Flavors of the OSR: part 3 Blood & Treasure

Blood & Treasure by John Stater

Type: Hybrid (Mix of many editions: includes elements from OD&D, B/X, AD&D and 3E)

Availability: No free version. Paid full art PDF and print versions (soft- and hardback) at LULU.


Form factor: Nice looking b/w books with good fantasy art. Very well written, clear and concise rules and simple but nice layout. The rules comes in 3 variants: A Players Book, a Treasure Keepers Book (GM book) and a Complete Book. The rules are quite simple and logical, but complexity is higher than say Swords & Wizardry or Labyrinth Lord (at least sans the AEC).

Community: Support for B&T is mainly by the author himself on his blog. There’s also a little-used forum, and a small G+ group.

Product support: Good. B&T is basically a one man show, but the author is one of those remarkably productive people, and a new book, the ”NOD Companion” is on the way for B&T. There’s also some excellent 3rd party PDFs with new races, classes and a psionics PDF.

Tinkerability: Very good. Also, not so needed, since the rules are very complete, and covers a range of situations.

Compatibility: Excellent. Some say that Labyrinth Lord is the Rosetta stone of OSR games. I think that Blood & Treasure fits that epithet better, since it covers not only the older versions of the game, but provides tools for using 3.X materials also.

Flavor: I would say that B&T feels like a mash-up of Pathfinder light and Swords & Wizardry. Very complete, but simple and easily adaptable to all types of games.

Statblock:


AC: Ascending (unarmored man is AC 10)


Saves: 3 (3.X style: Fortitude, Reflex and Will)


Level range: 1-20


Race & Class: Separate race and class


Classes included*: Fighter, Barbarian, Duelist, Paladin, Ranger, Cleric, Druid, Magic-User, Sorcerer, Thief, Assassin, Bard, Monk


Races included: Elf, Half-Elf, Halfling, Dwarf, Half-orc, Gnome PLUS a lot of playable races in the monster section (examples are: Tiefling, Aasimar, Ogre etc)


Hit Dice: Varying according to class (similar to B/X in values)


Monster Hit Dice: Static, d6


XP charts: variable, depending on class. Many classes share the same table though, so there are only 4 tables (including the multi-class table)


Multi-class: yes


Demi-human class and level restrictions: no restrictions for class or level, but restrictions on multi-class combinations for demi-humans


*All the classes also have a class variant included in the book. For example, the Assassin can be modified to a Bounty Hunter or Magic-Users can be Specialist Mages (2E style).


Blurb:
First of all, some of you might stop reading when you see that this game includes stuff from The Game That Shall Not Be Named, but please don’t give up yet.

Personally, I’ve got no problem with 3.X, more than the fact that I think it’s too messy to GM. Just like 2E when the splatbooks are added. Nevertheless, both 3.X and 2E splatbooks added some really cool things to the game. Things that you miss if you only go with the older versions of the game. Of course, you can modify and add house rules but that becomes messy too after a while.

B&T has the cool stuff from 3.X added in the base package, in a clean and simple way. Many times these rules are optional, and you can skip them without breaking the game. This is the main strength of B&T in my opinion. You can play it 0E style or as 3.X light. As much as I love the simpler rules of earlier incarnations of the game, that simplicity often goes hand in hand with fewer options: few races, few classes, small armor and weapons lists, small spell lists, small monster lists and so on. And this is cool in a minimalistic way, but I like options. B&T provides a simple core rules engine, with a few cool optional add-ons if you like. And LOTS of stuff: 600+ spells and 500+ monsters! In one (or two) book(s)!

