Learning from Old-School Essentials

I am currently working on translating part of Gavin Norman’s Old-School Essentials into French. I wasn’t aware when I starting writing this, but OSE is actually on Kickstarter right now! Let me tell you about it and explore some of the reasons why it is such an excellent game for ‘old school’ play, and particularly as a team building exercise.

Cover for the basic rules of Old School Essentials

A short history lesson

If you don’t delve the same internet dungeons as I do, you may not now about OSE (formerly BX Essentials) : it is a masterful rewriting of one of the earliest editions of Dungeons & Dragons. It was released in 1981 as two sold-as-introductory-yet-sufficient-for-a-lifetime boxed sets, the Basic and Expert boxes. These were the work of Tom Moldvay and David ‘Zeb’ Cook, who followed on the steps of the good doctor Holmes and his blue Basic box (another fascinating story – look it up or leave a comment and I’ll tell you). This edition is often called Basic / Expert, B/X Dungeons & Dragons, or sometimes Moldvay D&D (Tom and Dave collaborated on both boxes, but they each got the credits on one of them – and we seem to only remember the author of the Basic game). 

Games history digression over. I have a lot of tenderness for B/X. It was my first ever roleplaying game, the pit trap into the nerdy Wonderland where I’ve been living since I was eleven. But it is also a hell of a great game. Historically speaking, it was the first time D&D that had (mostly) cohesive rules that were (mostly) easy for beginners to understand. As I said above, it was also a self contained game that a lot of people chose over the more complex, more heroic Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, which was on the shelves at the same time. Oops, that was more games history — I’m not even sorry.

Things we can learn from B/X D&D and OSE

 I’ve used BX Essentials as a reference for my lunch break D&D sessions in the office since the beginning, and I have had many an occasion to swoon over the amazing work Gavin has done. Old-School Essentials takes it one step further with better organisation and even more clarified layout. There is a lot of learn from B/X D&D and a few more to learn from Old-School Essentials

The balance is exemplary. The game has enough rules to function out of the box, but it leaves a good few grey areas that the referee and players will have to cover with their own rulings, thus adapting the corpus to their own collective taste. It can easily be played like a board game at the start (with easily followed turns and procedures) while the newcomers ease into the role-playing aspect.
 
If you are a game designer, you probably remember more than one rules writing related headache. We constantly try to make our written rules concise yet detailed, precise yet entertaining. One thing I had never considered was redundancy. If you have worked at or with a publisher, or if you are one yourself, you know that paper costs money, and that some people shy away from rules book that look too think or filled with complex procedures. So concision is your friend, and even if you put in a lot of cross referencing in your work, you try not to repeat yourself, at all.
But going through OSE word by word as I was translating, I found quite a bit of redundancy, which I reckon happened because Gavin spent a lot of time deconstructing and reconstructing the rules to make sure every bit was in the right place. And sometimes, I guess the right place is several places. Because a rulesbook is both a learning tool and a manual — we want people to find the information they’re looking for in a few seconds.
 
From the team building point of view, B/X is a perfect basis for running Dungeons & Dragons as a team exercise. As I said above, it plays like a board game and doesn’t require any gaming chops or taste for the amateur theatrics (as Gary Gygax would have put it). As an old school game, it lets players focus on problem solving in the game world rather than on their character sheet. Most of the time around the table is spent planning, arguing tactics, and trying to convince NPCs to help.
 
Of course, I’ve tried to keep this all in mind when designing Lunchtime Dungeons. But I guess this is a post for another time…

 

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