B/X TO THE FUTURE
Updated: Mar 24, 2022
40 years and several editions on from its release, D&D B/X continues to inspire today’s thriving indie RPG scene. John Power Jr. takes a look at the game’s curious afterlife and finds that skills? Where we’re going we don’t need skills...
The year 2000 would prove to be pivotal in the history of role-playing games. Having purchased the haplessly managed TSR three years before, Wizards of the Coast would begin the new millennium by announcing the first new edition of Dungeons & Dragons for over a decade. Whilst Wizard’s actions that year, including retiring the TSR brand, were firmly focused on building a new future for the game, another decision they made would inadvertently open a portal to the past.
For along with the new, third, edition of Dungeons & Dragons, Wizards would also publish the game's first Systems Reference Document (SRD) and its accompanying Open Game License (OGL). Containing the d20 system, derived from the new D&D’s rules, the SRD and OGL were designed to allow third party publishers to officially create, and then sell, their own supplements for the game.
This fateful decision would lead to the, as it happened doomed, d20 boom of the early 2000s as a whole host of new publishers sprung up to make their names releasing both 3rd edition modules and, unexpectedly in the case of titles like Mutants & Masterminds and Broncosaurus Rex, entirely new games based on the d20 system.
Wizards’ intended goal with the OGL had been to allow a vast ecosystem of content to develop around rather than in competition to the new system. In theory more modules and more content would equal more people buying the core Dungeons & Dragons books and locking them into the game's ecosystem. In principle it was a sound one, but in dark troglodytic corners of the internet other, stranger, ideas were fermenting.
Knowing gamers, it’s a fair bet that when Gygax and Arneson cracked open their first dragon filled dungeon, at least one amongst their group stomped off, loudly and proudly declaring that the original Chainmail was clearly the far superior game and this new D&D was ruining the hobby.
Sometimes this is just rose tinted nostalgia. As the years, and all that that entails, begin to pile up it’s natural to hold up the trappings of your own youth - whether that be bands, Garbage Pail Kids or indeed certain editions of role-playing games - as the pinnacle of culture after which, to quote Picasso, ‘all is decadence’.
But it’s also true that games at least have a tendency to accrue baggage over their lifetimes as economics demands a constant slew of new supplements, or for entirely new editions to arrive with unwanted or unasked for changes that give earlier editions a purity of vision and play-style that ‘fussier’ or, as their designers might say, more ‘advanced’ editions lack. One man’s mimic is, after all, another’s loot filled treasure chest.
ONE MAN’S MIMIC IS, AFTER ALL, ANOTHER’S LOOT FILLED TREASURE CHEST
And so on forums and at conventions a protean thought began to be spoken out loud. If the OGL could be used to create material for the current iteration of D&D then, just maybe, it could also allow for older editions to re-emerge blinking into the light from their stygian tombs once more.
And so by 2001 we were already seeing the first stirrings of what would become the Old School Renaissance, or Old School Revival, or even Old School Rules (let’s just call it the OSR...), movement.
At first this materialised in the shape of publishers, such as Necromancer Games (later Frog God Games), releasing both new 3rd edition modules that were designed to emulate the feel of older editions - especially that of the 1st edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons - or even licensing, revising and reissuing modules dug up from the 1980s.
Over the next few years though people’s ambitions would go from simply updating old modules to actually recreating those old editions wholesale, or at least as closely as they could. In his book on the history of role-playing games, Designers & Dragons, Shannon Appelcline cites 2004’s Castles & Crusades as the first of these revenant RPGs, an attempt by Troll Lord Games “to recreate the general feel of a very specific game: the original D&D“.
That simulation of ‘feel’ would soon become full on necromancy as Castles & Crusades gave way to the attack of the retroclones, games that attempted to perfectly replicate their dusty forbears. 1st edition AD&D in the case of 2006’s OSRIC, Basic D&D in 2007 with Labyrinth Lord and the original 1974 D&D with 2008’s Swords & Wizardry.
The release of these three titles would open the floodgates to a seemingly endless number of other games based upon both dormant D&D editions and all manner of other moribund yet much loved RPGs dredged up from the water damaged basement of RPG history.
Whatever the game though, what was emerging was a self-defined Old School Style of role-playing even if, as D&D B/X designer Stephen Marsh told us, 'The actual old school way of play was so varied that it pretty much can encompass just about any style of play'.
This is a style that Gavin Norman, creator of Old School Essentials, defines as ‘A reliance on the referee to make judgements and rulings, rather than attempting to codify rules to cover all eventualities,’ and ‘a focus on exploration and imagination, as opposed to combat and character builds.’
That mantra of ‘rules not rulings’ is key to this style of play and one of that game designer David Perry put first and foremost in his booklet, Principia Apocrypha, probably the best guide to the Old School Style of roleplaying that you can go off and download right now for free.