Some highlights from the rules, where B&T differs from other OSR games:

  • Heroic tasks – there’s a simple skill system included. Basically, different class and race abilities are codified into skills. Different classes get different skill packages at character generation, which gives them an edge trying to accomplish certain tasks. Everyone can try the tasks, but with different chances for success. If you’re unskilled, you roll a d20 against a target number of 18. Next level of expertise is to have a knack for a certain task. Target number then is 15. And if you have the skill, you roll against the relevant saving throw for that task, so as you go up in level your chances increase. In all these instances your ability modifier is added to the die roll. Difficulties are assigned by the GM in -2 increments. To illustrate: there’s a Heroic Task called Bend Bars, and it uses the Fortitude save + the Strength modifier. An unskilled PC would roll 1d20 + his Str modifier vs a target number of 18, while a skilled PC would roll a d20 + Str modifier vs his Fortitude save target number. The only skills that I miss personally is some kind of First Aid/Healing skill and some kind of general Lore skill. There’s also an optional system for letting PCs buy skills with skill points Pathfinder style.
  • Feats – If you like, there’s a list of about 30 feats that can be used. These are simple, and basically allows for some character customization. They never give more than +1 to stuff. You get a feat at 1st level, and then a new at 4th, 8th, 12th and 16th level. Or use whatever increments that you like. I’ve also added the ”old school feats” (originally written for S&W).
  • Combat maneuvres – The combat system includes rules for some maneuvers/stunts. Basically you roll to hit against a fixed target number. If successful the defender gets a save. If he rolls bad, your stunt succeeds.
  • Tactical advantage – Instead of fiddly rules for different situations, there’s a tactical advantage rule. If the attacker has an advantage he gets +2 to hit. If a defender has advantage, he gets +2 to AC. What constitutes an advantage is up to the GM, but examples could be higher ground and things like that.
  • Guns – If you want to include black powder weapons in your game, the rules are there.
  • 0-level spells – Yep. There’s 0-level spells for both Magic-Users and Clerics. Nothing advanced, but it gives spell casters something magicky to do…
  • Challenge levels – B&T uses a variant of challenge levels, just like S&W. These are used to compute Encounter levels, which forms the base for computing treasure.
  • There’s also sound advice in how to convert to and from other OSR games, how to construct or reskin monsters, rules for domains and large scale battles and even a section on monster templates.
  • Power levels are toned down from 3.X power bloat, and are more in line with older editions of the game.

These things might not be to everyone’s liking, but as I said earlier – cut away stuff you don’t like. Some might say that B&T isn’t an OSR game, but I think it’s just that. Or OSR+. Or whatever you want to call it.

Physically, the books are LULU standard. There’s a Player’s Tome and a Treasure Keepers Tome and a Complete Tome with all the rules in one book. I have the Complete Tome and a copy of the Player’s Tome to use at the table. The only thing I miss is an index.

If the races and classes in the book(s) aren’t enough for you, there’s a PDF of new races and a PDF with lots of new class variants (5 of each base class). Both can be found on the author’s blog. Also, the excellent OSR magazine NOD has a bunch of new classes, spells and monsters and the author regularly posts new material on the blog. There’s also a section describing the game and the mechanics here (see Origins and Nuts & Bolts).

Some downsides to B&T are the problematic multi-classing thing. B&T has an elegant way of dealing with multi-class level advancement. They use a separate level table regardless of class. The problem is that even if xp requirements are the highest, the multi-classes are going to get much mightier than plain ol’ single class characters. This has been discussed on the forums, and the author has written down a few official optional methods for handling multi-class character leveling that should take care of that. Another thing is that the only class that gets multiple attacks when leveling is the fighter. That leaves the other Fighter subclasses in the backwaters in comparison.

And if you look for that old school esoteric writing style or Lamentations style evocative writing – there’s none of that here. The book(s) are very well written in short end effective prose, but that also makes them a bit non-personal and generic. Naturally, this is a very subjective point, but it’s one that I’ve thought about.

Sadly, I don’t think that this game has attracted nearly enough attention on the OSR scene, and this might be due to the fact that there’s no free version of the game. The PDFs and books are reasonably priced, but people are reluctant to pay for gaming stuff when there’s so much free stuff going on. Sad, because I think a lot of you guys would love this game if you see past it’s 3.X connection.

All in all, this feels like AD&D done right. Or 3.X as it should have been done. For me, the simplicity of the rules, coupled with the completeness and multitude of stuff, makes B&T my main choice for my new OSR campaign with my main play group. The book has been on my nightstand since I got it and I find that I return to it ever so often to look up stuff.

