Old School Essentials by Gavin Norman (Necrotic Gnome)
Type: Clone of B/X Dungeons & Dragons (Moldway/Cook)
Availability: Free basic version. Full art PDF and print versions (box with separate hardbacks and collected hardback) from the publisher’s website. PDFs also at DTRPG. I would also add that the pricing is very reasonable, considering the high quality of the printed materials. There is also an online SRD for those who prefer that.
Form factor: The game is published in two variants. Variant 1 is as separate books (base rules, magic, treasure etc) and variant 2 is a rules tome that collects all the books in a hefty tome. The separate books can be purchased as a complete box set but is also sold separately.
All print variants are of very high-quality, with sewn bindings and thick paper, and from a bona fide “real” printer, i.e. no print-on-demand. The print is two-tone (b/w with light green accents, reminiscient of TSR:s old Rules Cyclopedia) and also containing some full colour art pages and covers. In my opinion, the art itself is definitely old school and of varying quality, but generally very cool and fitting the old school theme and aesthetics. Also, the format is A5, providing a smaller form factor at the table as well as increasing portability for traveling GM:s and players.
The author have furthermore gone to lengths to ensure that the game is friendly at the gaming table, with super clear and modern page design, aiming at minimizing page flipping. Most topics have been laid out so that all pertinent information is available in a single page spread.
Community: Support for OSE is mainly from the publisher’s web site. There are also very active OSE groups on social media such as Facebook, MeWe and Discord.
Product support: As for now mainly through the publisher. However, there is licensed support for 3rd party products, of which there is a also a listing at the Necrotic Gnome web site. These 3rd party products are then hosted on DTRPG. Currently, the publisher is developing two different product lines, one of which are various additions to the OSE rules themselves and the other is Dolmenwood which is a setting that explicitly uses OSE. The publisher is also behind the fanzine Wormzine, which primarily supports Dolmenwood, but also OSE.
Tinkerability: Very good. As an old school rule set, it is very easy to insert stuff ad libitum from other old school games, without disturbing the game mechanics.
Compatibility: The game is 100 % compatible with D&D b/x (Moldway/Cook) and very close to OSR clones like Labyrinth Lord and Basic Fantasy RPG. So, conversion between all pre-third edition versions of TSR D&D or clones thereof are easy.
Flavor: OSE is basically an updated version of D&D b/x, which should cater for fans of both b/x and the other b/x clone – Labyrinth Lord. If you like old school basic D&D – this will surely be your jam.
AC: Descending (unarmored man is AC 9), with optional rules for using Ascending AC instead
Combat: Attack matrices (or THAC0), with optional rules for using Attack Bonus instead
Saves: 5 (old school style – Death or Poison/Wands/Paralysis or Petrification/Breath Attacks/Spells, Rods or Staves)
Level range: 1-14 (with optional rules reaching level 36)
Race & Class*: Combined (Race-As-Class)
Classes included*: Cleric, Fighter, Magic-user, Thief, Dwarf, Elf and Halfling.
Hit Dice: Varying according to class
Monster Hit Dice: Static, d8
XP Charts: Variable, each class has its own xp chart
Demi-human class and level restrictions: Demi-humans have level restrictions as opposed to humans
Class requirements: Yes (for example, to play an Elf you have to have minimum Intelligence 9).
*The additional book OSE Advanced Fantasy genre has rules for a range of new classes such as: Acrobat, Assassin, Barbarian, Bard, Drow, Druid, Duergar, Gnome, Half-elf, Half-orc, Illusionist, Knight, Paladin, Ranger, and Svirfneblin. It also covers optional rules for separate race and class as well as multi classing.
D&D b/x (or as we called it back then, “Basic D&D” was my introduction to role-playing games, and because of that it will always hold a special place in my heart. That said, I must also be honest with the fact that I prefer AD&D these days.
I would say that the main strengths of this game lies in compatibility, simplicity, modularity, quality and support.
As a very close clone of b/x, all materials for that game as well as for BECMI/Rules Cyclopedia D&D, Labyrinth Lord and Basic Fantasy RPG can be used as is, which is great if you have old modules lying around waiting to be played. A little conversion is needed for AD&D (1e and 2e) but conversion is pretty simple and can mostly be managed on the spot. This also goes for those popular OSR clones. This means that you have a vast library of modules and settings that easily can be run with OSE even if you’re not an old GM that was there when b/x was new.
The major strength of this game is it’s simplicity. The rules are easy to grasp and pretty short, so for ideal for those minimal prep pickup games or convention games. Earlier this year I had signed up to GM my first con game and for that I chose OSE. Sadly, that never came to pass, because of the corona virus. Also, the small footprint of the books makes them ideal for the travelling GM – no more hauling of 1 ton of books to the playing spot.
The fact that OSE is designed in a modular way is a great feature. We have a simple set of base rules, with additional books covering plug-in rules and settings. For example, for me the Advanced Fantasy plug-in is the best. As an AD&D fan, I like my druids, rangers and paladins. And now I can have them work with this lighter rule set. That’s a huge selling point for me at last. The author has announced that the next modular book in the works is a monster book that brings in many of the traditional monsters from AD&D in OSE format. (And you can never ever have too many monster books, right?)
The physical quality of the books are outstanding, as they’re “real” offset printed books with sewn spines and sturdy covers, which means that they promise to last a long time. They are also pretty to look at and they do induce that sense of wonder that I experienced when I first started playing RPGs. The author has also gone to great lengths to ensure that the books are easy to use. All topics take up one page or a page spread, which means that flipping back and forth at the game table is a thing of the past. The text is also worded in a most economical way, meaning that great care has been taken to keep things short and to the point. So no more sludging through walls of text to extract the bits of information you look for. In these days, when most RPGs increase their wording to the maximum, this kind of deliberate minimalist design is a bliss.
OSE is published by Necrotic Gnome which is synonymous with Gavin Norman, a UK guy based in Germany. This far, most OSE publications are by them, but there is a third party license (OGL) for those that want to write and publish their own OSE compatible materials and so far there is a handful of them out there. Of particular interest is that Necrotic Gnome has made the SRD available online, along with a bunch of cool random generators for treasure, NPCs and so on. This is very handy and a huge plus for OSE, increasing the usability of the game immensely.
The only real bummer for me is the same as always when it comes to the slimmed down OSR variants – short lists of stuff such as equipment, weapons, monsters, magic items and spells. I like lots of choice in those departments and it is what usually bothers me with this type of game. Of course, I can import stuff from other games (and I do), but it’s much more convenient to have it all in one place. Hopefully, Necrotic Gnome will publish works that expand the lists some in that department.
This is a game that basically has rekindled my interest in the OSR genre. The last few years I’ve been focussing on other games, but now I’m back in OSR land. It has also rekindled my interest in writing and creating OSR stuff and I have already started work on a new OSE compatible dungeon adventure called “Tomb of the War-Pig”. I don’t think that this game will replace my all-time OSR favorite “Blood & Treasure” for my own games, but I will definitely use it for one-shots and convention games, and also for publishing my own content on DTRPG. Gorgeous books with high usability and online support as well. Love it!
Publisher: Necrotic Gnome
Other posts in this series: Flavors of the OSR