Basic Fantasy Role-Playing: An Entertaining Game With One Of The Most Robust Communities You'll Find
  • Basic Fantasy Role-Playing: An Entertaining Game With One Of The Most Robust Communities You'll Find


    One of my favorite retroclones has long been Chris Gonnerman's work of love, the Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Game. Basic Fantasy (as I'll shorten the title to for the rest of this piece) flies under the radar of a lot of gamers, even those among the old school fandoms, because it isn't a flashy game, and it doesn't feature the works of creators who spend their copious free time being edgy online. What the game does is to be a solid presentation of a fantasy ruleset that builds off of the 3.x SRD material in a way that is simple and to the point. It combines a reverence for the old with a respect for the last thirty years of game design. And, it does all of this with one of the most engaged fanbases that I think I have seen online.


    You can get Basic Fantasy in PDF, ODT (the word processor part of the OpenOffice suite) and in print from select online sources. The Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Game's website is the hub of all of the activity of the community around this ruleset. Gonnerman and the Basic Fantasy community have built one of the most impressive collections of material on the internet. For little to no investment you can get a Basic Fantasy campaign up and running, and keep it running for years off of all the adventures and supplementary material developed by the Basic Fantasy community.

    Unlike Gonnerman's other retroclone, Iron Falcon, Basic Fantasy isn't a for-profit enterprise. The idea is to spread the word, and build a community around the principles of open content. This is why everything for Basic Fantasy is not only offered as free PDFs, but in an editable format that allows users to hack the books to their own purposes. This is also why the print versions of the material are offered at cost, or with a slight profit margin. Admittedly this approach isn't going to work for everyone, but obviously Gonnerman has a good enough of a day job to allow him to not worry about profitability on this project.

    So, what is at the heart of the Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Game's system? Like a few other of the retroclones out there, Basic Fantasy draws upon the influence of the Moldvay-era of the Dungeons & Dragons Basic and Expert rulesets. In fact, Tom Moldvay is listed as one of the game's inspirations in the front of the book. You have the four archetypal fantasy classes of fighter, magic-user, thief and cleric. Classes go up to 20th level, which would be slightly higher than the progressions for the B/X classes, but I think that is a good level to work towards for an old school D&D-inspired game. Characters in Basic Fantasy aren't going to be anywhere near as powerful as their 3.x-era or 5E-era equivalent character, but one of the fundamentals of old school styled play is to play your character smartly, rather than just throwing your character at problems until something breaks.

    Combat is important in the D&D-inspired stream of game design, but in old school inspired games this is tempered by the fragility of characters. Fighters only have a d8 for their hit dice, clerics have a d6 and magic-users and thieves both use the d4 for theirs. This means that while combat is important to the game, the game discourages it as the only solution to conflict because, no matter what the level of the characters, there is as good of a chance that the characters will fair as badly from a fight as the creatures that they encounter. Admittedly, this can be fixed, and typically is with higher hit dice as a house rule. In my old school games, I typically scale the hit dice of the classes up by one die, so a fighter would have a d10, clerics a d8 and magic-users and thieves would have a d6. Going from the d4 to the d6 might not seem like a lot for low level characters, but they can make a surprising amount of difference in the survivability for characters. Particularly when the tougher characters also have those helpful extra hit points when trying to protect more fragile characters during dungeon delves.

    I like that old school Clerics are more like backup fighters than the first aid kits that they have become in more current conditions. Even with the baseline of the d6 hit die, clerics make great stand-ins for fighters, with almost as good of a combat bonus as the fighter gets. The fact that the cleric progresses more quickly than the fighter also means that they can access better bonuses, saving throws and hit dice more quickly. Combined with spell casting, this makes clerics pretty formidable in Basic Fantasy. It never surprises me when people want to play clerics in the old school D&D-inspired games that I run.

    Combat in Basic Fantasy is pretty simple: take a d20 and roll high, trying to beat the armor class of whatever your character is hitting. There are class-based attack bonuses, and bonuses for high Dexterity and Strength, depending on the types of attacks that you are having your character make. Fighters can be a little boring in this regard, in Basic Fantasy they are pretty much there to beat the hell out of things and try to soak up as much of the incoming damage as possible.

