Saturday, September 4, 2021

Okay I can see why so many People Love Old-School Essentials

 One of my friendly local game stores has taken to stocking all sorts of hard to find indie and OSR titles in recent months and this has allowed me to, among other things, get my hands on Old School Essentials RPG, specifically the Advanced Player's Guide and Advanced Referee's Guide. These have been genuinely difficult to find online, always appearing to be sold out wherever I go. Admittedly, part of me was also suspicious that should I buy OSE, I'd just be getting yet another variant on the exact same classic B/X/Advanced experience I have in countless other tomes.

Well, while it is certainly true that I have bought yet another OSR variant, I can now see (and very quickly, I might add) why Old-School Essentials RPG is no mere OSR heartbreaker, but a genuinely good game as well as a noteworthy evolution in what it means to be an OSR homage to D&D.

For starters....OSE seems focused on an economy of design, form over function, but also providing a clear and distinct vision in terms of graphics and layout. It's art is simultaneously reminiscent of old school aesthetics (particularly if you equate Erol Otus as high on that list) and still evocative in a manner which feels modernized. The look of OSE is retro-inspired but contemporary, and also it helps that there was clearly a budget for the art, so I am not seeing any old familiar packaged art so common in older OSR works (including my own).

Second, OSE seems to be about capturing the essence of B/X along with Advanced D&D in principle, but it sheds no tears over providing a modern framework to handle contemporary expectations. A few examples of what I mean:

--Optional multiclassing, but not limited to specific races, nor are humans restricted; and a GM who wants those restrictions can decide to do so on their own terms;

--Both class as race and race as its own thing (in the Advanced books, at least); handled well enough that I would readily allow players to pick their preference, and on top of that it embraces drow, svirnfeblin, duergar and gnomes who often for inexplicable reasons get short changed in other OSR products;

--Level scaling embedded in the spell mechanics....a very modern notion, one which aligns OSE much more closely to modern iterations of D&D and in fact does a really nice job of making the scaling even easier and more interesting than, say, D&D 5E.

There are a few items that feel needlessly excluded, I suppose: notably there's an absence of demons and devils in the Referee's Book, which seems anathema to an "Advanced" version of the game; I have honestly been terribly unclear on exactly why it is so hard for an OSR version of D&D to embrace fiends, something in the late eighties that was singular for many in defining a distaste for TSR's capitulation to the moral panic with AD&D 2E. There are obviously specific reasons certain authors choose not to include them, part of the "author's voice" coming through the game design, and that is another thing OSE does really well, as it has no author's voice....just a clean set of comprehensive old school themed rules. So not seeing demons or devils in the game is...weird.

Another oddity, one which doesn't bug me but nonetheless given the other modernities in OSE is surprising is the use of descending Armor Class as the rule of choice. It does provide for both options, though (I'm just blind and didn't notice it does cover this for both even after reading these books for hours, d'oh).

All that aside, if I can find a resources for demons and devils (which tend to play an important role in my own campaigns, especially my venerable Keepers of Lingusia campaign that started in 1981) then I could easily see running and enjoying OSE for a long time. It seems that some other gamers rely on Labyrinth Lord for their demons and devils, though it seems to me my current AD&D Monster Manual reprint would also work just fine.

So...OSE is really damned good. I am impressed! I should have tried harder to find this a while ago. 


  1. I love OSE! I was running a really fun OSE Campaign prior to Covid. Hope to get back to it. Love the system.

    1. I can see why! I am a quick convert. Hell, I am going to talk to my group tonight about it...see if I can convince them to take a break from the more laborious Pathfinder 2E and enjoy something a bit more chill.

    2. Gavin Norman has said that he's putting out a supplement that will cover the denizens of the lower planes. So it's not due to concerns over having devils and demons in there. He just thought that there would be so many that they warranted their own volume.

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  3. Replies
    1. Yes that is a good one! New Big Dragon Games is top stuff.

  4. Weirdly, I just picked it up too even though I loved B/X Essentials and supported it with B/X Ascending.

    Gavin's work is incredible.