From the moment I first heard about Old School Essentials, by Necrotic Gnome I was intrigued. At its core the game is a 100% compatible re-presentation of the Moldvay/Cook Basic and Expert sets from the early 1980’s–which were the very first D&D sets I ever owned. In fact in a nod to its roots in Basic and Expert, the original name of the game was B/X Essentials.
Every reviewer who covered Old School Essentials praised the game for it’s clear presentation, logical organization, well thought out-style, and quality artwork. OSE also eschewed cheaper print on demand options and instead opted to sell their physical books as high quality stitched binding books. This raised the price to buy in, but ensured the books would last for a long time.
The biggest reason I didn’t buy in myself wasn’t the price, but rather because it was saddled with the one thing that always bothered me about B/X D&D–non-human races were classes. If you played a dwarf, you were a dwarf–end of story. There were no dwarf clerics or halfling thieves, or elven magic users. Dwarves and halfings were just fighters with some racial abilities, and elves were really a multi-class of fighter-magic user. And that was something I always disliked about B/X D&D, because it didn’t make any sense to me.
So I kept my eye on Old School Essentials, but didn’t think I’d ever buy it because I wanted a different type of game. But then Necrotic Gnome decided to come out with their optional Advanced rules to add to their Classic game, and my eyebrows raised. With the Advanced rules added into Old School Essentials you could get a game feel approximating Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, but with the faster and more freeing mechanics of Basic/Expert. That was a game I wanted to try.
Before I could buy physical copies of the books, however, supplies dried up. Necrotic Gnome had planned a new package of the game, compatible with everything else in the Old School Essentials line, which would merge the Classic and Advanced rules into a two book set–a Player’s Tome and a Referee’s Tome containing everything needed to run Classic, Advanced, or a mix of both.
I still haven’t gotten my hands on a physical release for these books, as Necrotic Gnome is shipping to their Kickstarter backers and has undergone some internal transitions which which seem to be delaying the final release of the printed product. But, Necrotic Gnome did release the PDF’s for the new books on DriveThruRPG, and I decided that it was time to pull the trigger.
I have to say, “It’s impressive.”
At present, my Old School game of choice is Basic Fantasy RPG, which I describe as a game that’s, “Like Original D&D, Holmes Basic D&D, Basic and Expert D&D, and Advanced D&D got stuck in a blender and were turned into a delicious smoothie.”
As I said earlier, Old School Essentials is really a re-presentation of the Moldvay/Cook Basic and Expert sets, and the Advanced optional rules throw in a AD&D feel which offers a number of new options. But it’s not just Advanced D&D that’s present, because there are a significant number of races included that AD&D did not have playable. So the game is like B/X and AD&D got stuck into a blender and turned into a smoothie–but with a bit of a 5e twist thrown in for just a hint of flavor. And it works.
While the core of the Classic game is 100% faithful to Moldvay/Cook, the 5e twist appears right off the bat when you take in the number of classes available to players. There are twenty-two classes for players to choose from!
Basic and Expert had the four base classes of Fighter, Thief, Magic User, and Cleric–along with the demi-human classes of Dwarf, Elf, and Halfling. As I said earlier, the idea of “race as class” has always made no sense to me, and it’s one of the biggest knocks players of other D&D version have on the game.
Old School Essentials continues with the idea of race as class, and of those twenty-two classes nine are race classes. This includes two different kinds of elves, dwarves, and gnomes–in addition to the AD&D classic half-elves, half-orcs, and halflings. So this leaves thirteen human classes to choose from, which is a nice upgrade from the four classic classes in B/X. The classes are balanced well, and no single one feels as though it overpowers any other. Except, perhaps, the elf class as it’s a combination of fighter-magic user. But they were always kind of over powered in B/X, the only thing that holds them back is the amount of experience points they need to level up!
Optional Race Rules
If the Advanced game is played, race and class can be split, though it should be noted that any player who wants to play a race class can do so alongside any of the advanced version of the classes. This gives players ten races from which they can choose, with some limitations on what classes are available for each race. Races receive some modifiers to their core ability scores, have minimum ability requirements which unlock them as options, and have their levels capped as a way to balance the game. In a wise move, the Advanced game also offers options for play if a GM wants to remove the class and level restrictions on non-human characters. These offer some compelling reasons for people play human characters despite the advantages the non-human races have, and keeps within the old school design philosophy that the most common race should be human.
Even with the Advanced rules in use Old School Essentials still plays like Moldvay/Cook B/X. Ability score bonuses begin at 13, instead of AD&D’s more stringent 15, and this has an impact on game play. While low level characters remain fragile, the greater proclivity of bonuses means they aren’t quite as fragile as their AD&D counterparts.
Combat is also simplified, and follows the Moldvay/Cook implementation. The rules as written have group initiative, and a single caller for the party. Then, after initiative rolled and monster morale is checked, each side performs their actions in a specific order. Movement first, then missile attacks, followed spells, and ending with melee attacks. Things like weapon speed are not much of a factor in OSE, with the exception of people using large two-handed weapons–these characters always go last in the round, as if they lost initiative.
I’m not sure I like group initiative, but I can see the appeal. Players have a chance to be active in any number of segments each round so they aren’t sitting around the table waiting for someone else to perform every last action at their disposal 1. There are also a number of optional combat rules which a GM can allow that increase the number of combat actions available, but these are written in a which which maintains the flow of B/X combat. It’s very well done.
By default, Old School Essentials uses descending armor class, but it also includes an option for ascending AC that many folks find more appealing. This includes me, by the way. While I miss my combat charts because they looked cool, ascending AC makes a lot more sense.
Old School Essentials organization and presentation is one of the key selling points of the game. I have seen bullet points abused over the years, to the point where I dread their appearance, but OSE uses both bullets and numbered lists well. Everything is clear, and my eye is able to track information without any issues. Character classes are each presented in a two page spread, so there’s no flipping back and forth between pages, and each class’ ability charts and saving throws are included. The combination of the clarity and volume of information that’s included in these spreads is impressive. Though the skills and saving throws use abbreviations which take a bit of familiarization to get used to.
Artwork is also top notch, and includes a number of one and two page full-color pieces throughout the book. There’s even an easter egg in one of the line art drawings of an elf wearing a mask–a nod to the covid era in which this project was put together. Each piece is well-crafted, and their presence encourages readers to keep flipping pages. Well done.
The one thing I think I might critique about the the Player’s Tomb is spell organization, and had I not started playing Basic Fantasy RPG it probably wouldn’t have occurred to me. Old School games used to separate spell listing by both caster type and spell level. This is how Old School Essentials organizes them, as well. This organization makes sense when you’re a player who wants to see every second level spell you can learn, for example, but is a bit of pain when you just want to see what a spell does and don’t already know what level it is. There is a handy chart in the back of the book which has a list of all spells in alphabetical order, but I think Basic Fantasy RPG handles spell organization better. BFRPG lists every spell alphabetically, while including the spell level and caster type in the information block. But this is a nitpick, and that really goes to show just how well these rules are organized. I mean, there are two distinct play styles for the game which are included, and it’s not confusing at all to keep them separate. That’s quite a feat.
I’m quite fond of Old School Essentials, especially when the optional Advanced rules are used. The presentation is beautiful, the organization is impeccable, and game play style stands the test of decades. At some point I’m sure I’ll try running a game of OSE, with ascending armor class, just to get a feel for it. I’m looking forward to the print books coming our for the Advanced rules in the near future. Until then, you can pick up the PDF’s for both the Player’s and Referee’s Tomes from DriveThruRPG for $15 each.