Thursday, November 28, 2019

Old School Essentials: Review

I remember when B/X Essentials first showed up on the OSR scene, and to be honest I was really pretty skeptical. I thought "Oh, this is literally just a reprinting of B/X. That's it. What's the point?" In hindsight, I was outright dismissive. I mean B/X is my favorite version of D&D, and I had Labyrinth Lord, so when B/X Essentials showed up on the scene I wrote it off pretty quickly. And then it started to get released across multiple books instead of being one collected rules set. More over, these books were not released at the same time. I was like "This feels like a really blatant cash grab. Why are people buying into this?" I was particularly disappointed because thus far Necrotic Gnome and its founder Gavin Norman had made some really solid stuff, so for him to seem to be dipping into what looked like a nostalgia fueled cash grab really felt like a damn shame.

Still, the hype around B/X Essentials continued to grow in a slow, but steady way that you couldn't help but notice. Then, Necrotic Gnome announced they were going to be doing a Kickstarter to do high-quality print versions of this same game, which would now be known as Old School Essentials (a much better title). I'd heard several people I respect saying they liked the game, though none of this buzz really said why people liked it. Were they just swept up in nostalgia? Still, many voices I respected were singing the game's praises, so I was willing to give it a shot. I don't normally do Kickstarters, simply because they don't allow for PayPal, so I contacted Gavin and asked if I could PayPal him directly to get in on the Old School Essentials Kickstarter. He said that there was really no need (at that point the game had funded, though the campaign was still active) because it would be available soon after fulfillment was complete via the Necrotic Gnome web store. Great. That's easy-peasy.

Over 1000% over funding goal! Wow!
And then I forgot all about Old School Essentials as life swept me down new roads. Real life duties, a new partnership with Gallant Knight Games, several freelance gigs, and my own projects all combined to drive the game out of my brain space. That was before Noah Green and his infernal Christmas present.

Noah a man who has grown from a fan of Barrel Rider Games into a genuine friend. This year for Christmas he bought me a few of the Old School Essential PDFs. Well, that was it. Finally, I had to face the game for myself, with my own two eyes. What was the big damn deal about another retro-clone?

The big damn deal is that Gavin Norman has constructed a game that is designed specifically towards active playability. Old School Essential's genius lay in its layout and formatting. It is designed to keep play at the table fast and easy. Rules are clearly expressed and easy to understand. More over, page-flipping is all but a thing of the past. At no point in the text do you need to start dancing across the book to find relevant information. All of the information on the classes is spread across two pages, so when the book is open everything is at your finger tips. Same design applies to everything else in the book. Spells, monsters, magic items, gear - it's all presented with the active purpose of keeping game play going so you don't have to stop because a rule is confusing or because you need to flip through pages to find a clarification. In its presentation, in its layout and formatting, Old School Essentials is sheer genius because this is an element so often overlooked by so many publishers and game designers. It is an overlooked way to keep the game moving at an enjoyable pace.

That is why the game is broken across six books. Playing a fighter? Well, you know what you need is in the classes book. Playing a magic-user? All your spells are gonna be in the spells book. Looking for treasure? You guessed it -- all that's gonna be in the treasure book. What's more, those who prefer a single volume version (like myself) can get their hands on that just as easily. Even better? The product quality is astounding. All the books are hardcover with thick, quality paper. They're built to last. No print-on-demand "middling to average" quality here. These are build to last for years of actual use.

The game's not perfect by any means. The art is inconsistent in quality - though I find that lends itself well to the 1980s charm as an homage to the original Basic/Expert D&D and it being a reprint of that game, it has all the inherent flaws of its mechanics. But it is a perfect presentation of that rules set and as such, it has taken its place as my single favorite retro-clone on the market today. I can't recommend it enough.

If you're interested in grabbing Old School Essentials for yourself, head over to the Necrotic Gnome website, where you can grab the Old School Essentials Box Set (which contains Core Rules, Genre Rules, Cleric & Magic-User Spells, Monsters, and Treasure - each in an A5-sized hardcover in a quality box) or the Old School Essentials Rules Tome (a compiling of all the box set material into a single A5-sized hardcover). I can't recommend these products enough if you're a fan of Basic/Expert D&D and it looks like this will be serving as my go-to old school rules set in the future.


  1. Even though I'm quite happy with what I currently have, OSR-wise, will probably need to get this.

  2. I've been wondering about the buzz too. Thanks for the review.

  3. I'm definitely very happy with my Old School Essentials stuff and agree that the real genius is in the layout and tidying up of the sometimes contradictory/unclear BX game.

  4. Love the b/x era and bought the pdf bundle during the cyber monday. Indeed, clear rules, nice layout, and some artworks are wonderful!


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