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.
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 http://basicfantasy.org/. 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.
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.