An Endzeitgeist.com review
This installment of the B/X-Essentials-series clocks in at 44 pages of content if you take away cover, editorial, TOC, etc. My review is based on the premium print edition of the supplement, which I received for the purpose of a fair and unbiased review. The pdf is laid out in 6’’ by 9’’ (A5), just fyi.
In case you were not aware: The standard version is perfect bound. The premium edition has crisper text and colors and is staple bound.
Anyways, but I digress: So, in case you were new to the series, this series reproduces the much beloved Basic/Expert rules from back in the day and present them to a modern audience, remaining as faithful as possible, but also polishing them: Since the 80s, a lot has happened, after all, and thus, we do expect crisper presentation – and usability.
So far, the B/X-Essentials series has succeeded at this task with panache and grace, but what about the monsters? Well, the book represents a vast improvement ion pretty much every way imaginable. The most obvious change, and one that really helps running the critters, is that the original wall of text has been replaced with a bullet point style of presentation.
Below a bandit, you can, for example, read:
Trickery: Use disguise or trickery to surprise victims.
Leader: May have a leader of 2nd level or higher (any human class).
This style of presentation makes running the statblocks easier. Similarly, the mechanics are highlighted with the help of soothing and unobtrusive green highlight boxes. The Layout is, in short, precise and enhances the book, presents b/x rules in a modern way.
More importantly, and that is something that many a game should take a close look at, all information is provided. All of it. There are no “see page X” references, and you won’t have to skip pages and look for information xyz. The pdf does provide guidance for Xp values of NPCs as well, and defines “persons” properly, listing all monsters that can be affected by these. Important, since the system has no type-differentiation. Non-humans all get infravision, the older (and imho more sensible) grandfather of darkvision. A huge boon, at least if you’re an old-school veteran, would be that high-level saves have been extrapolated for you. Some potent monsters save as fighters of levels greater than 14. No problem? Well, that’s where B/X caps. So no, you won’t have to do the calculations yourself anymore.
The statblock format is explained in detail, and there is one thing here I really enjoy, even though a purist may frown upon it: The monsters get THAC0s. (To hit AC 0, for the young ‘uns – in B/X, the lower the AC, the better) – while technically, this represents a deviation from B/X presentation standards, it literally makes running the game much, much easier. And there is no downside whatsoever. So yeah, huge kudos!
But perhaps all of that doesn’t interest you as much? Perhaps you want to know about the monsters? Well, first of all, various humans are covered as well herein; I should also mention that the book sports a surprising amount of original, high quality b/w-artwork. But why is this relevant for you and your game, why is it potentially relevant from a game design perspective, even if you’re not playing B/X? Well, because the system’s monsters have changed over the years – and not always for the better. Regarding design paradigms, for example, I love that a basilisk’s reflection s explicitly harmless to all but the basilisk, allowing you to fight it by looking in a mirror. (And yes, this has rules repercussions.)
As an aside: In German, when you’re wheezing from exertion and/or are almost dead/kocked out, we tend to say “Der pfeift aus dem letzten Loch.” (The idiom’s literal translation would be something like “This guy’s wheezing from the final hole.”) – and in B/X, that phenomenon can be observed with dragons. Their breath weapon’s damage output is directly based on their current Hit Points! Oh, and know how today, dragon turtles are smaller and weaker than most dragons? Not so here. The dragon turtle is a 30 HD killer, with a whopping 135 Hit Points – which makes its breath weapon the single most damaging and deadly thing in the whole book! The book contains stats for no less than 5 giant fish…and know what golems are included? Nope, not clay, stone or iron. Amber, bone, bronze and wood! Did not expect that, right?
Did you know that the lycanthropy section includes devil swine, corpulent humanoids with a taste for human flesh that also can charm targets? And that years before the Hannibal-movie hit the screens…What about the arachnid rhagodessa, which has suckers on its legs? Or 3 feet long carnivorous flies? Frost salamanders are included, as are thouls. What are thouls? They kinda look like hobgoblins, but have trollish regeneration and paralytic claws. Oh, and yes, beyond dinosaurs, displacer beasts can also be found within – just look at “warp best.” (I think the original “displacer beast” name is closed IP by now.) So yeah, from a creature choice point of view, this is actually much more interesting than you’d expect a “first bestiary” for a system to be – they tend to be boring as heck. This also extends to the details and certain design paradigms that we don’t see too often nowadays.
Editing and formatting are top-notch, I noticed no serious glitches on either a formal or rules-language level. Layout is amazing, crisp and clear and adheres to a two-column b/w-standard with the green statblock background serving as a pleasant to look at means to lighten up the text. The use of formatting and bullet points also helps render this a great and easy to use supplement. The copious amounts of high-.quality, cool b/w-artworks make this an aesthetically-pleasing book. The premium print copy is definitely the way to go if you plan on using the game. I can’t comment on the pdf, since I don’t have it – I prefer print anyways.
Gavin Norman’s B/X Essentials-series is genius in its simple and clear presentation. When you compare this, back to back with the original sources, you won’t be able to deny the vast improvement. All of the minor deviations from the goal of utmost fidelity to the source-material serve the purpose of enhancing the game and making the GM/referee’s job easier, and frankly, I can’t conceive of even an arch-conservative grognard not acknowledging, grumbling, under their breath, how much better this is.
There is literally nothing I do not enjoy about how this is presented – oh, and it also serves as a stark reminder that OSR rules and a focus on narrative aspects and crisp rules have to contradict each other. If anything, this serves as an excellent example that showcases how precise and crisp, particularly comparatively rules-lite games, should be. Did I mention that the plain-text version is actually FREE?