Old-School Essentials: Second Wave of Products, First Edition Style

Once upon a time, back when 4E was the current edition of Dungeons & Dragons, vicious edition wars raged across the land, and Wizards of the Coast had yanked all of their PDF offerings from older editions from storefronts, retroclones played a valuable role. They provided a means to provide access to the rules to older editions of D&D for people interested in the history of the game, and they also meant that it was possible for people to develop and promote their own material for the game without worrying about treading on Wizards’ toes when it came to trademarks – “Compatible with OSRIC” would be understood as “Compatible with 1E”, for example.

These days, however, those functions are much less essential. When it comes to branding, people have generally realised that “Compatible with the first edition of the world’s most famous roleplaying game” or words to that effect work just as well as “Compatible with OSRIC“. More significantly, Wizards have wised up and put the PDFs of old editions of the game back on sale at fairly reasonable prices. Whilst they could always change their mind again and yank them from sale once more, it seems likely that they have learned that all they accomplish by doing that is giving oxygen to the retroclone scene, and they have committed enough time and attention to making PDF and print-on-demand versions of old D&D material available that making it all vanish would seem like a massive waste of labour; they are much more likely to keep the “long tail” going.

This being the case, the classic purposes of retroclones now no longer serve that much purpose, but that doesn’t mean there’s no role for them whatsoever. Nowadasys, if you interested in what one might call a “pure” retroclone of a TSR-vintage edition of D&D – in other words, a version which isn’t trying to spin the early D&D system in some novel new direction or closely tie it to a unique setting, but is simply trying to provide a fresh presentation of the rules to a particular TSR-era version of the game – then there’s basically 5 criteria you’re going to be looking at.

  • Fidelity to whichever edition of the game it’s cloning. The whole point of such a retroclone is to allow you to play material from the edition in question; errors, tweaks, and incompatibilities undermine that purpose.
  • Corrections of errata, resolutions of flat-out contradictions, and provision of material that was clearly intended to be there but was missing in the original rules in question. If the retroclone isn’t at least as error-free as the PDFs – if not more so – that’s embarrassing, especially since there’s been several decades to spot the errata in question.
  • Clarity of presentation. If the retroclone is more confusingly presented than the original rules, why would anyone use it in preference to the official PDFs from Wizards? The fact that some people will be playing using PDFs displayed on screen rather than printed books – something that TSR would not have been contemplating – offers an area where retroclones can make genuine advances over the original offerings.
  • Improvements to the existing system where these do not sabotage the former criteria. For instance, many gamers feel that ascending Armour Class is simply superior to the descending Armour Class/THAC0 system of TSR-era D&D, and if you can find a nice, simple way to permit the use of both without overcomplicating things, it’s a nice optional rule to include.
  • Usefulness in actual play, something which the other three factors all contribute to. If you can play the game more smoothly and easily using the retroclone as your reference, then that’s a genuinely worthwhile contribution. If it’s easier to play by using the original material instead of your retroclone, what is the goddamn point?

These are the four criteria that Necrotic Gnome’s Old-School Essentials line makes its top priority, and they are criteria which OSE excels at. When it comes to D&D retroclones, if you are specifically interested in the B/X iteration of the game as designed by Tom Moldvay or Zeb Cook then it’s a no-brainer: simply put, there is no competitor which combines fidelity to the original, corrections of errata, clarity of presentation, quality-of-life improvements, and sheer usefulness as an actual play reference work than Old-School Essentials, which means there’s simply no better set of resources for playing B/X, the original B/X rulebooks included.

The only criteria it falls down on is that it doesn’t provide much in the way of verbose, in-depth descriptions of monsters (but then, neither did B/X), or a detailed explanation of what RPGs are (but telling people that they can look up YouTube Actual Play videos is probably a better and faster way to help people “get it” than trying to write laborious comparisons to radio plays or whatever). It’s very much a set of books for ease of reference, so you might want to have your original books handy for the fluff. But for reference purposes and for use in actual play, OSE sings in a way which the original TSR rulebooks in whatever edition never did.

In addition, if you are not particularly bothered about which version of TSR D&D you play but have a hankering to try out one of them, I’d still say OSE is worth your consideration. Whilst all the different iterations of the OD&D-Holmes BasicB/XBECMIRules Cyclopedia strand of TSR-era D&D have their partisans, they’re all similar enough that you can incorporate material from one version into another pretty damn easily, and B/X is generally regarded as a very good incarnation of the game.

As far as AD&D 1E and 2E go, Old-School Essentials is also a clone which is worth considering, because among the optional rules it offers over and above its baseline cloning of B/X is separation of race and class. See, in the various TSR-era incarnations of basic D&D, you had a race-as-class thing going on, which meant that you couldn’t play an elf cleric or a dwarf thief or whatever – you just had the “elf” and “dwarf” and “halfling” classes and the stuff which came with that. Whilst the Classic Fantasy rule modules for OSE concentrate on cloning B/X only, the Advanced Fantasy modules work in rules for separating out race and class, which is pretty much the standout system difference between B/X and 1E and 2E.

