This installment of the B/X-Essentials-series clocks in at 37 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page inside of front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 2 pages of SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 30 pages of content, formatted in old-school A5 (6’’ by 9’’), so let’s take a look!
This review was moved up in my reviewing-queue due to me receiving a print copy of the book.
So, after the extremely impressive reorganization of the B/X-rules Gavin Norman provided in the first two installments of the series, where we got perhaps the best, most sensible organization of the rules in its extremely hackable presentation, we now dive into the book that covers probably one of the most divisive components of any OSR-game. Spells.
Some prefer long-form spells; some prefer none at all; some systems have very specific aesthetics…and this book, following the traditions of the previous tomes, focuses on a faithful rendition of the original Basic and Expert rules for spells. The pdf is clear and upfront in which ways it carefully modifies some of the spells herein, and it does so, universally, I might add, for the betterment of the content within.
The first aspect is one that the BIG systems should also consider; it’s simple and smart. It separates different mechanical aspects of a spell by bullet points. No more glossing over or missing that last line that notes yet another aspect. Furthermore, DIFFERENT possible uses are separated out and numbered for your convenience. If you’re like me, for example, and frankly forgot that cure light wounds, in B/X, also has the optional use of curing paralysis, then this will be appreciated indeed. Did you recall that light can blind targets in B/X? Well, you probably will, but depending on how much you hack your game, how many different OSR-games (or other games) you play, you may have forgotten that. Well, even if you did, here, the presentation makes that a non-issue.
The pdf goes one step further, presentation-wise: Spell-uses that allow for a saving throw are highlighted with bold text. The inconsistency of spell ranges of 0 or 0’ have been replaced with Range: The Caster – with one exception, at least in my print copy. Oddly, protection from evil retains the 0-Range, which I assume to be an oversight; it makes sense for cloudkill, which acts as an emanation from the caster, but not for the former. Now, before you ask and point me towards that: This has been cleared up in the meanwhile. The current version and print versions do not have this VERY minor inconsistency anymore. I…honestly just left those paragraphs in the review, because I was so glad to have found something to complain about…only to see it’s been taken care of. (Seriously, that is amazing!)
As far as range is concerned, spells with a range of touch now explicitly allow the caster to use them upon him/herself. Now, before you balk – no, the pdf has not cleaned up all original “charming” ambiguities of the B/X-rules. Web does not state whether it needs to be anchored, for example. That being said, the book e.g. clearly states how haste does not allow for double item use or spellcasting.
I might get a couple of boos and hisses from the hardcore B/X-crowd, but frankly, there is one shortcoming that I feel the pdf could have addressed with, at least a house-rule, would be concentration. It is an aspect that is not clearly defined in the original rules, and it makes me somewhat uneasy to see the showcasing of the problem, but no concise definition of the like. Here, we have a missed chance to at least provide an optional means of doing so…but yeah. I get it. It’s the B/X Essentials series. The very intent is to NOT do that and remain faithful to the original.
…damn, my OCD’s making it hard for me to let that one go. Particularly since e.g. control weather prohibits movement, while clairvoyance doesn’t. Perhaps “B/X Almost-Essentials: Rules-clarifications for obsessive sticklers” is in the cards? 😉
Anyways, if a reversed version of a spell exists, it is noted in the respective description as well. The presentation-sequence begins with the cleric spells, organized by spell level, and alphabetically within the spell level. And there is elegance to these spells. If you have no B/X-experience, it is interesting to note that we have 5 spell levels, and that e.g. create food is 5th level, which is something I am hereby declaring to be the default for all my games forevermore; I loathe how level 1 food-creation makes the threat of starvation and thirst nigh obsolete. I also had to smile at cure disease having a separate use that notes that it instantly kills green slime. Oh, my pretty…
Anyways, as the grognards know, magic-user spells (also used by elves) scale up to 6th level in B/X…and as we all know invisibility is the most OP spell in the rules, since. Wait.
For the first time, ladies and gentlemen…we actually have, in spite of the mission of faithful rendition, the famously missing B/X-spell. This book gives to us: Detect invisible. 10’ per level range, 6 turns, 2nd level. Well-situated regarding level-range, the spell is concise, well-presented and just as minimalist as it should be. No complaints. (No surprise there, considering how much I adored the author’s Vivimancer…) Can’t remember where than one spell that module referenced was? Well, the pdf actually has a handy index in the back, listing the spells for your convenience!!
Editing and formatting are absolutely top-notch, precise and impressive, to say the least. Layout adheres to a truly elegant two-column b/w-standard with unobtrusive, mint-green highlights as colored elements. The artwork deserves special mention: The book sports A LOT of it. No, seriously – we get a ton of original, really well-made b/w-artwork, with perhaps my favorite piece illustrating a magic-user showcasing how a lightning bolt can bounce off walls to hit different targets. It’s a bit goofy and comic-like, but I absolutely adored it. Of course, the majority of artworks are more serious, but I like this blending of styles. The pdf version comes fully bookmarked for your convenience, with a bookmark per spell level and spell-list, but not for individual spells. I have the premium print edition, and there is a low-cost standard edition that is perfect bound. The premium version has higher quality paper, better color and ink saturation and comes stitch-bound, which is per se preferable. The cover and artwork definitely deserve going premium here.
Okay, honestly, this is the first time in my reviews of this series where I wished Gavin Norman had deviated slightly from the goal of the faithful rendition. The inconsistency of the original rules regarding concentration is something I never considered to be charming or endearing, just annoying. It requires that you learn by hard the stipulations or lack thereof of the spells, and that, anno 2018, is just bad game design in my book, nostalgia be damned.
That being said, as a reviewer, I can’t fault the book for its intended design goal of faithful rendition, particularly when it does such a SUPERB job at it. The presentation of the spells is absolutely gorgeous and showcases how a small OSR-publisher like Necrotic Gnome Productions can provide impulses for the industry at large. This type of concise spell presentation is a joy to behold. It’s clever, concise and clean. It’s simple and elegant. I adore it. So yeah, with but one minor oversight in the very subdued and faithful streamlining, this may well be the best iteration of B/X-spellcasting you’ll ever get to see. It bespeaks the author’s passion for the rules-set and showcases a lack a humility and reverence to the subject matter that is refreshing to see…all while clearly showcasing the design and presentation-skill the author obviously has. In short, this is a one-map passion-project, apart from the art, and an example of the best ones in that category.
While, as a person, I would have required the clarification of concentration (why stop at the missing spell?) to consider this a true work of art, as a reviewer, I am perfectly capable of abstracting my own bias and rating this for what it is – a resounding success for what it attempts. Hence, my final verdict will clock in at 5 stars.
You can get this fun. faithful rendition of the classic B/X-rules here on OBS!
Know what’s also rather cool? If you’re a poor gamer, you can get the plain-text version of this book FOR FREE here on OBS!