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.

Continue reading “Old-School Essentials: Second Wave of Products, First Edition Style”

Blood In the Chocolate, Controversy At the ENnies

So, there’s some controversy happening around the ENnie Awards, or rather an old controversy has woken up again. In 2017 Blood In the Chocolate – a Lamentations of the Flame Princess module which is essentially a gory Charlie and the Chocolate Factory parody with lots of edgy content which many have regarded as pointlessly offensive.

And when I say “edgy content”, I mean it’s absolutely god-awful, to the point where if you find old-timey colonial-style racism and mass sexual assault to be topics which cause you genuine, harmful upset, you may want to exercise caution in reading deeper. I’m going to put what stands out to me (and others) as the worst aspect of it in the paragraph below encoded via the ROT13 machine, which you can use to decode it if you really want to know, since the exact specifics aren’t too relevant to this article.

Nzbat bgure vffhrf, gur Bbzcn-Ybbzcn fgnaq-vaf ner zhgngrq gevorfcrbcyr cbegenlrq va n jnl erzvavfprag bs gur jbefg enpvfg yvgrengher bs gur cnfg. N cbgragvny rapbhagre vapyhqrf n “oreel betl” frdhrapr jurer gur “cltzvrf” nffnhyg naq tnat-encr fbzrbar gb qrngu. Guvf vf pnyyrq bhg nf fbzrguvat gur CPf pbhyq pbaprvinoyl gnxr cneg va vs gurl jvfu gb tnva gur gehfg bs gur ybpnyf.Punezvat, evtug? Juvyr V pna frr fpbcr sbe cbgragvnyyl vapyhqvat n frkhny nffnhyg frdhrapr va n tnzr va juvpu n) rirelbar unq obhtug vagb gur vqrn, o) rirelbar gehfgrq nyy gur bgure cnegvpvcnagf gb unaqyr vg frafvgviryl, naq p) vg jnf nccebcevngr gb gur gbar bs gur tnzr, yvxr vg’f n qnex cflpubybtvpny ubeebe tnzr be fbzrguvat, urer vg’f onfvpnyyl n tbbsl, tbamb wbxr jvgu rkgen enpvfz ba gur fvqr. Shpx gung.

Sounds bad, huh? For those of you who didn’t want to do the ROT13, we’re talking content which was bad enough that even the writeup of the module on the 1D4Chan wiki (content warning: link describes some of the module content) – yes, the one which has a substantial user overlap with 4Chan and is a minefield because of that – calls it out and suggests that the module was just a giant exercise in the writer (Kiel Chenier) injecting his terrible fetishes into the game like in that KC Green comic. (If you want a really in-depth dissection of it, the FATAL & Friends archive has your back.)

The subject’s come up because someone on the team for the Lancer RPG submitted their game for the ENnies, without realising this bit of the history; when the rest of the team saw that the game had earned a nomination for Best Electronic Book, they decided to withdraw the game from consideration and issued a statement saying that they were not interested in getting an ENnie until the organisers disown Blood In the Chocolate‘s award. Details on the back-and-forth are here.

Continue reading “Blood In the Chocolate, Controversy At the ENnies”

Mini-Kickstopper: New Observations On Deep Carbon

I’m not doing a full Kickstopper article to cover False Machine’s campaign to fund a new “remastered” edition of Deep Carbon Observatory, a D&D dungeon crawl from the experimental, DIY-oriented side of the OSR with text by Patrick Stuart and illustrations by Scrap Princess, largely because I don’t have much of substance to say about the delivery process: they were sensible and kept to a single core product, most of the stretch goals related to extra production bells and whistles rather than extra text, they estimated delivery for August 2020 and I got my book in June 2020 so you really can’t fault Stuart and those he’s worked with on that front.

Deep Carbon Observatory is most optimised for BX type rules set, and whilst the original version from 2014 looked to Lamentations of the Flame Princess for inspiration, Lamentations is no longer the new hotness for a number of reasons and there is absolutely nothing stopping you using this from any TSR edition of D&D. In fact, the retroclone I would compare it to these days is Old School Essentials – not because of the aesthetic, which is highly distinctive and quite different, but because of the strong focus on layout, with each double-page spread containing to the extent possible, the full details on the subject under discussion.

Many of these details are quite sparse, a prompt for further consideration – the ideas are clearly explained, but they’re bones for you to flesh out. As with a lot of the “arthouse DIY D&D” corner of the OSR which Deep Carbon Observatory grew out of and influenced, there’s a fever dream air to a lot of it.

There’s a neat new feature in this version of the book which provides you with a matrix of encounters for the opening segments of the game, avoiding a railroady bottleneck at the start of the adventure, as well as a nice range of adventurer motivations to give a group of fresh characters starting out, as well as a rundown of different groups trying to make it to the Observatory and guidance on how to handle the race. All of this can help make the Observatory a bit more of a living environment if you want.

The idea of having an enemy group of adventurers messing with the PCs is far from a new one, but the Crows here are both nicely sinister in their presentation and get a quite good writeup of their tactics, to help you understand how they respond to any particular situation, which is quite helpful.

In short: it’s still Deep Carbon Observatory, the new version is quite nicely updated, the Kickstarter was handled pretty competently. What’s more to say?

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…

Continue reading “Kickstopper: The Old School Distilled”

Dragonmeet Hoard: Basic Booklets

Finally, to polish off my Dragonmeet hoard of 2018, I picked up the five booklets that make up B/X Essentials. As the title implies, this is a retroclone of B/X D&D – the rules version decided by Tom Moldvay and David “Zeb” Cook in 1981.

This is a widely-cloned version of D&D, so what does Essentials bring to the table? Produced by Necrotic Gnome, the B/X Essentials booklets are designed from the ground up for at-the-gaming-table utility. It’s not a version of the game which offers extensive guidance and examples and explanations or otherwise tries to teach the game to you; instead, it focuses on clearly-stated presentations of rules information optimised for use mid-game.

For the most part, this is the game as originally devised by Moldvay and Cook (as opposed to Labyrinth Lord, which differs in a number of respects), with errata incorporated, a little invention here and there to patch obvious holes (like how there’s a spell that the original B/X booklets mention in passing but don’t actually provide rules for), some rephrasing of the rules so as to abide by OGL requirements and add clarity, and with the different sections integrated together and then separated into different booklets. So, for instance, the Monsters book covers all the monster stats, whilst the Cleric and Magic-User Spells book covers all the spells. If you are working from the original B/X booklets, this is already an improvement – no more having to remember which booklet a particular spell or monster was found in!

In addition, the Necrotic Gnome (Gavin Norman) has made the layout clear, legible, and tried to ensure that as much as possible the discussion of a topic fits into at most a single two-page spread – so, for instance, in the Core Rules booklet, the rules for chases and pursuits are all on a single two-page spread, so once you’ve found them there’s no further page-flipping needed. Norman even goes so far as to provide the details of how spell effects work with treasure descriptions as much as possible, to minimise cross-referencing between the treasure description in Adventures and Treasures and the spell booklet.

Between them, these five booklets – Core Rules, Classes and Equipment, Cleric and Magic User Spells, Monsters and Adventures and Treasures represent perhaps the easiest way to play basic D&D available, provided you have a sufficiently experienced referee to run the game. However, while I’m not sorry to own these booklets, at the same time I’d advise people to wait a little before purchasing them themselves.