Oh sure, sure, there’s also the two-axis alignment system rather than the more simple Lawful/Neutral/Chaotic system of B/X (though it’s trivial to patch in the former if you really want, and the latter is arguably more flavourful and creates less headaches anyway), and there’s all sorts of other tweaks in 1E and 2E (the Armour Class system works off a slightly different baseline, for instance), and there’s a bunch of other optional rules or complex rules structures in 1E and 2E which further distinguish them.

Let’s be real, though: few things have more impact, particularly in terms of player enthusiasm for one edition over another, than splitting out race and class and providing the extra options that arise from that. Patching in a race/class separation into B/X turns out to be surprisingly simple in Old-School Essentials – you just use the Advanced Fantasy character gen rules instead of the Classic Fantasy ones – and will likely overcome most people’s lingering objections to using B/X over 1E or 2E.

This is particularly the case when one considers that a lot of the more complex options and rules structures in 1E – weapon speeds, the absurdly overengineered initiative system, and so on – were ignored by many groups at the time in favour of just playing it like it was B/X anyway, and when 2E came out a lot of oft-ignored rules were tagged as being optional – and if you run 2E with most of the options turned off, what you end up with is very close to “B/X, but with race and class separated”.

OSE does not carry out this rules patch in a lazy or slipshod manner, however. Chief gnome Gavin Norman is well aware that 1E and 2E PCs were built on a somewhat different power scale than B/X PCs, and realises that just directly porting the 1E or 2E races and classes over without some conversion would would lead to an unbalanced situation. Instead, he has done a reasonable job of scaling things such that an Advanced Fantasy character built with race/class separation and a Classic Fantasy character built with the race-as-class system can adventure together perfectly happily.

This is a decision which it was probably essential to make. The Advanced Fantasy line for Old-School Essentials is not an attempt to retroclone 1E or 2E – that would require reconfiguring the core Old-School Essentials rules too much, and Norman has been very careful to make sure that Old-School Essentials is a B/X clone first and foremost. Instead, it takes the same approach to 1E and 2E that many advocates of basic D&D did back in the day – namely, using them as resources to raid for material to use in a B/X framework.

The first wave of Old-School Essentials included all the Classic Fantasy material, accomplishing the key retrocloning of B/X, and the first two volumes of Advanced Fantasy – these being the Genre Rules necessary to implement the race/class separation, and a volume of druid and illusionist spells to provide the relevant classes with their magic. Now the second wave of Old-School Essentials has emerged to complete the Advanced Fantasy line, as well as produce some interesting new support material.

Snooze and Deliver

The extent to which this has actually emerged varies. This new wave was funded by a second Kickstarter, and PDF delivery was handled smoothly. International shipping is a disaster area at the moment, but shipping to US, Canadian, and EU customers proceeded reasonably well. The bit of the Kickstarter process which has left a slightly bad taste in my mouth is the delivery to UK and rest-of-the-world customers. This was handled by the UK branch of Gamesquest (whose EU counterparts handled the EU distribution), who were decidedly lackadaisical in comparison to the other fulfillment companies – having received the books in late May, it took them until late August to actually put them in the post to backers.

I mean, sure, there is a pandemic on. That can excuse a lot. What the pandemic can’t do, however, is entirely absolve Gamesquest of longstanding issues with their Kickstarter fulfillment service which have caused headaches even before COVID was a thing. Significant delays to delivery seem to be a perennial issue with Gamesquest, and have been for a good long while.

I would have much more patience with them if the process entailed somewhat more transparency and if Gamesquest were not in the habit of offering their clients promises which they can’t keep. I want to emphasise here that I do not blame Necrotic Gnome at all for this situation, because they received multiple estimates of when things would kick off (first early July, then week of 2nd August, then mid-August, then finally the books started trickling out) – estimates which Gamesquest clearly missed, sometimes by a significant margin, and rarely with any explanation of the delay.

Had Gamesquest given Necrotic Gnome more conservative estimates and missed less self-imposed targets, I’d have more sympathy. Had Gamesquest provided Necrotic Gnome with clear answers as to why the delay had been missed – like “half our staff had to self-isolate” – I would have more sympathy. But as it stands, it really doesn’t seem like Necrotic Gnome got many more details than “we still haven’t done the paperwork and picked out the packaging”.

