Reaching The Apex – Old-School Essentials Advanced Edition

Old-School Essentials Advanced Edition

Author: Gavin Norman
Publisher: Necrotic Gnome
Page Count: 2 books, 250 pages each
Available Formats: PDF & Print
Player’s Tome & Referee’s Tomes PDF (DTRPG) – $15 / $15
Print & Print/PDF Combo – $40 / $40

The Old School Renaissance (OSR) has been around for around 15 years. Broadly speaking, I’d describe a large part of it as a movement that emulates the pre-3rd edition variants of D&D. It has gone in various directions, from carefully emulating the style of older editions to taking older D&D rules to strange places such as the superhero genre. (While it usually refers to D&D, other older games such as RuneQuest and Traveller can be found within this umbrella.)

Old-School Essentials emulates the Dungeons and Dragons game as seen in the 1980s Basic and Expert Sets. It is also a very modular game, available in various versions. For example, one can play the game out of a series of brief books that detail various portions of the game. The core of these books has been assembled into the Classic Fantasy rules that essentially emulate the D&D B/X Game and collected into a single hardcover tome. For this review, I’m assuming readers have a basic familiarity with the D&D rules.

Also available are a series of optional “advanced” rules as smaller rule booklets and collected into the Advanced Fantasy game, which is divided into two hardcover books, the Player’s Tome and Referee’s Tome. While this review is of Old-School Essentials as a whole, it will use this pair of tomes as its baseline.

Each tome is a digest-sized hardcover and 250 pages long. The physical books are quite nice, with thick matte pages and a pair of ribbon bookmarks sewn into their spines. They are primarily black, white, and green, with occasional full-color art. The art is of varying style and quality—some cartoonish, some psychedelic, some stylized.

To understand the rules, a bit of D&D history is in order, as Old-School Essentials attempts to emulate elements of specific versions of D&D.

The strange thing about D&D of the 1980s and 1990s is it was effectively two separate—and in some ways competing—games. There was the “regular” D&D game which effectively started with the Basic and Expert Rules Sets, and the Advanced D&D game, which started with the AD&D core rules of the Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual.

Part of the early D&D experience was discovering they were two different games. Most of the people in my crowd discovered D&D through the Basic and Expert Rules, and with the long-promised Companion rules taking a very long time to appear (and it never appeared in its originally promised form), we often discovered the AD&D rules. The kicker was it wasn’t until the 1990s that TSR fully acknowledged within the rules they were two different, though related, games, not fully compatible. Apparently, my group’s experience was common—playing a strange hybrid of D&D and AD&D that slowly evolved into full-fledged AD&D.

This history is very relevant to Old-School Essentials as that is effectively the tactic they take with their Advanced Fantasy Game. At its core, it is effectively the Basic and Expert D&D game, albeit with many additional concepts taken from AD&D.

Why not just get PDFs and/or reprints of older incarnations of D&D? You certainly could. I think the Old-School Essentials offers two valuable additions over older incarnations of D&D.

First, it is one of the best-edited games I’ve read. It is well organized, well-written, and very concise. It reconciles many of the ambiguities and contradictions found in earlier versions of D&D – and Necrotic Gnome’s website has a whole pdf detailing some of the ambiguities/contradictions in the old rules they found and the decisions they’ve made to reconcile them.

Secondly, Old-School Essentials is full of options. These options are not a scattering of special cases and optional rules but rather well-thought-out ways of adjusting the rules. For example, the base assumption is non-human characters have their own character classes while humans can choose from a variety of classes like in B/X D&D. The human classes max out at 14 levels of experience while the non-human classes have lower caps. However, it has options for members of non-human species to select one or more “human” classes, like the AD&D game. Certain level limits are given by default to compensate for their extra abilities. The rules acknowledge this is a frequently ignored rule and provides a list of abilities for human characters that should be granted if you re- move non-human level limits.

While a deep dive into the rules is probably overkill, an idea of what can be found in each tome seems appropriate.

