The second B/X Essentials-book clocks in at 47 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page inside of front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page advertisement, 2 pages of SRD, 1 page index, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 38 pages of content, laid out for 6’’ by 9’’ (A5). So, what is this about?
First things first: This was moved up in my reviewing-queue due to me receiving a print copy of the book. My review is primarily based on the premium print version of this book, though I have taken the pdf into account as well.
Okay, so the Core Rules-supplement in this series was made to divorce the core rules from all associated flourishes, allowing for maximum flexibility and options to modify them; basically, to provide a version of the B/X-rules that can be used to run anything, from scifi, to horror to modern gaming. The Core Rules-pdf thus represents an OSR-DIY-hacker’s concisely-presented basics.
But what if you actually wanted the accoutrements taken away from the core chassis, the classes etc.? Well, this is where this pdf comes in, once again focusing on a clear and concise presentation of B/X-rules, in the organization and presentation we have come to expect from the previous book: For example, class information is contained on a single page or spread to minimize page-flipping; related rules that end up not actually being next to each other instead use bolded fonts and precise page-numbers to help you navigating the book, making use at the table fast, painless and comfortable.
Now, and this is very much relevant for fans of the original rules, this is not content with simply being a repackaging. While the goal of the book is a faithful rendition of B/X-rules and content, it does acknowledge the fact that not even the most beloved of RPG-systems are perfect; there, system-immanently, are bound to be imperfections. Much like in the Core Rules-supplement, Mr. Norman addresses such instances; in this case, for example the rules for water vessels and strongholds have been interpreted in a way that does not sport the ambiguities and contradictions of the original, focusing on a playable and concise rendition. It is a testament to the author’s professionalism and humility that he actually includes a subjectivity clause here, stating clearly that he does not claim sole authority on interpretations. It is a small thing, but in an age where “opinionated” authors try to jam down their particular design-style or ideology down the throats of the gaming populace, it is something I absolutely adore. (And yes, if “opinionated” authors read this: I have elected to not play games, modules, etc. as a consequence of your incessant need to tell me that I’m doing it wrong or that your way of doing it is the only acceptable one for your precious game. Take a cue from Mr. Norman’s humble and sympathetic attitude.)
Sorry for that tangent, let’s take a look at the book, shall we? Character creation rules fit on a single page-spread, including the attack matrix as well as optional starting hit points rerolling. Since ability scores are relevant for the character creation process, we have that two-page spread reprinted here; for a detailed breakdown of attributes, I’d like to point readers that are new to B/X-rules to my analysis of the Core Rules-supplement. It should be mentioned, though, that the detailed internal references in this book have been completely revamped – it references to the Core Rules, obviously.
Okay, after this, we get an alphabetic presentation of the character classes, each of which fits comfortably on a two-page spread, providing all information required at one glance. Each class has its individual XP-progression and knows 5 saving throws: Death/Poison, Wand, Paralysis/petrify, Breath Weapon, and Rod/Staff/Spell. These scale with levels and usually can’t fall below 3; exception would be the Dwarf, who can have a Death/poison save of 2. That one, fighter and the cleric have btw. the best saves. Progression of *most* classes caps at level 14, with a few stopping earlier. Each table notes AC0 (modified attack roll to hit AC 0) and spells, if any. Only the magic-user class gets access to 6th level spells; the other two spellcasting classes, cleric and elf, cap at 5th level spellcasting, though the cleric gets more spells per day.
Wait what? Yes, in case you’re new to the whole old-school circuit: All those non-human races are represented by their own classes. Dwarves cap at level 12, elves at level 10, Halflings at level 8. No, no gnomes this early in the game. Sorry. It should be noted that the book contains optional rules for higher level gameplay.
The classes state allowed weapons and armors in the beginning and since each class has a different XP-value required to reach a new level, we will have discrepancies –halflings and fighters, for example, reach 8th level at 120.000 XP, while elves need a whopping 250.000 XP for that level. If you’re not familiar with the game: This is an intentional balancing decision. Similarly, classes stop granting additional Hit Dice at 9th level; thereafter, you only get fixed hit point bonuses and Constitution no longer applies its standard adjustment. Clerics, elves and halflings get d6 HD, while dwarves and fighters get d8 HD. And magic-users? Well, note how I mentioned that it used to be hard to get them to higher levels? Beyond XP required, they only get d4 HD. Yes, rabid dogs can kill you. Be wary… Something you may not be familiar with: Thieves also get only d4, but they get their own array of (mostly) percentile thieves’ skills. And yes, low level thieves are similarly hard to get to survive, but you’ll still definitely want them in your party.
