Old-School Essentials: The Big "What's New" Post

So I've been going on about this Old-School Essentials thing recently, which I'll be bringing to Kickstarter in a few months. As you are probably aware, this is the revised edition of the original B/X Essentials books. But some people may be wondering what exactly is different. This post is for you!

What's Not New?

Weird to put this first, but it's important to state up front: the same as B/X Essentials, Old-School Essentials is a streamlined, easy-reference restatement of the classic B/X rules of yesteryear. Same rules ... new, improved presentation.

So with that out of the way...

What's New?

1. The Name

This one is pretty obvious. The game has a new name (Old-School Essentials) and subtitle (Retro Adventure Game) to make it more immediately obvious what it's about. This is especially important to make the game a bit more accessible to people who'd potentially be interested in old-school gaming, but who aren't familiar with the esoteric term "B/X". That's the sole reason for the new name.

2. A New Layout

Redoing the layout wasn't a major design consideration in the revised books, but came about because I decided to switch the books' format to A5 (instead of the 6" x 9" of the original editions). The reason for this was simply that A5 is an international standard, so is cheaper and easier to print around the world. (This connects to point 3, below.)

As I'd decided to change the physical format, the entire layout needed to be redone, so I also decided to change the style to something fresher, while I was at it. (Fortunately, I love doing layouts, so this has been a super fun part of the development process of the new books.)

3. New Art

The redone layout means that a lot of new art will be needed. Some favourites from B/X Essentials will also be returning, of course.

Andrew Walter is working on a new cover for Core Rules, as we speak!

4. Designed for Offset Printing

The original books were printed by Lightning Source as print-on-demand. The new books will be printed by an as yet not finally decided printer as a traditional offset run. There are a few reasons for changing the printing process:
  1. Quality. PoD quality is mediocre. Offset printing offers far better quality.
  2. Flexibility. Offset printing opens the way to fancy features that aren't possible with PoD, for example things like printed end-papers and ribbons. (More on this later.)
  3. Economics. Per unit, offset printing is much, much cheaper than PoD.

5. Expanded Introduction

As noted in Capt. Corajus' recent review, the B/X Essentials books are not that great for beginners. (Indeed they were explicitly designed for experienced players.) There's no explanation of a lot of fundamental concepts like AC, hp, HD, etc. which are familiar to all experienced players. This puts up an entry barrier. One of my primary aims for the revised books is to make them more accessible to people who aren't hardcore old-schoolers, so addressing this was a must.

To that end, the introduction to Core Rules has been expanded, covering the following topics:
  • About the game.
  • Very brief suggestions for people who are new to RPGs or new to old-school games.
  • A discussion on why the game is split into several books, and which books are required to play.
  • A discussion on compatibility with other games (e.g. the original B/X, Labyrinth Lord, etc.).
  • A brief section on the basic terminology used in the game.
  • A section describing the assumptions about the kinds of adventures that the rules are based around.
  • A full rundown on the game statistics that make up a player character.

6. Clarified Text

This might come as a surprise, given that B/X Essentials was already supposed to be a clarified reference for the B/X rules. The fact is that I learned a lot over the 2 year development cycle of BXE. By the time it was finished, looking back, I could see a lot of things in the earlier books that could be improved. So I took this opportunity to improve them. I'll post some comparisons of the original vs revised rules over the next weeks, so you can see what I mean. For now, suffice to say that I'm super happy with the way things are looking now.

7. Control Panel Layouts

This is probably the biggest change of all to Core Rules. In the original book, the main adventuring rules were listed alphabetically. So you had Ability Checks, Air Travel, Chases, Climbing, and so on. While this makes sense as a means of organisation, it's not a very intuitive order for rules to appear in. Ability Checks then Air Travel... huh?

The revised Core Rules instead lays things out on 2-page spreads of related content -- also known as "control panels". Here's the list of the PC and adventuring rules control panels, in the order they appear in:
  1. Player Character game statistics.
  2. Character creation.
  3. Ability scores.
  4. Alignment, languages, experience, and wealth.
  5. Domains, hirelings, and party organisation. (The latter now describes the roles of the Caller and Mapper, which weren't mentioned in B/X Essentials.)
  6. Time, weight, movement. (Including encumbrance.)
  7. Hazards and challenges. (Including ability checks and saving throws.)
  8. Dungeon adventuring.
  9. Wilderness adventuring.
  10. Waterborne adventuring.
  11. Encounters.
  12. Evasion and pursuit.
  13. Combat.
  14. Other combat issues and morale.
  15. Retainers.
  16. Vehicles.
The rest of the book continues in the same manner, with rules for Magic, Monsters, Running Adventures, and Treasure.

