Old-School Essentials: First Impressions

Today I have begun a bold experiment in my hobby gaming. In short, I have decided to run at least four sessions of Old-School Essentials for the Friday Night Gamers.

What and Why?

Old-School Essentials is, to quote from the Core Rules book:

“Old-School Essentials is a role-playing game of fantastic adventure, peril, monsters, and magic. 100% old-school rules, 100% modern design. Founded in the tradition of the beloved 1980s fantasy adventure game rules, but presented in a clear, modern style, this game is quick to learn and easy to reference.”

OSE Core Rules, 2019, back cover

Let’s be clear: it’s a faithful restatement of the classic 1981 Basic/Expert Dungeons & Dragons tabletop roleplaying game rules.

Getting here, for me, has been a long and (sometimes) painful journey through an awful lot of stuff as an adventure gamer. It started (amusingly enough) on April 1st 2016, as recorded in the blog archive of UbiquitousRat.net, when I played a spur of the moment game of Dungeons & Dragons using the 1983 “Red Box” Basic D&D rules. [You can read about it by clicking the link embedded above]

We played two sessions with the Red Box before I bottled it and began playing Mythras Classic Fantasy. I don’t for one second regret that decision, by the way, because I had some amazing games with Mythras and it led to me becoming a published module writer. Ultimately, I would not be here as a podcaster writing this had it not been for the generousity of Rod Leary (the author of Classic Fantasy). He helped me find my voice.

Since 2016 (has it been that long?!), I have been on a journey. Last Friday night I was ill. I cancelled the regular Friday Night Roleplay game. I was sitting at home, feeling crappy, and watched a random video by Chuck Thorin (from They Might Be Gazebos) about Swords & Wizardry. And like HG Wells’ journalist, I decided there and then that I would give myself to the Old School. I would give Swords & Wizardry a chance. You can hear about what happened in Dungeon Master’s Diary #22 and #23 on the podcast.

Saturday morning was the big day. Gavin Norman, author of Old-School Essentials, messaged me to invite me to playtest the Dolmenwood Player’s Guide. I said yes. And here we are.

I am running at least four sessions of Dolmenwood on Friday nights, starting on Friday 14th February (fingers crossed) using Old-School Essentials.

First Impressions

I have been suffering through a bout of the flu. It’s been pretty rough, actually, and for the first time in my adult life I had to go to the Doctor and take significant time off work. My asthma has been playing up, I ache all over, I have been sleeping erratically, and I can’t stop coughing. But I can read. And, at least today, I have mustered the energy to type.

On Saturday, I sat down and read Old-School Essentials. Well, I read the Core Rules Book, the Classic Fantasy Genre Book, and the Treasures Book. I realised, afterwards, how incredibly ready I was for this because I loved it.

First and foremost, Old-School Essentials (OSE) is an “adventure game”:

A role-playing game of fantastic adventure, where players work together to overcome fearsomemonsters, sinister plots, and deadly traps in search of wealth, power, and glory.

Core Rules, page 3

But I don’t think I had ever really appreciated what that meant until Saturday evening. The fuller description is on page six of the Core Rules book and is essential reading for anyone curious about this game. Thankfully, it’s also on page five of the free-to-download Old-School Essentials Basic Rules .PDF that you can access (free of charge) from the Necrotic Gnome website here: necroticgnome.com/collections/free-downloads

The essential impression I gained from that first read-through was that you have to approach OSE (and other classic pre-2000 D&D editions / post-2000 retroclones) with the understanding that this is a game, not a storytelling tool. In other words, the game has some very gamey elements that anyone seeking to emulate some kind of fantasy realist simulation – exactly what I had been trying to do in my gaming since about 1998 – would ultimately “not get”. I didn’t get it until I dropped into the Necrotic Gnome Discord and asked about my pet peeve, the locked door.

What I Like

Almost everything.

Ok, that’s not helpful. This is a very much lighter (literally) set of rules to pick up. The Core Rules Book is 80 pages at A5. If you take it all, including various appendices, as published in the Rules Tome (combining all the little A5 books into one thicker A5 hardback), the page count is 295… including the OGL pages. That’s everything – rules, classic fantasy classes, spells, monsters, treasure, Referee guidance, everything.

