B/X-Essentials: Core Rules (OSR)
This rule-set 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 index, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 29 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.
So, this is Basic/Expert-gaming (for the uninitiated, that’s where the “B/X”comes from); you may know the rules from how they have become an integral part of the old-school renaissance via e.g. Labyrinth Lord. The rules are out there, so why did we need this series of books? Well, as anyone who used the original rules can attest to, the organization wasn’t perfect. Labyrinth Lord improved that significantly and a wide variety of different tweaks, hacks and DIY-changes in various OSR-systems have provided their own spins on the subject matter…so why should you care about this book?
To answer this question, I am going to split this review in two parts. Part I will focus on the old-school gaming veteran and explain what sets this apart. Part II will give those of you who are not familiar with the rules (or those intrigued to see what’s inside) a detailed run-down of the material.
All right, so let’s begin with Part I.
As we can read in the foreword, this book takes a step back from the common modifications to the B/X-rules, instead focusing on a faithful rendition of them. Wait! This does not means that this is exclusively a reprint, though! As with any roleplaying game, there are bound to be some components of the system where the rules-language could have been tighter, where ambiguities creep in. This supplement addresses these instances in a clear and concise manner; In such cases, it explains the respective rationale behind a ruling of how a component is supposed to work – this can for example be found in the encumbrance rules, which are somewhat opaque in the original iterations.
There is another selling point for this pdf that may very well sell quite a few of the OSR-aficionados out there on the book. If you have ever tried to hack together different systems, classes etc. for a specific world or campaign, regardless of system, you will have noticed that there is a hurdle that may not be immediately apparent. Roleplaying systems tend to sport implicit assumptions. D20-based games assume bonuses granted by magic items to make the math come out right; LotFP assumes magic to be dangerous and more of a story tool than a form of artillery, etc. As in these systems. B/X is a very elegant and relatively rules-lite system, but this notion does provide a hurdle: Let’s say you want to play a Carcosa-game, or a modern campaign, or a CoC-style campaign using these rules, for example. You’ll have to sift through the rules and pick out the components you’ll actually use.
This is the primary and surprisingly amazing aspect of this book: You see, this takes all those implicit setting-bits out of the rules, providing a clear and distinct vision of the core rules of the B/X-system, which takes a LOT of work off the shoulders of the referee, allowing you to focus on tailoring and tweaking what really matters to you, instead of playing content-editor for your planned campaign. This is perfectly in line with the OSR’s DIY-aesthetics and should be considered to be the main selling point for veterans. This is extremely hackable and concise, also courtesy to internal references – want to read up on a given rule referenced in the pdf? It’ll sport the page number in bold, making use at the table rather comfortable.
Okay, that out of the way, let’s move on to part II of the review and talk about the rules contained within, shall we?
We begin without much fanfare with defining the 6 attributes: Charisma governs reaction adjustment of NPCs and denotes the maximum number of retainers and retainer morale. On the opposite page of the attribute summaries, we get the Charisma Adjustments table, we have all relevant information at one glance. Same goes for Intelligence, which denotes language ability and the number of bonus languages gained – the table’s right there. Nice here would be that Intelligence also governs language-skill – characters with Intelligence 6 – 8, for example, can write simple words and that’s it. All other attributes get a standard adjustment (again, table right there!) that can range from -3 (3)to +3 (18) – Constitution applies that to hit points gained per level; a new level means always at least 1 hit point gained. Dexterity applies standard adjustment to attack rolls, but not damage, with ranged weapons as well as AC. Additionally, Dexterity has a table that denotes a bonus or penalty to initiative, which ranges from -2 to +2. Strength applies standard adjustment to attack and damage rolls with melee weapons. Wisdom applies standard adjustment to saving throws versus magical effects; this usually excludes breath weapons and other saves, but not necessarily. If a prime attribute is high or low, this may also influence experience gained.
And there we go – basic attribute rules on 2 pages, presented in a truly concise manner. The sequence of play in dungeon as well as in wilderness is presented next, with a step-by-step breakdown. The same page contains the notes for encounter-sequence, which similarly makes perfect sense. Need to look up any rules interacting with that? Bolded references point you exactly where you need to look.
The adventuring rules are next and begin with the optional ability check rules: Roll under ability score; depending on difficulty, you may gain a bonus or penalty between -4 to +4. Rolls of 1 are successes, 20s are failures. This also notes air travel – the more HD an aerial mount has, the more it’ll be able to carry. Chase-rules are next and explains group movement rates (slowest member) and proceeds to explain chase rules in dungeons and wilderness…and on waterborne vessels! Fleeing group size and number of pursuers determine the chances to get away – and yes, the tables and mechanics are as painless as can be. Climbing and the mechanics of doors (including notes of alternate ability checks) are noted next.
Movement out of the way, the pdf proceeds to explain encounters: This provides handy starting distances by environment, monster reactions, etc. – once again, easy to grasp…but more interesting would be the encumbrance rules I mentioned earlier: There are two options presented: One for those of you who prefer simplicity and for those of you who, like me, prefer more simulationalist takes on the subject matter. In the simple option, a character’s speed is determined by the armor worn, but he may carry a maximum of 1600 coins.
Coins? Yep! Encumbrance is measured in coins! This makes all kinds of sense to me and a handy table collates the weight of treasure/items by coins. In the more complex version, it is this abstract unit of measurement that determines your movement rate. It should be noted that RAW, metal armor in this version only accounts for 500 coins and thus does not reduce movement greatly – 90’. That being said, adventurers will carry items and weapons, so yeah, it evens out with the simpler system. Some experimenting with both systems did show that the coin values for equipment, weapon.types etc. has been chosen with care and is pretty smart.