Just for fun, here's an example of one of these control panels: the revised Combat rules.

8. Expanded Core, Focused Modules

Another thing that I only noticed in retrospect, after having completed the 2 year development of B/X Essentials: I ended up with some bits of rules in later books that should have gone in Core Rules. The rules for character creation and alignment are obvious ones. The treasure tables are another example.

In Old-School Essentials, these things have been moved into Core Rules, where they belong. This makes the other rules modules much more focused. We now have:
  • Classic Fantasy Adventures: All the rules for creating PCs and running campaigns in the classic B/X-style fantasy genre.
  • Classic Fantasy Spells: Cleric and Magic-User: Spells for the named classes. (This book is pretty much unchanged.)
  • Classic Fantasy Monsters: All the classic B/X monsters, now also with the accompanying random encounter tables. (The latter originally appeared in Adventures and Treasures. They are now reunited with the monster descriptions that they refer to.)
  • Classic Fantasy Treasures: All the classic B/X magic items.

9. Ascending Armour Class (Optional)

This is a potentially contentious change. The game could now be accurately described as a precise clone of B/X with one single addition: Ascending AC.

The reason for adding this one extra (optional) rule comes back to accessibility again. A lot of players are just more comfortable or more familiar with AAC. Some people even refuse to play games that uses DAC. (Personally, I regard this as a bit of an extreme attitude, but to each their own.)

One could quite reasonably argue "well, every group wants to apply its own house rules... why incorporate this one into the core of the game?". There's a good reason why I chose to do this with this one, specific house rule. To quote the Old-School Essentials author's notes document that I published recently:
  • Use of ascending AC is probably the most common house rule applied by modern players to the classic Basic/Expert rules framework. (The second most common probably being separating character race and class, in the vein of the traditional Advanced rules.)
  • Armour Class is a fundamental game mechanic, and, as such, is referred to throughout all rules modules. Applying house rules to such core mechanics of the game is awkward, entailing either the significant adaptation effort of all materials in use, or an on-the-fly conversion whenever the mechanic comes up. Neither is trivial. (In contrast, for example, optional rules for creating characters with separate race and class can be easily addressed in a rules supplement, without affecting the core rules of the game.)
For those (such as myself) who like using the traditional DAC system, the optional AAC rules are very easy to ignore. They amount to small sidebars on 2 pages, and a dual AC format that looks like this: AC 7 [12]. (This is the same format used in Swords & Wizardry.)

10. Errata Fixes

Not a lot of errata has been reported for B/X Essentials (if you know of some, please do report it!), but everything reported has been fixed in Old-School Essentials.

Additionally, as part of my own work on clarifying the text (point 5, above), I spotted some things in B/X Essentials that (despite great effort!) weren't 100% accurate to B/X. These things have also been fixed. They're mostly pretty subtle things that only ├╝ber rules-nerds (like myself) will notice, but I'm passionate about addressing them. An example that comes to mind is the description of actions in combat: B/X Essentials described where "other actions" take place in the initiative sequence, whereas B/X is a bit looser, making no mention of this.

11. All-in-One Hardcover

This is where the offset printing will really come into its own: the plan is to produce a high quality, sewn binding, A5 hardcover (probably around 250 pages) of the complete game. Plans for exactly how the Kickstarter will be set up aren't complete yet, but the offset printing process will allow lots of nice extras (for example as stretch goals):
  • Printed end-papers, probably replicating some of the most commonly used tables for easy reference.
  • One or more ribbons.

12. Boxed Set

Since the inception of the B/X Essentials project, it's been my dream to produce a boxed set of the individual booklets. Why? I just love boxed sets. My plan is to make this a reality for the upcoming Kickstarter.

What If I Already Have the B/X Essentials Books?