The idea behind it is simple, with fairly rudimentary systems with limited, or nonexistent, character skills you will, sooner rather than later, run into situations not covered by the often scant rules. Old School Style embraces this as a feature not a bug and Perry advises letting ‘players take advantage of this openness and try crazy things’, before the referee makes ‘a common sense ruling’ and moves on.
As for the Old School Style’s lack of focus on combat, this can surprise people who assume the high lethality of these games - and that most the rules that do exist revolve around damaging things - makes getting into fights the point.
Rather - in theory at least - when a player's fragile character can be quickly reduced to a bucket of chum by all manner of underworld denizens, traps and tricks, they will learn to avoid fights, using their wits to negotiate the perils of the underworld instead of tanking their way through everything thrown at them.
As for the enduring appeal of this style of play Norman puts it down to the ‘focus on imagination and open rules’ and how ‘those two things combined, encourage and enable a great deal of creativity. Both in terms of players devising crafty plans during the game and,’ he adds, ‘in terms of the explosion of creative content (new classes, spells, monsters, adventures, etc.) in the old-school scene.’
“FOR ME, B/X HITS A SWEET SPOT BETWEEN SIMPLICITY AND COMPLEXITY”
With Old School Essentials Norman’s focus has been on creating the best version possible of the B/X rules. ‘For me, B/X hits a sweet spot between simplicity and complexity,’ he says, the system ‘providing solid (yet not fiddly) rules for most common situations, while leaving a lot of room for referee judgement and customisation.’
Old School Essentials is today the gold standard of retroclones, with Norman’s focus not on mechanical innovation but rather refining the layout and text to create the most user-friendly set of books possible.
‘At the very dawn of the project, I did toy with the idea of tweaking elements of the rules,’ he explains, ‘but I soon abandoned that as the project took on more of an archaeological bent, digging through the old rules and reformulating them in a more modern presentation.’
‘In retrospect, I feel this decision was pivotal in the success of OSE,’ he adds. ‘The pure B/X rules are by no means perfect, if such a thing as a "perfect RPG rules set" exists... doubtful! But they form a kind of lingua franca in the old-school scene, forming a perfect base for people to build on top of.’
With those foundations now firmly established Norman has himself been busy building on top of them, the new Old School Essentials Advanced Fantasy books porting much 1st Edition AD&D material over to OSE’s B/X compatible system.
Still whilst Norman's focus was, at least originally, concerned with tidying up and reformatting the text for usability, for other’s the simplicity and flexibility of B/X has made it a perfect near-tabula rasa from which to start their own games from.
There lies one of the strange paradoxes of the OSR, as much as it has been driven by a desire to preserve certain games in amber - unfortunately in some cases along attitudes best left in the past too - it has also been a wellspring of fierce experimentation and creativity.
Today the curious role-player can hit the dungeon running with any number of games that take the chassis of B/X, or AD&D or OD&D, and tweaks them in myriad ways, bringing in both elements from other editions or games deemed worthy or even wholly novel ideas.
If you like the sound of Old School Style role-playing but prefer your games without classes, or indeed with extra classes, or fancy equipment and inventory rules, three instead of six stats, skill lists or somehow modified in numerous other ways it’s a fair bet you’ll find something to your taste lurking within the servers of DriveThruRPG or Itch.io.
Black Hacks, Whitehacks, Pinkhacks, a kaleidoscope of options are out there, there even exist OSR games that incorporate ideas and mechanics from the scene’s great indie rival of the early 21st century, story games. A scenario that would astound some veterans from the days when self defined 'old school' and 'story' gamers stood on opposite sides of the hobby, scowling at each other like finger clicking gang members from some local theatre's West Side Story revival.
Furthermore thanks to the indie scene’s culture of hacking and ceaseless cross-pollination, well over a decade from those first retroclones new mutations are still constantly appearing, only to be hacked themselves or combined with other games - like some kind of out of control RPG Voltron - to produce a seemingly endless stream of new ‘rules lite’ and OSR adjacent RPGs.
Games like Chris McDowall’s Into The Odd, Zachary Cox’s Best Left Buried, Yochai Gal’s Cairn or John Harper’s World of Dungeons may bear little, if in some cases anything, in common mechanically with their ancestors but all have something recognisably Old School about them, even as they look to the future.
THE INTERTWINED RED AND BLUE HELIX OF B/X’S DNA LIES BURIED DEEP IN THE CORE OF SO MANY OF TODAY’S BEST NEW GAMES
And that perhaps is the real success story of B/X’s strange 21st century afterlife. Even more than how games like Old School Essentials have lovingly kept it alive and at our tables, this little game engine that could - released some 40 years ago as a stopgap for younger players put off by its Advanced cousin’s complexity - has become one of the most influential games today.
Acknowledged or not, the intertwined red and blue helix of B/X’s DNA lies buried deep in the core of so many of today’s best new indie games.
So happy birthday B/X, here’s to the next 40 years!
