Monday, August 15, 2022

Game Review: Old School Essentials Advanced Fantasy

Cover for: Old School Essentials
Advanced Fantasy Player's Tome
Art by Peter Mullen
 ©️2020 Necrotic Gnome
Gavin Norman
Publisher: Necrotic Gnome
Marketplace: DrivethruRPG, Exalted Funeral (hardcopy)
Engine: OSR Compatible (B/X and AD&D Fusion)

This is a review of the Advanced Fantasy version of Old School Essentials. You may find it helpful to read my recent review of Old School Essntials: Classic Fantasy to get some additional information on the game.

Old School Essentials: Classic Fantasy is an extremely popular OSR retroclone. It is a faithful recreation of the Moldvay Basic and Cook Expert boxed sets for Dungeons & Dragons. While it mostly keeps to the Moldvay rules set, many of the different rules from the later Mentzer version of B/X D&D and a few from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons are incorporated as optional rules. More modern quality-of-life options such as ThAC0 or, optionally, a base attack bonus and ascending AC.

Old School Essentials has a well-deserved reputation for being an extremely well-written, organized, and presented version of the Moldvay-Cook B/X version of the game: it is easy to read, easy to search, and likely easy to teach. It is by far the best-written and organized retroclone it has been my pleasure to read.

Cover for: Old School Essentials
Advanced Fantasy Referee's Tome
Art by Peter Mullen
 ©️2020 Necrotic Gnome
Old School Essentials: Advanced Fantasy aims to add in a number of options that were originally offered in the later supplements of the Original Dungeons & Dragons, and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1st and 2nd editions, and even a small set of D&D3e ideas. All of the options presented in OSE: Advanced have been re-imagined and reconceptualized to work with the B/X ruleset.

These rules include racial classes for all of the AD&D races: Dwarves, Elves, Halflings, Gnomes, Half-Elves, and Half-Orces, as well as the underdark subraces: Durgar, Drow, and Svirfneblin. It also includes rules for playing race and class separately. By default, if using the separate race and class option, there are racial class and level restrictions along the lines of AD&D, but if players wish to remove racial class restrictions and level limits to create an experience more like D&D3e, there are optional human racial advantages to compensate for this lack of restriction.

OSE: Advanced also introduces B//X compatible interpretations of the Thief-Acrobat (just called acrobat), Assassin, Barbarian, Bard, Illusionist, Druid, Ranger, Paladin, and Cavalier (called Knight). These classes have been modified to work seamlessly with Old School Essentials. The only AD&D class I found missing was the Monk.

Aside from character options, Old School Classics: Advanced Fantasy adds options for magic-users, illusionists, and some racial classes to discover spells and add them to spellbooks. It also adds large selection of spells via Druid and Illusionist spell lists (which are also used by Bards, Rangers, and Gnomes.)

The monster section of OSE: Advanced included a huge selection of classic monsters from AD&D, including a few from the Fiend Folio and Monster Manual II. Reskinned versions of signature monsters such as kuo-toa (deep ones), beholders (eyes of terror) and mind flayers (tentacled horrors) offer classic D&D experiences, while others, like flail snails have been added for the sake of nostalgia. I was certainly very pleased with the selection.

Additionally, the list of magic items (including many cursed items) from AD&D are added to the treasure lists, including special magic items. Weapon Proficiencies rules are also added in.

Originally, OSE: Advanced was included in two books; Old School Essentials Advanced Fantasy Genre Rules and Spells, The print versions of these books are designed to fit in the box with the original Old School Essentials boxed set manuals. They were slightly expanded and later divided into four separate smaller books: Characters, Magic, Monsters, and Treasures. ] The complete rules are now also included in two volumes, the Old School Essentials Advanced Fantasy Player's Tome, and the Old School Essentials Advanced Fantasy Referee's Tome. These books include all of the rules for playing OSE that were included in Old School Essentials Classic Fantasy as well as the advanced rules. Which means that you can used the Advanced books to play the OSE: Classic version of the game simply by not choosing any of the advanced options.

What I Loved

Effective Rules Integration

The classes, races, and many of the spells added into Old School Essentials are borrowed from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and were often built with that ruleset in mind. That means relying on asymmetric ability score bonuses, and a very different power scale. OSE: Advanced does an amazing job of adding in classes, races, class and race options, multiclassing rules, and magic to a B/X-based game and making it work clearly within its rules paradigms. 

Racial Classes and Multiclassing

Old School Essentials: Advanced Fantasy adds options for playing gnomes, half-elves, half-orcs, drow, duregar, and svirfneblin in two ways. They have had classes for each added allowing them to be played using B/X Race-as-Class structure.

  • Half-Elves have both martial ability, some thieving abilities, detection abilities, and slightly weaker access to magic-user spells than elves.
  • Gnomes have any of the powers of a dwarf on a lower scale, slightly lowered marital prowess, but access to illusionist spells.
  • Half-Orcs have some thieving abilities, including a simplified version of a backstab, but better combat abilities than a thief or assassin.
  • Drow are similar to elves, but with sunlight vulnerability, better infravision, and access to clerical rather than magic-user spells.
  • Duregar are dwarves with slightly lowered combat abilities, but special powers that imitate the psionic abilities of the race from AD&D.
  • Svirfneblin are like gnomes, but with some special abilities to talk to animals and access to druidic spells instead of illusion.

