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Play Matt: Old School Essentials Review

MT Updated April 21, 2021
 
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Play Matt: Old School Essentials Review

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There Will Be Games

My daughter’s 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons group contains all sorts of weird and wonderful characters: a dwarf druid, a demon-blooded rogue, a draconic sorcerer. She cannot understand why my group favours simpler archetypes like humans and elves, warriors and wizards. For her, like a lot of modern players, RPGs are a method to live out their wildest fantasies. So, by way of explanation, I got her playing Old School Essentials.

Old School Essentials is a restatement of a much older edition of Dungeons & Dragons known as B/X. That stands for “basic” and “expert” after the two sets that comprised the rules. It’s from a much, much simpler age. There are a mere seven classes including dwarf, elf and halfling: that’s right, a racial identity dictates the mechanics of your character. There are no feats nor skills nor mandatory backstory. You roll three six-sided dice six times to determine six different stats, your class dictates what skills or spells you have, and it’s straight into the dungeon.

One of the great benefits of this is its simplicity. Our little group throws its characters together in about ten minutes. There’s a magic user, a dwarf and a cleric. None of them has a stat above 15 and the poor cleric is stuck with an intelligence of 5. Her player, used to the heroic stylings of the current game, is not happy. Like 5th edition, these translate into dice modifiers for things like attack and defence. Unlike 5th edition, the stats themselves get rolled against on a d20 in place of skills.

When we say it’s a “restatement” of B/X it is *exactly that*. There is nothing new here at all, just the previous text carefully combed and untangled of contradictions and confusions. It is presented in clean, clear pages full of classic art and easy to reference tables. As a dungeon master, it’s a dream come true: fewer rules to juggle, easier to find the ones I do forget.

Thanks to this clarity, Old School Essentials has become a poster child for what’s known as the Old School Renaissance. There are entire essays explaining what this is, but perhaps the best elucidation is simply to look at adventure modules written for the system. Keep on the Borderlands is the go-to starting adventure for B/X. It has almost no narrative arc, opting instead to plonk the players down outside the “Caves of Chaos” and presume they’re happy to venture in. It, like all the old B/X modules, is a hundred per cent compatible with Old School Essentials.

We’re running a module by the author of the cleaned-up rules, Gavin Norman, called The Hole in the Oak. It has a similar premise of presenting the players with the titular hole and assuming they want to delve. Inside, it’s even more stripped down: no flavour text, no dungeon ecosystem, no NPC motivations. Just traps, treasure and lots and lots of monsters.

We won’t go into more detail about what they found in there for fear of spoilers. But at first, the old fashioned character classes dismay them like being caught in a straightjacket. They’re used to a paradigm where almost any class has access to healing if they choose the right option. Here, that poor stupid cleric comes into her own in keeping them alive. But as the quest unfolds, each begins to enjoy the distinct niche they occupy, taking pride in what they do well that the others cannot.

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What doesn’t sit so well with them is the mechanics. Simple, as any that’s played a Eurogame will know, does not always equate to accessible. While Old School Essentials has fewer rules, they’re also less cohesive. Sometimes you’re aiming to roll above a target number, sometimes below. Negative armour class and a table lookup to find a to-hit number infuriate them. Thief abilities are checked on a percentile, which is used nowhere else. It’s easy to forget how clumsy this stuff was until you’re reminded of it first hand. The game does have a system to convert to a modern armour class but, as it says, since the default in all the source material is the old-fashioned way there doesn't seem a lot of point in using it. There’s a ton of stuff that isn’t covered at all.

But this is exactly where Old School Essentials earns its Old School Renaissance stripes. A big part of the mindset is about the Dungeon Master making fair calls based on good play instead of rolling dice. As a good example, their party has no Thief, which means no access to find traps. Instead, they’re forced to ask me questions about the dungeon and artifice practical solutions. Any character can find a pit trap if they methodically poke the floor in front of them as they advance. Forgotten equipment like the ten-foot pole or silver weapons become invaluable again.

This aspect of old-school roleplaying, they love. Their group paradigm tilts more toward role-playing than combat and, to my surprise, they embrace the tactical aspect of old-school play. First level characters in Old School Essentials are very fragile, with meagre scraps of hit points and abilities. So instead of rushing headlong into monsters, swords swinging, a more subtle mix of stealth and strategies are required.

Despite their cleric and the caution, however, death becomes inevitable. And here, an unexpected advantage of this genre makes itself clear. The player is back in the game in another ten minutes with a fresh character. Without the need to traipse through pages of backstory and power balancing there’s no particular attachment to a given character, either. It’s a bit like a video game: you die, and you start over until you learn to get it right. If a character survives and grows, personality and backstory become emergent, something to earn and cherish, more easily worked into the campaign narrative.

