When I jumped back into the D&D scene after a couple of decades away, things were… different. This wasn’t unexpected, I was three and a half editions removed from the last books I collected, but it also made me wonder about old school play—where some of the elements I remembered were still being used.
Don’t get me wrong, I love 5e. There is so much about the game that makes it a lot of fun, and low level characters aren’t dying left and right so you don’t feel like you have to start over all the time. Also, the d20 mechanic is so easy to pick up. But, there’s that little bit of me which kept asking, “Remember when…?”
Remember when thieves had a set of skills in a table?
Remember the cleric’s turning undead chart?
Remember when characters were really squishy?
Remember when percentile rolls were a regular part of the game?
Remember when you got shot with a fire trap and had to make a save vs. Death Ray?
And these “remember whens” lead me to consider finding a way to pick up some of these older rules and try my hand at playing a game with them. This consideration lead me to DriveThruRPG, which offers PDF and print on demand copies of a ton of old school games. But as I dug through the site I started coming across the OSR movement.
OSR—that is, “Old School Renaissance” or “Old School Revival”—is a movement of players and game designers who enjoyed the old school style of play, but wanted to update some of the rules and organization to make old school play more accessible to modern gamers. This intrigued me, so I started looking into different OSR games.
And that lead me to Basic Fantasy RPG.
This isn’t the most well-known of the OSR games, but what intrigued me about it was the way Basic Fantasy straddled the line between old school Basic and Expert D&D and original Advanced D&D. The rules are light, even though there are more charts than in 5e, and things in combat seem to move faster because players can’t do so many different things in a turn. It’s not a perfect game, but it’s pretty dang good, and I’d like to share some of the things I most like, and like a little less, about it.
What I Like
There is some Crunch
This might be an odd thing to “like” about a game I said was “rules light,” but I think both points can be true. In Basic Fantasy RPG the rules as written for encumbrance, in particular, have a significant impact on game play. And I think this can add something to the way players approach their progress in a dungeon, or how they approach combat in general. Metal armor is great and all, but then you have to start keeping track of how much treasure you’re picking up or what weapons you’re using. Encumbrance also increases the importance of a character’s strength score. Last week I had a session where some players rolled their characters up and one ended up with a 5 strength. It changed how he equipped himself and will change how the character plays.
There’s No Alignment
I like this, especially for player characters. I’ve seen a number of folks complain about alignment in general because people feel it limits what the player can do. This isn’t entirely true 1, but I do understand the frustration people have with alignments. People do tend to play characters a certain way because their alignment says they should act that way, but our real life alignment is shown by what we do, and there’s something to be said about making that the case in role playing games as well.
In role-playing games a lack of alignment can make for fascinating story-telling. The party may think they are rugged heroes because they go around killing monsters, but the townsfolk may view them as evil brigands because of they way they act in the town. The best bit is, both can be true.
I’m up in the air about a lack of alignment for monsters, but in a lot of ways it’s freeing. My 5e game, for example, has a sect of good aligned goblins. It’s my world, so if I want that to exist there’s no problem with it. And yet, I still feel like I’m “breaking” something because the Monster Manual says Goblins are evil. Basic Fantasy’s lack of alignment provokes me to a lot more freedom. If I want good goblins, or a friendly blue dragon because they were raised to be a good neighbor, there’s nothing preventing me from doing it.
It’s Got Fast Combat
Combat rounds move faster, as mentioned above, because players simply can’t do as much. Also, the use of d6 initiative shrinks down the range of people’s potential combat order. Combatants who role the same initiative move simultaneously, which makes combat feel more dynamic.
There’s No THAC0
OK, let’s make one thing clear. To Hit Armor Class Zero is not difficult. You find your number to hit AC0, and then add or subtract from the number to hit armor classes above or below it. Back in descending armor class days most folks just put AC -3 through 10 on their character sheet, with the associated number to hit, and referenced it when attacking.
Having said that, the ascending armor class rule from d20 land is so much better. It’s both more intuitive for the player and allows the GM to keep an opponent’s AC secret until someone lands a couple of hits. Ascending AC is one of the things I most like about 5e gaming.
Chris Gonnerman, who created Basic Fantasy RPG, is a lover of old school play. And yet kept ascending AC simply because it was a better way to play. I appreciate that Basic Fantasy doesn’t just go, “No we will do it old school or not at all.”