And even if you don’t want to use the rules, the spells and monster sections alone are worth the price of admittance. Basically, all the monsters and spells from the d20 SRD are accounted for. In a much simpler format. Very easily converted to your favourite OSR game.

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Blood & Treasure has been quite alone on the hybrid ”take-the-cool-stuff-from-all-editions-and-mix-it-up-in-a-very-complete-bucket” OSR scene, but now there’s a new contender in that field – Fantastic Heroes & Witchery. I’m still waiting for the book, but I think that the next blog post in this series will be full review of that game.

Flavors of the OSR: part 2 Swords & Wizardry

The time has come to delve into another cool old school game, and one that I like very much:
Swords & Wizardry – developed (all editions) and published by Mythmere Games (S&W Whitebox and Core) and Frog God Games (S&W Complete).

S&W Whitebox

S&W Core

S&W Complete

Before we dive into the subject I’d like to clarify that there’s 3 different versions of this game. To complicate things they’re written by different people and published by different publishers.

The author of Whitebox is Marv Breig, while Core and Complete are written by Matt Finch. And while there’s a lot of likenesses, there’s some fundamental differences as well.

I’d also state that I never played OD&D back in the day, so bear with me if I have gotten some things wrong. We use S&W Core and I just bought S&W Complete, which I will use along with Core in future S&W games.

Here’s the editions in order of complexity:
Swords & Wizardry Whitebox: The most bare-bones version of them all. Basically it covers the 3 basic books of OD&D. Only 3 classes – Fighting-Man, Magic-User and Cleric, that all use d6 for HD and all weapons do d6 damage. Available from Mythmere Games as a free PDF, or in print from LULU.

Swords & Wizardry Core: This edition is what I have used. Covers the 3 basic books + supplement 1. Will be described in detail below. Available as a free PDF from Mythmere Games, or in print from LULU.

Swords & Wizardry Complete: I recently bought this. It covers the 3 basic books + all the supplements for OD&D. Will also be described in detail below. Available as free full-art PDF and in print from Frog God Games.


So, while Labyrinth Lord (described in part 1 of this blog series) has a ”basic” book and an ”advanced” expansion book, Swords & Wizardry has 3 different books of varying completeness and complexity.
I will discuss the Core and Complete books here, and I’ve chosen to separate them for ease of reading. I leave Whitebox out, since I have no experience whatsoever with it.

Swords & Wizardry Core
Type: Clone (Original D&D + supplement 1)

Availability: Free full art PDF and paid print versions (soft- and hardback) at LULU.

Form factor: Nice looking b/w books with old school fantasy art. The green cover by Peter Mullen is seriously cool! Well written, clear and concise rules. Very easy to pick up for new gamers.

Community: Very good support with a very active G+ group, where most of the discussions live nowadays. There’s an old forum, but activity has moved to to G+.

Product support: Excellent. Frog God Games publish new books and modules all the time, so professional support is awesome. Besides, there’s a bunch of 3rd party publishers and community free stuff as well.

There’s also many electronic resources, for example Akrasia’s blog. S&W is also unique in the OSR in that it has an official SRD online, kept by the people behind the Pathfinder SRD. Go check it out: S&W SRD

Tinkerability: Über-excellent. The author actually encourage you to add to, and tinker with the rules, and many times he offers several options or takes on the rules in the book.

Compatibility: Excellent. S&W materials is very easy to use with other old school games.

Flavor: Original D&D as in the books from 1974, but with some additions from the Greyhawk supplement. The game is easily modded for whatever flavor you might prefer, and since the rules are so loose and simple, tinkering won’t mess up other rules. Having no experience with the Original D&D rules I would say that the feel is AD&D1e light.

Statblock:
AC: Descending (unarmored man is AC 9) OR Ascending (unarmored man is AC10). S&W actually gives you two AC systems to choose from, where descending is the default).
Saves: 1 (unique for S&W)
Level range: 1-20 (with rules for advancement to 21+)
Race & Class: Separate race and class
Classes included: Fighter, Cleric, Magic-user and Thief (optional)
Races included: Elf, Halfling, Dwarf
Hit Dice: Varying according to class (similar to B/X)
Monster Hit Dice: Static, d8
XP charts: variable, depending on class
Multi-class: yes
Demi-human class and level restrictions: yes*

Swords & Wizardry Complete
Type: Clone (Original D&D+all the OD&D supplements)

Availability: Free full art PDF and paid print version (hardback) from Frog God Games.