With these perennial issues with Gamesquest, it feels from an outsider’s perspective that what happens is something like this:

  • Gamesquest offer Kickstarter creators a fulfillment service which seems like a really good deal, with both competitive prices and swift turnaround times.
  • Kickstarter creators go for that deal.
  • If a bunch of shipments come in at once – which is always a possibility with how international shipping works, but has an elevated likelihood due to the stop-start nature of international shipping currently – Gamesquest end up badly overloaded.
  • Because of how their contracts with Kickstarter creators work out, Gamesquest will make no extra money for shipping stuff in a prompt, timely fashion, and are unlikely to lose money for being late. What are the creators going to do – demand that Gamesquest ship all the stuff off to a different distributor to do the fulfillment?
  • Since Gamesquest do direct sales of stuff as well, if they are in a pinch for time or personnel, they’re always going to prioritise the stuff they sell directly to customers over Kickstarter shipments, because individual customers buying small amounts of items each are much more likely to do a credit card chargeback and take their custom elsewhere than Kickstarter creators.
  • Because Gamesquest’s Kickstarter fulfillment service is the neglected stepchild of the business, and because Gamesquest will not earn extra money for shipping in a timely manner, Gamesquest don’t bother to get in temp workers when there is a rush on the fulfillment side or otherwise make an effort to speed things up there because they see no business benefit to them for doing so.

If the above is the case – and if I’m wrong, I want to see evidence I’m wrong, because the above fits all the information I have so far – then I don’t seem much chance that Gamesquest will improve unless they voluntarily change their pricing structure in a way which is detrimental to them – say, by offering a discount to Kickstarter creators if shipment doesn’t happen within a particular timeframe. As long as Gamesquest offer a cheap, slow fulfillment service, there’ll be Kickstarters out there whose budget is tight enough that that looks tempting.

And to be honest, it’s not a problem that Gamesquest is slow – having a cheap, slow option alongside more expensive, faster options is healthy. The problem is that Gamesquest keep getting into these situations where they overpromise and then Kickstarter creators end up in a situation where they have to soothe backers who have become justifiably annoyed, and they don’t communicate well with Kickstarter creators. They’re bad at explaining why things are delayed, and bad at estimating how long it will take to get a job done, even when they know full well what’s ahead of it in the queue and have been in this business long enough to be able to do ballpark estimates (with generous overrun time) for each of those.

Cheap, slow, and honest I could live with. Cheap, slow, and uncommunicative I get pissed off at, to the point where I’ve started making a habit of asking if a Kickstarter is going to use Gamesquest for fulfillment and won’t back if they plan to make that mistake.

Completing the Advanced Fantasy Picture

As I mentioned, the Advanced Fantasy Genre Rules and Druid and Illusionist Spells booklets had already been produced in the first wave. This second wave sees Monsters and Treasure books to accompany them. The Monsters booklet doesn’t include all the monsters from 1E AD&D; in particular, monsters which already got statted up in the Classic Fantasy Monsters booklet aren’t redundantly re-presented here, and devils and demons have been saved for a later supplement.

Likewise, Treasures is missing the full-fledged artifacts from 1E, because those have enough specific lore associated with them that they aren’t amenable to being cloned – though it’d be easy enough to patch them in if you had the 1E Dungeon Master’s Guide or (even better, in my view) the 2E Book of Artifacts.

Nonetheless, both of the booklets provide a nice selection of additional material for Old-School Essentials, and I think really justify the approach of publishing material in multiple booklets which the line has used right back when it used to be called B/X Essentials, because it makes this sort of modularity possible. Whilst to use 100% of these booklets you’d really need the rest of Advanced Fantasy to be in play – say, when classes or spells only found in Advanced Fantasy are referenced, or when monsters only found in Advanced Fantasy are summoned – it’s trivial to substitute in something else or just not use the monsters or treasures where that’s a factor, and the vast majority of the creatures and items in these two booklets can be used just fine without bringing any of the rest of the Advanced Fantasy components into play.

This means that if you want to add more variety to the monsters in your Classic Fantasy campaign, or throw in a magic item beyond the selection already implemented in there, you can just dip into these booklets, and with the usual high standard of information presentation that Old-School Essentials has made its trademark, it’s very easy to do so.

That said, if you want a “full-fat” version of Advanced Fantasy – if you know you’ll want to have all the options from both the Classic Fantasy and Advanced Fantasy booklets in play – Necrotic Gnome also have you covered. Complementing the Classic Fantasy Rules Tome from the first wave, which collected all the Classic Fantasy material into a single volume, the Advanced Fantasy line offers a two-volume set, the Advanced Fantasy Player’s Tome and Advanced Fantasy Referee’s Tome.

These compile everything from Classic Fantasy and Advanced Fantasy into two books – character generation stuff, spells, and basic procedures in the Player’s Tome, monsters, treasure, and ref-specific procedures in the Referee’s Tome. It’s a savvy move for several reasons; not only is it convenient if you dislike using the booklets (and to eliminate delay when figuring out if a particular monster is listed in Classic Fantasy Monsters or Advanced Fantasy Monsters), but it also means that Necrotic Gnome have basically released a beautiful rendition of the version of AD&D a lot of people wanted, a great many groups actually played, but which never quite existed – namely, an AD&D which was essentially B/X with AD&D character options and expanded monster and treasure lists.