The game assumes three alignments: Lawful, Neutral, Chaotic. Languages include Common (never liked it myself) as well as alignment-based ones and a table provides an idea regarding languages for PCs. We get optional level titles for the classes as well as, wee, the rules for equipment. Adventuring gear, weapons, armor – all with cost and weight (in coins) – and yes, weapon combat stats are provided. Blunt weapons may be used by clerics, charge weapons double damage when used on horseback after moving at least 60 ft. Reloading is an optional rule, and means that a weapon may only be fired every 2nd round. Two-handed weapons can’t be used in conjunction with shields and attack last in a combat round. And yes, once more, these all fit comfortably on a single 2-page spread.
From here, we move on to land transportation, which nets costs, miles per day, movement rates and maximum encumbrance as well as stats for carts and wagons. And yes stats for various horses, camels, etc. are included in the deal.
Now, let’s take a look at water transportation, shall we? This section is split into one page of seaworthy and one of unseaworthy vessels. Both tables sport costs, maximum cargo carried (in gold coins), usages and values for length, beam and draft -and yes, this includes values extrapolated from context where the original rules failed to mention them. Rules for high winds are provided here as well, distinguishing between near gales and proper gales. We follow ths up with descriptions and notes on whether a vessel requires a captain, required crew for rowing, if any; miles/day and movement rate as well as required sailors, miles/day and movement rates when actually sailing – so yeah, we actually can use quite a few of these both with rowed movement and driven by sails. And yes, we get notes for reduced crew-sizes. Heck, we even get fast-play naval combat, including notes on how many catapults you can fit on a vessel, whether a ram can be added and rules for regular and pitch-catapult shots. This section, as a whole, is impressive: Without knowing them by hard or looking up the original rules, it’s impossible to determine where the author has improved the material: The streamlining is utterly seamless. Huge plus!
From there, we take a look at mercenaries next, noting AC, base morale, wage per month, etc. as well as morale based on common types found; fanatical soldiers will have better morale than a peasant militia, for example. Hiring specialists, from oarsmen to navigators to spies and alchemists is detailed next, noting a variety of uses. And yes, you need engineers to build strongholds and castles, which brings me to the next section that the book does exceedingly well: We first get a 7-step-checklist, and permission to build towns, maintenance of cleared lands as well as notes on settlers and taxation are provided alongside a selection of standardized structures with features, dimensions and associated costs noted. And yes, we get rules to make bastions, custom towers and castle walls. For full details, we also get a brief table of interior details: Different doors, arrow slits, shifting walls, trapdoors, etc. This section is a definite winner and closes the book on a high note.
Editing and formatting are top-notch, I noticed no glitches. Layout adheres to an elegant and aesthetically-pleasing two-column standard that uses nice, pastel-green shades to make tables easier to read. As in the first book, we get a MASSIVE amount of really nice, original b/w-artworks provided by a cadre of talented artists – this is a beautiful book. The pdf comes with extensive, nested bookmarks, making the handling of the electronic version simple and comfortable.
As for editions, the standard edition is perfect bound, while the premium version has higher quality paper, better color and ink saturation and comes stitch-bound, which is per se preferable. It should be noted, though, that you should exert a bit of care with the staple-bound version. While superior to the standard edition, this is a pretty thick book for the binding, so if you handle it really roughly, the staple can potentially come out. This is not an issue of the book per se, but rather of the manufacturing process. As before, we get something really fair, namely a plain-text version of the material here, sans all the beautiful art. I applaud this, though I very much recommend the premium version for the optimal experience.
Gavin Norman’s second B/X-Essentials-book is a fantastic continuation of the design-paradigms and organizational aesthetics presented in the first book; the presentation is stream-lined and modifications to the original rules are kept to the bare minimum, emphasizing faithful depictions of the classic rules. At the same time, the book does not shirk away from fixing problems with the source-material in an unobtrusive and elegant manner. The organization of the content is as precise and elegant as we expect after the great Core Rules.
I’d like to use this review to posit an alternate way of thinking about this booklet: This is basically the “traditional fantasy toolkit” for the base B/X-rules-chassis presented, minus the spellcasting details (since many groups employ their own sub-systems there); in short, if you get this and the Core Rules-pdf, you’re basically set up for classic adventuring; just add spellcasting details as desired. This, as a consequence means, that we can potentially hope for other such tomes; for example, one for horror games, one for scifi-games, etc. This is just me, mind you; the material remains as hackable as ever and as open to modification as you’d like it to be. In short: This is an excellent offering and very much recommended if you’re looking for a well-presented, concise take on the much-beloved, classic B/X-rules. My final verdict will clock in at 5 stars + seal of approval.
You can get this cool booklet here on OBS!
You can get the FREE plain-text version here on OBS!
Missed the core rules? You can find these here on OBS!