The reason for that is that, Necrotic Gnome actually intends to make further improvements to the line. A recent Kickstarter for a new edition – retitled Old School Essentials to make the name a bit less inexplicable to those who don’t follow the fine differences between versions of basic D&D – has just wrapped up. Forthcoming are new versions of the booklets – hardcovers with stitching such that they can lie flat on the gaming table – along with a complete-in-one-book version for those who’d prefer that – incorporating some further errata and improvements as well as paving the way for making the game line more extendable. Supplements were funded as stretch goals, for instance, to provide a range of extra character classes not found in B/X, options for playing with an AD&D-style race/class split, and to cover druid and illusionist spells, and one could even see the range continuing to cover other genres like a Metamorphosis Alpha/Gamma World-esque world of mutants and mayhem.

I don’t feel like my B/X Essentials booklets are at all redundant as a result of this, mind; having extra copies at the gaming table adds utility. But at the same time, Necrotic Gnome have suspended sales of the original B/X Essentials on DriveThru so as not to sell a product which is about to be superseded, and I am greatly looking forward to what the Kickstarter yields. Tune in for the inevitable Kickstopper article to see how that goes!

Dungeons & Diaries

Back when I started in tabletop RPGs, Dungeons & Dragons was coming to the end of that strange split between plain old Dungeons & Dragons and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons – which, after the simplifications made for 2nd Edition, wasn’t actually all that much more complex than vanilla Dungeons & Dragons.

The D&D which was on the shelves at the time wasn’t OD&D, or the Holmes Basic Set, or the Moldvay/Cook Basic/Expert rules – all of those predate me substantially. Nor was it the Frank Mentzer-designed rules, as sold in five different basic sets (Basic, Expert, Companion, Master and Immortal) – I was too little for those. No, when I came to the hobby TSR was selling a version of basic D&D which isn’t quite as widely spoken of as the earlier basic sets – to the extent that unlike Holmes or B/X or BECMI it doesn’t have a fun codeword. That was the version divided between a beginner’s line supporting the “big black box” Basic Set, with rules covering levels 1-5, and the Challenger Series, a run of supplements supporting the full version of the rules as published in the Rules Cyclopedia (the first RPG book I ever owned!), which was Aaron Allston’s condensation of the Frank Mentzer rules.

Perhaps part of the reason this era isn’t considered a distinct edition of the game is how closely it’s based on BECMI, except the emergence of this new take on the game also saw a shift in the supporting product line. In the late 1980s to early 1990s, the BECMI line had been supported by the Gazetteer series, a line of supplements describing the setting of Mystara. Initially the setting of Lawrence Schick and Tom Moldvay for their OD&D games back in 1974-1976, Schick and Moldvay dug the idea of making their game world a “shared world” setting that others could contribute to, and got their chance when they were taken on by TSR; with the Greyhawk setting reserved to AD&D, Gygax’s playground, the duo were authorised to make Mystara the default setting of Basic D&D, and locations and concepts from the setting were mined for ideas for D&D products as early as 1981, but largely in the form of settings for adventures or examples of overland settings and the like.

The Gazetteer line was an attempt to provide a more systematic presentation of the game world, with each of the 14 booklets in the line describing a different nation. As fun as this idea was, keeping the Gazeteers in print when the D&D line was already fading next to AD&D was a bit of a tall order. An appendix giving a brief overview of the setting was provided in the Rules Cyclopedia, but this only scratched the surface. What’s more, not even Dungeons & Dragons managed to avoid the 1990s craze for metaplot – with the Wrath of the Immortals boxed set, the expansion to the Rules Cyclopedia which provided a comprehensive rework of the Immortal rules, depicting major changes to the setting, even rendering some of the setting information in the Rules Cyclopedia appendix out of date.

The Poor Wizard’s Almanac & Book of Facts was an attempt to redress this by providing a supplement giving a comprehensive overview of the Mystara setting as it existed in the year AC 1010, a year after the events of Wrath of the Immortals come to a close. Folks like me who came to the party a little too late to catch the Gazetteers could use the book as a setting guide; Gazetteer users could also use the book to see how the setting had changed over and above what was presented in those supplements.

Penned by Aaron Allston and emerging in 1992, the original Almanac set the model for those that would follow. There’s an overview of Mystara and its cosmology (including the bizarre realm of the Hollow World), profiles of most of the nations of the setting, overviews of the armies of the world (relevant for high-level characters running their own domains), profiles of significant NPCs, and then perhaps the most exciting part of the book – a list of events that happen over the course of the year, each entry broken down in terms of what people witness, what the events actually mean, and where relevant how PCs could conceivably get involved.

As well as offering a rich source of adventure hooks, by having these events occurring as your campaign goes on it can really give the impression that your campaign is ongoing in a real world where there’s a bunch of stuff going on beyond their immediate sphere of influence. It also provides Allston with plenty of scope to flesh out the aftermath of the Wrath of the Immortals, which doesn’t hurt. This feature of the Almanac in particular was so popular that Mystara fans have kept the chronicle of years going on a fan basis since TSR stopped doing the annual Almanacs.

Annual Almanacs? Yes, annual! From 1993 to 1995, Ann Dupuis would take over from Allston to provide annual updated Almanacs for Mystara. Poor Wizard’s Almanac II was the last published for vanilla D&D, and largely follows the format of the original Almanac; this means that a lot of information is repeated from the first, but the “here’s what happens this year” section is obviously all fresh and the geographic overview includes some more details on Mystara’s hitherto-undetailed southern continent, so there’s at least a good chunk of stuff that those who bought the original won’t have seen, and the approach does mean that if you didn’t get the original, you can just get the new Almanac and have all you need to run a Mystara campaign right there.

By the next year, though, Mystara’s fortunes had shifted. TSR decided to discontinue vanilla D&D; because the AD&D audience seemed to have an insatiable appetite for campaign settings, Mystara was repositioned as an AD&D setting, with Poor Wizard’s Almanac III being the first Almanac to be statted up with AD&D stats. 1995 saw the series rebranded as Joshuan’s Almanac and presented as commentary by in-world NPCs rather than an omniscient, referee point-of-view overview, whilst 1996 found Mystara mothballed as TSR spiralled into the financial crisis which would ultimately see it bought out by Wizards of the Coast.

Old School Foundations, New School Tools

Beyond the Wall and Other Adventures is not a game whose core system will amaze or overly confuse anyone. It’s one of a plethora of fantasy RPGs out there riffing on Basic D&D; Ascending AC is the order of the day, a simple skill system based on ability score throws is presented, and there’s an option for using 3E-style saving throws, but we’re still dealing with a riff on Basic D&D here.

However, it’s quite an interesting riff, and a lot of that comes not from the foundations of the system but from the trappings offered around it. Beyond the Wall purports to offer a framework for running fantasy adventures based on the young adult/older kids’ fantasy of Ursula le Guin or Lloyd Alexander – stories of young people on the verge of coming into adulthood being called on to defend their communities, in which the roots they have with their home and their emotional connections to each other are of significant importance. On top of that, it provides an incredibly good framework for running games on a pick-up-and-play basis.

It accomplishes this latter goal with three different, interconnected design decisions:

  1. As noted above, it’s based off Basic D&D. This is a system most people with RPG experience will, even if they don’t know it exceptionally well, be able to tackle with a minimum of explanation, and is simple enough that those with no prior experience can get up to speed quickly.
  2. It utilises robust scenario generation tools of the sort used in OSR games like Stars Without Number and the like.
  3. It uses the decidedly modern concept of “playbooks” for character generation.

