Writer: Gavin Norman
Art: Michael Clarke, Mike Hill, Tom Kilian, Kyle Latino, Alex Mayo, Thomas Novosel, Sean Poppe, Matthew Ray, Luka Rejec, Andrew Walter
Design: Gavin Norman
Editor: Gavin Norman
Publisher: Necrotic Gnome Productions
Length: Core: 34pp / Cleric and Magic-User Spells: 34pp / Classes and Equipment: 44pp
There’s a lot of games out there nowadays. We’re lucky to live in an era with a true embarrassment of riches as far as gaming goes, especially after so many years of doom and gloom about computers and video games coming to sound the funeral bells for tabletop – and the future looks bright for this trend continuing. With the resurgence in traditional gaming, the OSR continues to climb to fantastic heights and along with that has come wave after wave of retroclones, spinoffs, and copycat games aimed at replicating the classic gameplay of yesteryear – old editions of the Dungeons and Dragons Fantasy Role-Playing Game.
A few of the most popular retroclones have set themselves apart either by being the first of their kind (or close to it), whereas others stand out by taking what we know and love and going somewhere new and unexplored with it. However, sometimes what we really want is a genuine, accurate clone. Something without real deviation from what we know and love, but made widely available again for us to reference so our treasured old originals can remain on the shelf, away from snacks and soda. Gavin Norman of Necrotic Gnome set out to do just that, aiming to produce a very faithful clone of the Moldvay and Cook B/X ruleset in an easily-referenced format ready to launch gamers into old school play all over again. Let’s take a look at it.
B/X Essentials is really a line of books, based around the idea of combining the original Basic booklet and Expert booklet, unifying the text, and then splitting this amalgam into its component parts. At the time of this writing, there are four published elements to the B/X Essentials line: the Core Rules, Classes and Equipment, Cleric and Magic-User Spells, and Monsters. Monsters has just come out and is not specifically covered by this review. A fifth part, Adventures and Treasure, is in development now for release shortly and is therefore also not covered by this review. As the subject of this review, only the first three components will be discussed in detail; rest assured, though, that what seems “missing” from this initial trio of books is not lost and forgotten. Author Gavin Norman is the proprietor of Necrotic Gnome and has extensive plans for the B/X line, which I’ll get to later in this article.
The goal of the B/X Essentials line is simple. It is a restatement of the Moldvay/Cook ruleset, organized for reference as though the two TSR booklets were one whole unit. It eliminates redundancies between the two booklets and then splits the combined text by subject matter, resulting in a concise, well-indexed version of the B/X rules that is extremely suitable for table use. It is easy to reference and – thanks to the benefit of hindsight, improved understanding of what should go into RPG book design, and about 40 years of table use – very user-friendly. The big win straight from the outset is the fact that B/X Essentials compresses the two tiers of leveling into a single entity, meaning you aren’t looking for an unremembered rule in the wrong book by the time your wizard gets to sixth level, and you aren’t having to glance past countless repeated statements in the Expert booklet simply regurgitating the details of the Basic booklet, and you aren’t getting the contradictions that exist between the two books (they exist). The result is very handy, very clean, and very enjoyable to use for the established B/X player or DM.
Let’s take a brief look at what’s going on in the three books:
In 34 pages, Gavin lays out his statement of purpose; the ability scores; the passage of time and the way turns/days work in and out of dungeons; the rules of general gameplay for adventuring including everything from ability checks and experience to chases to wandering monsters and movement and everything in between; combat rules from start to finish as well as edge-case combat rules and the applicable charts for quick combat reference; magic mechanics, the legal whoopty-doo of the OGL, and a lovely index of tables. Dressing this book, there’s a truly remarkable amount of gorgeous black-and-white artwork from a large number of very talented artists whose works have routinely graced the OSR’s best books. Additionally, a ubiquitous green-and-white alternating block chart layout makes tables extremely easy on the eyes. At the front of the book is the usual table of contents, and at the very back is a concise and handy index of tables that make it all the more useful as a table reference while actually playing.
