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Basic Fantasy: Review

Cover ArtRecently I’ve been wanting to scratch a certain itch in terms of role-playing. I do a lot of my playing online nowadays due to scheduling and living 9000 miles and 1 very large ocean away from most of my gaming buddies. We play Pathfinder/D&D and True20 right now as well as having done FATE, The Shadow of Yesterday and The Burning Wheel. All of these are excellent games in their own right and I’ve enjoyed them immensely over the years. They haven’t scratched that itch I’ve been having though.

Let me explain, if I can.

I’ve discovered that large games with a lot of rules to learn in order to master them no longer appeal to me much. Pathfinder is a cool game but it is HUGE. There are a number of what are considered core books and an ungodly boatload of supplemental material. The combat is complicated with rules for grappling, attacks of opportunity, flanking and all sorts of other stuff. The rules all interact with each other as well, which ups the complexity by an order of magnitude. (Before the fanboys track me down and kick my ass, let me state, “I like Pathfinder.”) Sitting down to make a Pathfinder character is a session in and of itself. There are choices on top of choices and if you pick a substandard build for the character, you are screwed later in the game.

To deal with the complexity there are games that I’ve enjoyed like TSoY and FATE that have a much more coherent and unified system. Characters are quick to make and the systems aren’t really that hard to learn and run well. The issue that has come up lately for me with these games is that mechanically the characters just don’t feel that different from each other. My magic-slinging wizard in FATE or TSoY uses the same mechanical systems as my brutish fighter. The characters are only differentiated in the fiction (which is good) but are mechanically the same (which to me is not good). I want my characters with different niches in the fiction to feel different mechanically.

You can see where my problem is, right? I’m not liking overly complex systems but systems that unify everything for less complexity aren’t satisfying what I want either. It’s a bit of a catch 22.

Enter Basic Fantasy and the OSR. Basic Fantasy, written by Chris Gonnerman, is self-proclaimed “Old School” and I think it lives up to that designation. In the core rules it simplifies things back down to the 4 core Classes of OD&D; Fighter, Mage, Cleric and Thief. It deviated a little from the original game with Races, making them an option separate from Classes and doing away with racial level limits. Another deviation is ascending AC that is mechanically equivalent to descending AC but makes the math easier. Other than that, it is very much like OD&D. There are no large skill lists. Combat can be played without a combat grid. No attacks of opportunity. The original 5 saving throws. No massive lists of Feats. I think the game strikes a very nice balance between the spirit of the original game and cleaning up the more esoteric rules weirdness. It very much strives to adhere to the Rulings Over Rules principle and does a fine job.

It’s also scratching my itch.

See, Basic Fantasy is just that… basic. It’s not complicated. There are rules but they are small in number and a large portion of the game is left to GM and player rulings. I’m not overwhelmed with 15 books worth of rules that interact in strange ways to break the game. I can create a character from start to finish in 5 minutes (slightly longer if I can’t think of a name). I can come to the table with a good sense of game mastery and deal with situations on a case by case basis as they arise. On the other hand, each character class and race is mechanically different. Fighters are simple characters that have high combat numbers that make you feel like a juggernaut of violence and death; until you die that is. Mages are fragile but have the familiar but nifty spell memorization and scribing system tacked on. Clerics have Turning and a slightly different spell system. Thieves get backstabbing and Thief Skills. Every character gets some mechanical fiddly bits that make them different from the others. The fiddly bits aren’t overly complex though and they don’t interact in unexpected ways with the other fiddly bits.

Basic Fantasy’s production value is excellent, especially given that the author is giving it away for free. You can download the PDF or the ODT version of the rules and a bunch of supplemental material for the price of your internet connection. Printing and binding it for reference at the table is trivial. The supplements add Paladins, Rangers, Druids and other classes and races to the core. There’s also a couple of supplements adding skills and professions to the game, if that is to your liking. The free, downloadable adventures are pretty good. Most are bare-bones in the old school tradition of letting the GM create most of the backstory in order to fit it into their game.

Over all, I highly recommend Basic Fantasy to anyone who likes the old school kind of stuff. I will be introducing my 10 year old son to RPG’s in the coming months and this is the game I’m going to use to do it. Not sure I can give higher praise than that.

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