As it wasn’t enought with all the different versions of D&D, the OSR have spawned a ton of retroclones and mash-up versions of the game, and I have a lot of them on my bookshelf and even more on my hard drive.
You can always ask yourself to what end you would want all these more or less similar games, and nowadays my wife just sighs when there’s a new book package in the mail.
Thing is, all of them bring something worthwhile to the table. Ideas and concepts to steal for your preferred “base” rule set.
At this very point, my preferred rule sets are:
Swords & Wizardry Complete – for the uncomplicated, rules light game. Limited options with classes, spells and other minutiae makes this my pickup game for beginners, one shots or when I play with the kids. Also, the online SRD is a thing of beauty. Moreover, S&W has an awesome online community, many small press supporters and also a commercial company (Frog God Games) that produces excellent (if extremely expensive for European customers) content for the game. And most important – reading S&W stuff always makes me want to play – now!
Blood & Treasure – for an almost as stripped down experience as S&W, but with lots of simple options added. B&T takes 2 parts of S&W and adds 1 part of 3.x and 1 part of house rules for a very complete, yet simple play experience. You can easily run adventures from any D&D or OSR edition with B&T. 3.x stuff involves a little more work, but it’s quite easy when you get the hand of it. This is what I use for my at the table game group at the moment. It’s a very complete game –basically S&W on steroids – so in essence no house rules are needed.
Fantastic Heroes & Witchery – for a more AD&D style experience, FH&W is 5e done right in my book. The rules merges a heavy 1e/2e feel with 3.x mechanisms and a lot of personal house flavor. It’s definitely crunchier than the two earlier games, but could be used for any type of game really. FH&W is meant to replace the Player’s Handbook and parts of the Dungeon Master Guide, and is missing (i) treasure and (ii) monsters, so you have to use it in conjunction with another rule set. It also makes quite large edits to classes and how magic works. I’m planning to use this for my Dark Fantasy homebrew games, using 2e treasure and monsters.
Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition – my feelings for the new D&D is mixed. On one hand, I think it’s a solid rule set, and much improved from what I’ve read from 3.x (Pathfinder for my part). I’ve been playing this for a while and as a player it’s great fun with the right GM. At the same time I think it is lacking in “feel” for me. (Too much focus on PC cool powers stuff, which might be a nod to the 3.x and 4e players out there, I don’t know). But maybe I’m just being an old grognard here. Anyway, for a more modern gaming style, or for running 3.e or PF adventures I could well see myself using 5e. Another big issue I have with 5e is the lack of PDFs for the core books. This is a huge bummer for me. I love real books and will always use them at our table, but for finding something quick, a searchable PDF (or online SRD) is very helpful. I will definitely give 5e a test run in the future, but as of now I’m content to be a player (and we will soon start another 5e game with the other GM in our at the table group).
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd edition – an honourable mention for 2e also. So much cool stuff was published during this edition. The core rules are rock solid, but with all the splatbooks it becomes a bloated mess. However, 2e stuff can be found very cheap and there is a lot of inspiration to be found in these tomes. As it is compatible with older D&D editions as well as newer OSR publications, these days this edition would be the one I would choose if I were to play “real” old D&D.
A sad thing is that B&T and FH&W both have quite few followers. Looking over the fanbases and the available materials for these various games, it soon becomes apparent that 5e and S&W are the major players, both in number of active players and by being published by commercial publishers. If I were a GM looking for new players, or if I wanted to publish my own material online (or as a small press publisher), I’d definitely choose one of the more widespread game systems. However, I like to support the little guys, so I will continue writing free PDF adventures for B&T and FH&W, complemented by separate S&W versions of the adventures.
As Wizards of the Coast haven’t released an SRD or other type of license for 5e yet, it’s difficult to know what you can and cannot do. Still, there are already 3rd party books and adventures being released for 5e by for example Goodman Games and Frog God Games.
And finally, to all you wonderful small press/DIY people out there – keep the good stuff coming, there is always room for more cool ideas! Respect!