Form factor: Nice looking b/w books with good old school fantasy art. The new blue cover is a specially commissioned piece from legendary Erol Otus! Well written, clear and concise rules with just a little more crunch than S&W Core . Easy to pick up for new gamers.

Community: Same as S&W Core.

Product support: Same as S&W Core.

Tinkerability: Same as S&W Core.

Compatibility: Same as S&W Core.

Flavor: Original D&D as in the books from 1974, but with additions from all the supplements. The game is easily modded for whatever flavor you might prefer, and since the rules are so loose and simple, tinkering won’t mess up other rules.

Statblock:
AC: Descending (unarmored man is AC 9) OR Ascending (unarmored man is AC10). S&W actually gives you two AC systems to choose from, where descending is the default).
Saves: 1 (unique for S&W)
Level range: 1-20 (with rules for advancement to 21+)
Race & Class: Separate race and class
Classes included: Fighter, Cleric, Magic-user, Thief, Ranger, Assassin, Monk, Druid, Paladin
Races included: Elf, Halfling, Dwarf, Half-elf
Hit Dice: Varying according to class (similar to B/X)
Monster Hit Dice: Static, d8
XP charts: variable, depending on class
Multi-class: yes
Demi-human class and level restrictions: yes

Blurb: Having no background in OD&D, it took some time for me to get into Swords & Wizardry. I had a good look at S&W Whitebox and Core at the time I was searching for a base system for my games, and discarded both in favor of Labyrinth Lord + AEC. This I did because I was unfamiliar with the OD&D rules, and Labyrinth Lord felt much more familiar. There’s power in the known…

However, after some time I purchased the S&W 0E Reloaded Monster book for my LL games, and to be able to understand the monster stats better, I read the Core book again. This time, I realized that the S&W fans had a point in being just that. It’s a sleek and very complete system in a short book, and I realized that I hadn’t done the game justice by discarding it so fast.

To me it feels like AD&D light instead of B/X with AD&D bolted on. I also appreciate the author’s light tone and that the book encourages the readers to tinker and modify the game according to taste, and that’s something I’ve heard others say too. The book are well laid out, and nice to read, and it’s easy to find stuff. Nothing fancy, but it does the job very well. There’s a table of contents and an index of all tables. No ordinary index though, as is common with the small publishing houses.

The rules are as simple as Labyrinth Lord, if not even simpler. The spell descriptions are short and simple a la B/X. Clerics spell lists are 6-10 spells/spell level and goes up to level 7, while Magic-Users get 10-20 spells/spell level and goes up to level 9. The Cleric has manage without spells at level 1 though. One of the bigger differences from B/X is the attribute bonuses. Instead of the same for all attributes -3 to +3 range of B/X, S&W has different tables for all attributes, and the range is much lower, from -1 to +1, meaning that most characters will have no or just small attribute bonuses. And in extension, that having high attributes might be less important than in B/X or AD&D.

Another difference is that the only class to benefit from high strength to hit and damage bonus are Fighters. All in all, there’s a whole lot of small mechanical differences here and there, if you come from a B/X or AD&D background. Movement and encumbrance are more like AD&D, i.e. annotated as a base move of 12’, 9’, 6’ and so on. Encumbrance is in pounds and definitely easier to track than the old ”coins” used by B/X. All in all move and encumbrance is very easy to track in S&W.

Then there’s also some more significant differences, exemplified by:
Ascending Armor Class – S&W actually gives you a choice of using standard old D&D descending AC (DAC) or 3E style ascending AC (AAC).

Unified Saving throw – Yep. Only one Saving throw. The concept has actually been used this before, in a the 2E introductory box called ”D&D Adventure Game”. I know that a lot of people have got issues with the single saving throw, but I actually like it, and I use it for NPCs and monsters in all my OSR games nowadays.