The Player’s Tome contains the rules players will need—generating characters, buying equipment, magic spells, and combat. Probably of most interest is the variety of classes available. B/X D&D has seven classic classes—cleric, fighter, magic-user, thief, dwarf, elf, and halfling. This Advanced Fantasy game greatly expands on that. Those seven are all present, with several additional classes – acrobat, assassin, barbarian, bard, drow, druid, gnome, half-elf, half-orc, illusionist, knight, paladin, ranger, and svirfneblin. Each class is laid out in a two-page spread for easy access. After these classes are rules allowing the various races to choose multiple classes. Mixing and matching are quite possible—you could have two halflings in the same group, one a halfling thief and the other a member of the halfling character class, with no difficulty.

(Regarding the two-page spreads for the character classes—this is a system both tomes follow where possible, making for great ease of use when gaming or looking for a rule.)

The Player’s Tome has a fairly extensive equipment list, including rules for vehicles—and expansion of the sea-travel rules found in the D&D Expert Rules. It then has spell lists—separate lists for cleric, druid, illusionist, and magic-user characters (other spell-casting classes use these lists—for example, paladin characters have access to the cleric spell list).

Clerics and druids can choose any spells they want from their spell lists, limited only by the spells available to them by their character levels. Illusionist and magic-user characters are limited to the spells they have in their spell books. In the original B/X rules, characters can only have as many spells in their spell book as they can cast. For example, a 3rd level magic-user can cast two 1st level spells and one 2nd level spell per day. Therefore their spell books will only have two 1st level spells and one 2nd level spell. This is how the traditional B/X rules worked—with the AD&D option of learning new spells from captured spell books and other sources as an optional rule.

The Player’s Tome also has rules for play—things like wilderness travel, dungeon exploration, combat, saving throws, etc. In keeping with the feel of older incarnations of D&D, dungeons are often of the “fantastic underworld” variety, with the dungeons themselves hostile, with doors having a tendency to close on their own.

The Player’s Tome ends with rules on retainers/mercenaries and for players to have their characters obtain their own domains. The rules in this tome are on the more basic side, not approaching the detail that can be found in games like Adventurer Conqueror King (or even the later D&D Companion Rules).

The Referee’s Tome is geared towards GMs/Referees (OSE’s preferred term being referee). The great bulk of this tome are listings for monsters and magic items. Both of which hew closely to the D&D B/X rules with a touch of AD&D. There are also rules for creating and running campaigns and adventures, with the caveat these are very basic rules and guidelines about what you’d find in early 1980s RPGs—not detailed rules for creating a sandbox.

Is Old-School Essentials for you? If you’re looking for an excellent presentation of the D&D game of the early 1980s, centered around the B/X rules with a strong touch of AD&D, the answer is a definitive yes. I can’t say enough good things about the presentation. Early versions of D&D could be confusing, contradictory, and filled with some very flowery prose. For many people, this is part of the charm (especially the flowery “Gygaxian” prose). Old-School Essentials does not take that route. The presentation is gorgeous. Finding anything you might be looking for is easy, and the rules are consistent and concise. I’d much rather run an old-school game using Old-School Essentials than the D&D B/X rules (which is where I got my start and still absolutely love). These rules are easily compatible with most OSR products and can be used with B/X D&D products with zero work spent in conversion. (The same is nearly true of AD&D products as well.)

Who isn’t this for? Probably for those looking for a game that takes the D&D game in different directions and/or foci. For example, Adventurer Conqueror King is very focused on domain play. Stars Without Number takes D&D into a sci-fi sandbox. The Hyperborea RPG is a realization of AD&D with a strong Clark Ashton Smith/Weird Fantasy vibe. It’s worth noting with their shared DNA there’s a high degree of compatibility even here; though those games I list here do such a good job at what they set out to do, I’d probably recommend them over Old-School Essentials.

But if you’re looking for the D&D B/X experience, with just the right amount of AD&D added? This is the game for you. Editing, layout, etc., sound mundane, but when done well, the finished product is a thing of both beauty and utility.

~ Daniel Stack

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