Continue reading “Old School Foundations, New School Tools”

Theological Tomes of TSR-era D&D

Collections of deities have been a part of the D&D game line ever since Gods, Demigods and Heroes emerged for OD&D. Whereas that was a brief booklet containing extremely simple god descriptions, subsequent books have been more lavish affairs, and whilst the finer details of the religions described have been altered for game purposes I still have fond memories of the old 2E Legends & Lore hardcover giving me basic introductions to various bits of world mythology. Here, then, is a quick overview of TSR’s major compilations of gods, as well as a notable OSR product that harkens back to them.

Deities & Demigods

The first AD&D hardback to come out after Gygax completed the big three, Gary’s introduction to this tome and the preface by the authors (Jim Ward and Rob Kuntz) try to make out that it’s a core book for 1E – and to be fair, under a certain light it is. After all, AD&D was constructed as a synthesis of all the major material put out for OD&D in its core set, its supplement series, and in the better-received articles in sources like The Strategic Review and Dragon, and Deities & Demigods is effectively an expanded and revised version of Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes by the same writers.

As explained in the fourth volume of Hawk & Moor, the intent behind Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes – a motivation still evident here – was to define an “upper limit” for D&D. Perturbed by reports of campaigns of absurdly inflated power levels, amused by stories of PCs strolling into Valhalla to mug Thor and take his stuff, and pestered by fans for ever-more powerful spells and monsters and character abilities, it seems that Ward and Kuntz decided to try and defuse this strange gaming arms race by setting a particular standard as the maximum power level that could possibly be encountered in the game. The idea seems to have been that if Zeus himself only has 400 hit points and stats in the mid-twenties and the equivalent of 20th level in a few classes, your 40th level warrior-wizard who casts 20th level spells and has a million hit points ceases to look like an unbeatable god and just ends up looking like a childish exaggeration.

This idea is alright in theory, but of course it does run into the pitfall that by providing game stats for this stuff, you inherently quantify what the player characters need to do to take down a god. It doesn’t help that the book leads off with some expansions to the ability score tables to show what marvellous abilities are unlocked for ability scores between 19 and 25 – though I am fairly sure the intention is that only gods actually get some of these capabilities, so that no matter (for instance) how high a mortal’s Charisma score is they’ll never be able to exert the awe effect that a high-Charisma deity can. Another problem – and one which the introduction to Deities & Demigods freely admits – is that it is very possible to look at the book, see a bunch of stat blocks, and decide that it’s a high-level Monster Manual and treat it as such. (To be fair, a lot of the deity descriptions end up being quite terse – to the point where aside from a statblock and a description of the god’s appearance and behaviour in combat you aren’t really given much to work with, so I can see how people could make that mistake.)

Another motivation is, of course, providing some cultural context for D&D campaigns, and in particular to give some much-needed flavour to the religious practices of clerics. As Deities & Demigods notes, a campaign world would have to be extraordinarily diverse to incorporate all the different pantheons incorporated therein – well, to be fair Earth itself is more diverse, but then again making and running a campaign world that has even a shadow of the sheer range of cultures and ideas that Earth has is a mammoth undertaking. However, if you pick out just one pantheon, or a subset of related ones, and declare that these are the ruling principles of your campaign world, then instantly you give your particular cosmos a distinctive flavour of its own. To this end, the entries in Deities are divided up by pantheon, and there’s actually an impressive number of different cultures provided here, including a bunch which didn’t make the cut for the 2nd Edition equivalent of this book. (Plus, of course, some versions have Elric and Cthulhu Mythos stats – pulled not because Chaosium were unhappy with them being there, but because TSR decided that promoting Chaosium’s games by namedropping them in connection with these chapters was bad for business.)

Some of these summaries inevitably end up being a bit problematic; for instance, European pantheons are finely divided, whilst all North American tribal religions are lumped together in the “American Indian” chapter. This is a shame, particularly since it’s quite obvious that Ward and Kuntz did in fact do a whole bunch of research to begin with to select and detail different deities and cultural heroes; the book ends up in this awkward place where its authors were evidently trying not to be excessively Eurocentric and do their homework, but at the same time they end up with the sort of blind spots you’d expect someone to end up having if they were reliant on late-1970s Midwestern public libraries and book shops to get their information. If you were writing this thing today, you could almost certainly do a better job thanks to the preponderance of information and people to discuss these things with on the Internet; as it stands, particularly when it comes to those pantheons which touch on actual real-life religions practiced by large numbers of people in the modern world, a Dungeon Master would do well to do a healthy amount of their own research when bringing these gods to bear – particularly since, though the introductions to each pantheon are actually quite good, the specific deity and hero descriptions can be a bit brief.

As far as working out stats goes, Deities & Demigods is extremely useful and provides a bunch of information on incorporating the tropes of specific cultural legends into D&D, so it’s decidedly worth it; you just have to make sure you don’t treat it as a one-stop shop for all you need to know about a particular religion when it comes to bringing it alive for gaming purposes (and, as with any supplement like this, corroborate facts with proper sources assiduously before you kid yourself into thinking this reflects real-life religious practices!).

Legends & Lore (2E Version)

Midway through 1E’s run, when the hardcovers got reprints with snazzy orange spines, Deities & Demigods got retitled Legends & Lore in what I suspect was a crafty rebranding exercise – the Satanic Panic propagandists had tended to cite Deities & Demigods as being the most objectionable of the AD&D rulebooks (“it encourages kids to worship pagan gods!”), so retiring the title may have seemed like a crafty way to deflect their complaints. The rebranding carried over to 2E, the new volume being prepared by Troy Denning and a returning Jim Ward and bearing with it a brief disclaimer that the book neither encouraged nor discouraged the worship of the gods presented therein, but merely depicted them for the purposes of inspiration for Dungeon Masters (a clever way of disavowing Satanic Panicers’ complaints without kowtowing to the extent of retiring the volume and without buying into their assertion that these religions were inherently evil… OK, a lot of the Aztec pantheon gets branded as evil here, but when you’re dealing with a state religion that mandates human sacrifice it’s hard to wriggle out of that one).

The 2nd Ediiton version of Legends & Lore increases the page count by 50% but presents markedly less pantheons, even when you account for the loss of the Elric and Cthulhu Mythos stuff. Part of this comes down to the book not being printed in teeny-tiny text and having more artwork, but not all of it is solely down to the layout bloat; it also comes down to 2E being the edition where context was king, and the authors went the extra mile to provide more substantive notes on cultural background and the specific role in the pantheon of each god and hero depicted; although it is still not a substitute for doing proper research if you want an actual historical or cultural insight into the religions involved, the gods presented here are at least much more fleshed-out than in the previous book and in general you don’t have entries where it’s like “This god shows up with this sort of costume and generally carries this sort of weapon, usually reacts favourably to blah and unfavourably to blah blah” and so on.

NPC stats are still provided, but this time around they are presented as stats not of the gods themselves but as avatars thereof – mere projections of the deity into the mortal realm, as opposed to the sum total of the god’s majesty. As well as providing an alternate take on cosmology that Dungeon Masters can adopt if they think it is suitable for their campaigns, this also finally provides a way to resolve the thorny problem of providing truly epic opponents on the one hand whilst on the other making sure that the gods aren’t diminished or made to seem puny when high-level mortals take them to the cleaners: simply say that those high-level characters simply fought and bested a mere fraction of the god’s true power, and provided that taking down that fraction is hard enough the god remains impressive.

That’s handy, but the expanded god descriptions remain the major benefit Legends & Lore has over its predecessor. Whilst it can’t be emphasised enough that this isn’t a one-stop resource for mythology or religion for any real-world application, and whilst it does cover less pantheons than Deities & Demigods, I feel like I could do every god described in Legends & Lore justice in terms of presenting them as a feature of an RPG world’s universe just working from here, whereas with Deities I feel I’d need to have the manual in one hand and another resource in the other to get a handle on some of the less well-described gods.