After the game is finished, I ask them what they think. Everyone had a good time, but there’s no rush to embrace this over the modern form of the game. They found the clunky mechanics offputting. And one of them makes a telling point: there’s nothing to stop a DM from adopting the most fun aspects of old-school play in any system. 

On reflection, it’s how I tend to approach 5th edition, by default: there might be a skill check, but I’ll set the difficulty depending on how well you plan or role-play the situation. Nevertheless, for middle-aged me, who is often corrected on the Byzantine 5th edition rules even by neophyte players, I’m not going to abandon the virtues of speed and simplicity quite so easily. 


Editor reviews

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4.0
Old School Essentials
A fantastic resource for those who want to experience or resurrect the very different gaming paradigms of yesteryear, but also a reminder of why they changed.
MT
#1 Reviewer 286 reviews
Matt Thrower (He/Him)
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Matt has been writing about tabletop games professional since 2012, blogging since 2006 and playing them since he could talk.

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Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #322290 19 Apr 2021 08:50
Excellent piece, and the same take-away as I am getting from my boys (and from the Three Black Halflings podcast). As best I can tell the 5th edition rules are more dense, more encompassing, and in some ways I think that takes you back to the rigid structure of a wargame like Chainmail, the ultra-origin of Dungeons & Dragons. Listening the Three Black Halflings at times is disheartening, as they discuss ways to create stainless steel characters through clever use of the large set of rules to choose from. (They more than make up for it with other content, the podcast is superb.)

Years ago a friend said, "good DMs know which rules to ignore" and frankly, in the original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons books there were rules aplenty that everyone set aside because everyone understood they added nothing to, more to the point distracted from, the core narrative experience. Nobody really gives a damn about weapon class adjustments when the water's rising and you need to release the jail room door.

And that's where I think all of this conversation comes down in the end. Novice players don't need the complexity because it makes it harder to learn. Journeyman players love the complexity because they can craft a killing machine that lets them take control of the plot. Expert players hate the complexity because they would rather get down to figuring out who killed Friar Grazie in the monastery and detailed rules just get in the way.
jason10mm's Avatar
jason10mm replied the topic: #322296 19 Apr 2021 10:05
OSE still has THAC0 right? And 18/xx% strength? I forget which editions had those things and while they are crazy clunky, I will ALWAYS want -2 AC elfen chain and a 18/95 strength versus whatever the 5e equivalents of those things are :)

I definitely think there is a market for a simpler, more immediate gameplay rpg that narrows the player options and puts the focus on inventory management and problem solving versus spamming innate powers and ubiquitous overlapping skillsets that paradoxically eliminate character uniqueness and individuality.

Cleaning up a bit of 2e (making high rolls always good and saving throw modifiers/targets more intuitive, for example), dumping all the elaborate class modifications, and bringing in the advantage/disadvantage system from 5e would make for an awesome one off/tournament ruleset.
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #322305 19 Apr 2021 13:19
This is a great breakdown of what makes OSE/BX so different and how it appeals to differing play styles and expectations. It’s funny because my kids have openly rebelled against OSE- they want 5E explicitly because they want the broader, more nuanced characters and more vibrant modern fantasy ideas. They don’t want counting turns, torches, and rations or the grittier, lowdown 1970s/80s fantasy.

After playing OSE, DCC, Whitehack, and a couple of other OSR rule sets for a long while and wincing at the things I don’t care for in 5E, I’ve come around to enjoying playing it again. I still don’t like the massive emphasis on bespoke characters to the point where every player of every class has completely different builds and concepts.

BUT............

That is exactly why more people are playing 5E today _than have ever played D&D since 1975 all years combined_. This is why the streaming is such a big thing and why actors and personalities are dug into it so hard. It really rewards a strongly character-focused style of play and I would argue that backstory, character concept, and selection of subclasses/paths/etc. is more important than skill lists or the other rules in the system. Which, as we all know, are pretty malleable and disposable anyway.

I also think this is why 5E had had such a huge uptake with young folks and especially in the LGBT+ community. This notion of creating an idealized self and giving it life and space is a powerful notion, and it’s one that does not always mesh with the grognardary of B/X play where your in game ego is ultimately disposable and replaceable.

5E is, excluding the books beyond the core 3, a far more accessible and approachable game than OSE/BX -if- you have no experience with Moldvay. If you come to OSE having played BX before, it feels like coming home and that can feel really great...but nostalgia can blind you to the value of modernity, accessibility, and availability.

I do chafe at the fact that all of this incredible indie stuff- like Hole in the Oak, which is one of my all-time favorite adventures- is second shelf to the corporate juggernaut that is 5E. But does WOTC really own D&D? I feel like they own the brand, but Gavin Norman owns the game D&D as much as Hasbro does. We all do.