It Has Thieve’s Skills
The first time I played 5e we encountered a chest I feared was trapped. So I asked if the rogue wanted to check for traps. My DM said, “Ah, yah, that’s not really a thing any more.” This is just handled different ways now, but I kinda miss the chart—and the percentile dice. Basic Fantasy has them both.
It’s All In A Single Book
Ever since Advanced D&D came out, there have been three core books you needed to play the game—The Players Handbook, the Monster Manual, and Dungeon Master’s Guide 2. Even back in Basic & Expert you needed to have those two sets to get the players past level three 3.
I don’t think the D&D way is terrible, and the DM Guide isn’t as essential as it used to be, but even still the initial buy in for D&D can be steep. Nowadays you can use the free Standard Rules Definition to begin play, but it keeps some of the more interesting class features behind a pay wall. Again, I’m fine with this, but Basic Fantasy RPG combines the three books into a single rulebook. And…
The Rules are Free (or At Cost)
Don’t miss the “dot org” at the end of Basic Fantasy’s URL. This game is not done for profit, it is a labor of love. The full rulebook can be downloaded off the website or purchased for a negligible amount on a number of sites. There’s even a hardback version for under $15.00 at Amazon 4.
I love that money is not a barrier to entry for new players with this game. There’s no tease “lite” version, there’s no bait and switch. It’s just free. Everyone can download the books and use them or purchase inexpensive copies for themselves 5. And if players want both a digital and print copy, the cost is not prohibitive as it is with D&D 6.
The Game is Expandable
Basic Fantasy RPG, like D&D, isn’t limited to what’s in the core rulebook. Unlike D&D, however, new materials do not require dropping a significant amount of cash to gain access for new splat books.
So if a player wants to expand classes or races, there are supplements to download which accomplish that. If a GM would like more monsters, there two “field guides” full of more monsters to use in game. If people would like to use alignments, there’s a supplement which enables this feature. There’s even a full campaign setting called “Morgansfort” with some nice detail and two adventures for lower level characters. For free.
But, no, even if you download the correct supplement your BFRPG Druid will not be wild shaping. Sorry.
When something is available for free the old adage, “You get what you pay for,” often comes into play. The layout might be shoddy, the organization is often a mess, and if it’s a book there usually isn’t any artwork to be seen.
The old adage runs into Basic Fantasy and then shambles away pouting. The rules are well laid-out 7, the rule book is easy to read, and many of its pages contain some stunning ink drawings.
The art is old-school, and would feel right at home alongside the books I used to read in my youth 8. There’s even a terrifying drawing of an owl bear which looks more at home with the image found in the first edition Monster Manual than the more bear-like artwork from 5e. Much as was the case in the Basic and Expert sets, there aren’t drawings for every monster listed in the rule book—but what images are there are very nice. This is fun book to page, or scroll, through—just to admire the pictures.
And, if you download the PDF version, don’t forget to download the cover art by Erik Wilson as well. It’s beautiful.
What I Like Less
None of what’s listed below is “bad,” they’re just things I find a bit less accessible, or are things I really appreciate from 5e that I will miss whenever I play with Basic Fantasy Rules. Most of the items in my “like less” list aren’t even about Basic Fantasy RPG itself, as they’re common in a lot of OSR games.
Turn Undead Table Isn’t With the Class Description
A Cleric’s turn undead ability is not expounded upon when the class is described. Instead, it appears later in the book in The Encounter section on pages 49–50. The reason for this is because the numbers in the turn undead chart are for the GM rather than the player—this heightens a bit of anxiety because the player probably doesn’t know if they can be successful.
From a play style, I get this. It can even be kinda cool. But organizationally it makes it more convoluted to find.
Saving Throws Are Separated from the Class Descriptions
Basic Fantasy uses the old school saving throw categories I remember from my youth, which means that players need to put those values on their character sheet. The only problem is, the saving throw tables are found on page 53, which isn’t anywhere near the section on character generation. While mechanically it makes sense to have saving throws back in the “Encounter” section of the rule book, practically speaking it feels a bit off.
Monsters don’t have base stats
I remember the first time Fewmaster Toede was introduced in Drangonlance as a Hobgoblin who had the base stats. This blew my mind. It was something I’d never expected, and it’s one of the cool things that’s been added to the game since third edition came out.
Having base stats for monsters lets creatures use the same bonuses or penalties as players, and allows for cool things like contested rolls.
