After recently discovering Basic Fantasy Role-playing Game, my interest in old school B/X clones was awakened and I decided to also pick up Labyrinth Lord.
Now, it should be noted that I owned a copy of Basic Fantasy first, so please indulge me if it seems at times like I’m comparing the two. With both of these systems being Moldvay B/X retro-clones, it’s difficult not to draw comparisons on a number of levels.
So let’s take a look at Labyrinth Lord.
Presentation wise, it’s very nice. It’s print on demand, so I ordered my copy through Lulu. It’s cheap as chips, although not as cheap as Basic Fantasy. The core rulebook cost me about £16 which is roughly 4 times what I paid for BFRPG. That said, that’s not a fair comparison. £16 is still ridiculously cheap for a complete role-playing system and Goblinoid Games should be applauded for keeping the cost down. The copy I picked up was softcover – nice and flexible and easy to flick through. I actually think I prefer my rulebooks in softcover as there’s an ease of handling that you don’t necessarily get with hardcover books (albeit at the expense of longevity) . The book size and style is almost identical to BFRPG’s softcover offering and if you left the two of them open, side by side on a table, you’d struggle to tell them apart at first glance because the layout, fonts and styles are so similar.
Labyrinth Lord is a lovingly put together rendition of Moldvay/Cook Basic and Expert D&D. If you want to know more about my love affair with the works of Tom Moldvay and Dave Cook then I’ll refer you back to my Basic Fantasy review as I detail it all there. The rulebook is beautifully laid out, in pretty much exactly the same order as the original B/X rules which means it immediately feels really familiar and easy to navigate. The artwork inside the book is exceptional and really evocative of the kind of artwork common in early 80’s TSR games. The artwork is one area where Labyrinth Lord is superior to Basic Fantasy. The art in Labyrinth Lord seems much more consistent in terms of style and purpose than that presented in Basic Fantasy, which often feels a bit haphazard and stylistically inconsistent. Labyrinth Lord feels like the art has been commissioned specifically for the rulebook which is a huge plus in my eyes.
The basics of the game are explained, including dice notation, character creation and the role of the Labyrinth Lord (or LL for short), Labyrinth Lord’s variation on the Dungeon Master. There are then detailed rules for encounters, combat, monsters and “Labyrinth Lord Lore” which is essentially the DM’s section of the rulebook.
Character creation is pretty much vanilla B/X. Labyrinth Lord adheres to the original B/X ruleset in this regard unlike Basic Fantasy which offers more options. In Labyrinth Lord, race IS class. So you can be a Dwarf but not a Dwarf cleric. I know that can be a deal breaker for some people. I prefer race and class to be separate but I did grow up with that restriction in B/X so I could probably live with it. In fact, I’ve already played Dungeon Crawl Classics and lived with it there.
One of the main differences with classes is that Clerics start with 1 spell at first level (as opposed to none in B/X and BFRPG). Shock horror. I know many players who don’t like this ruling as they feel clerics need to “earn” their magic, but personally I like it. I never really embraced the idea that a Cleric was just a weak fighter until they reached 2nd level so Labyrinth Lord addresses that issue quite well. Demi-human races also have level caps as per the original B/X ruleset. This seems restrictive but in reality with the amount of time I can dedicate to OSR games and the conservative (by 5e standards) XP awards in OSR games, I can’t see myself ever reaching the point where I have a 12th level Dwarf with 660,001 XP. One other small, but annoying detail about leveling in Labyrinth Lord is the curious XP thresholds at lower levels. For instance, for a Dwarf to reach 2nd level they need 2,187 XP and then 4,375 XP to reach 3rd level. While it’s all clearly documented, these aren’t figures that easily stick in the mind and will no doubt require that players and DMs constantly consult the rulebook as XP gets dished out.
Combat is similar to the original ruleset. Initiative is a d6 roll and is based on each side acting in turn, rather than individuals (as in BFRPG). Unlike many modern retro-clones, Labyrinth Lord retains the old descending armor class system of the original B/X, complete with complex tables of “to hit” rolls. I have to admit, this is a bit of a stumbling block for me as I just can’t see why the system didn’t just adopt the universally popular, and easier to understand, ascending armor class. Descending armor class was nonsensical in 1981 and it’s still nonsensical now. It really slows down combat constantly checking tables or calculating the “to hit” roll from THAC0 (which Labyrinth Lord doesn’t cover, but always seemed to me to be the only way to deal with “to hit” rolls sensibly in a descending armor class system).
Another thing that really jarred for me was the order the attributes are presented in the Monsters section of the book. There’s no logical reason for me preferring AC and Hit Dice as the first two stats in the block but somehow I find it much easier to read and determine the relative strength of a creature. Labyrinth Lord has “number encountered” and alignment as the first two stats in the stat block and it really bugs me. The stat block seems way less usable as a result of this tiny change. Maybe it’s a hangover from original B/X and 5e but I find it hard to get to the meat of the monster easily.
Saving throws are dealt with well enough. Save values are listed for each class, which removes the need to apply class modifiers to a standard array, which I found cumbersome and unintuitive in BFRPG. The saves are also categorised much better, breaking down into “Breath Attacks”, “Poison or Death”, “Petrify or Paralyze”, “Wands” and “Spells or Spell-like Devices”. These categories seem better than both the original B/X saves and BFRPG but I can’t help but feel that these retro-clones really miss a trick by not just adopting the later 3rd Edition style Fortitude, Will and Reflex saves. Dungeon Crawl Classics does so and saves are infinitely easier to manage and it doesn’t in any way reduce the retro feel of the system. There may already be a supplement out there covering that (there is for BFRPG) but if there is then I can’t easily locate it online.
On the whole, Labyrinth Lord is a lovely system. It’s great value for the money and also has a free (art free) version to download on the Goblinoid Games site, so it doesn’t actually need to cost you anything. Whether I’ll play it or not is another matter though. Descending armor class makes my brain hurt and it’s got the potential to be a real deal breaker in terms of whether I’ll pick it up and play it rather than BFRPG when I want that retro-gaming fix.
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.