I think OSE really hit like it did because it felt like a reclamation specifically for older players and the OSR scene. It’s a back to one step that cuts back the weeds to the core of what has always been great.

I dunno, anymore I don’t give a shit what system it is as long as everyone is having a good time and getting stuck in with a fun story, cool characters, good action, compelling puzzles and so forth.
san il defanso's Avatar
san il defanso replied the topic: #322308 19 Apr 2021 14:19
I've got only a toe dipped into the world of the OSR (I'm much more of a 5e person in general) but my read on the subculture is that OSE has essentially won the battle of the retroclones. There are lots of other games like Labyrinth Lord, OSRIC, etc., that seek to recreate old systems, but none of them have done it with such faithfulness, accessibility, and style quite the way Old School Essentials has. I actually had the physical rules tome waiting for me when I arrived back in the US, and it's a stunning piece of work.

The OSR subculture is to me a little try-hard. By that I mean that it sometimes feels like it's trying to recreate a version of the game based on nostalgia rather than on how people used to play in the 1980s. Not that a lot of people didn't play more challenging, roleplay heavy games in those days, but the thing with these rulesets is that just like with 5e all sorts of games were played with a single system. Often the OSR feels like something we would see in 40 years, when people are nostalgic for 5e, and they seek to recreate the game based entirely from what they read on /r/dndnext and see on Critical Role. OSE sidesteps that problem nicely by just being the old set, and then providing lots of ways to pull at the game to give you the options you want. I personally like to give players max HP at Lvl. 1, and then to let them use the stat generation method where they roll 4d6 and drop the lowest roll to come up with 6 numbers. Then I have them plug those into where they want so they can come up with a class they want. It totally works, and even though it's a little against what I've read from a lot of OSR types, I think it's very much in the spirit of D&D to play the way you want.

I do think that OSE works really well for classical dungeon crawling, in a way that still kind of eludes 5e.

I do need to play this with my kids now, I think they would enjoy
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #322310 19 Apr 2021 14:59
Did it beat out DCC? I liked what I saw of that one.
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #322313 19 Apr 2021 15:29
DCC is sooooo good. I don’t know if I ultimately like it better than OSE or not...it’s somewhat cleaner and simpler (it’s based on 3.5), but it really lays into wild random magic effects, running troupes of low level ne’er-do-wells, and weird fantasy. Their adventures are some of the best in the business- fun to read, filled with great old school art, and really easy to run with minimal prep.
san il defanso's Avatar
san il defanso replied the topic: #322314 19 Apr 2021 15:43
I still haven't played DCC. I have the PDF Humble Bundle from several months ago, but I've not done much with it because RPGs are never as much fun to deal with in PDF form.

Maybe one of you might have to run a Roll20 game...
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #322315 19 Apr 2021 15:46
The weird fantasy was a big + for me on DCC.
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #322321 19 Apr 2021 17:21
I maaaaaay have some availability for a DCC funnel coming up........
dysjunct's Avatar
dysjunct replied the topic: #322322 19 Apr 2021 18:01
Re: OSR subculture:

There’s an interesting taxonomy of various play cultures here:

retiredadventurer.blogspot.com/2021/04/s...ultures-of-play.html

I find myself most interested in the OSR style as described by the author, although I’ve played all of them.
DukeofChutney's Avatar
DukeofChutney replied the topic: #322324 19 Apr 2021 18:34
Good write up. I've read through Old School Essentials, and if you are in the market for a straight up clone this might be the best. It is the easiest to parse and most intuitive from a read.

On 5E, essentially the modern iterations are an attempt to make DnD classless. They keep the classes but make so many and allow you to mix them in so many different ways it is really a semi classless system. Older games are of course classed.

DCC is great, its kind of like a modern 8bit game in that its what you think you remember the old games being like, all of the awesome, but none of the janky controls that you actually had to deal with.

my two cents pick remains Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperborea, though Whitehack looks interesting.
san il defanso's Avatar
san il defanso replied the topic: #322328 19 Apr 2021 20:54

dysjunct wrote: Re: OSR subculture:

There’s an interesting taxonomy of various play cultures here:

retiredadventurer.blogspot.com/2021/04/s...ultures-of-play.html

I find myself most interested in the OSR style as described by the author, although I’ve played all of them.


This is a great article, it made the rounds over on /r/rpg and /r/osr a couple weeks back.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #322344 20 Apr 2021 13:47
I've been role-playing since the late '70s, including some LARPing in the early '00s, and this is the first time I have ever heard of Nordic LARP. I just looked up their manifesto, and it seems like some very earnest b-s. The internet is really good for fostering nonsense, by offering gathering points for fanatics with similar ideas so they can reinforce and double down on those ideas.
Matt Thrower's Avatar
Matt Thrower replied the topic: #322353 20 Apr 2021 15:27

Michael Barnes wrote: I also think this is why 5E had had such a huge uptake with young folks and especially in the LGBT+ community. This notion of creating an idealized self and giving it life and space is a powerful notion, and it’s one that does not always mesh with the grognardary of B/X play where your in game ego is ultimately disposable and replaceable.