It is not a pure clone of 1E or 2E – but if I had a group who wanted to play a game with 1E/2E flavour, I would certainly be advocating for using the Advanced Fantasy tomes instead. Sure, they don’t provide stuff like the proficiency system – but the proficiency system was a) never really that popular and b) crafted onto the top of the existing structure, so if you really wanted to work it into OSE, you could do it. And the presentation of the rules here is much nicer and clearer even than the 2E books, which do a reasonable job on that front for the time. (It blows the presentation of 1E out of the water.) A Reference Booklet for Advanced Fantasy provides an even more condensed set of reference charts, to the point where that most moment-to-moment game procedure could be run solely from those charts with just quick references to other sources to get the exact details on spells, abilities, monsters and the like.

I think these offerings will do very well for Necrotic Gnome. It feels like that among gamers who give time to TSR-era D&D at all, there’s a healthy appetite for B/X rules combined with AD&D options, and whilst Necrotic Gnome are hardly the first to have had a stab at that – retroclones have been dabbling in that at least as far back as Labyrinth Lord – this is far and away the most accomplished take on that, combining sensibly-scaled character classes, amazingly clear presentation, and a good set of optional rules (including, very sensibly, some bonuses for human characters to use if demihuman level limits are not in play) which combine to provide perhaps the best presentation of TSR-style D&D that I have ever seen.

Additional Adventures

Two hardcover adventures have accompanied this wave (a third is on its way). Gavin Norman’s own The Incandescent Grottoes is a gentle introductory adventure for level 1 and 2 characters, depicting a crystalline dungeon in which fairly cute early encounters give way to somewhat greater peril deeper within, replete with hooks which can be used to kick off further adventuring. (There’s even pointers on how this dungeon can link up with that of The Hole In the Oak.)

Halls of the Blood King is a somewhat more ambitious take. Penned by Diogo Nogueira, and provided with absolutely superb illustrations by Justine Jones, it could be summarised as “what if Clark Ashton Smith did his own take on Ravenloft?” The titular Blood King’s fortress comes from an otherworld of pain and horror (it’s not specifically spelled out to be Ravenloft‘s Demiplane of Dread, but it can quite happily be) and appears in the PCs’ campaign world on the night of the Blood Moon: they have one night to get in and out and accomplish whatever dreadful errand has brought them there. (Some possibilities are offered.)

With NPC interaction being a priority (Old-School Essentials adventures have a good habit of remembering that monsters are people and providing at least the semblance of a talking option in many cases when intelligent creatures are involved), and with a gloriously weird aesthetic, it proves that you can have a Lamentations of the Flame Princess-esque delve into bizarre horror-fantasy without indulging in some of the more tiresome excesses of that line (and with more scope for PCs to actually get out broadly intact and not transformed in awful ways if they are clever – it’s not a full-blown negadungeon).

A Zine Offering

The last of my Kickstarter goodies is a special “inaugural issue” for backers only of Carcass Crawler, the official OSE zine. (A “carcass crawler” is the trademark-evading name OSE gives to carrion crawlers.) This offers a clutch of new classes (some of which are new character races, which also get Advanced Fantasy writeups for games with race-class separation) plus an expanded equipment list. It’s a rather humble offering, but a simple model for later issues of the zine. (The official issue #1, which is distinct from the inaugural issue, is already out.)

The best of the new classes are probably the mage – a thought experiment in making a magician-type character who uses thief-style skills instead of magical spell slots, which would fit quite neatly in a low-magic game – and the arcane bard, an attempt to do a B/X-style take on the 2E arcane-casting bard (the Advanced Fantasy Genre Rules version of the bard is based off 1E, whose bards were very different). All of the content there is exclusive to the inaugural issue, aside from the mage (which made it into issue #1 by popular demand), though I would not be entirely surprised if a “best of Carcass Crawler” volume comes out eventually containing some of this.

Between Carcass Crawler and the adventures, it’s clear that Necrotic Gnome is only gathering momentum when it comes to supporting OSE, and there’s promises of more coming down the pipeline. The next major expansion of the rule system is likely to involve modules for post-apocalyptic gaming in the vein of Metamorphosis Alpha and Gamma World, and I’ll be sure to check that out once it releases.

2 thoughts on “Old-School Essentials: Second Wave of Products, First Edition Style

  1. Pingback: Kickstopper: The Old School Distilled – Refereeing and Reflection

  2. Pingback: Supplement Supplemental! (Redactings, Crawlings, and Harvestings) – Refereeing and Reflection

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