Monster Mythology

This part of the blue softcover Dungeon Master’s Guide supplemental series for 2E is rooted in a particular take on monsters in D&D – namely, that they are part of the ecology, that they are living creatures like the PCs with their own cultures, and therefore their own gods (provided here). This is a perfectly legitimate way to do worldbuilding, but is far from the only one – for instance, in a setting based around ancient Greece it would make no sense for the satyrs and pegasi and whatnot to have their own distinct pantheons of gods – they worship the same gods that humans worship, because they are not distinct and separate from the humans’ cultures but a part of those cultures’ mythologies in their own right.

Which comes down to the main issue I have with the deities outlined in this book – they’re all a little bland, in part because they seem to be developed to just generically care about the particular monsters they are the patrons of and aren’t really integrated into the wider cosmology of any particular campaign world. On the one hand, that makes it easier to drop them into your campaign world, but on the other hand it will also mean it feels a little obvious that they’ve been dragged and dropped in. Let’s say that your campaign world has had major events in its past in which the gods as a whole took an active part (like DragonlanceForgotten Realms, Mystara… in other words, a good majority of the campaign worlds made by TSR themselves). What role did these monsters’ gods play in that event? The book offers no help, and nor can it. My inclination in running D&D these days is to bite the bullet and say that there’s a single pantheon for everyone (because those are the objectively real deities of that campaign world), and the gods appear humanlike to humans and elflike to elves and horselike to horses and so on. Different cultures might worship the pantheon in strikingly different ways, or worship a different subset of the pantheon, but a god that’s real for anyone is real for everyone in a D&D world and therefore I don’t think it makes sense to assume that any god will exclusively be worshipped by one species or another.

On Hallowed Ground

Penned by Colin McComb, this Planescape supplement is largely taken up with an extensive listing of gods – some from Legends & Lore, plus some additional pantheons (like the Sumerian and Finnish, which had appeared in Deities & Demigods but not the 2nd edition Legends & Lore), plus some D&D originals like the monster gods from Monster Mythology or the deities of the Birthright, Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk campaign settings.

This makes it useful straight off the bat as a one-stop source, provided that you bear in mind that the book is offering a Planescape take on the deities in question -a bit more jaded and much less easily awed than the traditional high fantasy take on such subject matter, and working on the premise that even if you aren’t going to regularly stroll up to Thor and punch him on the nose, the realms of the gods are viable places for the player characters to go visit. This is a gear shift away from the 2E Legends & Lore approach, but that’s no bad thing – if you don’t like it you can correct for it, and if you do like it then bam, you’re in luck.

In addition to the god listings there’s a bunch of useful Planescape-specific stuff here. Chapters are providing expanding on the roles of gods and priests in the context of the setting, which is decent enough, but McComb also goes the extra mile and finally fleshes out the whole deal with petitioners (dead people reborn in the realms of the gods they were aligned to in life) and proxies (agents of the gods), which is long overdue, since I always felt those concepts weren’t outlined well enough in the core set to be especially useful.

My one criticism would be that in discussing the possibility of PCs becoming proxies, McComb is sufficiently hostile to the idea that he neglects to cover a particularly entertaining option: what about an all-proxy campaign, in which the PCs are all agents of the same god (or a set of gods sufficiently closely aligned to ensure party unity)? That sounds to me like a particularly interesting premise for a Planescape campaign, but he never even considers it.

Petty Gods

Petty Gods is a project with a long and troubled history. The original idea was to provide a supplement along the lines of the old Judges Guild Unknown Gods release, dedicated to presenting a number of deities with portfolios somewhat more small-scale and niche than the greater deities that usually get the lion’s share of the attention when campaign settings are cooked up – to take an ancient Roman example, think the household gods of the family hearth, as opposed to mighty Jupiter.

The intention behind the project was that it would be a community affair, with submissions solicited from anyone interested and collated into a single volume, with some editing for system consistency and proofreading. Originally, the plan was for it to be edited and laid out by James Maliszewski – however, when James abruptly dropped off the radar during the debacle surrounding his Dwimmermount Kickstarter, the project was left orphaned. Eventually, Greg “this is probably a pseudonym” Gorgonmilk decided to revive the project, calling for anyone who had submitted work for it to resend it to him and opening up the floodgates for further submissions on top of that. Gorgonmilk succeeded in whipping up a renewed wave of enthusiasm for the project, and at one point even seemed on the verge of obtaining submissions from Michael Moorcock, Gene Wolfe and Charles Saunders (though these sadly fell through), but found it difficult to actually finish the job of editing. Luckily, he was able to pass the concluding stages of the project over to Richard J. LeBlanc Jr., who whipped it into shape and got it out of the door.

Although in design it is deliberately reminiscent of Deities & Demigods – the back cover is in the same style as the original release of that book, and the spine is in the same distinctive orange style as late 1E hardbacks – this is statted up not for 1E, but for Labyrinth Lord. That means that it’s entirely compatible with B/X, needs only a momentary sanity check to use with BECMI, needs a touch more care to use with other TSR incarnations of D&D, and can be used with 3E and 5E with somewhat more work. The interior design is actually very reminiscent of the B/X rulebooks, which is a nice touch; the sense that this could have been a lost classic TSR supplement is only heightened by the inclusion of some work by old stars of 1970s TSR – Jim Ward pens an introduction, Erol Otus provides some characteristically tripped-out artwork, and the appendices include a welcome reprint of an extensive M.A.R. Barker essay on penning religions for RPG purposes, in which he makes a strong case that if you want a fantasy game which is genuinely immersive and where the PCs are deeply engaged with the gameworld’s culture, you can’t neglect the design of religions – and also provides his insights into how to craft a religion which fits a culture. (In essence, you work out the basics of a culture first, and then consider what sort of religion would thrive in such a culture.) As well as a massive number of petty gods, the book also includes chunky chapters cataloguing related material – including a bunch of servitors of the gods, a brace of new spells and items, and ideas for developing cults.

But the stars of this nearly 400 page tome are the gods themselves, and they do not disappoint. Not all will be to everyone’s taste, since that is the nature of such community-written supplements; some will fall flat, won’t be to your tastes, or be actively annoying and/or offensive. That doesn’t really hurt, though, because nobody would make a serious attempt to implement all these gods in the same campaign; anyone trying to use this work is going to need to be selective and pick out those gods which suit the tone of their campaign world.

What’s nice is that there is a genuine diversity here in terms of the type of god presented as well as the concept. Which gods you choose will say something about the nature of your campaign world and the cultures that appear therein. Some are gods of particular locales – sometimes extremely specific locales (there’s a patron deity of a pub, for instance) – others are petty less because of the extent of their influence than the fringe nature of their interests, either because their sphere of influence is very narrow or because it is extremely obscure. There’s even some gods which can fill in aesthetic niches in previously-described pantheons; in particular, there’s some lesser Cthulhu Mythos entities which would let you throw in a bit of Lovecraftian action in your games without being so dickish as to bring your PCs face to face with Cthulhu himself.

