Since the Christmas in July sale at DriveThruRPG is down to its last few days, I’m going to pick up the pace adding items to my PnPG wish list. Today, I’m going to tell you about three old-school RPG rule books that ought to be on your bookshelf. (Or in your Kindle. Whatever.)
Beyond the Wall and Other Adventures looks like a fairly typical old-school retroclone at first glance. The core mechanics stick very closely to the conventions established in 0e and 1e D&D, so anyone familiar with “the world’s most popular roleplaying game” will feel right at home in play. What makes Beyond the Wall special is how effectively it evokes a particular style of fantasy story, using a blend of modern story-gaming techniques including collaborative world-building, rich character creation using playbooks, and improvisational adventure design based on versatile scenario packs. Beyond the Wall does one thing, but it does it very well.
Beyond the Wall is specifically designed to tell fey-tinged adventure stories about young heroes in Celtic- or Gaelic-inspired iron-age cultures. Think Taran in Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, or Merida in Disney’s Brave, or even Ged in Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea saga. Characters and setting are created collaboratively at the game table in a single process, with the PCs and their home village evolving based on input from all players as well as the gamemaster. Adventures can (and probably should) be run using Beyond the Wall’s scenario packs—thematic guides consisting of tables of foes, events, and circumstances, along with advice for linking them together into largely improvised but still-coherent adventures.
Flatland Games intends a group of gamers to sit down and play a game of Beyond the Wall with next to no preparation, and for the most part, they succeed. Although I doubt that most of the scenario packs could be played through in a single session, especially if your group hasn’t run a “session zero” to create the characters and setting, but that’s not a problem. A more relaxed and realistic plan might be for a group to spend one session establishing the characters, setting, and adventure premise, followed by one to three additional play sessions to complete the full adventure. However you decide to run it, if you’re interested in a game that combines cleaned-up old-school mechanics with a modern, collaborative approach to roleplaying, Beyond the Wall may be for you.
It’s a pretty safe bet that if you’re reading this blog, you’ve already heard about Goodman Games’ epic Dungeon Crawl Classics. But the print version of DCC is massive, and not cheap, so picking up the PDF at the Christmas in July discount may be the opportunity you’ve been waiting for to give this important game a serious look.
DCC takes us back to the gonzo early days of fantasy RPGs, when all dungeons were megadungeons, before Tolkein, Brooks, and Martin had eclipsed Howard, Lovecraft, Moorcock, Leiber, Vance, and Anderson as the main influences on the genre. The DCC rules set retains everything good from the original game, tightens up the vague bits, and adds a ton of tables—critical hits, fumbles, spell results and failures, etc.—that crank the volume up to eleven. Magic is wildly unpredictable; the familiar cast-and-forget-it convention is tossed out in favor of a spell-casting check which can result in epic successes as well as disastrous side-effects. And most importantly, life is cheap in DCC, and arbitrary and spectacular deaths are part of the fun. Campaigns usually begin with a “zero-level funnel” adventure, in which each player runs up to four ordinary civilians, in hopes that at least one will survive to become a first-level adventurer.
So if you’ve been waiting to pick up Dungeon Crawl Classics, Christmas in July may be the excuse you need to airbrush a wizard on the side of your van, jam a Jethro Tull tape into the eight-track, and take a trip back to the 1970s!
I’m not sure if the Rules Cyclopedia is a playable game so much as an important historical document in the RPG genre. Published in 1991, and compiled by master game developer Aaron Allston, brings together all the rules and monsters from the various sets in the BECMI D&D line, as well as the optional rules and enhancements introduced the extensive line of Gazetteer supplements. With over 300 pages of three-column text and relatively few illustrations, the Rules Cyclopedia is a daunting tome. But it was intended as a reference book for players already familiar with the game, not as an introduction to the Basic D&D system.
If you like old-school D&D for its light and flexible rules, the full rules presented in the Cyclopedia are going to be far too crunchy and fussy for your taste. But if you’re putting together an OSR campaign using one of the retroclone rule sets, such as Swords and Wizardry or Labyrinth Lord, the Rules Cyclopedia offers a complete and well-indexed smorgasboard of optional rules to fine-tune your chosen system to suit your play style. With the Christmas in July discount, the PDF version of this huge book costs less than $8, making it a cost-effective way to add this crucial element of RPG history to your gaming library.
OSR Honorable Mentions
There are a few other old-school rule books that I want to mention briefly as well:
Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea (Second Edition) is a massive adaptation of old-school rules for campaigns set in the world of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories. I’ve bought the book and skimmed it, and I’m impressed with it so far, but I haven’t explored it sufficiently to give it a personal recommendation yet. With a regular price of $20, though, the Christmas in July discount is a welcome price break on this imposing work.
Sharp Swords and Sinister Spells is a genuine rules-light OSR game with interesting, streamlined mechanics that I really like. The only reason it’s not on my main Christmas in July list is that it’s a Pay What You Want product, unaffected by the discount. Even so, I recommend tossing author Diogo Nogiera a couple of bucks when you download it—which you definitely should!
Swords and Wizardry and Labyrinth Lord are my favorite straight-up OSR retroclones, providing a solid foundation for house-ruling to suit your taste. S&W Complete and Labyrinth Lord recast the rules of the 0e version of the game, with better editing and organization. Frog God Games offers Swords and Wizardry Complete as a Pay What You Will Product, while Goblinoid Games makes a no-art version of Labyrinth Lord available as a free download. If you’re a Labyrinth Lord player, though, you may want to drop a few bucks for the fully-illustrated, deluxe edition of Labyrinth Lord while it’s marked down for Christmas in July.
Of course, there are dozens of other great OSR games out there, most of which are on sale during DriveThruRPG’s Christmas in July event. I’m sure you have a favorite that I didn’t mention—let us know about it in the Comments, below!
And until next time, keep on printing, and keep on playing!