated – it’s expected you’ll keep using the standard Old-School Essentials rules – and interestingly, Norman doesn’t bring in the Good/Evil axis that AD&D added to the alignment system, sticking to the single Law/Neutral/Chaos axis that Basic D&D used. This is in many ways a good call – the idea of inherently good or evil monsters has deeply uncomfortable implications, and declaring that Good and Evil are objective cosmic forces tends to open up a huge can of worms.

Instead, Norman takes the wise course of thinking about what would have been attractive about AD&D to an audience used to Basic D&D and broadly content with the actual rules of that game, and concludes that it’s the character options (and the supporting rules like the Druid and Illusionist spells) which really leap out at people in that respect. Having decided this, the Advanced Fantasy: Genre Rules booklet concentrates on implementing the wider range of character classes and races available in AD&D (including some concepts like the Acrobat from Unearthed Arcana!). The extra races are presented as Basic D&D-esque races-as-classes for those who want to stick with that paradigm, and there’s also optional rules given for using AD&D-style “race and class chosen separately” character generation in an Old-School Essentials context. What remaining additional rules Norman has chosen to incorporate tend towards rules which are necessary for the new classes and races to shine – the Assassin isn’t much use without the more detailed poison rules, for instance.

Whilst in the Classic Fantasy rules booklets Norman went for as close a clone of Moldvay/Cook as he could achieve, in the case of Advanced Fantasy Norman has allowed himself to have a freer hand in adapting the rules, opting to make extensive changes to the classes and races in question in order to make them fit the power scope and overall style of Moldvay/Cook D&D (and resolving rules incompatibilities, like the way AD&D armour class is based on an AC of 10 for unarmoured characters whereas Basic/Expert sets that score at 9) as well as making sure the classes and races are balanced against those already presented B/X – other attempts to simply drag-and-drop classes from AD&D into B/X have often run into the pitfall that the AD&D classes are generally more powerful.

To my mind this is the right call for two reasons. The first is that these are, at the end of the day, supplements for including AD&D-style content in a rules framework designed to work from a Basic/Expert-derived foundation. As such, it makes sense to adapt the AD&D-isms so that they fit into the paradigm set by the Old-School Essentials core rules, rather than shifting those to fit a more AD&D-esque approach and thereby throw everything out of whack. After all, if people are using this material it is presumably because they want to include some AD&D-esque options in an otherwise B/X-based game – if they really wanted to AD&D by the book, they wouldn’t take a B/X retroclone and apply a patch, they’d start with an AD&D retroclone like OSRIC.

The second reason I think this is the right call is that this actually reflects how a lot of people approached the AD&D materials back in the day, especially if they were already used to one of the various Basic Set versions of the rules. If you sit down and actually pick over the AD&D 1st Edition rules, it’s quickly apparent that there’s a bunch of material in there which more or less everyone glossed over. Did you know, for instance, that weapon speed is not an optional rule in 1E, but an essential part of combat? Or that in a mass melee where you’re fighting multiple opponents, you don’t get to choose who your target is (any more than someone with missile weapons firing into combat gets to choose their target)? Those rules are in there, but in my personal experience never see use in actual play – and as essays like this reveal, the subject of initiative in 1E is vastly more complex than almost anyone remembers it being.

What I find particularly fascinating about that essay, and the discussions on Dragonsfoot and elsewhere that inspired it, is that a lot of people never realised the initiative rules were that complex until they discussed it online, particularly on forums like Dragonsfoot where a lot of fans of TSR-era D&D started reverting back to their beloved old Basic Sets and 1E rulebooks when they decided that the new era carved out by 3rd Edition wasn’t for them.

Prior to that process of careful analysis and exegesis – arguably the precursor of the reappraisal and new appreciation of older rules systems that underpin the OSR – lots of participants in the conversations in question had been walking around with an interpretation of the initiative rules in their head which more or less amounted to the way it worked in Basic D&D, and that”s because back in the day a great many people who in theory were playing AD&D just carried over their understanding of the game from introductory materials and played it like it was Basic D&D with a bunch of extra character generation options.

