Thoughts on Basic Fantasy (Part 3)

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Finally, part 3 of my look at Basic Fantasy which deals with Monsters, Treasure and Game Master Information.

Monsters

Monsters are mechanically modeled after Basic/Expert (B/X). With most entries I couldn’t find any difference except for movement and sometimes armor class (already taking ascending armor class into consideration).
As for the range of monster entries, Basic Fantasy mostly sticks to the original older edition of D&D but sometimes borrows from the SRD, too. For example, the Ankheg which can be found in the SRD is missing as it is not present in B/X. However, the entry for the Golem is expanded. Cook’s Expert Set list Golems with Wood, Bone, Amber, Bronze. The D&D SRD 3.5 is the base from which Basic Fantasy is built and has subcategories for Clay, Flesh, Iron and Stone. The author took the best of both worlds and gives us Amber, Bone, Bronze, Clay, Flesh, Stone, Iron and Wood. Yay, everything!
In comparison to B/X I like the descriptions better as they are a bit more detailed. As an added bonus there are many illustrations of good quality to help your imagination along. This is a big plus in my book as I’m not familiar with many iconic D&D monsters.
BFRPG also lists the Treasure Trove entries (same as B/X) and the XP value for every monster. That is pretty neat.

On a side note, the game offers additional 180+ monsters with the Basic Fantasy Field Guide. It is a free download (as everything in the BFRPG line) or can be bought in print for a small fee.

Treasure

Like the Encounter chapter this one also begins with a little story as the party discovers a tomb and a hidden treasure. It nicely captures the feel of wonder and excitement about finding fortune.

I must admit that I’m not familiar with distributing treasures as I was never a GM in an old school game. I will say that the advice given looks solid. As far as I can see the content is very similar/the same to the rules in Basic/Expert.

That means that the chapter starts off with some basic guidelines and continues with various tables to roll on and ends with magic items (weapons, armors, scrolls, potions, wands and staffs etc.).

For newer GMs (like me) it’s useful to know that you never have to roll for treasure and that it’s better to start slow and take it easy. This way you don’t run into the danger of having to strip your players of treasure if they get too much. I’m thankful for this tip and I guess that other novice GMs will be, too.
It is also helpful that XP for treasure is omitted in the default rules (it’s available as an optional rule) so that makes managing treasure a bit easier.

Again, tables are formatted nicely and are much easier to read than in the original B/X (at least in PDF).

Game Master Information

Basic/Expert calls this “Dungeon Master Information” but for me that ‘s the same. There are people who distinguish between a Game Master and a Dungeon Master but in the end, it’s just a different name for the same thing. Other versions call this role Referee, so take your pick.

BFRPG puts Wandering Monsters in the beginning of this section. I find this a bit odd from the perspective of a new GM as I’d expect hands-on advice on how to run the game. Mind you, this part is also covered but later on.
The entries for Wandering Monsters are quite a handful and will surely be useful if you want to stock your dungeon or wilderness adventure.

Personally, I’m more interested in the next two sections: Dealing with Players and Optional Rules as these are a bit different from Basic/Expert. However, the title Dealing with Players is a bit misleading. It doesn’t address the GM’s “soft skills” like communication, mediation, a.k.a. the human side of the game, but concerns itself solely with the mechanical aspects of the game. Therefore you’ll get information about character creation options, hopeless characters, weapons and armor restrictions and so on. Nonewithstanding, this advice is solid. I especially like the suggestion on how to judge if a character is hopeless, meaning that the rolled ability scores are very low. This is also good info for a fledgling GM as she can point out this recommendation to his players if they are complaining.
The Optional Rules are interesting as they give you additional ways to deal with character death, preparing spells from memory, some way of adjucating tasks with ability rolls, thief abilities and XP for treasure.

Next is Magical Research which provides us insight about gaining new spells and magic items. This section is much more detailed than B/X. The rules are interesting yet somehow complicated (I’m much more a rules-lite person) but it makes sense to limit players’ abilities to create wonderous magic items. Otherwise, these items might unbalance the game.

After that, there are two passages about Creating a Dungeon Adventure and Creating a Wilderness Adventure. The guidelines are solid and concise and match well with the original D&D source. There is a sample of a small dungeon map with some keys present (symbols for stairs, doors, secret doors and the like). Unfortunately, there is no complete example dungeon as it is the case in Moldvay’s Basic.