Classes and Equipment
In 44 pages, we get expanded character creation details; the seven expected classes (including race-as-class, of course); languages; advancement and leveling rules; rules for currency and starting wealth; a very respectable equipment section; rules regarding land and water transportation to include determination between good ships and bad ships as well as their outfitting; mercenaries and hirelings; and of course rules for construction and upkeep of castles and fortresses. Throughout the book, we see that same green-and-white theme to the elements of the book layout; the minty color is actually very easy on the eyes but provides enough contrast to make it easy to pick lines apart. This is an understated but lovely element to these books. In the end, Gavin places the required OGL information and then, again, a handy table index that complements the opening table of contents very nicely. Like the core rules, this is a great reference manual full of gorgeous art, and it is eminently suitable for use at the table during actual play sessions.
Cleric and Magic-User Spells
Back to the 34 page length on this one. The formatting here is just a little different – less granular division in the table of contents because it’s merely categorizing levels of spells; and instead of a table index at the back, we get a spell index by name, alphabetically, with indications of whether it’s a Cleric or a Magic-User version of the spell where overlaps occur. The art is again very inventive and interesting, which is good, because magic is the most fantastical part of D&D much of the time. He includes a foreword to explain the purpose of the spell reference and also the formatting conventions used, which make browsing a snap. Here again we see that green-and-white color pattern, too; it’s nice to have a smooth and consistent layout between all three.
Again, if you’re a studied hand, you’ll note that there’s a bit of a gap here between what was in the B/X booklets and what I have listed – namely the monsters and the rewards! As I said, Monsters is out now (I just haven’t copped it yet!) and Adventures and Treasure is coming hot on its heels as Gavin Norman wraps up pre-production on it. Fear not! These elements are not lost to players and DMs; you won’t need to reference B/X Essentials books half the time and somehow still rely on your old B/X manuals to fill in the rest. However, in the reorganization and editing, Gavin will have taken two booklets and made them into five booklets – this is much handier as far as division of topics goes, but it has been the subject of some quibbling around the internet. Criticisms range from greater page count to ending up with more physical objects on the table. Currently the page count of B/X vs B/X Essentials is about 128 pages vs 160 pages (including Monsters, which is now released) – and that’s not even counting the fifth booklet yet. However, there is also many more large pieces of artwork in the B/X Essentials books, and they are laid out much, much better for our actual use at the table, so any such trade-off is not a worry for most.
What we have, then, is a very comprehensive reorganization of the beloved Moldvay/Cook rules that proves to be extremely useful for players and DMs. Actually referencing the books is a dream. They’re also not a 40-year-old collectible to be concerned about near pencils and pens like some of us feel our B/X sets are; and they’re full of tremendous artwork that stirs the imagination and evokes the sense of the old games without relying on the old artists. These books are meant to be used. These books exemplify the idea that RPG books are tools, but they don’t give up on being lovely. Like the utilitarian beauty of a Gransfors-Bruks axe, the B/X Essentials line is consistent, clean, and very well-appointed. Gavin truly engenders a lot of goodwill by being true to the rules and presenting them in a way that genuinely loans itself to actual use without completely sacrificing the small pleasures of quality artwork and crisp, simple layout that actually supports its purpose.
What B/X Essentials does not set out to be is a tutorial for new gamers. It is not itself a Basic Set, so to speak – it is a well-organized index. Though a motivated reader could easily pick up these books and emerge with a flawless grasp of the rules and an understanding of the game – especially now, in 2018, where the concept of a role-playing game is frankly a given concept understood by most, and a passing (if questionably accurate) familiarity with the idea of D&D is widespread – Gavin clearly did not approach this project with that in mind. In his introduction to the B/X Essentials line in the Core Rules book, Gavin speaks very highly of B/X D&D, and explains his desire to make a table-use reference. Because of this, he has done away with many of the textual elements one would expect to find in a “starter set,” because that’s not what he’s after. Gone is the instructional, almost conversational tone of the Basic and Expert sets, introducing role-playing as a hobby and explaining the trappings of fantasy worlds. Gavin Norman does not spend page space explaining any more than he has to. He displays great self-control; he exhibits clear excitement in his introduction but he, unlike the author of this article, is capable of editing himself for brevity. Good on you, Gavin.
