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Sunday, 8 December 2019

The Moldvay Way

One of the aspects of the Old School Renaissance is that with access to the Open Game License and System Reference Document, roleplayers, Dungeon Masters, Referees, and game designers can not only revisit particular versions of Dungeons & Dragons—whether that is the original Dungeons & Dragons, Basic Dungeons & Dragons, or Advanced Dungeons & Dragons—but specific editions of those games. So it is with Old School Essentials Classic Fantasy. Published by Necrotic Gnome—a publisher best known for the Wormskin fanzine and Dolmenwood setting—following a successful Kickstarter campaign, Old School Essentials Classic Fantasy is one such retroclone of a particular edition of Basic Dungeons & Dragons. That edition is the 1981 revision of Basic Dungeons & Dragons by Tom Moldvay and its accompanying Expert Set by Dave Cook and Steve Marsh. The core book for which is the Old-School Essentials Classic Fantasy: Rules Tome.

What this means is that Old School Essentials Classic Fantasy is a Basic Dungeons & Dragons retroclone. It is a Class and Level roleplaying game, the combination of the Moldvay Basic Dungeons & Dragons and its Expert Set, providing scope for characters to go from First Level to Fourteenth Level. It does ‘Race as Class’, so the Classes are Cleric, Fighter, Magic-User, and Thief—all Humans, plus Dwarf, Elf, and Halfling. The Dwarf is a Fighter able to detect underground construction tricks and room traps, with Infravision, and good hearing; the Elf is a Fighter able to cast arcane spells, has Infravision, good sight and hearing, and is immune to Ghoul Paralysis; and the Halfling is a Fighter good at hiding, has good hearing, and is good with missile weapons. The Cleric has the Turn Undead ability, but does not get a spell until he has reached Second Level, whilst the Magic-User gets just the one spell at First Level. The attributes are still on the three to eighteen scale, but the modifier ranges from -3 to +3. The Alignments are Law, Neutral, and Chaos, rather Lawful Good, Lawful Neutral, Lawful Evil, Neutral Good, Neutral, et cetera. In combat, weapons do a six-sided die’s worth of damage with Old School Essentials Classic Fantasy uses THAC0 or ‘To Hit Armour Class 0’. Notably though, the range of Armour Class values starts at 9 and ends at -3, rather than starting at 10 and ending at -10 as in other iterations of Dungeons & Dragons.

Old School Essentials Classic Fantasy also includes the option for High-Level play, taking the player characters above the Fourteenth Level maximum of the Moldvay Basic Dungeons & Dragons and its Expert Set, right up to Thirty-Sixth Level much in the vein of the Mentzer edition of Basic Dungeons & Dragons and it subsequent expansions. Another inclusion is a list of the Level titles—so Acolyte, Adept, Priest/Priestess, and so on for the Cleric Class and Veteran, Warrior, Sword-Master, and so on, for the Fighter Class—another feature of early versions of Dungeons & Dragons. Both the rules for High-Level play and the Level titles are taken from the Moldvay Basic Dungeons & Dragons and its Expert Set rather than being new additions.

First level Magic-User
Alignment: Law
Armour Class: 10
Hit Points: 3
THAC0: 19

Strength 05 (-1, 1-in-6 Open Doors)
Intelligence 13 (Elvish, Literate)
Wisdom 10 
Dexterity 12 
Constitution 12 
Charisma 08 (-1, Max. Retainers: 3, Loyalty: 6)

Spells: Sleep
Equipment: Backpack, lantern, oil flask (2), tinder box, wine, iron rations, crowbar, daggers (3), 63 GP

At its core, Old School Essentials Classic Fantasy is Basic Dungeons & Dragons writ large then. Except not—and in a number of ways. To begin with, it provides options that shift it away from the original Moldvay version of Basic Dungeons & Dragons and a step or two closer to modern sensibilities. Most obviously, providing rules for ascending Armour Class as first seen in Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition rather than the descending Armour Class of THAC0, and to be fair, it is an easier, more intuitive option. Another modernism is actually not, that of ability checks, which in Old School Essentials Classic Fantasy has a player rolling equal to or under one of his character’s six abilities for the character to succeed at a challenging task. Rather its inclusion is intended to address an ambiguity, their being included as an option in the Expert Set rules for Basic Dungeons & Dragons, but not in the Basic Dungeons & Dragons rules themselves. Other ambiguities the designer has addressed from the Moldvay edition of Basic Dungeons & Dragons includes the Encumbrance rules; how much Experience Points should be awarded to retainers—half of the Experience Points earned by the player characters is due to them; clearly distinguishing between the room traps that characters of all Classes can attempt to find, and the small or treasure traps which the Thief Class specialises in finding and disarming; clearly stating that characters cannot run in combat; changing the Morale rules so that monsters definitely check Morale the first time when one of their number is killed; and balancing the values of the various treasure types. 

In addition, Old School Essentials Classic Fantasy expands the scope of Moldvay Basic Dungeons & Dragons. For the most part these are more changes in terminology rather than scope. Thus ‘Adventure’ is no longer used to refer to a single session of an ongoing game; the term ‘Hirelings’ is introduced to cover all non-adventuring retainers; and the term ‘THAC0’ is imported from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition to help explain the combat mechanics. (Its inclusion also helps ground player and Referee in the retroclone.) It also opens up the use of the subdual rules for dragons to apply to other monsters too and applies the rules for handling watercraft to other vehicles.

