Monday, September 6, 2021

Game Review: Basic Fantasy Roleplaying Game 3rd Edition

Basic Fantasy RPG 3rd Ed. Cover
Art by Erik Wilson
©2006-2016 Chris Gonnerma
Author: Chris Gonnerman
Publisher: Chris Gonnerman 
Marketplace: Amazon.comDrivethrurpg
Engine: OSR Compatible

Basic Fantasy RPG is a simple, easy-to-use, and affordable OSR Compatible RPG. It was created in the early days of the OSR simultaneously to Labyrinth Lord and OSRIC.

Basic Fantasy tries to blend elements of Basic/Expert Dungeons & Dragons, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2e, and Dungeons & Dragons 3e to create a system that takes the best from each version of D&D to create the simplest possible fusion of these systems.

Basic Fantasy uses ascending AC, and OD&D saving throws mixed with roll-under ability checks. It has only the four basic character classes, fighter, thief, magic user, and cleric. These are configured along the lines of B/X D&D: the characters have low hit dice, clerics only gain spells at first level, fighters are distinguished by having more hit points and becoming better attackers. Race, however is separate from class and a player may choose to be humans, dwarves, elves, or halflings. There are some race/class combination restrictions, and elves are permitted to multi-class. Like AD&D and  Dungeons & Dragons 3e, classes have a 20 level progression (B/X goes to 14; BECMI goes to 36), and the experience tables are closer in character too AD&D than to B/X D&D.

Monster stat blocks are nearly identical to the ones in B/X D&D, although the selection of monsters is varied.

Basic Fantasy uses a slightly looser time structure, similar to D&D3e.

Basic Fantasy is an online community effort. The site includes a highly active forum with a very enthusiastic community. They collaborate to create manuals, adventure modules, and expanded rule sets. The community models itself on a gnu/gpl software team.

All Basic Fantasy RPG manuals are available online for free. However, the volunteer organization that maintains the game also sales print editions of all the manuals at cost. This means that the core book costs roughly $6, and most Source books come in at somewhere between $4 and $7.

What I Loved 

Volume of Content 

While they're less productive than they used to be, they Basic Fantasy community still produces a huge amount of material. This includes entire campaigns worth of adventures, compendia of shorter adventures, volumes of monsters both classic and original, their own takes on advanced rules, and other supplements.

These books are given incredible treatment, with volunteers doing layout, writing, and original art. They are easily on par with the quality of role-playing manuals you saw from small presses in the 1980s. And given that this is adults volunteering spare time to a passion project, that is very impressive.

Aas well as being free in PDF, all of the game's material is available in print  for very low prices using Amazon business services that offer free delivery.

Treatment of Race 

Races in basic fantasy role playing are separate from classes, even though the game is built to resemble B/X D&D where race is traditionally bundled with class. The route they took in designing the race isn't how they interacted with classes, however was elegant balance of the different sources they were drawing on.

Race does not limit character advancement, but like older versions of D&D certain race and class combinations aren't petmitted. And multi-classing requires being a member of a demihuman race.

Instead of modifying statistics, Demihuman races have minimum stat requirements. In the case of elves, there's also a cap on what hit die elves and halflings may roll. And dwarves in halflings suffer limitations on what weapons they can wield due to size.

Most of the races offer one or two simple abilities. Elves have the ability to detect secret doors, dwarves of the ability to see in the dark and since unusual stone work, halfings get a bonus on armor class, ranged attacks, and an ability to hide while outdoors. All of the Dem human races offer a several saving throw bonuses.

Humans have no minimum statistic requirements, nor a hit die cap. While they have no special abilities or saving throw bonus, they gain a +10% bonus on all experience rewards.

I thought this was a solid compromise between the AD&D2e and D&D3e's approaches to race while still keeping closer to B/X D&D in spirit.

Considered Components

Basic Fantasy RPG does a fantastic job of blending elements from different editions of D&D with a mind towards ease of play. Encumbrance is handled in pounds, nonlethal combat is borrowed from the Rules Cyclopedia, wrestling from 3e, missile fire into melee from Basic, etc., Always with an eye to using the most elegant options.

The end result is a game that is simple, robust, but that will be familiar to most D&D players from any edition. It is also usable with almost any adventure material from B/X, or AD&D with little difficulty.