I can’t ding Basic Fantasy RPG for not giving creatures the same base stats as players, that was not the way things were done back when the games its playstyle emulates were being published. And there is something to be said for leaving the intelligence of creatures up to the imagination of the GM. But part of me wants to know how inteligent a creature is, compared to the players, and the base stats are a simple measure for that.
No Cleric Spells at 1st Level
I’ve heard it described how, in old school games, players join the story of first level characters pretty much at the moment they walk off the farm and decide to become adventures. This is a good explanation for the extreme fragility of first level characters in old school games, and lets players build the character’s adventuring personality from the ground up 9.
I get this, and I appreciate it. And I even appreciate way this type of game play applies to first level clerics, who probably walked out of their religious order’s normal cycle to go out and spread the word of their religion while raiding old temples. That makes sense that they would have departed for the adventuring lifestyle before learning any clerical spells.
I still wish they’d know Cure Light Wounds at first level. It can make narrative sense. Perhaps the character was given the job of healing hang nails or something before walking away to put their prayers to more “important” uses 10. Again, it’s not a knock on Basic Fantasy itself. This is they way old school play did things. It’s just a matter of wanting to throw a small bone to let party members progress a bit more in a crawl before having to retreat.
Hit Points Can be Brutal
Yes, Magic Users get 1d4 HP at first level. This is the way things were done back in olden times, and it should still be done nowadays 11. I have never particularly liked that thieves also use a d4 for their hit points, though, since they’re likely to be the first to get smacked by any traps they miss.
I also would have loved to have an optional rule for maxing out hit points at first level. I mean, there was a reason why these characters decided to walk off the farm, right? Maybe they’re more burley.
No System Set Up for Foundry VTT
This has nothing to do with the game itself, but it could be a hurdle for someone who is using Foundry Virtual Table Top for gaming and would like to try out Basic Fantasy RPG. There is no official system for BFRPG to install for a world. In a lot of ways, this omission confuses me, considering Basic Fantasy RPG is free. There may just not be the demand for it, and that kinda bums me out.
I have used the Sandbox System in Foundry VTT to create a small bit of automation inside the table top, but it’s not the same as playing a fully supported system on Foundry. Players who want to use Foundry VTT for their gaming could also forget automation and use the maps and dice roller to play online, but it’s a bit of a bummer to do that after you get used to the way Foundry does things.
I do know, however, that Basic Fantasy RPG is supported on Roll20. So if you use that platform you can jump right in and start playing.
I really like this game. It’s a wonderful example of an old school mentality which includes some updated mechanics while creating a more accessible design. The cost of entry is either zero or minimal, and a decent reader can get through the book in a couple of hours. As such, Basic Fantasy RPG is a wonderful introduction to the tabletop role playing hobby. And if players want to stick with BFRPG, there’s plenty of adventuring to be had under its auspices.
My nit pick, “like less” critiques are more about the OSR play-style than Basic Fantasy RPG itself. I like the old school style play, just not quite as squishy. But here’s the thing. There’s nothing preventing me from home-brewing some rules which give the game the feel I’m looking for. I just have to let players know ahead of time.
Am I going to use the rules myself? Yup. At preset, I’m putting together a short adventure using Basic Fantasy RPG—and a number of folks have never played a tabletop RPG before. It’s been so nice to say, “Here’s the rules, take a look and we’ll roll characters on Thursday.”
And at some point I’d love to play as a character in a Basic Fantasy Campaign.
And if you want to see Basic Fantasy RPG in action, check out the actual play video the creator has put on YouTube.
I mean, you don’t have to execute the prisoner just because you’re chaotic neutral and dragging them along will slow you down. ↩
Yes, the original game had three booklets, but they came in a set. Also, I was one when they came out so I would have just chewed on them. ↩
And then even more sets to get players to immortality. ↩
Which I will be getting soon. ↩
Or GM’s can purchase a copy for everyone in the group and not break the bank—the softcover is $5.50 on Amazon. ↩
Given how my brain works, I have chosen to purchase digital copies of the 5e books. I must admit, however, that having print copies as well would be really nice. I just can’t afford to buy books twice. ↩
In an open source file format as well. Which I appreciate! ↩
Though it lacks captions from the old AD&D books. Some of those I can still laugh at. ↩
In more modern games, even first level characters have some abilities to use. While they aren’t yet heroes, they aren’t squishies either. ↩
And, from the divine perspective, learn humility. ↩
“I cast magic missile, now hand me the torch and I’ll hide over there.” ↩