Since my return to D&D back in 2010-11, I have played and GM:et a bunch of D&D-ish games: Rules Cyclopedia, Mentzer D&D, Labyrinth Lord AEC, Swords & Wizardry Core, Swords & Wizardry Complete, Blood & Treasure, D&D 5th edition, Pathfinder and Fantastic Heroes & Witchery.
And despite all sharing a fairly similar base in scope and concept, I would say that every edition and clone has its own specific flavor, which is cool.
In the start I was very much into the minimalistic and simpler versions of the game, but over time I have noticed that I definitely prefer games with a little more choice and crunch. I will never be a 3rd edition D&D/Pathfinder guy but these days the more minimalistic editions of the game goes away, as are the ones using “race-as-class”.
I have also felt my interest in pure old school style adventures waning, slowly gravitating away from the old classics in favor of more “modern” style adventures. This is also true rules-wise.
However, the new mega-modules from Wizards of the Coast have left me quite unimpressed (except for the new Curse of Strahd, which will be my next GM:ing project). I don’t know exacly what it is, but some modern ideas and concepts are extemely off-putting to me.
And while I find the 5th edition core rules pretty OK, they’re not my favourite rule set as there are some things that I have a hard time accepting.
I have come to the conclusion that what I want from my D&D games these days is a hybrid game:
Old school rules with new school hacks added. (Or, new school rules with some old school concepts added). Adventure-wise it is the same. And I have found a few game companies that provide just what I like:
Frog God Games’ adventures are pretty old school, but with a modern touch, making them ideal for me. I buy the Swords & Wizardry versions because I feel that they are the easiest to read and get a grasp of, and also the most versatile in terms of what game system to use. Most of their adventures have been available in Swords & Wizardry and Pathfinder editions, but now they have added 5th edition D&D to their stable as well. I know that some old schoolers are a bit sceptical towards 3.x/PF adventures being converted to old school format, but in my book it works really well. The only downside for me (being a resident of Sweden, i.e. Northlands) is that there’s no Swedish or European reseller of Frog God Games products, meaning in turn that their already quite expensive products get super expensive when adding currency conversion, international shipping and import tax. At the same time, the books are top notch quality with real sewn backs and in my opinion they give serious bang for the buck. We have been playing Stoneheart Valley (supplemented with some OSR side trek adventures) for about a year (we play about one or maybe two 6-8 hour sessions per month) and we still have lots of things to explore. I really like Frog God’s mix of old and new. And yeah, they are also the publishers of Swords & Wizardry Complete, of which I’m sure that you have heard of.
Troll Lord Games is another game company that provides an old school philosophy but with a more modern take. This company also publish their own excellent rule set – Castles & Crusades which is a modern but more simple game engine than for example Pathfinder. Basically, they have simplified D&D 3.x mechanics and turned the game back to a very 1e AD&D philosophy. For example, in C&C, bards, assassins and rangers cannot cast spells. TLG also publish their own game worlds, Aihrde and Haunted Highlands, which are awesome game worlds and usable with whatever game you prefer, complete with large beautiful colour maps. And they have a huge selection of adventures for those that prefer pre-written adventures. Old school philosophy with a modern take. We have not played Castles & Crusades yet though. I recently got into the game and have been reading their stuff a lot and I really like it as it is very complete and they offer books on subjects that no other publisher has done. Their books are also top notch with real sewn backs. Price wise they are also reasonable and on top of that they have both Swedish and European resellers, meaning that I don’t have to import them myself, which saves me a ton of money. After Curse of Strahd, this is where we’ll be going. Finally, as a note, TLG has also started to convert some books and adventures for 5e D&D.
Finally, I don’t think that anyone has missed that I really, really like John M Stater‘s games. He writes and publishes his games on his own and his neo-old school game Blood & Treasure has been a favourite of mine since it first came out in 2012. Blood & Treasure can be described as an old school clone but with lots of new school stuff thrown into the mix. It is very complete but still simple at heart. If Castles & Crusades is a 1e AD&D-ified version of 3.x, then Blood & Treasure is a OSR-ified version of 3.x. In Blood & Treasure, many of the concepts from 3.x are retained – bards, assassins and rangers have limited spell casting abilities for example. I like to think of Blood & Treasure as Swords & Wizardry Complete on steroids. Lots of options. Simple rules engine. This is the game we currently use, and it can easily be used to play adventures written for any version of D&D or clone thereof.
As an honorable mention, I would like to add Fantastic Heroes & Witchery published by Dominique Crouzet and his own publishing imprint DOM Publishing. I was really stoked with this game when it came out but it is not a complete game in the sense that it lacks both monsters, treasure and magic items. It is meant to be used as an alternative game engine along with your old books. For me, it has become a go-to GM source for inspiration and alternative rules ideas and concepts that I cannot find in another rule set. However, there is a monster book in the works right now. Between Blood & Treasure, Castles & Crusades and 5th edition D&D I’d say that I have alternative flavoured D&D-ish rules to run games indefinitely and while I’d really like to try out Fantastic Heroes & Witchery with my group, they have already signaled a certain “try-out-new-rules-fatigue”, so in the choice of letting something go, it will be FH&W for me. Still, an amazing game.
Sadly, I seem to one of the few that like this style of gaming. Pathfinder and 5e fans seem to scorn as soon as someone mentions old school or OSR style gaming and many old schoolers think that including things like skill checks in old school gaming is heresy. Sad, as I think that all gaming styles have cool ideas to offer. Or maybe, gamers like myself don’t care about “gamer politics” and aren’t that vocal of it online. I don’t know, but I feel quite alone in my game philosphy.
So, my mission when writing my own adventures for publishing is to show that older style games can be used for newer style gaming and vice versa. And while I won’t sell as much doing just that, rather than catering to peoples’ preconceptions of how an adventure should be if it’s “pure old school” or “pure new school”, it is my gaming style and I like to promote it.
Game on. Have fun. Mix and match. Don’t let others tell you what is OK and what is not.