The chapter closes with Strongholds, something which I couldn’t find in either Basic nor Expert Set though I’ve read about it in other old school games.

Summary

Basic Fantasy has quite a bland name which doesn’t reflect the refined ruleset it presents. Perhaps it is a fitting name as the system is a complete one yet it is basic enough to understand and to build upon with supplements.

As the author states:

The Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Game is a rules-light game system modeled on the classic RPG rules of the early 1980’s. Though based loosely on the d20 SRD v3.5, Basic Fantasy RPG has been written largely from scratch to replicate the look, feel, and mechanics of the early RPG game systems. It is suitable for those who are fans of “old-school” game mechanics. Basic Fantasy RPG is simple enough for children in perhaps second or third grade to play, yet still has enough depth for adults as well.1

I can attest to the fact that the game takes the spirit of the Basic/Expert Set from the 1980’s but doesn’t shy away from making some changes to suit players with slightly more modern sensibilites. That being said, it still is a straight D&D game that oozes an old-school-flair. It is not a modern reimagining like games as Adventure Fantasy Game or Old School Hack.
BFRPG succeeds at creating an OSR ruleset from scratch that evokes the feel of the original game it was modeled after.

The rules are somewhat lightweight. It comes down to what you call rules-lite. I personally think of systems like Risus or Wushu as lightweight and that leaves Basic Fantasy more in the spectrum between rules-lite and medium. Be that as it may, it is certainly lighter than D&D 3e, 4e or Pathfinder.

BFRPG limits itself to the core material, for instance the 4 core classes, but is still complete in its own right. Yet it really shines when the (free) supplements come in. There are many optional rules, classes etc. and they are completely modular. That means, you can tailor the game to your needs.
Next to the stuff I would have expected (Druids, Paladins, Rangers, more spells and options for Magic-Users and Clerics, more races…) I found some interesting material which I haven’t seen before, i.e. the Tiny Hitpoint Companion which lets you exchange damage points for maneuvers.
The community is really a great thing. Its output is amazing as you can see from the sheer amount of additional resources that are available.

Generally, I can see Basic Fantasy as a product for several generations if you like old school role-playing. Like the original game it can be grasped by young teenagers but will also suffice the gaming needs of adults. The prize is also a selling point especially for a younger target audience which might not have that much cash at hand.

What I like: While old school at its core BFRPG makes some clever rule changes which I as a gamer of a “newer generation” really like and which makes transitioning easier. The rules are clearly laid out and have matured over several iterations.
The look is charmingly retro and the artwork is pretty good and especially useful in the bestiary chapter.
The author took newer players and Game Masters into consideration and adds advice for them. I like how he doesn’t assume that only veteran players with a nostalgic feeling towards old school games will play this game.
Basic Fantasy is easily fitted to your needs with tons of additional material.
What’s more, I welcome the open-source idea and the embrace of the community-driven approach.
Best of all, the electronic versions (PDF and .odt format) are free and the print products can be bought cheaply at different sources.

What I would have liked to see/Things that don’t work for me: While Chris Gonnerman takes the trouble to be inclusive of novices I am missing concrete advice for how to play the game. Like the original he mostly sticks to the pure mechanics. I would have liked to see an actual play example with advice for a fledgling GM and more. I’d also like some help on converting material from other OSR games.
Granted, experienced players won’t need this “beginner material” but here I find the the intention of the book a bit at odds.
Actually, the resource I’m refering to has already been written and by exactly the same author: RPG Primer and Old School Playbook. I think at least its part about converting material could be useful in Basic Fantasy itself.
Finally, a small nitpick: While it’s a good thing that the product line of BFRPG is under constant revision it may be a bit annoying to update all downloads every now and then.
While the retro old school look may be a plus factor for some it might discourage others.

Where do I get it?

The core game is already in its 3rd edition and 97th (!) revision. You can download it here.
Print versions can be bought at lulu (coilbound and hardcover) or at Amazon (.com paperback or .de paperback).
Another source is Onebookshelf.
Supplements and adventures are available at the above mentioned sites, too.
A German translation (as well as translations into other languages) can be downloaded as well. Naturally, these are not the latest revisions but some earlier versions.