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Review: Basic Fantasy RPG

Regular visitors to this blog will know that my D&D Edition of choice is 5th Edition. Many of you will also know however, that I cut my gaming teeth on the Tom Moldvay/Zeb Cook edition of Basic/Expert D&D (hereafter referred to as B/X) which was gifted to me by a family friend.

That edition has long held a special place in my heart. 35 years on, I still own that Erol Otus illustrated Basic Rulebook  and the introductory “Keep On The Borderlands” module that came with it. I even have the orange dice that came with the set (still with the original white crayoned in numbers).

As a result, I’ve always been very open to retro-clones that emulate that version of the game. I’ve dabbled in OSR games before, notably Dungeon Crawl Classics but for a while now I’ve been interested in finding a system which keeps to the spirit of the B/X ruleset but which also updates the ruleset slightly to bring it into the modern era. With that in mind, Chris Gonnerman’s Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Game (BFRPG) came to my attention a while back. Unfortunately, I only got round to picking up a copy of the core rulebook recently.

Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Game Rulebook

I wish I’d picked up a copy sooner. It’s a lovely product. Everything about this game is pure Moldvay/Cook B/X. Right down to the font and two column layout used in the book. I read through it with the same wonder that I did when I was first handed that Basic rulebook back in 1983. So much of it was familiar to me.

Confusingly, BFRPG describes itself as being based on the d20 SRD 3.5 ruleset, but it really only utilises the d20 mechanic of the OGL while pretty much everything else remains faithful to the old classic B/X mechanics of the Moldvay/Cook editions. There are however some welcome concessions to more modern d20 gaming, which in my opinion much improve on the original.

Armor class is now ascending, a change which anyone who has ever wrestled with descending armor class and THAC0 will likely welcome with open arms. It just seems to make more sense.

Unlike other retro-clones, Dungeon Crawl Classics included, race as a class is no longer a thing within BFRPG. Instead, race and class are separate so it’s possible to be a Dwarf Cleric for instance rather than just a plain old Dwarf. This is actually a welcome deviation from the old D&D Basic as race as a class always felt restrictive, particularly given that AD&D did not contain that limitation.

With the core rulebook there are 4 core races and 4 core classes. Human, Elf, Dwarf and Halfling for races, and Fighter, Thief, Cleric and Magic-User for classes. As with 1e and 2e D&D certain classes can only be used with certain races, so no Dwarf or Halfling Magic-Users. Elves can also be a “combination class” of Fighter/Magic-User or Magic-User/Thief. Available races and classes can be easily expanded using the range of free to download supplements on the BFRPG site.

Unlike B/X, BFRPG provides options up to level 20 which, given the number of experience points needed to reach that level is a lot of gaming in one volume. I’d doubt I’d ever run a game that long but it’s nice to see it included rather than broken down into multiple volumes like B/X was.

The book is tightly written and certainly doesn’t waste any words. Each of the race and class descriptions and their associated rules take up half a page at most. This will no doubt come as a bit of a shock to players of later editions, where race and class descriptions can each take up multiple pages but for me it was a refreshing change.


Character creation is clear and guides players through the process step by step, from rolling initial attribute scores to kitting out their characters ready for their first dungeon. With the suggestion that you roll 3d6 for each attribute in order, and the kind of scattergun, often useless characters that this generates, it may be worth homebrewing some rules around character creation but that’s up to you and your players I guess. The remaining chapters are organised in the same order as the original Moldvay rulebook, which was often lauded for it’s better organisation compared to the earlier Holmes ruleset.

There are also somewhere around 200 monsters included in the core rulebook, which means that the tiny £4 outlay for the printed version of this book (yes really, £4.22 at last check – $5 in the U.S.) gives you literally years of adventure for your money.


So, what did I really like about BFRPG?