If you're happy with your original B/X Essentials books, by all means continue using them and being happy with them! As I said above, the only actual change in the rules is the addition of Ascending AC as an option. The revised books do contain some fixes to things that slipped through the net originally, but I wouldn't say anything really major has been affected. This is still the same B/X rules that we all know and love.

The main benefits of buying a set of the new Old-School Essentials books, for people who already own B/X Essentials, would be the following, I'd say:
  • If you've been waiting for a combined, all-in-one edition, this is it.
  • If you want that tasty, integrated Ascending AC.
  • If you want the improved structure, the fixed errata, and the control panel goodness discussed above.
  • It's just great to have multiple copies of the books at the table. Maybe you only have one of each.
  • If you love collecting nice old-school books. The Old-School Essentials books should be a really nice addition to any collection, whether for use in your games, as reference, or simply to look nice on the shelf!

When / How?

The plan is to bring this all to Kickstarter in a few months. Current estimates place the campaign around May/June, but of course I'll give more specific details when things are fully concrete.

Current status: I'm well ahead of schedule on layout, and proofreading of Core Rules is now underway.

These books will be a manifestation of my own personal gaming dream. I hope they fulfill the dreams of many other people!


  1. Thanks for adding AAC. That was the main thing I houseruled when using the books to introduce some new players. Will there be an attack bonus column added to the class level tables? That would help a lot.

    1. Yeah, a lot of people report similarly. And yes, the class descriptions include the attack bonus. e.g. see the WIP cleric spread here: https://necrotic-gnome-productions.blogspot.com/2019/02/old-school-essentials-first-pass.html

    2. (Of course the monster descriptions also list the AAC attack bonus.)

  2. I'm an old grognard and I'll never use AAC (except in 5e). Nevertheless I'm really glad it's in these books, so more people will play the game. You included it in such a modular fashion that it should be zero annoyance for DAC players like me. I surely hope its inclusion is not contentious because it looks perfectly fine to me.

    1. Ha, even my including THAC0 in the monster listings was highly contentious in some circles :D

      But yeah, as you say, my hope is that this simple and unobtrusive addition will increase the number of people playing B/X.

  3. Looks great. Design question: why doesn't the procedure for attacking on page 35 have a background tint like the other procedures?

    1. Thanks! That's something I've played around with a bit and am not 100% happy with yet. (I should have thought of that before sharing that spread ;) The difficulty is: if Attacking is a sidebar, then all of the stuff underneath it (e.g. Natural 1s and 20s, Damage, etc) is left kind of floating without a header. There's probably a way to get the best of both worlds...

    2. Ah. I didn't realize that they were meant to be viewed as sidebars. The Combat Sequence per Round on pg. 34 seems to offer a solution. Maybe add white space after the "Attacking" header and include a sidebar header like "Attack Sequence"?

    3. I've played around with it some more and have now got both forms of attack roll (vs DAC and vs AAC) in a sidebar together, at the top right of the page. (I can't see a way to post images in replies here, otherwise I'd post one.) I think it looks better.

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  5. IMO, an AAC conversion need not attempt to be compatible with the advanced game. So why start with AC 10? Instead, how about converting AC 9 (unarmored) to AC 11, thus making AC 0 = AC 20? I suggest that these are mathematical equivalents, which will make conversions on the fly easier.

    1. Someone made a similar suggestion on facebook the other day. Here's what I said:

      There are several reasons I went for AAC 10 being unarmoured:
      1. AAC is included as an optional rule for people who are more familiar / comfortable with it. Those people are mostly coming from D&D 3 / 4 / 5, where unarmoured AC is 10.
      2. Swords & Wizardry -- the other major clone that uses the same DAC / AAC split that I'm using also has base AAC as 10. (Small point of compatibility with other OSR material.)
      3. As the vast majority of play happens at levels 1-3 (where the THAC0 of all PCs is 19), it felt cleaner to have that as the point where no attack bonuses or penalties apply. (If unarmoured AAC was 11, 1st level PCs would have to have a +1 attack bonus.)

    2. Got it. You are using the target number "to hit" as the AAC.

  6. Umm.. But 1st level characters DO have a +1 attack bonus.

    Look at p26 of the core rules
    Compare the 1st row of "Adventurer Attack chart" (THac0 19)
    vs "Normal Human attack chart" (THac0 20)

    I take a normal human as lvl 0. Which would mean that a lvl 1 character has +1 attack!