There's an entire feature in this alone. It's also the reason WotC gets so much flack for its lack of representation despite being no worse than many other RPG publishers.
dysjunct's Avatar
dysjunct replied the topic: #322444 22 Apr 2021 16:05

Matt Thrower wrote:

Michael Barnes wrote: I also think this is why 5E had had such a huge uptake with young folks and especially in the LGBT+ community. This notion of creating an idealized self and giving it life and space is a powerful notion, and it’s one that does not always mesh with the grognardary of B/X play where your in game ego is ultimately disposable and replaceable.


There's an entire feature in this alone. It's also the reason WotC gets so much flack for its lack of representation despite being no worse than many other RPG publishers.


I'd be interested in an article-length treatment on this (the self-idealization, not the lack of representation), if only because that is so irrelevant to everything I want out of an RPG, and is a huge turnoff to me in 5e, that I'd like to learn more about people who really dig that approach in the hobby.

I don't want to create an idealized self; I want to create a desperately flawed and imperfect character, throw them into crazy situations, and see how they grow and change as a result.

I also find most of the choices in 5e to be superficial. Yet (it seems) people are very proud and attached to them, which feels to me like being proud of the fact that you went to your local Chinese joint and ordered one from column A and one from column B.
san il defanso's Avatar
san il defanso replied the topic: #322452 22 Apr 2021 18:35

Matt Thrower wrote:

Michael Barnes wrote: I also think this is why 5E had had such a huge uptake with young folks and especially in the LGBT+ community. This notion of creating an idealized self and giving it life and space is a powerful notion, and it’s one that does not always mesh with the grognardary of B/X play where your in game ego is ultimately disposable and replaceable.


There's an entire feature in this alone. It's also the reason WotC gets so much flack for its lack of representation despite being no worse than many other RPG publishers.


Might have something to do with the level of exposure that 5e has compared to literally every other RPG product. Even other big games like Call of Cthulhu have way less exposure and I'm guessing a player base that runs much less diverse and much older. Race-as-class, like it's done in OSE, seems like something that would start something on places like /r/dndnext.
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #322453 22 Apr 2021 19:03

Matt Thrower wrote:

Michael Barnes wrote: I also think this is why 5E had had such a huge uptake with young folks and especially in the LGBT+ community. This notion of creating an idealized self and giving it life and space is a powerful notion, and it’s one that does not always mesh with the grognardary of B/X play where your in game ego is ultimately disposable and replaceable.


There's an entire feature in this alone. It's also the reason WotC gets so much flack for its lack of representation despite being no worse than many other RPG publishers.


I generally instruct new players to not create an idealized self as a character as it creates complications during play. Creating someone that lets you walk in another’s shoes is fun, and there’s much less anguish should they croak or be disfigured. If you want to create a character in the community that’s fine, just don’t make it yourself, idealized or otherwise.
jason10mm's Avatar
jason10mm replied the topic: #322455 22 Apr 2021 22:59

dysjunct wrote: I'd be interested in an article-length treatment on this (the self-idealization, not the lack of representation), if only because that is so irrelevant to everything I want out of an RPG, and is a huge turnoff to me in 5e, that I'd like to learn more about people who really dig that approach in the hobby.

I don't want to create an idealized self; I want to create a desperately flawed and imperfect character, throw them into crazy situations, and see how they grow and change as a result.


Yeah, this is an odd one for me as well. I get a straight mega-power trip character (though I find them dull to play) and I get a walking bundle of contradictions that is a challenge to play, but its the podcast favorite improv quirky ones that just sound bizarre and annoying to play with (I heard one podcaster describe a mermaid character that slid around in a giant bubble of water, just seems like a huge PITA for the DM and other players and a gimmick that would get old real fast).

I think there are a lot of "DnD as therapy" ideas kicking around and playing a version of yourself to work through issues seems to be a way to do that. Not my cuppa tea but whatever floats your boat. I don't really care for the official WOTC stuff that caters to this though, I hope there are still some grognards at the company that can get their own product with a more old school feel.
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #322456 23 Apr 2021 00:28
I makes more sense to me that younger people would be more interested in exploring parts of themselves through RPGs. Many of us are soooooo old.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #322458 23 Apr 2021 09:43
Amber Diceless tends to attract players who want to play an idealized version of themselves. The system encourages significant player agency and combat largely turns on GM fiat, so it's probably a good fit unless some player vs player conflict erupts.