Challenge level – old D&D was always vague about guidelines for GMs in the art of balancing encounters. The only solid advice I’m aware of were in Rules Cyclopedia. 3E introduced the concept of Challenge levels (CL), which S&W has adapted. Good for novice GMs. CL is also used for determination of XP for monsters. So, no Treasure Type or Hoard Level stats in S&W.

Treasure generation – I don’t know if the random treasure generation process in S&W was in OD&D, but it differs some from what I’ve been used to.

S&W Complete covers all that is in Core, but adds a new race (half-elf) and a bunch of new classes (Ranger, Assassin, Monk, Druid and Paladin). There’s also some minor rules additions/differences from Core, but in essential it’s very similar.

Another difference is that Complete is produced and sold by a commercial publisher (Frog God Games), and that the production values are higher than Core. In my opinion this commercial support is a huge advantage to S&W as a game system. Frog God Games has released a great deal of cool new S&W books and supplements, such as Tome of Horrors Complete, Rappan Athuk, Monstrosities and many more. This makes S&W a game that is alive.

The Swords & Wizardry SRD (produced by the same people behind the Pathfinder SRD) is yet another great thing. Basically, the S&W Complete book on a searchable web page, for free. How cool isn’t that? I’ve noticed that I reference the SRD more than the books nowadays, especially at the game table, and I wish more games had such a great online resource for gaming.

If you want more cool races, classes and monsters the Land of Nod magazine (by John Stater) are full of S&W goodness. There’s also fan-made alternative rules for simple feats and other cool additions to the game to be found in the OSR blogosphere, but you already know that, right? Here’s a place to start: Akrasia’s blog.

There’s also a very cool Swords and Sorcery styled game based on S&W, called Crypts & Things, that I’ll cover in a future post.

Play-wise I’ve only tried S&W Core, and it was a blast, even if I (GM) and the players were all new to S&W. There was a flow and very little in the way of looking up rules and such. And ascending AC, single save and usage of attack bonus instead of attack tables (house rule from Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque) smoothed out the GM work even more. I even ran a home-brew Labyrinth Lord adventure on the fly – worked like a charm.

In conclusion, Swords &Wizardry is a very good choice for your old school D&D-ish games. The three flavors allows you to choose complexity level, and all are free – as in full art PDF free! Online support is excellent, and the fan base is very active, especially at the Google+ groups. The solid commercial support is another great plus, and the released supporting books are top notch. Also, the moddability of the rules makes S&W a very good choice for OSR tinkerers.

Hopefully, this blog series might help some people in choosing the right OSR game flavor. Because it’s on that level – flavor. To illustrate, the rules differences between Labyrinth Lord and Swords & Wizardry are quite small, and at the table it really feels like the same game. Or, you do it my way – play them all ☺

One caveat, though, is that Swords & Wizardry products are virtually non-existent in European game shops, meaning that books have to be ordered online if you like printed books (as do I). With current pricing for overseas shipping, that’s a very expensive affair. So, please Frog God Games, please get a European retailer. Soon. There’s a lot of people on the other side of the pond that’d like your cool books in print.
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Next OSR Flavor will be the magnificent Blood & Treasure!

Flavors of the OSR: part 1 Labyrinth Lord

It has been silent here at the Nerd-O-Mancer’s HQ for a while. RealLife™ has been taking up all time and RPG:ing has been limited to reading and thinking out cool adventures.
Anyway, I’ve been thinking of doing a series of blog posts about how I perceive some of the games in the now rather large OSR family. These are the games that I own and use. I’ll try to use a consistent format, or statblock for these reviews.
First out is the excellent Labyrinth Lord by Goblinoid Games

Type: Clone (B/X, and AD&D1E in the case of the Advanced Edition Characters book)

Availability: Free art-free PDFs, paid PDFs w/ art and print versions (soft- and hardback) at LULU. The game is also available directly at many game shops.

Form factor: Nice looking b/w books with old school fantasy art. Well written, clear and concise rules. Easy to pick up for new gamers.

Community: Good support with a somewhat sleepy forum at Goblinoid Games and a dedicated G+ group.

Product support: Excellent, with lots of 3rd party products from various small game companies and private initiatives.