If all that’s whetted your appetite for some ‘Rulings not Rules’, Old School Style of play then read on as we highlight just a few of our favourite dungeon crawling classics...
We’ve already praised Gavin Norman’s Old School Essentials at length, so we wont bang on too much.
Still, for those interested, the newly released OSE Advanced Fantasy contains everything you need to start role-playing in the time honoured tradition(s) of the 1980s.
Available in a wide range of versions from single weighty tomes to a selection of easy to use at the table single volumes, and now a new boxed set Norman has also published a series of modules for the system, from his own fairy tale inspired Dolmenwood setting to award winning adventures by the likes of Diogo Nogueira.
Your adventure into the old school truly starts within these books' beautifully laid out pages.
Find out more here: Necrotic Gnome
As Norman alluded to the OSR has encouraged a culture of creativity that continues today and you’ll find few better examples of that than in the pages of Knock!
Currently on volume 3 this self styled ‘Compendium of Miscellanea for Use with Old School Role Playing Games’ is one of the most inspiring books to land on our desk in recent years.
Featuring contributions from many of the most imaginative games designers around, each volume of Knock! is crammed full of essays on gameplay, scenarios, new rules, monsters and classes alongside dozens upon dozens upon dozens of tables to roll upon, (the OSR does love its tables).
Knock! approaches the OSR with wit, imagination, a sense of fun and a healthy dose of style. Even if your taste in games is a mile from the Old School Style you’re almost certainly sure to find something within its pages that will inspire or delight.
Find out more here: Knock!
Rather than Dungeons & Dragons, Daniel Sell’s Troika! looked to another staple of 1980s gaming, Fighting Fantasy, for its mechanical inspiration. Still whilst a player character’s base stats - Skill, Stamina and Luck - will be instantly recognisable to anyone who cheated their way to 400 as a kid, things quickly get very weird after that.
A science-fantasy game set in a loosely described but endlessly malleable setting, Troika’s playful nature, such as the randomly generated ‘backgrounds’ that equate to classes (think things such as the Monkey Monger, complete with their d6 less than impressed small monkeys), has made it a favourite with indie game designers and players alike.
It’s use of the Fighting Fantasy system has also, in part, led to the recent revival of interest of what, in some circles at least, is being termed the British OSR, with more and more games, such as Warlock!, looking back to the distinct, somewhat grim, aesthetic of British fantasy gaming and culture of the the 70s and 80s for inspiration.
Find out more here: Melsonian Arts Council
Few indie games have created as much of a buzz in recent times than Swedish ‘blackened art-punk’ RPG MÖRK BORG.
Taking the rules lite ethos of the OSR and dialing it up to 11, combining it with a setting that makes Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay’s Old World look like a holiday resort and then wrapping it all up in some of the most striking art and graphic design the gaming world has seen for years, Pelle Nilsson and Johan Nohr have created a beautiful monster.
Despite only being on shelves for a year or so, MÖRK BORG has built up one of the most active indie communities around, and become the centre of an entire cottage industry turning out new rules, monsters, adventures, even online libraries and apps in it’s bleak, bloody, vibrantly hued image.
Find out more here: Mörk Borg
Read our interview with Johan Nohr here.
If the lurid horrors of MÖRK BORG aren’t quite up your street then you may prefer to check out Isaac Williams’ charming Mausritter instead.
A prime example of how many a game in the OSR scene has developed Williams’ game of ‘sword and whiskers role-playing’ openly acknowledges the games like Into The Odd and Ben Milton’s Knave that he drew inspiration, or in his own words, ‘shamelessly stole’, from and how those influences have come together to create something both wonderful and new.
Taking on the role of small adventurous rodents in a big world full of cat overlords and scheming frog wizards, Mausritter is perfect for both the young and young at heart.
With its rules for running explorative hexcrawls and establishing, defending and expanding settlements Mausritter is also perfect for longer campaigns too, should your mice survive long enough of course, for all its cute trappings this is still an OSR game at heart...
Find out more here: Mausritter
Finally whilst most OSR style games cleave closely to its roots in fantasy gaming, Mothership goes to show that the inky black, cold void of space is just as much a viable location for humans to die painful, quick if your lucky, deaths.
Whilst mechanically a very different beast to the likes of B/X, and not just because of things like flamethrowers, laser cutters and armoured exoskeletons, it too strikes that balance of simplicity and flexibility that mark out the best OSR games and follows many of the same principles laid out in Perry's Principia Apocrypha.
Plus power armour or not, a descent into the claustrophobic hulk of some ruined space station can provide you with all the thrills that any dungeon crawl can manage especially with the added bonus that in space everything, even the environment itself, would prefer to see you dead.
Find out more here: Mothership
Feature cover art by Perplexing Ruins
This feature originally appeared in Wyrd Science Vol.1 / Issue 2
If you'd like to read how we got here then check out our interview with David 'Zeb' Cook & Stephen Marsh on the history of D&D B/X