Choosing to incorporate the idea of little godlings into your campaign world will set it in a certain light; choosing a particular subset of these petty gods to include will cast it in an even more specific light and lend a particular flavour to it. Go for the more serious-but-esoteric sorts, and your world will be one where mysterious powers lurk in dark corners pondering problems which would seem entirely irrelevant until such time as it becomes very important to the player characters to get some divine intervention in a matter. Go for more of the genius loci sorts, and you have a game world where locations themselves can make their feelings known through their manifest spirits. Go for the more whimsical and wacky sorts, and you add a little Vancian flair to your world. You can even treat this like the sort of high-powered Monster Manual that Deities & Demigods was used at by more combat-happy groups, and it’d make perfect sense: whilst it may be risible for a mere mortal to best Thor in a fight, it makes absolute sense for a high-level character in D&D to kick the ass of a decidedly minor god of the sort explained here. (In particular, eyeballing it it seems like if you use the statlines as-is in BECMI player characters will end up having better saves than most petty gods once they get to high levels – but since high-level PCs in BECMI are on the verge of becoming gods themselves that works just fine.)

In fact, what browsing the pages of Petty Gods reminds me of is strolling down the Street of the Gods in Lankhmar, where a host of minor religions bicker and compete for attention (as evoked perhaps most memorably in Lean Times In Lankhmar). You are wasting your time supremely if you bother to listen to them all, but given the vast number of submissions presented you’re sure to find some gems in here, and for my part I found the ratio of hits to misses admirably high.

A High Water Mark of the OSR

Kevin Crawford has, through his materials published under the Sine Nomine Publishing label, established himself as being rather excellent at providing toolkits to support sandbox play in his various games and settings. Working mostly in an OSR context, he’s bent, folded, and mutilated TSR-era D&D into all manner of interesting, unexpected shapes – like Scarlet Heroes, a bid to support one-on-one play with a D&D-like engine, or D&D takes on Traveller or Exalted with the serial numbers filed off.

As well as standalone games, Crawford has also produced settings for existing games. Red Tide is just such a setting; it’s statted out for the Labyrinth Lord retro-clone, which really means that it works perfectly with any variant of Basic D&D (B/X or BECMI), would probably work with minimal changes with OD&D, can be massaged to fit either edition of AD&D easily enough, and would need a little time but not much brain power to deploy with 3.X or Pathfinder or 5E. 4E you could make work if you put a lot of effort in, but probably enough effort to completely miss the point of this book – which is to provide a robust setting for sandbox play with supportive enough tools that you can just wing a game without doing any prep beyond that which is personally entertaining for you.

Continue reading “A High Water Mark of the OSR”

TSR Editions of D&D – What Are They Good For?

So by now, it’s looking like 5E is going to be my preferred edition of Dungeons & Dragons for the foreseeable future, and it doesn’t look like I’m alone in enjoying it. In fact, perhaps the best sign of 5E’s success is the extent to which it seems to have taken the heat out of the edition wars – even if older versions of D&D will always have their advocates, there really doesn’t seem to be many people who display mortal offence 5E being the official face of D&D; compare this to the 4E era, when in some quarters of the Internet you’d be forgiven for thinking a holy war was taking place.

In particular, 5E seems to have reached an audience of players – and I include myself in this audience – who found the previous Wizards of the Coast versions of D&D not to our liking, presenting a refreshing simplicity and a tone which captures the atmosphere and style of the best of late-period TSR-era D&D whilst providing more rigorous and unified game mechanics and taking the best ideas from 3.X and 4E whilst avoiding the extremes of either of those editions.

This being the case, it’s a good time to take another look at the various TSR-era D&D editions and see whether there’s anything they’re particularly good for, especially if that involves a game experience that 5E either can’t deliver or is less convenient for.


Let’s address the elephant in the room first: yes, the three little brown books of OD&D really don’t explain themselves very clearly at all. Whilst they aren’t completely oblique, even a cursory read-through will find points where, if you are just running these three booklets to run a game, you’re going to need to make a judgement call on just how a particular part of the game works. (For me, the big thing is how elves are supposed to work – on the one hand, they are described as acting as either fighters or magic-users and having to choose which before each adventure, but at the same time they also enjoy the benefits of both classes. Just how you reconcile this – and how to handle their experience progression – is left as an exercise for the reader.)

Then again, Gygax and Arneson shouldn’t be slammed too much for not explaining themselves with perfect clarity. You have to bear in mind what audience the game was written for, rather than the audience it actually found. Textually speaking, it seems obvious to me that Gygax and Arneson were addressing themselves to experienced wargamers of the freewheeling DIY age of the 1960s and 1970s, when cobbling together a bunch of rules and elements from diverse sources and mashing them up on your gaming table to suit the needs of the simulation you were after was par for the course. Referees are advised to look to Chainmail for the full combat system  (the familiar target number-vs-descending AC system being presented here as an alternative) and to Outdoor Survival for the wilderness map, and so on. Accounts of Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor campaign (as well as other Twin Cities area games, such as MAR Barker’s Tekumel campaign) suggest that tabletop RPG rules were only one of many tools used in the campaign, with Arneson and Barker’s games shifting almost seamlessly from RPG sessions to handle individual-scale events to various breeds of wargame to settle larger-scale matters, and I rather suspect this closely resembles the sort of thing Gygax expected D&D would be used for – the individual-scale component of a broader fantasy campaign, rather than the single game system governing an entire campaign.

Written as it was as a toolkit for folk who could be expected to know what they were doing and who could also be expected to look to other game systems or homebrew something themselves to settle matters beyond the scope of the rules here, and also burdened with the task of describing an entirely novel gaming format and structure, I think OD&D can be forgiven for being a little obtuse. What’s more, it’s entirely possible to overstate just how oblique it is – yes, you have to fill in the gaps, but the dramatic spread of the game in the 1970s (to the extent that TSR could barely keep up with demand and pirate copies circulated as a result of the shortage) demonstrates that there was an active, imaginative audience out there who were more than happy to fill in those gaps, even if what they filled it with varied radically from table to table.

That, right there, is the unique selling point of OD&D. Everything that has followed it – whether it’s been an official D&D edition or a retroclone, has intrinsically been an exercise in expressing the designers’ particular way of filling in the gaps in OD&D. Some of them might capture the nostalgia of the dungeon-and-wilderness exploration gameplay emphasised by this edition, but none of them quite capture the experience of interpreting the thing for yourself. Sit down and play OD&D, keep a record of your rulings and apply them consistently, and soon enough you and your group will have developed your very own homegrown D&D – indeed, you’ll be well on the way there before you even finish character generation. This is doubly true if you set aside the assumptions you’ve inherited from subsequent editions and let your imagination run wild when coming up with your own interpretation. Some of the OSR people like to refer to their preferred style as “DIY D&D“, and OD&D pretty much offers the epitome of that experience. Level progression runs up to 9-11ish depending on class, so there’s scope for plenty of play to take place whilst at the same time the whole “linear fighter/quadratic wizard” thing, whilst still a thing, doesn’t run as completely out of hand as it does in some editions.

Use This When: You want to yank the DIY dial to 11 and get the authentic mid-1970s experience. Adding on subsequent supplements gets you something increasingly close to AD&D, to the point where unless you’re taking a particularly idiosyncratic selection of options from the supplements rather than the usual bits you might as well just be playing AD&D or B/X or BECMI; trying to play from just the three core booklets and the products of your imagination both requires less work (in terms of deciding what to implement from the supplements) and works better as an exercise in reconstructing how things went down in 1974.

Holmes Basic

The Holmes-edited Basic Set rulebook is a weird beast, not quite matching up either to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (which it appears to have been designed as an introduction to, since the text regularly suggests people consult the then-unpublished AD&D rulebooks to cover topics not detailed therein) or to the subsequent B/X and BECMI lines. Its main historical importance is that it’s the first time TSR published an “official” interpretation of OD&D, with the gaps filled in and clearly explained in the text. Granted, some official rulings on rules questions had appeared here and there, but it was Holmes who was tasked with sitting down with the OD&D books and supplements, plus the rules guidance issued, plus Gary’s work on AD&D to date, and come up with a simple introduction to the game that made an easier point of entry for D&D‘s increasingly younger audience than the OD&D booklets.