  • The price. Everything ever produced for this system is completely free of charge. Simply download the PDFs from the website at If you want a print copy (and I always do) then Chris Gonnerman has made the fantastic decision to offer print copies at cost through Amazon, meaning you can pick up the Core Rulebook for (currently) £4.22. Throw in a set of cheap polyhedral dice and you could literally have a full RPG system for under £10. That’s ridiculous in an era where Pathfinder and 5e splat books retail at around £30 per supplement.
  • The simplicity. While this can be a complex system once you start using supplements (see below), the game as presented in the Core Rulebook is really quick and easy to learn. It would be a great system to introduce to kids. I purchased an extra rulebook for my 10 year old son and I’m pretty confident he’ll be able to grasp it. It’s a really good system to introduce new players to role-playing. The Core Rulebook is so cheap that you could easily purchase a book for each member of your group and still have change from £20. Furthermore, the Basic Fantasy website has a free to download “Beginners Essentials” booklet which comes in at about 13 pages.
  • The depth. At first glance, this has all the limitations of Basic D&D. Dig a bit deeper though and you’ll find supplement after supplement available to download for free on the Basic Fantasy website. Supplements include new races, classes, optional rules etc. With the addition of these supplements, BFRPG goes from being a retro-clone to being a fairly scalable and playable d20 system role-playing game.
  • The adventures. The adventures for sale on Amazon and available to download for free on the website are very good. These retail for about £2.75 for the print version so even if you only buy them to steal ideas, they are still amazing value. The adventures are well designed, with an old skool flavour. Some are homages to classic D&D adventures (Chaotic Caves = Keep on the Borderlands, Monkey Isle = Isle of Dread) but others are hugely original.
  • Ascending Armor Class. No THAC0. Enough said. Removing descending armor class was a fantastic step in modernising and simplifying combat without sacrificing any of the playability or authenticity of the system.
  • Speed of play. Players have a limited choice of what to do in combat. They’re either going to hit something, cast a spell or run away. While this lack of options is also a downside to the system (as I go on to detail below), it really speeds up combat encounters. For DMs like myself, who have limited time available and who play shorter sessions, this is a revelation and allows you to squeeze a lot more action into your sessions.
  • It’s not gimmicky. Unlike Dungeon Crawl Classics, BFRPG doesn’t feel the need to differentiate itself with some weird mechanic such as unpredictable magic or “the dice chain”. The latter game in particular requires players to fork out for a range of uncommon dice such as d3, d5, d7, d16, d24 and d30. BFRPG trusts the core B/M mechanics enough to merely tweak them rather than overhaul them, and I like that.

What did I like less?

In BFRPG’s defence, most of the things I liked less about the system weren’t peculiar to BFRPG but instead also affected the original B/X ruleset. The only criticism of BFRPG I could really make in regards to these issues is that perhaps more effort could have been made to address them.

  • It’s deadly. OK, so B/X D&D was deadly and in that sense BFRPG remains true to it’s roots but with 1d4 hit points and 1 spell a day, I can’t think of a valid reason why anyone would actively choose to start a Magic-User at level 1. BFRPG really missed an opportunity to up Magic-Users to d6 hit points per level and start everyone with max hit points at first level without making them roll. Yes, I know you can home rule that. I probably will. I’ll probably also start all characters at level 2 to give them some chance of surviving. I just think it would have been better for the core rulebook to define that as a clear rule. The ability for injured characters to regain only 1 HP per day from resting is fairly brutal as well.
  • Magic-Users and Clerics. They need more spells. Clerics get none at level 1 and Magic Users only get one spell in addition to Read Magic. I won’t play this without allowing players Cantrips, which (you’ve guessed it) is thankfully covered in a supplement. Even then though, the cantrips and orisons in play are really just tiny conjuring tricks and don’t offer any offensive fire power like they do in 5e.
  • Saving throws. BFRPG uses the old 5 saving throw system from B/X. This seems archaic and confusing in the modern day. Too many difficult to categorise saves seem to have to be made against “Death Ray”. I much prefer the Fortitude, Will and Reflex saves which appeared from 3rd Edition onwards if I’m honest. Again there is a supplement for this but it’s somewhat lacking in how to map this on to the published adventures which all use the 5 categories from B/X.
  • Lack of character progression. Like B/X before it, Fighters in BFRPG see little in the way of advancement beyond being able to take more damage. Clerics, Thieves and Magic Users all advance in powers but Fighters just become harder to kill. That may be your desired style of play but compared to the Fighter class in 5e or Pathfinder, it seems dull and uninspired. Again, this is a wider B/X issue, not a BFRPG specific one.
  • Uneven XP thresholds. I never understood it in B/X and I don’t really understand the need to retain it in BFRPG. Why does a cleric only need 1500 XP to advance to level 2 while a Magic-User needs 2500? Assuming XP is distributed evenly among the party then it’s highly likely that you’ll end up with a party all at different levels before very long. I’m a huge fan of a uniform leveling threshold for all classes and this could probably have been implemented easily here just by finding a mid-point among all the classes and going with that.
  • Monsters could be more varied. A lot of the monsters really only differ in AC and hit points. While that is sometimes true even with the 5e Monster Manual, more special abilities and attacks, particularly for higher level foes would have been useful.
  • Simultaneous combat. I’d forgotten all about the horrors of simultaneous combat in recent years. Sadly, BFRPG brought it all flooding back. Using a d6 for initiative just doesn’t give the same range of initiative scores so simultaneous combat is likely to be more common. While it’s more realistic, which was probably the original intention, it’s a pain in the ass for the DM. Using a d20 would solve this issue, or greatly reduce the occurrence but still, the core rulebook could probably have addressed that in my opinion.


