Saturday, August 13, 2022

Game Review: Old School Essentials Classic Fantasy

Cover to the Old School Essentials
Classic Fantasy Rules Tome

Art by Peter Mullen
©️2019 Necrotic Gnome
Author: Gavin Norman
Publisher: Necrotic Gnome
Marketplace: DrivethruRPG, Exalted Funeral (hardcopy)
Engine: OSR (B/X D&D)

I have been holding off on picking up Old-School Essentials by Gavin Norman for over a year. This wasn't because I wasn'r interested: I was. The delay was because I was holding out hope that Exalted Funeral's North American warehouses, once open, would bring shipping to Canada down to something reasonable. No such luck.

The buzz around OSE has been considerable since about the time I started this blog, and for good reason. When I saw almost the entire OSE catalog, plus a huge selection of material from Frog God Games all in one humble bundle, I jumped on it. it isn't the hardcopy boxed set that I was hoping for, but I am certainly glad that I finally had an opportunity to review it.

Old School Essentials was originally released as Old School Classics, a re-statement of the Modlvay Basic and Expert Dungeons & Dragons sets reorganized to be easier to read and reference based on Gavin Norman's expertise in data science and desktop publishing. I kept OSC on hand during the development of my first couple of modules, and found it a very useful reference. It was a collection of document files, and while it cleared up some typos and included some original TSR original errata, it was as close as it could be to the original Moldvay rules.

In late 2018, OSC was refined, slightly reorganized and turned into a boxed set of books titled Old School Essentials. OSE remains a very faithful recreation of B/X D&D, however it includes both a few modern rules such as using ascending armor class. and including the ThAC0 method for resolving attack rolls. It also includes several BECMI options, such as levelling to 36 as an optional rule. Finally, it includes adventure design tools and advice from AD&D, and an individual initiative system as an optional rule.

Old School Essentials is available in multiple formats. Originally it came in a three-book OSE Classic Fantasy Boxed Set separating player rules, GM rules, and a collection of Monsters, Spells, and Treasures. A stripped-down version called the Basic Rules Tome covers what is needed for players to play the fame as a free download. Finally all three rules are placed in a single core book, the Classic Fantasy Rules Tome, or the rules necessary only to play a PC are available in a separate Player's Tome.

There is also an expanded rules set that takes ideas from AD&D and makes them work with the B/X rules structure called the Old School Essentials Advanced Fantasy rules, which I will be covering next week.

What I Loved


This is what everyone will tell you they love about OSE: It is written and organized in a way that makes it easy to read, easy to reference, and likely easy to learn. I will agree with the general buzz that it is probably the most well-written D&D clone ever published. And definitely easier to read than the original text. Which is saying something, given that ease of use was the goal of the BECMI line to begin with.

I would not necessarily say that it is the ideal OSR retroclone for everyone. Depending on your goals, I might still recommend BlueholmeLamentations of the Flame Princess, Basic Fantasy RPG, or even Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG over OSE, but if you were looking for as authentic of a B/X Dungeons & Dragons experience as possible, or a great book to serve as a quick reference for monsters, magic items, and spells, you can't go wrong with OSE. And if you were buying a D&D retroclone for a new player, OSE is a strong contender against even Basic Fantasy RPG.

Optional Rules

Old School Essentials presents ascending AC, ThAC0, individual initiative, and human characters levelling to 36 all as optional rules that adda  lot to the play experience. it steals some of the best quality of life improvements from later editions and puts them there for use without compromising the integrity of its recreation of Moldvay B/X.

OSE Classic Fantasy uses Mentzer's approach to spells, with magic users getting new spells each level, an only includes options to add new discovered spells as an Advanced option.


Old School Essentials is beautifully done. The artwork in the book includes hundreds of easter eggs for old D&D fans, including characters from old BD&D, AD&D, D&D3e, and Pathfinder 1e art (as well as the Dungeons & Dragons Saturday morning cartoon) snuck into the work. As well as generous references to Appendix-N material. Every colour plate gave me a chuckle as I discovered some hidden reference. Here's a favourite:

From the AD&D Monster Manual
From the Old School Essentials Classic Fantasy Rules Tome


Old School Essentials has a lot of material available to it. Not only will it work seamlessly with any B/X module published for Dungeons & Dragons and most retroclones, it also has a setting and series of official modules published by Necrotic Gnome such as The Hole in the Oak, Isle of the Platagent Mage, Holy Mountain Shaker, and Winter's Daughter that have reached the status of cult classics in the OSR movement. Many other OSR giants like Frog God Games have released modules written with OSE in mind.

OSE modules tend to be low on combat and more focused on exploration, mystery, complex NPCs, and dealing with large-scale threats, like putting down haunted houses or quelling restless titanic monsters, rather than simply crawling through a dungeons and slaying monsters. A lot of clever innovation is being put out with an "OSE Compatible" label on the front.

Growth Points

Organization is its Major Selling Point

As a guy who has lovingly kept his Rules Cyclopedia in good condition since 1991, I really don't need OSE. It doesn't offer any new rules. For me, it is just a tidy re-statement of what I already have. I have sat down at OSE games with both my RC, and a facebook group's Moldvay rules compendium and played without running into any rules compatibility issues whatsoever. If you own B/X, or a good retrocolone already, you are buying OSE purely for the tidiness of the reference.

The Monster Entries are Hard to Read

Carcass Crawler monster entry from the
Old School Essentials Classic Fantasy Rules Tome
The monster entries in my Old School Essentials Classic Fantasy Rules Tome are pretty unpleasant to read: they use only the tight paragraph-style stat blocks, and one or two-sentence description, and bullet points. It works, and it is simple, but I find sorting through the paragraph-style stat block unpleasant (something that caused me issues in my recent review of Arête, a module for Advanced OSE by Knight-Owl press). By compressing the entries into bullet points a lot of the cool lore and implied setting that monster entries created for Dungeons & Dragons are lost.

Difficult to Get Hardcopies

As I mentioned in my introduction, I have been waiting a long time to get a hard-copy of Old School Essentials. They routinely run out on every printing run. You have to actively sit on social media and watch for opportunities to order OSE.

Hardcopies are sold exclusively through Exalted Funeral. Last year Exalted Funeral added warehouses in North America to try to cut down the cost of trans-Atlantic shipping. Unfortunately, for me at least, the price of getting things shipped to Canada is every bit as expensive getting it from the U.S. as it was to get it from the U.K.. As much as I have wanted this game, I have been able to justify paying over $100 dollars for a $40 book.

This sounds like a minor complaint, but it isn't. Because it is the organization and layout of the book is a major asset of the game, OSE is most useful if you have a book you can physically open up and flip through. If you are browsing through a PDF on a tablet, you have already lost a significant portion of what makes OSE uniquely valuable.


Old School Essentials has become by far the most popular OSR retroclone on the market for a reason: it is beautiful, clean, easy to read, easy to teach, and a faithful re-creation of the Moldvay-era Basic and Expert sets of Dungeons & Dragons. It has a lot to recommend it to both the grognard and the new OSR gamer.

Ultimately, however, you lose some of the very thing that makes it appealing if you have a digital copy. If you are interested in collecting this one over, say Blueholme (another faithful re-creation of Moldvay B/X) or Labyrinth Lord, you will get the most out of this choice by getting it hardcopy, if you can.

With that said, the artwork, concise language, and clear representation of the rules atill makes a very worthwile addition to a collection.

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