Since it isn’t quite 100% compatible with any later extension of D&D – neither B/X nor BECMI quite followed its lead, and AD&D went through a number of changes before it finally hit the streets – Holmes has always been the odd one out of the TSR-era D&D lineup. Some of the OSR crowd have tried cooking up extensions of the Holmes game to higher levels – the upcoming Blueholme Complete is intended as a retroclone version of Holmes that extends it to 20th level – but I actually like the idea of a version of D&D that only goes up to 3rd level, and which doesn’t have a developed version of the higher level rules to couple itself to. A D&D campaign where you limit yourself to three levels of play and no more can be nicely short and self-contained; alternatively, a game where you only gain levels through XP up to third and then after that all improvement hinges on getting better gear, uncovering hidden magic, devising better tactics or undergoing unique and secret processes of elevation would be very different from D&D as she is usually played.

Use This When: You want a basic D&D game where things work a little differently from the way many those who cut their teeth on later editions remember, where player characters are always vulnerable and where the linear fighter/quadratic wizard thing never kicks in.


By 1981, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was out of the door and TSR noted a curious phenomenon – namely, that their audience demographic was broadening. Whereas for much of the 1970s people tended to get into D&D and other such tabletop games when they were around college age and maybe a bit younger – and the AD&D books were written with such an audience in mind – suddenly the zeitgeist had shifted and they discovered that a younger generation was expressing an interest in the game, perhaps helped by the Holmes version of the Basic Set. Holmes Basic, however, had a very major problem  by this point – it had never been compatible with OD&D, and it wasn’t quite compatible with the final form of AD&D either – and neither the OD&D booklets nor the AD&D tomes were really written in a style that a 12 year old could easily follow.

Not only was a new Basic Set needed, then, but it would also need to be the gateway drug to a new Dungeons & Dragons – a version of the rules set that combined the clarity of writing that Holmes had demonstrated could be accomplished with sufficient meat on the bones to be a fully-functioning and satisfying RPG. It fell to Tom Moldvay to produce the new Basic Set and David “Zeb” Cook and Steve Marsh to produce the Expert Set, which together cover a level progression from 1-14.

Although people refer to this version of the game as B/X, references in the Expert Set make it clear that a progression to additional sets – which would see the light of day later as the BECMI range – was always envisaged. That said, these two books constitute a complete game in themselves – in fact, between the dungeoneering focus of Basic and Expert‘s coverage of wilderness adventures, building castles and establishing domains, B/X actually covers pretty much the exact same ground as OD&D‘s core booklets whilst adding in the thief from the Greyhawk supplement.

Indeed, like both Holmes Basic and AD&D before it, B/X is effectively an exegesis of OD&D, with its ambiguities and gaps filled in and explained clearly. Unlike AD&D, however, the team of Moldvay, Cook and Marsh don’t try to incorporate everything that was on offer in the OD&D supplement line, instead mostly sticking to the core of the game – and giving themselves the freedom to occasionally come up with different answers to Gary’s when handling ambiguous area of the rules, when doing so will simplify matters. This is most evident in their treatment of nonhuman PCs, in which “elf”, “dwarf” and “halfling” are treated as character classes in their own right rather than separating race and class. This isn’t quite how it’s handled in OD&D, but since the core OD&D books didn’t give any alternative class options for elves, dwarves and halflings the end result is much the same, without the added complexity of separating out race and class.

One major strength of B/X is its eminently sensible refereeing advice – including a down-to-earth suggestion that if you don’t know how to adjudicate something you can just assign an odds-out-of-six chance to it and let the player roll – coupled with its economy of rules. Those rules it does present, it presents clearly and with more or less all of the gaps in the OD&D rules filled in. At the same time, it doesn’t follow the lead of AD&D in offering fiddly little rules to deal with finer points of the simulation or to handle unusual cases, and as such it’s a very bare-bones framework for a game. I suspect that this is why a lot of the modern wave of OSR games, particularly the more divergent ones rather than deliberate retroclones, end up riffing on either OD&D or the various Basic versions of D&D, as opposed to 1E AD&D; if you aren’t working in lots of precise little rules for edge cases and special exceptions you’re not really capturing the spirit of 1E, whereas it’s much easier to take the massively simpler frameworks of OD&D or the Basic versions and adapt them to different purposes.

Use This When: You want to recapture the classic, nostalgic D&D style with a system that gives plenty of scope for houseruling and adaptation and covers everything OD&D offers whilst not having as many gaps to fill in as OD&D.

BECMI/Rules Cyclopedia

I have to confess to a smidge of bias here; the Rules Cyclopedia is the first RPG product I ever owned, so the odds of me slamming it are remote in the extreme simply thanks to the sentimental value.

Nonetheless, I think it remains the best statement of the BECMI line of the game. It doesn’t include the “I” part, beyond rules for ascension to immortality – the Immortals rules being revised and presented in the separate Wrath of the Immortals boxed set – but the Immortals game was effectively a whole distinct game from the rest of BECMI, with Immortal characters effectively being designed on a whole different basis and scale in order to account for their supreme power and the cosmic scale of their adventures. Since only the most long-running campaigns could ever expect to see a single PC ascend to immortality through playing from level 1 in the first place, its absence hardly cramps anyone’s style, and indeed I suspect most Immortals games were played by folk who specifically planned from the get-go to play an Immortals game.

The Rules Cyclopedia, then, consists of Aaron Allston taking the BECM boxes and a pinch of I and integrating them into a cohesive whole. The BECMI boxed sets – Basic, Expert, Companion, Master and Immortal – were designed by Frank Mentzer from 1983 to 1985. The latter three sets were original to this edition, and as well as the aforementioned divine ascension and immortals rules included detailed rules for mass battles, domain management, and a range of optional bits and pieces derived from the broader OD&D range; the Basic and Expert sets were complete revisions of the Moldvay-Cook-Marsh sets with an emphasis on tweaking the math to better fit a progression to 36th level and an even younger reading age.

The thing about BECMI is that by the time you have five boxed sets of stuff, including bits in later boxes that add new options suitable for the level tiers of earlier boxes, it’s downright unwieldy to juggle that many books. At the same time, if you just limit yourself to the first couple of boxes or something then you may as well just play B/X, especially since BECMI does rather screw over some character types if you don’t allow options from the later sets. (In particular, thieves get boned at low level in BECMI on their skill percentages due to the need to stretch their skill advancement out over 36 levels.)

The Rules Cyclopedia doesn’t distinguish between which rule goes in which set, but integrates them into a seamless whole and clearly flags which rules are optional, in a presentation very reminiscent of Zeb Cook’s work on AD&D 2E. What you get out of that is a system clearly distinguished from AD&D by decisions like race-as-class and paladins as a sort of early prestige class that high level fighters could qualify for and other such distinctions, and also offers far superior support for domain management, mass battles and sieges than any other edition of the game has ever offered, whilst at the same time being simple enough to encapsulate in one book.

On top of all that, the Cyclopedia also throws in an introduction to Mystara, the BECMI campaign setting developed through modules and the Gazetteer series of setting supplements and which would see subsequent development in the Poor Wizard’s Almanac series. Whilst Mystara doesn’t often make sense by Earthly logic, it is a campaign world built from the ground up to reflect the distinctive BECMI rules, and the setting material here offers plenty of seeds for further development. Guidelines for conversion to and from AD&D 2E are given, but whilst some Mystara products were made for AD&D after the basic line was retired for good it’s a better fit for BECMI, the setting that shaped its cosmos in the first place.