Thus, for Norman to treat the Advanced Fantasy supplements as essentially a package of extra character generation options (and a minimal scattering of extra rules to better support them) makes a hell of a lot of sense, because that’s how a lot of people treated the new options of AD&D at the time. It’s notable how when Zeb Cook undertook the job of revising AD&D for 2nd Edition, what he ended up with was a game where if you switch off all the optional rules you largely end up with something which strongly resembles the sort of “Basic D&D combat with AD&D character generation” approach I’m talking about here, and he claimed at the time that a lot of playing groups he sought feedback from at the time reported that they’d been playing the game that way for years.

Norman himself also has a good handle on the difference between what Gygax mandated in AD&D 1E and how people actually played the game, and whilst he does include AD&D-style level limits to cap non-humans’ progress through the various character classes, he also knows that lots of groups just flat-out won’t enforce that, so he comes up with some nice bonuses to give human characters to avoid the pitfall where, because level limits aren’t enforced, there is literally no benefit to playing a human over playing any other type of character.

It’s also a rather original concept. Basically, humans are presented as being somewhat more diplomatic, charismatic, and decisive than other player character races – making them good party “faces” and giving them a sweet initiative bonus. I find it much nicer than falling back on the generic “Uh, humans are unique because they’re so adaptable, yeah, that’s the ticket” variant by giving humans a distinctive niche.

This also has some fun worldbuilding implications. If human beings are generally more gregarious than similarly-intelligent non-human races, that explains how humans tend to come together and live in big bustling cities or sprawling nations whilst the non-humans are living in little mountain clans or isolationist forest groves or misanthropic Underdark realms or whatever. It also sets up a situation where it makes sense for the Dark Lord of your setting to send their dread armies against the humans first before tackling the wise and ancient elves or the hardy dwarves or whatever – humans are good at making alliances, if the humans go first it’s harder to make a united front against the Armies of Darkness.

On the whole, the Advanced Fantasy booklets so far do a good job of getting the lion’s share of the material in AD&D I actually care about into the Old-School Essentials framework. Perhaps further supplements to cover monsters, treasures, and Cleric and Magic-User spells from AD&D not found in Moldvay/Cook would help round out the Advanced Fantasy range – indeed, an Advanced Monsters book has been announced as forthcoming – but with just these two initial booklets you can already implement a range of cool stuff in Old-School Essentials, and in terms of pioneering the approach for future expansions of the game they do an excellent job.

The Hole In the Oak and Winter’s Daughter

These two adventures – respectively a whimsical but fairly generic mini-dungeon, and a small dungeon with a romantic mystery at the heart of it set in Necrotic Gnome’s fairytale-infused Dolmenwood setting – are presented in a refreshingly terse format, with all of the important features of locations provided as bullet points with associated notes. Necrotic Gnome don’t seem to believe in providing boxed text descriptions for referees to give out, which frankly puts them on the right side of history as far as I am concerned; I’m of the school of thought that says that boxed text is both wasted space and an obfuscation of what’s actually important about an adventure location or encounter, whereas providing the essential information in the style offered here allows referees to instantly see what’s important and devise their own description tailored in a bespoke fashion to the action that’s actually going down in their game. Winter’s Daughter makes me want to check out Dolmenwood, which I guess means it’s done its job.

Higher, Lower, Just Right or Just Wrong?

I’d say Just Right. I can see the benefits of both the individual-book format and the Rules Tome, and having both is useful, and the adventures are quite neat.

Would Back Again?

Absolutely, not least because whatever Necrotic Gnome do next through Kickstarter is likely to be interesting in its own right. They aren’t ones to do frivolous crowdfunding – they’d contemplated doing a campaign for a nice GM screen for Old-School Essentials, for instance, but actually the core rules release ended up doing so well for them that they realised they could afford to just do the screen without a campaign. That tells me that if and when they do go to Kickstarter again, it will be for something ambitious – it won’t just be a matter of them doing something they were going to do anyway and using Kickstarter for extra buzz and a preorder platform.

In addition, Necrotic Gnome are a publisher I can feel good about supporting. They aren’t perfect, but they know that and work to do better – someone had to point out to them that in soliciting a whole swathe of art they hadn’t commissioned any from women, for instance, which is a bit bad, but on the other hand they recognised the issue and made the effort to correct it, which is a better response than some in the OSR would have come out with.

One thought on “Kickstopper: The Old School Distilled

  1. Pingback: Blood In the Chocolate, Controversy At the ENnies – Refereeing and Reflection

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