So what else is in the Old-School Essentials Classic Fantasy: Rules Tome? Besides the seven Classes and method of creating characters, the Old-School Essentials Classic Fantasy: Rules Tome covers wealth and encumbrance; vehicles and mounts; extensive spell lists for both Arcane spellcasters—the Magic-User and the Elf, and Divine spellcasters—the Cleric; adventuring—dungeon and wilderness adventuring, encounters, pursuit and evasion, and combat; hired help—retainers, mercenaries, and specialists; strongholds and domains; a bestiary, from Acolyte, Ape (White), and Bandit to Wyvern, Yellow Mould, and Zombie; advice on Running Adventures for the Referee; and treasure lists including sentient swords. Undoubtedly, there is a lot of information here, but a very great deal of it will be familiar to the target audience for the Old-School Essentials Classic Fantasy: Rules Tome. Which means that a member of that audience could grab a copy of this roleplaying game and a fantasy scenario of their choice and run using these rules.

At the sharp end of the game, the Old-School Essentials Classic Fantasy: Rules Tome also covers adventuring in just a few pages, covering marching order and the ‘Caller’ and ‘Mapper’ roles, time, movement, adventuring in dungeons, the wilderness, and on the water, combat, and more. Notably here, the dungeoneering aspect of the game is played out in ten-minute turns, the Referee first rolling for wandering monsters, the party deciding its actions and the Referee describing their outcome, followed by his bookkeeping at the end of the turn. Wilderness Adventuring and Waterborne Adventuring follows a similar pattern, but adding weather and getting lost into the mix. What the Old-School Essentials Classic Fantasy: Rules Tome is doing here is highlighting the procedural nature of play within the rules of not just this retroclone, but also Dungeons & Dragons in its earlier incarnations. In fact, the graphical design of Old School Essentials Classic Fantasy draws the reader’s very attention to this by placing each sequence of play in a box at the start of their relevant sections.

The Old-School Essentials Classic Fantasy: Rules Tome comes as a thick digest-sized hardback, but it never feels stodgy or like it is trying to pack too much information into its smaller page size. What is obvious about Old School Essentials Classic Fantasy is that as much thought has gone into its physical design as its mechanical design. A great deal has effort is made to fit particular sections of rules onto double page spreads, so how to create a character and an explanation of the six abilities take up a double page spread as do the rules for hazards and challenges, dungeon adventuring, wilderness adventuring, and so on and so on. The designer does this again and again, but some rules need just a page, like those for Alignment, and other content needs more, such as the spell lists and the bestiary obviously. The designer really makes good use of the space in the Old-School Essentials Classic Fantasy: Rules Tome and none of it feels wasted.

The Old-School Essentials Classic Fantasy: Rules Tome is liberally illustrated using a lot of black and white pieces with full colour spreads between chapters of the book. Some of it is weird, some of it wonky, some of it wonderful, but a wide range of styles showcasing many of the artists drawing for the Old School Renaissance today. The writing and editing is also good, the former succinct in presenting and explaining the rules. A nice touch is that many of the most useful rules and tables have been reproduced inside the front and back covers of the book.

What is missing from the Old-School Essentials Classic Fantasy: Rules Tome is anything in the way of examples. So there is no example of character generation, of play, of combat, and so on. True, its target audience does not need such examples, but it would have been nice to have had them included, not just to see the designer’s mind at work, but perhaps add a degree of verisimilitude from the roleplaying game that Old School Essentials Classic Fantasy is based upon. Similarly, there is no adventure in the book, or sample locales, but again, the audience for whom Old School Essentials Classic Fantasy is intended will doubtless have content of their own to use. Equally as similar is that it would have been nice to see the types of adventure that the designer had intended to use these rules for, but that said, he has published several for use with the Old-School Essentials Classic Fantasy: Rules Tome

What the version of Basic Dungeons & Dragons that followed the Moldvay version—the Mentzer version from 1983—ultimately got, but the Moldvay version never did, was a compilation. This was the Dungeons & Dragons Rules Cyclopedia, which is now available via Print on Demand. That is no longer the case. Thanks to Necrotic Gnome, the Moldvay version of Basic Dungeons & Dragons now has its own answer to the Dungeons & Dragons Rules Cyclopedia in the form of the Old-School Essentials Classic Fantasy: Rules Tome. It is not only a lovely representation of those rules, Old School Essentials Classic Fantasy is a representation with a polish, an adjustment for inconsistencies, errors, and so on, all to make it more playable. The Old-School Essentials Classic Fantasy: Rules Tome is the update that the 1981 Moldvay version of Basic Dungeons & Dragons deserved.


  1. How would you compare it to Labyrinth Lord? Does one deviate, in good or bad ways, from the source material more than the other? Which is better for simply picking up an old B or X module and playing it?

  2. There are minor differences, Labyrinth Lord for example allows Clerics to have spells at First Level. Of the two, Old-School Essentials Classic Fantasy feels closer with to its source, but with options to adjust it however the Referee wants. Its production values are much higher though.

    1. Thanks, Pookie. I do consider actual B/X to be an incredibly lucid and tight expression of D&D to begin with (and for any game of its time). So, it takes a bit to tempt me away from that, but this looks intriguing.

  3. OSE is definitely more faithful to B/X as far as content is concerned. It doesn't really deviate at all except to address certain ambiguities in the source material and to introduce ascending AC as an option. On the other hand, LL deviates purposefully in order to distinguish itself from B/X, which I believe reflects the legal uncertainties of the time it was produced. In spite of this, you might say LL actually "feels" closer to B/X because of its layout and organization, although I prefer that of OSE as an improvement over both.