Use This When: You want a D&D that covers lots of options in a single book, or when you want to run a game with a significant domain management or mass battle aspect, or if you fancy exploring Mystara.


It’s become a well-aired fact by this point that the intention behind Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was to provide a coherent, consistent set of rules for the purposes of tournaments and other types of organised play, as well as to improve consistency of experience and dial back the wild degree of local variation in interpretation of D&D that characterised the OD&D era (and to hopefully ease off on the number of rules queries pouring into TSR!). This is no great insight; Gary Gygax makes this point explicit from the get-go. What it also provides, as part of that, is a heaped spoonful of insight into why TSR-era D&D is the way it is.

One of the things a lot of people come away from when they read these core books – especially the Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide, which are much less straight-down-to-business than the Monster Manual – is how intensely waffley they are, with Gygax offering mini-essays on all sorts of topics. (He begins the Dungeon Master’s Guide by offering the reader an honest to goodness mini-lecture on die roll probabilities.) Some quarters of the OSR love this “Gygaxian prose” for its own sake, almost to a point of fetishising it, but I think there is an extent to which it is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can have the unfortunate consequence of obscuring some rules and cluttering up the presentation of the rulebooks, which could be much clearer. (Indeed, 2E would accomplish a much more easily understood presentation of AD&D and 90% of that involves rewriting the whole text to much better communicate the rules concepts.) On the other hand, it’s also immensely valuable as an explanation of why various parts of the game are the way they are – for instance, there’s a section in the Dungeon Master’s Guide which explains how demihuman level limits are applied because the game is conceived of specifically as being a humanocentric game.

This is a boon to anyone who wants to understand the design of the game, and is especially useful to anyone who wants to actually houserule TSR-era D&D, because it helps to flag what effect a particular rule is intended to accomplish, allowing you to both judge whether you’re applying it right, whether the rule actually is having the effect it’s supposed to have at your own table, and what unexpected consequences might arise from changing it. The player advice in the Player’s Handbook is invaluable for setting expectations if you’re going to be playing in a consciously “old-school”-styled game; likewise, the refereeing advice in the Dungeon Master’s Guide is extremely useful if you want to run the game as Gary envisaged it, and if you don’t want to do that it’s still useful in working out what you need to change to make the game work the way you want it to.

In this respect, I think Gary managed to pull off a very sly trick, though there is ample room for debate as to whether or not it was intentional. On the one hand, these books provide a useful amalgamation of OD&D and supplements which largely sets aside the need to puzzle out just how some of the moving parts are meant to fit together, and provides a clear model for the sort of standardised gaming the AD&D project was supposed to promote. At the same time, Gygax’s tangents provide the reader with a deep enough understanding of the system to go decidedly non-standard if they have the desire to do so. In other words, it’s not so much like learning how a car engine works by reading the manual yourself and more like an avuncular engineer opening up the bonnet for you, taking you through the different parts of the engine, and explaining what each part does and why it’s designed that way.

Of the three books, the Monster Manual is a particularly useful one for any incarnation of TSR D&D, since aside from mild conversions needed (such as the differing armour class scale between OD&D and the various Basic incarnations on one hand and the Advanced line on the other) the monsters can be happily dragged-and-dropped into any other version of TSR D&D without trouble. (Indeed, you don’t necessarily have to bother with the conversions – the AC adjustments will only make a difference of one point either way, after all, which does have some small effect but is “close enough for government work” in my eyes.) It’s even useful if you have 2nd Edition, since it details the various devils and demons with many more options than the tiny selection offered in the Monstrous Manual. It also provides a nicely sparse baseline for monster descriptions, so it can be handy to use if you want to deploy these monsters but come up with your own interpretation of them based on the central premise offered here rather than following the more expansive treatments they get in the monster books of later editions.

On the other hand, the Player’s Handbook adequately covers character generation, equipment purchasing and spell selection, and it provides a reasonable set of rules for half-orcs (for those who want to, for instance, use those in 2E without resorting to The Complete Book of Humanoids) and assassins (which to my eye look better than the assassin thief kit from The Complete Book of Thieves in 2E), it is missing some significant features. For instance, the combat matrices and other significant tables and details are all in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, leaving players mostly reliant on the Dungeon Master to tell them when they have or haven’t hit. Now, to be fair this is entirely consistent with Gygax’s reported refereeing style, in which largely players weren’t expect to engage too much with the fine details of the rules in favour of declaring their intentions and rolling dice as directed, and if you want to run a game in that style it’s just fine. On the other hand, if you want to run a game in that style you can still do it whilst giving the players a full overview of the combat system by simply not telling them what the armour class of the enemies they are facing is, whereas if you want to run a game where the players have a fairly good idea of what the rules are and are able to shoulder part of the burden of working out whether they’ve succeeded or not then the Player’s Handbook by itself doesn’t quite give you those tools.

Speaking of tools though, the Dungeon Master’s Guide for this edition is a true masterpiece, offering not just an in-depth discussion of the system but also an incredibly deep grab-bag of information, random tables, and other guidance for subjects ranging from stronghold construction to filling out city encounters to generating dungeons and more besides. It also provides the best overview of artifacts you can find in the TSR D&D range outside of 2E‘s separate Book of Artifacts, and in general manages to cram in more material in its pages than any subsequent Dungeon Master’s Guide, making it a useful resource to keep on hand to dip into even for post-TSR versions of D&D. (The random prostitute table might be a step too far for most games, mind.)

And really, one of the things this version of the game is best for is dipping into. Whilst some old schoolers out there take pride in playing and running 1E as-written, many others confess that they never actually did that – instead, they just used it as a source of monsters, items, spells, and character creation details and used rules procedures inherited from OD&D or Basic. To be honest, there’s a lot of material in here which even Gary himself admitted he never used in his own games but included for a sense of completeness – the optional psionic rules are a major example there – and still more stuff which few people have the patience to use in practice (such as adjustments for weapon speed and weapons vs. armour types).

Use This When: You want to really get under the hood of TSR-era D&D and see how it works, or you want to have an especially deep and varied toolkit of resources to draw on.


“Zeb” Cook didn’t re-invent the wheel with the 2E core books, but then again that was never the purpose. Whilst the total re-organisation and rewriting of the rules could be interpreted as a cynical bid to deny royalties to Gary Gygax, it was also unquestionably needed, particularly with the shift that had already begun with people diving in straight to AD&D as a starter game rather than the BECMI line, which TSR had just begun to neglect at around this time and ended up walking away from entirely midway through 2E’s tenure.

The major gear shift between this and 1E is TSR stepping away a little from standardisation. Whilst organised play and tournaments are still a consideration – there’s even an advert for the RPGA at the back of my copy of the Player’s Handbook – a wide swathe of rules in both the Player’s Handbook and the Dungeon Master’s Guide are tagged as being optional. In some cases, multiple different options are presented – for instance, when it comes to skills going beyond your immediately obvious class powers, you can go the old-school route of rolling up a secondary career and having your character be broadly good at the sort of stuff members of that profession would be good at, or you could use the non-weapon proficiency rules (a cleaned-up version of the rules which had crept in in the late 1E era), or you can not bother at all and just wing it.