And while an eye was kept to simplicity, the challenge of resource management and exploration is left intact. Magic and racial abilities are not used to remove light, food, and encumbrance challenges as they are in D&D5e, foe example.

This is not just a retroclone: much like Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, it is a new game distilled from some of the best elements of Dungeons & Dragons. Unlike DCC RPG, however, it's design choices were to build a game true to the early D&D experience but with a more deliberate design, while DCC RPG tries to re-create D&D's source material.

Print Availability

Because Basic Fantasy RPG is affordable in print and available through Amazon you can grab anything you could possibly want for a campaign, including enough modules to run it with minimal prep for Les than $50. In fact, the entire print library will run less than $75.

The books are lightweight softcovers that can be tossed in a backpack without weighing things down. They are perfect for a camping trip, cottage country, or road trip if you are looking for something to have just in case a game opportunity arises.

Old School Vibrations

The art style, game design choices, selection of spells, monsters, and items, and even the paper and cover quality take me back to the 1980s. This game does a fantastic job of inspiring nostalgia and reminding me what made me fall in love with D&D in the first place.  I have played it with my son a few times using classic D&D modules, and got to enjoy seeing him enjoy the same magic I did 36 years ago.

It also has the feel of a true passion project. I like the indie rough edges that the Basic Fantasy line has. They remind me if some of the original D&D products of the late 70s.

OSR Compatibility

Basic Fantasy RPG uses the same monster stats,  spells, treasure, saving throws, and mathematics as most TSR-era D&D and OSR modules, with the exception of the ascending AC.

Groewth Points

Sparse PC Class entries

Basic Fantasy classes are pretty simple,. The fighter table only indicates experience required by level. The Cleric & Magic User get spell slots as well, and the Thief has theirs skill table. Attack bonuses, saving throws, and Turn Undead tables much later in the manual.

Most of this data is contained in the encounter chapter. I understand why this is, as it puts the data on just a couple of pages for easy on-the fly reference or conversion of other modules.8

However, the same information could be very useful to have in the character chapter for generation. I get frustrated having to hunt the tables down when generating PCs. There are times when redundant data is better.

Insanely Heavy Weapons

To be honest, this is a Dungeons & Dragons problem as much as it is  Basic Fantasy RPG. In real life, weapons are not heavy. They can't be. If you swung around a 10lb. weapon for any appreciable time, you would ruin your wrists.

Even two-handed swords only weigh 4lbs. It is a glaring issue in D&D that is important not just for verisimilitude, but when you deal with encumbrance and resource management. If a mace weighs 10lbs. in D&D, or Basic Fantasy, but 3.5lbs in real life, then that is 6.5lbs the PCs could be carrying in treasure or provisions, but aren't permitted to  because of this error.

I understand how this appeared in TSR: sometimes they had to eyeball information. But these days, anyone can browse Kult of Athena and get accurate weights for dozens of pieces of weapons and armor. If you are going to re-write the equipment table anyway, you have an ideal opportunity to make that aspect of the game more sensible.

A lot of little bugs of D&D, like long-lived torches, short Lanterns, slow horses, etc. carry over to Basic Fantasy, as it tends to combine elements of D&D, but doesn't spend much time rethinking them. 


Cover to Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon
Master Rulebook from the Basic Rule Set
Art by Larry Elmore 
©1983, TSR, Inc. 
Basic Fantasy RPG lives up to its name. It takes the simplest, most elegant rules from several different editions of D&D and mashes them together to create a role-playing game that is lightweight, fast, and easy to learn. One that feels remarkably similar to the red box I grew up with, but with many of the best innovations from AD&D, the Rules Cyclopedia, and D&D3e all carefully mixed together.

It plays well. My 5-year-old was able to pick up the rules and mere moments. and in a pinch of being able to grab it and use it as a resource for Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, ICRPG, and Lamentations of The Flame Princess without a shred of difficulty in adapting the material.

I have heard Basic Fantasy RPG described in OSR Circles as "everyone's second favorite RPG". I can get where that idea comes from. It does little new or different. Instead, it offers a beautifully streamlined version of what we all remember playing Dungeons & Dragons in the past. And that nostalgic experience is what really defines Basic Fantasy. It is not the first thing I reach for, but I love having it on hand. Especially when sharing my old D&D experiences with my son. 

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