These are the words that I had not appreciated nor understood until now:

In an old-school game such as Old-School Essentials, the rules are not intended to cover all possible eventualities. The referee must be ready to apply judgement to resolve any unexpected situations which arise.

(Core Rules, page 3)

An example would be the classic Locked Door question that has blocked me from playing these games for years. In short, “rules as written” you can only open a locked door if you have a Thief with the Pick Locks skill or a Magic-user with the Level 2 spell, Knock. I have long known that you can House Rule a solution – don’t get me wrong, I am not a total fool – but I have always viewed the lack of a rule for bashing down the door as an oversight. The intellectual snob in me previously saw this incompleteness in the rules as written as a bug. Now I understand that I was the problem. You can hear me talk about it more in Dungeon Master’s Diary #23.

Old School Essentials is, in fact, what you need to play a classic adventure game.

I like the simple, clean layout which presents a nice simple set of rules. Check out this shot of the OSE Core Rule book in hand, open at the Combat Rules page:

That is the core of the Combat Rules in one two-page spread. There are two more spreads like it which comprise the whole set of rules for fighting. One of those spreads is the Combat Tables which, honestly, you don’t need if you invoke the optional Ascending Armour Class rule. Thus, combat in six pages (or four, if you prefer AAC).

I like that the books lay flat on the table. They are hardback A5-sized books, perfect for quick reference. AND THEY LAY FLAT ON THE TABLE! The binding is good. The paper quality is lush and thick. They are cleanly printed. Did I mention that they lay flat?

I like that everything I need to run a game is in one set of books that is sold in a box set. I rather like the one-book Rules Tome too but I personally think I will be using the little books because they lay flat on the table, are easy to reference, and give me what I need in clearly marked blocks. The players can use the Classic Fantasy Genre Rules and the Cleric and Magic-user Spells Books. I get the rest. Easy.

I like that I have enough monsters, treasures, and inspirational suggestions to play for a lifetime.

What Are The Barriers?

The only thing I don’t know right now is whether I can genuinely make the transition to play this older version of D&D for the long-term. Barriers to me making the transition are significant… but they largely exist in my head, not in the book.

One example? I don’t like this rule in the Core Rules of OSE:

A character’s spell book contains exactly the number of spells that the character is capable of memorizing (as determined by the character’s class and level).

Core Rules, page 52, Spell Books

But then again, check out the additional Advanced Fantasy Genre Rules book for this:

The number of spells in an arcane caster’s spell book is normally limited to the number of spells they can memorize each day (indicated in the class’ progression table). Groups who wish arcane spell casters to have a wider spell selection may use the following rules instead.

Advanced Fantasy Genre Rules, page 50, Magic

You see, Gavin has anticipated the most-commonly desired rules from the later Advanced Dungeons & Dragons editions of the classic game and translated them into OSE as optional rules. I could, of course, of created a House Rule for that issue anyway… but Gavin has already solved it for me.

My barriers are really about changing my approach to adventure gaming.

I am going to have to embrace a different way of thinking and being. It sounds a little mystical, perhaps, but it’s the truth. The grand experiment of the next two months begins with a commitment to using Old-School Essentials as-written for four sessions. I am also limiting my prep time to half the session time per fortnight. Finally, I am going to learn how to make rulings at the table… even if the books do lay flat when we choose to look something up.

Game on!

2 thoughts on “Old-School Essentials: First Impressions

  1. Hi Che, I like the difference that you point out between role playing game and adventure game. But maybe I mistake it a bit? Would you say that an rpg can be more oriented on depth of pc, while adventure game is more oriented on a set of rules to explore and have fun?

    1. Yeah, I see what you mean but not quite where I am coming from. I think adventure games like earlier D&D are more game-like but they are still roleplaying games. You can have some pretty deep characters with OSE. I think some RPGs are more narratively concerned, less game-like, and emphasise different things. Both are valid, both are roleplaying games, both are fun for some people.

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