This is a lovely product and a slick system. The free nature of the PDFs and the ludicrously low cost of the physical product on Amazon makes this worth getting, even if you don’t plan to play it any time soon.

It’s incredible that 41 years after the first Basic Edition was released, and 37 years on from the release of the Moldvay/Cook editions, the love for B/X D&D endures. Anyone who cut their teeth on that edition as opposed to AD&D 1e still loves it. In fact, when I brought this system to the attention of a friend of mine he immediately went on to Amazon and bought everything that has been published. That’s the kind of gravitational pull that B/X D&D still has over those of us who played it back in that era.

BFRPG has improved a lot of things from the original B/X ruleset. It also retains some of it’s imperfections. If you’ve read this far through the review then it’s probably safe to say that you’re more than willing to live with those imperfections.

As for me, I can’t say I’ll ever run a full length campaign using this ruleset. I think my players would eventually struggle with the lack of character options. However, I’ll certainly run one-shots or 3 to 4 session mini-adventures. It’s fast paced and furious old skool Dungeons and Dragons with a modern facelift.

That someone is still caring for and nurturing B/X even all these years later is something we should be eternally thankful for.

UPDATED: See my review of Labyrinth Lord, another retro-clone, for some comparisons I make between the two systems.

Return of the DM View All

I am a 40 something DM/GM located in Scotland. In 2016, I rediscovered the joys of tabletop role-playing games. This blog documents my journey back into the fold.

16 thoughts on “Review: Basic Fantasy RPG Leave a comment

    • Okay, now I’m confused. Simultaneous initiative in BFRPG is still individual, so I’m really not sure where you’re going with that statement; I don’t see how it’s clunky, or indeed how it’s any kind of issue at all, and I can’t get anyone to explain to me why.

      Two warriors striking killing blows on each other at the same moment is a common enough story trope, and anyway is obviously possible; given that it’s possible, I consider any initiative system that cannot replicate that result as broken.

      But in the end, if your players are happy with how you run the game, you’re doing it right. Doesn’t matter what I think.


  1. I’ve started running a Basic Fantasy campaign and couldn’t agree more about the simplicity of the product. One optional rule I’ve implemented is the “GM may choose to use a negative number equal to the character’s Constitution score…” option near the back of the book. A real life saver, that one!


    • A rule we’ve adopted in our Whitehack game is if damage would take you to 0 or lower, make a death save. If you fail, you’re dead at the start of your next round (giving time for a friend to do something), but if you pass you don’t lose the HP and insead take a wound: -2 to all d20 rolls (including future death saves) and a fun description. A night’s rest gives you a 1-in-6 roll to recover a single wound.

      It provides a little extra padding, but gives you something to remember hitting 0, and is harder to shake off than normal HP loss (it takes about a week to recover each wound).


  2. Hey, just found this review. First of all, thanks for the kind words! I always like to see someone who appreciates Basic Fantasy RPG.

    With that said, two things you comment on above deserve mention. First, you state that magic-users and clerics need more spells; this is a point of contention among a great many players and GMs accustomed to modern games. I disagree. As written, on the average all character classes are good for about one “fair” fight at first level, and then they need to go away and rest/recover. Sure, the magic-user uses his or her only spell, and then is “done for the day.” But, SO IS EVERYONE ELSE. I argued this on my own blog here:

    But the argument JUST. WON’T. DIE. So I wrote a simulator and tested my contention, namely that EVERYONE is done after one encounter (on the average). I presented my preliminary results on the blog here:

    And yet, the argument still comes up from time to time. The funny thing is, when I tell anyone that I disagree, and point out those blog posts above, none of those complaining will explain to me how their other non-magic-user characters are surviving multiple combats per day at first level. It’s really very annoying.

    The second thing I want to discuss, or maybe just ask about, is this: Why is simultaneous combat a pain in the nether regions? I’ve literally been doing it forever and never had a problem with it. I’d love to know why you, and several others, dislike it.


    • Hi Chris. Firstly, I’m very flattered that you took the time to comment on my review. Your product is fantastic and I appreciate the time and effort you have put into it.

      I guess I’m a bit spoiled by modern era d20 games in terms of how my magic-users perform and the options available to them. I try not to be but it does creep back in now and again. The lack of magic options bothered me way back in the 80s and I rarely chose to play a magic-user back then. Of course with 5e now I’m the opposite and I rarely want to play a fighter and ALWAYS want to play a Wizard/Warlock/Sorceror. My main point was really around the Cleric who I feel would benefit from a spell at first level as I think the Cleric can be the difference between survival to fight another day and a TPK for a level 1 party. I know other games offer a spell at first level for Clerics but I also appreciate your staying true to the original spirit.