All of which capture the feel of the races and the most likely class combos those races would have been used to play in AD&D.

If races separate from classes are used, they include limits as to which classes a race may take, and what level they may attain. Multiclassing has been greatly simplified: select up to three classes when building your character, but you are limited to classes permitted to your race and must abide by level limits. While this isn't quite as constrained as AD&D, it is much simpler.

If players want to creep up to the even less constrained 3rd edition era, racial class and level limits can be tossed, and humans granted some special racial abilities to balance them.  This makes multiclassing fairly powerful, as its only limitation is the split XP gain. That said, I find it still a smarter option that the crazed multicalssing of D&D3e.

OSE Information Design, Layout, and Artwork

Most of the rule tomes for Old School Essentials: Advanced Fantasy are copy/pasted straight out of the Old School Essentials Classic Fantasy Rules Tome. This is a very good thing, as OSE is well-known for its incredible writing and information design. It's ease-of-use is one of its greatest selling points. Where the Advanced Rules are worked in they are given the same painstaking treatment, and are incorporated in a very logical manner.

Likewise, it includes the same easter-egg rich, classic TSR-era artwork I loved about the OSE: Classic Fantasy rules tomes.

Advanced Spellbook Rules

One thing I wasn't sure about with Old School Essentials: Classic Fantasy rules was how they handled spellbooks. Magic-Users gained one spell per level as they did in Mentzer Basic and in AD&D, but rules for adding additional spells to their spellbook was conspicuously absent. My research suggested that the lack of clear rules on adding spellbooks didn't make this a complete departure from B/X, but it was a simplified, middle-road approach. Adding back in rules for expanding spellbooks that are lighter and more consistent with the rules of OSE was probably the best way to add in one of my favourite parts of magic-user characters.  

Available Resources

This is another repeat point from my review of OSE: Clasic Fantasy: Old School Essentials has a mountain of modules already published by Necrotic Gnome that have leapt to cult classic status in just a few short years. The Hole in the Oak, Winter's DaughterIsle of the Plangent Mage, etc. have become  the TTRPG equivalent of cult classic movies in very short order. And, of course, it is compatible with any B/X-based module with no modification, and most AD&D-based module with only a little tweaking. And OSR resources based on either would also be equally compatible.

Growth Points

Why No Monk?

I remember many GMs (including myself) house-ruling monks out of the game, because they didn't quite fit the Medieval European template of Dungeons & Dragons... and the class' abilities seemed so out-of-step with the way the rules of AD&D worked.  That said, I find the more I play D&D, the less interested I am in building worlds that feel like Medieval Europe, and the Monks have a lot to offer.

Given that Old School Essentials is trying to offer a flexible and often lore-free  approach to D&D, I feel that the Monk would not have been out of place. I would love to know why it was omitted.

I mean, if I have to put up with yet more Drow at my table, the least you could do is give me the option of having monks as well.

So Many Conflicting Options!

With so many approaches to how race and class work together, it can be a bit dizzying. Having them certainly allows a huge range of campaign customization options, but also feels more like an attempt to build a toolkit rather than a unified role-playing game, which seems a little at odds with some of their other design choices, such as how they handled magic-user spell development, the exclusion of monks, and their inclusion of classic D&D monsters.

For purposes of the OSE Advanced Fantasy Player's Tome, I might have set one default, and then offered other options as an appendix to the Referee's Tome or in a sidebar format.


This is a complaint I will repeat from my review of Old School Essentials: Classic Fantasy. OSE has the enviable problem of being constantly sold out in hardcopy. And when hardcopies are available, the shipping costs outside of the U.K. and U.S. are absolutely staggering. 

With OSE: Classic Fantasy, this was a fairly significant problem. Being mostly a faithful B/X clone with a little streamlining, its major selling point was its information design and writing. You get less out of the information design and ease of use if you are stuck using it on a tablet, you are not getting the most out of it.

OSE: Advanced doesn't have the same problem. The inclusion of so many original takes on classic D&D classes, races, monsters, and magic make it more than just a retroclone. It is its own game, and a very compelling one. You still get a lot from OSE: Advanced if you are using a tablet that you can't get from any old retroclone.

But, that said, I would love to be able to simply be able to buy it without sniping for a chance at pre-ordering a print run where the shipping costs more than the books themselves. I can't run a game at a campground if I need to rely on a tablet battery to have my manuals.


Old School Essentials: Classic Fantasy was a mildly streamlined, elegantly organized, and mostly accurate retroclone. It did nothing but take B/X D&D and make it as easy to read and use as humanly possible. It is a straightforward, faithful reproduction with a fresh paint-job and minor improvements.

Old School Essentials: Advanced Fantasy, on the other hand, adds so many fresh takes on rules from other editions of D&D and makes them a part of a simple, unified structure in a sometimes elegant, and sometimes tentative way. It is most definitely its own game.  It breaks from the original rules in order to offer a new, fresh way to get the essential experience of Old-School games,  like many of my favorite retroclones do.

I have also seen only a few games, like Hyperborea, try to offer the full range of Unearthed Arcana classes.

I want to try more of this game... preferably beyond my solo playtesting with a group.  I am dying to try my hand at a Gnome... or a Gnome Thief/ Illusionist, or a Dwarf Magic-User/Illusionist... depending on which options are available...

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