There’s also many electronic resources, for example at Wizardawn’s site. Mithril & Mages has a very good collection of online resources for LL.

Tinkerability: Excellent. Just mix and match. Adding house rules or elements from other OSR games is very simple.

Compatibility: Excellent. LL materials is easy to use with other old school games.

Flavor: Classic old D&D (or AD&D in the case of AEC). Easily modded for a more Lovecraftian or Dark fantasy feel.

Statblock:

AC: Descending (unarmored man is AC 9)
Saves: 5 (standard old D&D style)
Level range: 1-20
Race & Class: Race-as-class*
Classes included: Fighter, Cleric, Thief, Magic-user, Elf, Halfling, Dwarf*
Hit Dice: B/X style*
Monster Hit Dice: d8
XP charts: variable, depending on class
Multi-class: no*
Demi-human class and level restrictions: yes*

*AEC

Race & Class: Separate race and class
Races included: Elf, Halfling, Dwarf, Half-elf, Half-orc, Gnome
Classes incuded: Fighter, Cleric, Thief, Magic-user, Paladin, Assassin, Illusionist, Monk, Ranger, Druid
Hit Dice: Optional AD&D style HD
Multi-class: yes
Demi-human class and level restrictions: yes

Blurb: Labyrinth Lord is a B/X clone, i.e. it emulates the 1981 Moldway/Cook version of D&D’s Basic and Expert rules in one book. As such, I was immediately reeled in, as I started out gaming using those rules. The book is well-written and simple to use. I miss an index, though.

Rules-wise, it’s the classic D&D thingy – race-as-class, simple but effective rules, short spell lists. Perfect for the group that want a simple and fun D&D experience. Old Basic and Expert D&D adventures can be run on the fly. Personally, I’m a bit sceptic to the race-as-class thingy, as both me and my players prefer those entities separate.

And this is where LL’s companion book Advanced Edition Characters (AEC) comes in. The book expands the game to include separate race and class, and adds the classes from 1st ed AD&D (except the Bard). With the AEC you still have the simple rules engine of classic D&D, but with all the cool options from AD&D. The book also adds most of the AD&D spells and contain lots of new monsters and magic items. You can also mix ”basic” and ”advanced” characters in the same adventure, which I find very cool. And to be honest, this is much how we used to play AD&D back in the day when we moved over from B/X – simple rules from B/X and ”cool stuff” from AD&D. After hesitating about what system to use – I like classic D&D as GM, and my players want the options of AD&D – I finally settled for LL, as it satisfies both parties.

If these class and race options feels too limited, there’s a wealth of home-brew, or 3rd party new races and classes on the internets, as well as books of new spells. For that Lovecraftian feel there’s Realms of Crawling Chaos that adds evil tomes and and a simple but good psionics system to the mix. And if you’re more into Gothic Fantasy à la Ravenloft or Warhammer, be sure to check out Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque by Jack Shear – there’s 3 books in that department.

LL also adds some excellent poison rules, that weren’t in the original books. Oh yeah, and the Cleric gets his first spell at level 1! Huge improvement in my opinion!

My actual gaming experiences with the system has been very good. It feels like ”D&D” as we used to play it back then. I even ran a reunion one-shot game for my old group, where they got to choose an old character (classic or AD&D) and we tossed these into a meat grinder of a 2-day adventure. No problems at all, except one player chose an old barbarian character made using the Unearthed Arcana rules. That guy was WAY overpowered. I had forgotten all about that… Anyway, he became the ”tank” and got to take on all the really difficult bad guys.

Overall, Labyrinth Lord is a very good rules engine for your classic D&D or AD&D games, whether you like vanilla high fantasy or gritty and dark gothic fantasy. Nothing new, but a fine representation of the early days of D&D gaming. And it’s free. And if you want real books on the table that’s available too. Another strength is that you can buy the game in gaming stores over the world. For me this was one of the reasons that Labyrinth Lord and Advanced Edition Characters became the first D&D clone on my game shelf.

Edit:
There’s also the Original Edition Characters book, that brings the 0E flavor to Labyrinth Lord. I don’t use it, and I haven’t read it properly, so it’s not included here.