Ruminations From the Vault

All of the Dungeons and the Dragons Part 3: Pathwhatnow? and the OSR

Ahoy! Welcome to Part 3 of my overview of all of the various versions of Dungeons & Dragons! If you haven’t read Part 1 or Part 2, well that’s cool I guess but really what sense does that make? Go read them! Do eeet!

In this, the very final installment of my completely subjective overview and review of Dungeons & Dragons and imitators, we shed some light on some games that are absolute antitheses of each other: Piazo Publishing’s Pathfinder, and the various Old School Reniassance (OSR) games. Let’s get stuck in shall we? What what!

So in the dark days of D&D 4th Edition, players of D&D 3.0 and 3.5 were left feeling like they were abandoned in the wilderness. “What has D&D become,” they wailed, ignorant that players of AD&D had been through this not 10 years before. Gone were all the ability and skill modifiers and the min-maxing and power gaming they had grown accustomed to with 3rd edition, replaced with the colorful miniatures and colorful rulebooks and colorful cards of 4th edition.

What’s a gamer more interested in stats and buffs and trifling minutia to do? Well there was a light on the horizon, a new dawn for the roll-players of the world. And with that dawn came Pathfinder, affectionately known by some as “basically D&D 3.75.”

Pathfinder initially tricked me with all the art and the cool books and whatnot, but after I ran home with my stack of books and actually read it all those years ago, I realized it was a game about numbers, and tricking your characters out, and adventures meticulously planned and balanced for fair play and a win for the good guys. The game master was slave to the rules, and oh so many rules there were. When players talked about their characters, they’d go on about this stat and that power, not the cool stuff they did or the decisions they made or the adventures they had.

The Highlights:

  • High quality art and layout
  • Rules for everything
  • Marketed to disaffected D&D 3.5 players
  • So much splat you could literally build a bomb shelter from it thick enough to prevent death from nuclear radiation (make the walls 110 inches thick for suitable gamma ray protection)
  • Waaay too concerned with buffs and debuffs and niggling details
  • Potted campaigns that shuttle players from location to location and wrap up with a little bow on top at the conclusion
  • A nod to Blackmoor with some sci-fi elements, which is cool
  • Well supported by The Pathfinder Society with events, etc
  • Some instances of social engineering propaganda as D&D 5, but several years before 

 The Conclusion: If you view your RPG character as a collection of stats rather than an individual, and if you are into roll-playing vs role-playing, you can’t go wrong really. Also if you really really like Wayne Reynolds art.

Alrighty, so in Part 2 of this series, I talked a wee bit about the D20 revolution, and the Open Gaming License (OGL). Thanks to Wizards of the Coast and it’s troupe of lawyers, the gaming community at large was presented with a legal license facilitating the creation of home-brew rules based on the foundations of D&D 3rd edition. Many publishers jumped on the gravy train of publishing gaming supplements compatible with D&D 3rd edition. But some folks were disturbed at the unavailability of older D&D versions, and had a good old fashioned hankering for some old school gaming. 

These writers and publishers began what eventually become known as the Old School Reinaissance, or alternately the Old School Revival. Cleverly utilizing the OGL, entirely legal clones of early versions of D&D began to appear on the market. Each has its own idiosyncrasies born from the play style of its author, as “old school” means different things to different folks.

A full cataloging of all of the OSR games is perhaps a subject for another blog post down the line, but here is a quick run-down of the three rule sets I kept on my bookshelf after my personal RPG purge.

To paraphrase myself (in my excellent Amazon review of this book): I’ve had Basic D&D stuff since I bought it new in the eighties until one day I went ahead and sold all my original D&D stuff. There was some regret in my heart, mostly based on nostalgia, but I figured one day when I was rich I could just buy that stuff back again. Then, I discovered the Basic Fantasy RPG. Thanks to this game, I don’t regret selling my old D&D stuff at all. Basic Fantasy RPG is essentially an updated, thoroughly edited version of the old D&D Basic-Expert-Companion sets, but incredibly inexpensive. After reading through the rule book, I highly recommend the game for folks who are interested in playing old school Basic D&D and can’t afford the D&D Rules Cyclopedia. Changes include separate races and classes and ascending Armor Class among many small tweaks. The book is very comprehensive, and includes rules for wilderness travel, beasts of burden, ships, magic item creation, hirelings and mercenaries and lots more. Check it out if you love Basic D&D and would like to see what is for all intents and purposes a new, better edition of that game.

The Conclusion: Well, now that the D&D Rules Cyclopedia is available as a POD, the competition is pretty stiff. I’d say it’s a toss-up. But, can’t beat it for the price: $5 on Amazon.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess (LotFP) is an odd duck. I love the system, and most of the art (especially Russ Nicholson’s stuff, I love that guy!). But some of the art is just kinda gross. The theme is a dark one, definitely heed the “explicit content” warning and don’t let the kids get their grubby paws on this book. LotFP takes early D&D and mixes it with a dash of Lovecraft and Solomon Kane. Plus foppish elves. This game is easily the least intricate set on this list, with an easily implemented and logical skill system and manageable spells and items lists. Also, it treats fighters right, giving them the combat bonuses they deserve. Bonus: it fits in your coat pocket!

The Conclusion: A tight, comprehensive rule set in a small package, with some awesome and some grody art. A must-buy for OSR fans. Unless they are 8 years old.

Remember D&D’s promise that you could one day become mighty enough to rule your own kingdom? Well sure, there’s the D&D Companion and Master sets for that. But those are long out of print, and kinda not really that great for running a domain. Nowadays your best bet is the Adventurer, Conqueror, King System (ACKS). Not only does it provide for all that domain-ruling rigamarole and excitement, it is chock full of interesting ways to customize your character and their background with various kits and templates. The production values are high, and the line is continuing to grow.

The Conclusion: Kind of like a cleaned up AD&D with rules for mature characters and their domains. 

There are many other OSR games, such as Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry, Dungeon Crawl Classics, and Blood & Treasure. At one time I owned all of these, but at this point I can’t really remember the specifics of each game. For further information, Google is your friend.

Well, this concludes my mini series on the various editions of Dungeons & Dragons! What is your favorite version of D&D, and why? Leave your comments below!

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