      Simultaneous combat always bothered me back in the day as well. It just seemed kind of clunky and unnecessary. In fact, I always felt the old style initiative where one side acted entirely before the other was pretty clunky in it’s entirety. I think we used to homebrew it to individual initiative, although none of us had the sense to swap the d6 out for something bigger so we ended up with a limited range of initiative rolls and a further series of calculations to determine the actual order. We were young and daft back then though so just put up with it. I like the individual initiative of later iterations of D&D. I think what’s great is that BFRPG is so customisable that there are already alternative rules for a lot of game mechanics published on your website so if a rule doesn’t gel well with you then you can replace it.

      Thanks again for your input and for the links to your blog post and research. Keep up the good work.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Okay, my reply up above did not go where it was supposed to. Should have appeared after Return of the DM’s reply to me at the bottom. So just to be clear, here it is again:

    Okay, now I’m confused. Simultaneous initiative in BFRPG is still individual, so I’m really not sure where you’re going with that statement; I don’t see how it’s clunky, or indeed how it’s any kind of issue at all, and I can’t get anyone to explain to me why.

    Two warriors striking killing blows on each other at the same moment is a common enough story trope, and anyway is obviously possible; given that it’s possible, I consider any initiative system that cannot replicate that result as broken.

    But in the end, if your players are happy with how you run the game, you’re doing it right. Doesn’t matter what I think.


  4. Hi Chris. I may have confused matters by belatedly approving a comment that I missed, which subsequently threw everything out of sequence 🙂

    Firstly, I’m not being critical of your game per se. Simultaneous initiative wasn’t your idea after all. You simply carried that mechanic forward from the original game for whatever reason. Presumably because it was a core part of the original B/X and clearly because you also like it as a rule as you have explained.

    Personally I find it awkward to administer. Yes, it can create those dramatic moments where two opponents die simultaneously on one another’s swords but most of the time it’s really just a bit of an admin headache – although I’ll grant you that it’s more of an issue with larger combats with more combatants.


    • Actually, simultaneous initiative was (eventually) my idea. I don’t even remember if it was part of BX or not. Basic Fantasy RPG was designed to replicate “the way we played back in the day” more than it was meant to reproduce those specific rules. I, like many, decided I did not like simultaneous initiative, and ran my games with various tiebreakers, until the day I was watching a movie and two combatants stabbed each other with their swords at the same moment. I realized if I could not reproduce that scene, I was overly limiting my game, and since then I’ve allowed simultaneous actions wherever I could.

      What I don’t get, and what I can’t get anyone to tell me, is what’s wrong with it. I don’t even remember why I didn’t like it before. Possibly because I ran my games theater-of-the-mind back then, and I’ve been using some kind of miniatures or counters for years now. I particularly don’t get the “clunky” comment. I’d really like to understand the opposition viewpoint, but no one will explain it.


      • I can assure you it wasn’t your idea. It was definitely in B/X because I remember disliking it back in 1982. Also, it’s in Old School Essentials and that ruleset is just a direct lift of B/X.

        I’m finding it very difficult to explain why I don’t like it beyond it’s hard to keep track of and in my opinion unnecessary. I don’t necessarily feel obliged to explain it beyond that. It’s a very small and insignificant tick with B/X that to be fair, I’ve given more thought to in the past 2 days replying to your comments than I have in the almost 40 years since I first encountered B/X.


    • I didn’t mean to grill you. Sorry. I just keep hearing how difficult it is, and I don’t understand why, and I don’t like not understanding why. Thanks for taking a crack at the answer.


  5. Hey,

    On simultaneous initiative: I’ve been running BFRPG after running FATE for years and 5e for a few months and have found it to be my favourite system yet. The d6 initiative system is a big part of that explicitly because I find it much less clunky than the d20 method. With the d6 system you simply start at 6 and count down the initiative numbers with all turns happening at their relevant spots. Because its a smaller pool of numbers it is a lot easier to keep track of. You can play around with the mechanics, too. For example, I’ve added in systems in which a magic user who is attacked on the same initiative number loses their spell. For ranged users they lose their attack if they are hit (Though not simply from being attacked) at any point before their initiative number but not on it. Little changes like this are a lot easier to do on the 1-6 system and I find the simultaneous actions better replicate the “feel” of real group conflict which I have had some amount of real world experience in. Finally, I have my players declare their intentions before the turn begins though circumstantially will allow them to change their move on their initiative number (though this is purely depending on context, and I tend to encourage players by rewarding them for coming up with unexpected, neat ideas by rewarding them mechanically even if they don’t neatly fit into the BFRPG framework). All of these changes have made combat run more smoothly for my table than the d20 system while simultaneously allowing for more in depth tactics.

    Thanks for the great discussion.


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