The Player’s Handbook also brings in the split of spells into wizardly schools and priest spheres, as was previewed in the Dragonlance Adventures hardcover, allowing for the portrayal of a range of specialist wizards straight out of the book and pointing to how speciality priests could be implemented. Indeed, a major part of the 2E project seems to have involved adding extra flavour to the character classes, though a large part of this would be through the use of class kits in the Complete (Whatever)’s Handbook series of splatbooks. I intend to look at those in a later article, but my major thought about the kit mechanic is that it’s a clunky solution to a problem that 5E solves much more elegantly with its Backgrounds mechanic, but if you want to implement the 2E versions of kits then you really need to be running 2E to do it, since a lot of their differentiation arises from the nonweapon proficiency rules presented here.

Another thing the 2E Player’s Handbook does is provide a far larger proportion of the system than the 1E book did – 2E players are equipped to understand what is going on in combat far better, in particular. This makes sense partly as a reflection of shifting priorities in gaming, partly because the old 1E combat system just wasn’t a mystery any more – keeping secrets is all very well, but there’s a statute of limitations on these things.

Unfortunately, the shift of material to the Player’s Handbook from the Dungeon Master’s Guide, whilst it does mean much less cross-referencing when you want to figure out how a bit of the rules works, isn’t accompanied by a commensurate increase in fresh, new material on offer in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. In fact, the 2E Guide is downright sparse, offering useful advice on implementing the system and a few things like treasure and magic item descriptions and rules for awarding experience points and class design that are of use, but presenting nowhere near the encyclopedic range of tools and useful bits that the 1E Guide did. Whilst subsequent supplements would meet the gap to a certain extent, I’d still suggest anyone looking to run a 2E campaign to have a copy of Gary’s original 1E Dungeon Master’s Guide to hand simply because of all the useful stuff in there which isn’t replicated here. There are those who consider the 2E Dungeon Master’s Guide to be the worst Guide of any edition, and I can’t really disagree there – it’s not that the material here is bad, far from it, it’s just that there really isn’t that much of it.

The monster book for 2E went through a couple of incarnations. Initially, TSR tried to push the Monstrous Compendium on us – a big fat ring binder of monsters, with specialised appendixes (like compendia for specific campaign settings) sold as bundles of extra sheets to go in the binders. This was a fun idea that rapidly became irritating when it came to its logistical implementation and was scrapped in favour of more conventional monster books, with the new Monstrous Manual being the core one.

That said, a happy side-effect of the ring binder format was that each monster needed to fill an entire sheet of the book (unless several closely-related monsters could viably share a sheet). The way the writers padded the material out was to provide discussions of the ecology, habitat, and – for those monsters that exhibited it – social behaviour of the monsters in question. This is an absolute boon for world builders. Whilst the 5E Monster Manual is very, very good at giving you enough detail on a monster to have a solid idea of how to deploy it in an adventure, the 2E Monstrous Manual shows you how a monster fits into a world, and so referees very keen on constructing vivid settings with a sense of verisimilitude could do a lot worse than use the 2E Monstrous Manual as an aid in this.

So, a solid Player’s Handbook, a weak Dungeon Master’s Guide, a monster book which is pretty damn good but took a couple of tries before it found a useful format, and a rules system that resembles 1E with all the bits people couldn’t be bothered with brushed under the carpet: all very well, but what’s the unique selling point of 2E? Many would say the campaign settings. Whilst some settings have seen the light of day in subsequent editions – GreyhawkForgotten Realms, DragonlanceRavenloft and Dark Sun all got at least some love after 2E – in many cases fans consider the 2E renditions of those campaign settings to be the definitive and best versions thereof. (Even in the case of Greyhawk, whose heyday was arguably the 1E era, there’s a faction of fans who consider the 2E era From the Ashes boxed set to be their favourite presentation of the setting.) Still more settings never saw the light of day after 2E – PlanescapeBirthright, and Spelljammer were 2E exclusives, whilst Mystara – previously the setting developed in the BECMI Gazeteer series – had a late renaissance under 2E, especially when it came to the 2E-exclusive Red Steel campaign setting.

Whilst it is entirely possible that 5E versions of all these settings will eventually see the light of day, odds are that some of the less well-celebrated settings will remain as legacy products generating a trickle of PDF sales on dndclassics.com, and given the sluggish pace of Wizards’ 5E publication schedule it seems doubtful that even flagship campaign settings like the Forgotten Realms will get as broad and deep a range of products for them under 5E as they received under 2E. Whilst conversion from 2E to 5E is far from difficult, it can still be useful to have the 2E books on hand to perform such conversions – and if you just run the settings in question in 2E, you save yourself the job of conversion altogether.

Use This When: You want to play a version of AD&D which is much easier to navigate than 1E, or if kits and/or proficiencies really appeal to you, or when you want to use one of those classic campaign settings.

And What of the Clones?

Retro-clone RPGs arose for two reasons. The first and more obvious one is to use the D20 OGL to craft games which allow people to play old editions of Dungeons & Dragons without scoring second-hand copies of the books. The second reason, and the primary impetus behind the completion of OSRIC (the primary 1E retro-clone and the first game to kick off the flood of them), is to provide a way for people to publish support materials for old versions of Dungeons & Dragons – say that your product is “compatible with (retro-clone)”, and customers in the know will be able to tell that it’s also compatible with the appropriate edition of D&D.

The first purpose is basically redundant, for the time being – Wizards of the Coast seem to have decided that, in retrospect, pulling all the D&D PDFs from DriveThruRPG was a daft idea, and dndclassics.com seems to have been a reasonable success for them. Although in principle they could pull the PDFs all over again, in practice this would be utterly pointless – they know full well that all this would accomplish would be to drive customers to the retro-clones, so in a situation where they can’t stop people putting out PDFs of their old rules (or simulacra close enough as to make no difference) they might as well sell the PDFs themselves and get some scratch out of it. Of course, the OD&D booklets aren’t on dndclassics yet, so I suppose until that is the case there’s still a space for Swords & Wizardry, and even once those PDFs are out Swords & Wizardry may have a place in the ecosystem since it’s much better organised than the OD&D booklets and does a lot of the heavy lifting of interpreting them for you – but as I’ve argued above, doing an exegesis of OD&D is part of the point with engaging with OD&D in the first place, and B/X already provides a perfectly good interpretation of OD&D – whilst it does differ from OD&D in some respects, these are so slight that only people who get really intensely nit-picky about very minor details of the rules could possibly consider that a deal-breaker.

For the most part, then, the purist retro-clones are semi-redundant: they’re still useful as tags to put on a product if you fancy churning out products for TSR-era D&D, but actually using their core rulebooks isn’t actually that much more convenient than using the actual editions they’re mimicing, particularly since aside from OD&D most TSR versions of D&D are available for decent prices second-hand if you really want hardcopies of stuff. This is presumably why the OSR scene is moving away from straight clones; Lamentations of the Flame Princess‘s successive releases put increasing emphasis on its particular aesthetic and the conceit of setting the game in 16th Century Europe, for instance, whilst Sine Nomine’s Scarlet Heroes is interesting more in the way it tweaks TSR-era D&D to better support games with only 1 player character than in its emulation of any particular edition of TSR-era D&D.

In general, I find that I’m more interested in D&D-alike OSR games the further they drift from traditional D&D fantasy. Adventurer Conqueror King System might have an interesting domain management system attached, but I don’t really fancy investing in yet another presentation of B/X basic principles just to get my hands on those domain rules. Conversely, I very much see the point of a game like Stars Without Number, which adapts old-school D&D to support a game much like old-school Traveller. It’s not for me – I already have a game which covers that type of play perfectly well, it’s called Traveller – but it feels like a more worthwhile idea for a project than yet another restatement of old-school D&D.