XP is gained by gold gained (1 gold coin = 1 XP) and by defeated monster and at the referee’s discretion. Characters can advance a maximum of 2 levels per adventure/session. This table btw. also provides monster XP-values by HD…and the table notes bonus XP/ability. This out of the way, we get falling rules and cover foraging and hunting. A full day of rest nets 1d3 hp. Light and visibility in dungeon, wilderness and at sea are covered next, and then we move on to losing direction…which, in a nice tweak, is much harder at sea while you remain within sight of land. This makes a lot of sense.
Okay, so movement in tactical situations is assumed to be 120’, though armor and encumbrance modify that. While exploring, slowly, a dungeon, characters move movement in feet in one turn; movement through familiar/cleared areas may be quicker at the referee’s discretion. During encounters, a character can move 1/3 of movement rate in feet per round, or yards in the wilderness A character can run instead, up to full movement – but running too long causes exhaustion. Overland movement and how terrain can increase or decrease it is covered, as is the classic forced march. Resting and failing to do so in dungeon, wilderness and after running are similarly presented in a clear manner right on this page.
The next page deals with retainers and their reactions as well as their morale. Saving throws are explained next and the slow and deliberate searching of environments can also be found here. Rules for starvation and swimming, time, traps, wandering monsters and water travel…notice something? Yep, the components here are presented in alphabetic order, with copious internal references. It’s surprising, but this works better as a presentation paradigm than it should.
These rules out of the way, we get a basic breakdown of combat rounds: Characters wishing to declare a spellcasting or a full retreat must declare so first; Initiative is 1d6, rolled by each side. The winner acts first. Referees may then need to check for monster morale; movements are made; missile attacks next, spells are cast; then, melee and other actions occur; after that, same happens for the other side and we rinse and repeat until the combat ends. Before you ask: Yes, we get notes for tied initiative and optional rules for individual initiative.
Generally, a character can move and perform one action, though full movement is possible as an alternative. The system knows two different retreats – panicked full retreat and the slower, but less dangerous fighting retreat- Attack rolls are d20s + Str/Dex-adjustment, respectively. These are then compared to a chart. Class and level determine whether you hit; 1s are botches, 20s are hits. Rules for standardized 1d6 damage and optional rules for variable weapon damage are provided. If a spellcaster is hit or must make a save before finishing casting a spell, it fails. Yes, spellcasters will want to win initiative as often as possible…they may not move or take other actions when casting a spell! (And yes, young ones – try this. Seriously. There was once a time when getting a spellcaster to survive a single level was a real achievement!)
Anyway, we proceed to the rules for the details of combat – cover, boarding vessels, helpless foes, optional morale rues, nonlethal combat, unstable surfaces and painless rules for underwater combat can be found here as well. Spell casting is next and requires both the ability to move hands and to verbalize the incantations. Some spells are reversible and boosts to a single attribute, or attack rolls e.g. do not stack. The basics of spell books are also noted. Finally, we get an explanation of magic items: Identification, uses, charges, cursed items and magic weaponry and armor and their annotation are covered. Potions are noted and it should be noted that you can only be under the effect of one. Mixing potions makes you sick for 3 rounds and nullifies all effects. Scrolls, rings, and the rod/Staff/Wand-category are also explained. The latter items are btw. distinguished by charges they hold – 1d10, 2d10 or 3d10. The same pages btw. also contain the rules for spell research and magic item creation – for the latter, you btw. need 9th level or higher. If you have ever played an old-school game, you know how much of an achievement that is…
And that’s it! All core rules for B/X-gaming!
Editing and formatting are top-notch, I didn’t notice a single glitch. Layout adheres to a really nice two-column b/w-standard that uses both bolding of page- and rules-references and pastel-green highlights in tables etc. to create an aesthetic presentation. Speaking of aesthetics: This book is chock-full with amazing b/w-artworks I haven’t seen before. Beholder-shepherds, cool items, one-eyed, strange ogre-ish things in caverns, sea serpents…this is a beautiful book. The standard print edition is perfect bound and sports the standard PoD-paper; personally, I’d advise in favor of the stitch-bound premium version, which has better paper and crisper text/colors, etc. The pdf comes with extremely detailed, nested bookmarks, making navigation of that version comfortable. If you#re really strapped for cash, there is even a plain-text version that is FREE!
Gavin Norman’s depiction of the B/X-core rules is an AMAZING foundation. While I personally prefer attack bonuses instead of charts in tables, that is a personal preference, not something in the B/X-rules and as such, expected. Now, other than that, I very much consider this to be pretty much the ideal, perfect start. The rules herein can be read and understood in less than half an hour if you concentrate…but the true value, at least for me, lies in the organization. The content is presented in such a tight and organic manner that actual use of the book is ridiculously simple. Looking for xyz? The index sets you up. If e.g. you want to know where the wandering monster-rules are while reading the encounter section, rest assured you’ll immediately find it, courtesy of the copious internal references. This makes using the book at the table ridiculously simple and comfortable.
Beyond that, the book is a faithful rendition of the much-beloved system, stripped of the accoutrements that may get in the way of your exact vision…and if you want certain things like classic classes in your game, there are always the other books of the series! This is pretty much a perfect start to make your own hack/setting/etc. and the professional, impressive presentation makes using the book a joy. In short: This is an excellent and inexpensive booklet. My final verdict will clock in at 5 stars + seal of approval…and if you’re looking for a start to create your own hack/variant setting with these rules, consider this to be an EZG Essential as well. This is a superb foundation to build on.
You can get these fantastic, concisely-presented setting-agnostic old-school rules here on OBS!
The FREE, plain-text version can be found here!