Earlier in this article, I mentioned that more is coming from Necrotic Gnome as far as the B/X Essentials line is concerned. The Necrotic Gnome blog has a good post about it, but the short version is this: with the publication of Monsters complete and the forthcoming Adventures and Treasures almost ready for publishing, the B/X Essentials core set will soon be complete. This will allow for complete play as the original B/X game was written with exactly the same breadth of options and mechanics. Following on to this, Gavin plans a B/X Advanced series which will cover additional classes (such as Druid), higher level character options, and higher level foes and treasures. Based on the line’s name, perhaps we can assume much of it will derive backwards from AD&D, which is of course largely compatible. In addition to this, Necrotic Gnome plans to release a full suite of expansions by genre or setting, offering B/X adaptations of things like the Oriental Adventure books and even science fantasy and post-apocalyptic worlds, codifying entirely optional B/X-based campaigns. I excerpt Gavin’s own list from the Necrotic Gnome blog here:
Classic Series (mostly finished now)
- Classes and Equipment
- Cleric and Magic-User Spells
- Adventures and TreasuresAdvanced Series
- Advanced Characters
- Druid and Illusionist Spells
- Advanced Cleric and Magic-User Spells
- Advanced Monsters
- Advanced Adventures and TreasuresGenre Modules
- Lost World Monsters
- Mythic Japan Classes and Equipment
- Mythic Japan Spells
- Mythic Japan Monsters
- Post-Apocalyptic Classes and EquipmentRules Modules
- Character Options
- Biological Magic
- Elemental Magic
- Necromantic Magic
These are lofty goals, but if achieved, Necrotic Gnome could bring the old school roleplaying style to broader markets and get even more players involved on the framework of the same B/X ruleset we all know and love – potentially inspiring some of those folks to take a look at the mechanics in turn and write their own modules, settings, and expansions. It looks to be an exciting project that doesn’t touch the pristine, unmodified core rules (which retroclone gamers truly appreciate about B/X Essentials) but opens massive amounts of new doors and does the legwork for us on all those far-out ideas. By doing it this way, Necrotic Gnome allows us to pick and choose our game a la carte; the original B/X experience is unmodified and the rules presentation is not diluted by having to walk around a lot of now and alternative or optional things, but should we want to add elements of X, Y, or Z to our games, the books will be there, ready to go in a modular fashion. Gavin also seems to recognize, given the text of his foreword in the B/X Essentials Core Rules book, that there are limitations to the B/X ruleset and therefore we can probably expect him to stop short of shoehorning in anything that would mechanically clash with the system as we know it.
And lastly, above and beyond the expansion of the line, Gavin recently partnered Necrotic Gnome with Quality Beast to formalize a new era of production run printing for the B/X Essentials line. That means we’re looking ahead now to some campaigns for a collected edition and possibly more, produced with full control, instead of relying on print-on-demand. Should be something really special for fans of the B/X D&D game and fans of Gavin’s particular spin on it!
In summation: These books are meant to be used at the table and they are successful in that endeavor. They are affordable; grabbing every published book right now in hardcover and saving the estimated cost of the fifth core book for the day it arrives will cost you less than buying any two out of the three core rulebooks for D&D 5E; buying these in PDF and paying for the printer ink will cost you no more than a decent meal. These are a tremendous value for the B/X OSR player, without question. They’re handy, they’re attractive, they’re novel. B/X Essentials is one of the best retroclones on the scene today, and we’re all better off for their presence.
Rating System Changes:
Update 20 Mar 2019: A new n/10 rating system has been instituted to more clearly express my feelings. The legacy n/5 system was always supposed to represent the top half of the n/10 system as I really only review books I really enjoyed in the first place (so they’d all be 6/10 or better) but under that n/5 system, a 1/5 is actually still a very good book, but this is not clear to casual observers. For this reason, the new n/10 system is being used going forward, and is being ported backwards to old reviews. The corrected n/10 value for this review is immediately below this update text. Following that, the original review text is unaltered. A detailed post on this subject is forthcoming.
B/X ESSENTIALS (To-Date, first three books, Aug 2018): 10/10
End New Rating; Original Rating Text Follows: