Thoughts on Basic Fantasy (Part 1)
Back when I started to dip my toe into the OSR waters I asked the folks at the OSR Google+ community what the "best" ruleset was. I admit that my question was a bit naive. I just wanted to know with which rules I should get started because for a newbie the amount of games can be overwhelming. So people mentioned the original Basic/Expert (B/X) or its retroclone Labyrinth Lord, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Swords & Wizardry, ACKS (Adventurer, Conqueror, King) or even Castles & Crusades. Some lonely voices pitched in with AD&D.
My point is: nobody mentioned Basic Fantasy!
So, one year later I stumbled over BFRPG. My initial skimming didn't yield something particularly interesting. I gave it a thorough read after getting some info about it at aforementioned community. It has grown on me since.
Mind you, my first experience of D&D was 3.5 with all splatbooks and it was absolutely confusing. I really didn't get how the game was supposed to work, especially when we cranked out the battlemat. Since then, I have played some sessions of 3e (Oriental Adventures), some sessions of 4e and recently the new 5e. I played Whitehack (based on S&W) and Scarlet Heroes. Last month I finally could play Swords & Wizardry and it was a lot more fun that most of my 3e and 4e sessions mechanics-wise. However, I'm no hardcore D&D player.
So, while I have a soft spot for old school games I clearly am no grognard. Here are my impressions of Basic Fantasy from reading the game (I haven't played it yet).
I will break this down into several posts.
What do you need to know?
Basic Fantasy is one of the oldest entries in the OSR. In fact, it was OSR before there even was an OSR movement. It was developed in 2006 by Chris Gonnerman. Lots of people of the OSR fame have contributed to it: Matt Finch, Stuart Marshall, Luigi Castellani and others. It is open-source and community-centered. That means that all the pdfs are free and the books can be bought at-cost for a very small price. In fact, the core book is available for less than 5 € at Amazon!
BFRPG takes the freely available d20 SRD v3.5 as a base and models it after the popular Basic/Expert Set of the 1980s. It describes itself as rules-lite, easy enough for children but with enought depth for adults as well.
The book is around 166 pages (the pdf has 170 pages in total with covers and everything). My paperback version from createspace/amazon is a nice tome with no ink bleed. The PDF version sadly comes without electronic bookmarks but alas, it's a free ruleset.
I'm impressed by the quality of the typography. The book is nicely layouted with a classic two-column style and black & white art. Tables are a must and the format is well done. Bonus points for the illustrations as most of them are of a good or even very good quality. Unfortunately the style varies a lot as different artists have contributed. But I'm glad to see that ugly creative commons stuff was mostly avoided.
Use of white space, font size and formatting are very good. Both the pdf and the print version are easy on the eyes. The typeface looks very similar to the original used in B/X although BFRPG's version looks a lot cleaner than my remastered PDF of the original B/X.
I like the fact that the author decided to divide the content the same way as the original B/X: Introduction, Player Characters, Spells, The Adventure, The Encounter, Monsters, Treasure, Game Master Information.
The introduction stands out as a beginner friendly text which explains what this game is, what role-playing is and how the dice work.
I was happy to see that images of the dice are displayed and that the dice mechanics are explained. That may sound silly but I remember that I had problems the first time using the d10 (0 means 0, right? wait, that's a 10?), the d100 (there isn't a d100!!!) and the d4 (what is the result?).
Designwise, BFRPG is heavily influenced by B/X with some caveats: the most obvious changes are the separation of race and class and using ascending armor class. Furthermore, there is no alignment.
Generating ability scores is fairly standard: roll 3d6 in order. Modifiers are taken from the SRD and not differentiated between different stats as in B/X. As there are no prime requisites, there are also no XP bonuses/penalties.
With the separation of race and class Gonnerman has strayed from the original. I personally like the change because it's one I'm familiar with from 3e and I always found race-as-class slightly quirky.
The implementation of this mechanic is quite nice. There are four races: humans, dwarves, elves and halflings.
Races have some restrictions which class they can take but there are no level restrictions. So a Halfling fighter can level up till level 20 (end of level progression for the whole game). However, ability score restrictions apply. For instance, a Dwarf needs to have a minimum Constitution of 9 and may have no higher Charisma than 17. Furthermore there might be weapons restrictions.
All races have special abilites. Humans get a 10% experience bonus, I think that's fitting.
The core book sticks to the classic four classes: Cleric, Fighter, Magic-User and Thief. As far as I can tell, this section is fairly traditional: Thiefs only get a d4 hit die and Clerics have no spell at level 1.
Thief Abilities are exclusively rolled with a percentile roll and chances are slightly better than in B/X.
As a gamer from a "newer generation" I still find it odd that only the thief gets skills like Listen but hey, that's definitely old-school.
Alignment is completely missing. In my opinion, good riddance as my group doesn't use it anyway. Your mileage may vary.
Next is a list of Equipment. This section mostly contains tables. Compared to B/X this section is much easier to read because tables are formatted differently. The prices differ slightly.
Because some races have weapons restrictions there is a distinction of Small, Medium and Large weapons. For instance, Halflings may not use Large Weapons at all. AFAIK B/X doesn't make that distinction.
Armor Class is bit curious in BFRPG. An unarmored human has AC 11. This varies from Swords & Wizardry's ascending armor class (base 10) and also from the D20 SRD's base (also 10). I asked the author about that and he explained that he wanted chainmal to have an equivalent of AC 5 (descending armor class) like in B/X. The SRD gives chainmail a bonus of +4, so to get 15 you'll need a base of 11. Furthermore, in B/X an unarmored human is supposed to have AC 9 which correspond to an ascending armor class of AC 11 (20-9=11). So, that's a bit different if you come from 3e onwards but is easy enough to remember.
BFRPG also gives weapon ranges for missile weapons in feet. Depending on your distance to your target you may get a bonus or penalty to your attack roll.
All in all, I really like the changes Chris Gonnerman made. Players have more options to choose from and aren't hampered down by level restrictions.
I must admit that I mostly gloss over spells. As far as I can see this section is very true to the original.
Spellcasting works as assumed from D&D Basic/Expert. Coming from 3e I like how you do not need to roll for spellcasting. Clerics don't get a spell at first level, so that's true to the inspiration. Also, they are of course limited to their own spell list.
At cursory glance it looks like all the spells from B/X are presented here as well. Ranges sometimes differ slightly, for instance, Wizard Lock has a range of 10 ft in B/X and 20 ft in BFRPG.
In Moldvay's Basic it is stated that you need to memorize spells before the adventure begins and that oftentimes the target of a spell is allowed to have a Saving Throw. It is explained that the "writing on your mind" (the spell) is erased after you have cast it. Furthermore, you need to gesture and vocalize the spell. Other than that the instructions are pretty sparse, range and duration are explained and the extra rules for clerics and the requirement of a spellbook for Magic-Users and Elves.
Cook's Expert Set adds rules for cast restrictions, re-memorizing, replacing lost spellbooks, getting new spells and reversed spells.
The instructions in Basic Fantasy are even more concise. The rules are more or less the same though. Interestingly, BFRPG also addresses using magic in combat. Spell casting in combat takes the same time as an attack and that the caster must make a Saving Throw if he was attacked before casting. I couldn't find a similar rule in B/X.
Additionally, Magic-Users also get Read Magic as a spell at first level in BFRPG.