    1. It can be defined in different ways, depending what AAC is defined as unarmoured.

      Example 1: AAC 10 is unarmoured. THAC0 of a 1st level PC is 19. Thus, to hit a monster with AC 9 (unarmoured), the PC needs to roll a 10 (19-10 = 9). To have an attack roll of 10 vs AAC mean the same thing, the attack bonus of a 1st level PC should be +0 (10 + 0 = 10). (Normal Humans have an attack bonus of -1.)

      Example 2: AAC 11 is unarmoured. THAC0 of a 1st level PC is 19. Thus, to hit a monster with AC 9 (unarmoured), the PC needs to roll a 10 (19-10 = 9). To have an attack roll of 10 vs AAC mean the same thing, the attack bonus of a 1st level PC should be +1 (10 + 1 = 11). (Normal Humans have an attack bonus of +0.)

      The same math follows for any definition of unarmoured AAC. (I have chosen 10 as unarmoured AAC, for the reasons described above.)

  7. I'll definitely be backing this, Gavin! Looking forward to the Kickstarter announcement

  8. I'll be a day 1 backer on this, no question.

    I'd love to see some pieces from the Foe Folio artist (who's name I can't seem to find), but that's just wish-listing!

    1. Thanks! I guess you mean Mark Craddock's Foe Folio? (I'm also not sure who did the illustrations there.)

  9. Thanks for the announcement. I'd been toying with getting the B/X essentials but hadn't pulled the trigger. Especially given the background of my group, ascending AC really does help push me over the edge.

  10. I'm planning to take both hardcover and the new boxed set. As mentioned above previously bought BXE booklets would play as 2nd copies on the table. Or I may give new ones (hardcover or boxed set) as a present... hmm

  11. I am SO excited about this kickstarter!!! I hope you have a high pledge for people that really want to support all your hard work.

    1. Thank you! Open to suggestions for cool extras that could be included in a high pledge!

    2. I plan on pledging at the highest possible level. Not sure about cool rewards, maybe a special hand-numbered print run? It already sounds like the physical book is going to be niiice. Or maybe an offset print-run of some Wormskin issues to throw in?

  12. wait a minute. you're in England. Is this going to make the cost way too much to ship those books over the pond???

    1. It's even worse: I'm in Germany! I've already started discussing arrangements with a US partner to make the shipping affordable :)

  13. I would like to suggest, after ‘your’ own suggestion to me, that a “Hit Dice” (Optional) be placed in the book, showing the AD&D variant for all classes > which might keep potentials from turning away. A lot of people have gamed AD&D thru today’s 5E; and may shake their heads and laugh (as their response) to the Hit Dice given in B/X. I started with B/X (but I can assure you, I couldn’t talk my own group away from 5E or PF without that fix (you gave me). ~Gary

    1. Hey Gary, as such a house rule is super easy to apply to the game -- should any individual group wish to do so -- it has no place in the core OSE books. I'm really serious about not including any house rules in the core books, with the exception of AAC (for the reasons discussed in the post). The point is: once I add one such rule, why not add the hundreds of others that might equally make sense? Not a road I want to go down :D

      (Glad the HD suggestion helped you though!)

  14. Brazillian fan here.
    I cannot back this up right now, but I will be sure to try to grab a physical copy once it is done!
    I just hope the shipping won't cost an arm and a leg. x_x
    Cheers and keep up the great work!
    (you've inspired me to write my own house rules as a decent reference document, tho I go very zero edition-ish, bare bones stuff)

  15. Very exciting stuff! Where does the B/X Illusionist & Druid spellbook fit into this? I'd love to be able to get that in the original B/X Essentials format still.

    1. No further books will be published under the B/X Essentials brand. Everything will be Old-School Essentials from now on.

    2. (The Advanced Characters and Druid and Illusionist Spells books well most likely be the first two beyond the five "core" books.)

  16. One suggestion about an Expanded Introduction. This kind of text that newcomers devours when they just get a new game (rpg or board) but later on skip unconsciously. Maybe said introduction would be better coupled with an introductory solo adventure which might be a preamble in the unlocked adventure from your kickstarter. Sorry if I sound^a tad presumptuous, thanks for reading ^^