    If the vanilla fighter isn't your thing, this is one of the places where the incredibly active fan community for the Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Game steps up and makes a difference. Back over at the website you'll find a number of community-driven projects with all the alternate classes that you might need for a game, along with variants of the existing classes. Even if you aren't playing Basic Fantasy directly, many of these alternate classes can be useful to your other old school games. Our group has used a couple of the options in our Swords & Wizardry games without any adaptation. It probably helps that the games I run use the ascending armor class option for greater ease of play. For more interesting fighter class options, I suggest checking out the Additional Fighting Sub-Classes and Quasi-Classes: A Basic Fantasy Supplement. Both of these have new class options, and the Quasi-Classes work almost like Archetypes in Pathfinder, giving variant class abilities to the existing core classes.

    The Cleric Options, Divine Champions: A Basic Fantasy Supplement and Specialty Priests supplements give players similar new options for basic cleric, and you can find some interesting class supplements for magic-user characters as well.

    All of these fan-based supplements get just as much playtesting and feedback as the core, published rules for the game. There are sections of the Basic Fantasy game's forums that are dedicated to play-based feedback for all of the supplements created by the community. Things that don't work are torn apart and rebuilt until they do work. This is a dedication to quality that you don't see in many other fan communities, let alone from some small press publishers. But, the idea of the Basic Fantasy community is to not just play the game, but to produce the best support for the system for their own games, and those of others who may want to play the game.

    You will also find a good number of adventures that are available for Basic Fantasy, both in print and electronically. Some of these will be familiar to long time Dungeons & Dragons players as they explore the dungeons of chaotic caves or lonely keeps on the borders of the wilderness. Not every adventure is an homage to older adventures, however. Two of the releases outline The World of Glain, a campaign world suitable for use in your Basic Fantasy games, and of course other old school fantasy campaigns as well. The Monkey Island adventure is a favorite of mine. I am a sucker for Lost World adventures with dinosaurs and stranger things. The Chaotic Caves are a nostalgia fueled adventure filled with weird dungeons and creatures that hark back to the earliest of adventures for many of us who cut our teeth on Dungeons & Dragons in the B/X days.

    It is the solid design aesthetic, combined with a low cost entry to the game, that makes me recommend the Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Game for anyone who is looking for a simple fantasy role-playing game that is still robust, and has years worth of support material. The DIY aesthetic of the Basic Fantasy community might cause it to fly under the radar of gamers, but if you like streamlined fantasy role-playing games you really should check this one out. I don't think that you will regret it. And who knows, you might be the next person to become a part of the game's robust development community.
    Comments 59 Comments
    1. William Mize's Avatar
      William Mize -
      I can always tell one of your articles just by the title when it shows up in my feed reader. Quality stuff, Chris! I love learning about OSR and Open Gaming from you, sir. Thank you!

      - Bill
    1. Solomoriah's Avatar
      Solomoriah -
      Wow, those are some nice words! Thank you!
    1. Birmy's Avatar
      Birmy -
      it doesn't feature the works of creators who spend their copious free time being edgy online.

      ?

      What is this in reference to?

    1. PeelSeel2's Avatar
      PeelSeel2 -
      Quote Originally Posted by Birmy View Post
      it doesn't feature the works of creators who spend their copious free time being edgy online.

      ?

      What is this in reference to?

      ~No politics, please!
    1. Jack Daniel's Avatar
      Jack Daniel -
      Quote Originally Posted by Birmy View Post
      it doesn't feature the works of creators who spend their copious free time being edgy online.

      ?

      What is this in reference to?

      LotFP if I had to take a guess.

      EDIT: @Solomoriah, I just checked out "Iron Falcon" for the first time (never knew about it before now); holy crap, sir, that's a gorgeous Greyhawk clone if ever I've seen one. Hat's off to you!
    1. jdrakeh's Avatar
      jdrakeh -
      Quote Originally Posted by Jack Daniel View Post
      EDIT: @Solomoriah, I just checked out "Iron Falcon" for the first time (never knew about it before now); holy crap, sir, that's a gorgeous Greyhawk clone if ever I've seen one. Hat's off to you!
      Iron Falcon is awesome. I own like.... uh.... six copies of it. For reasons.
    1. SMHWorlds's Avatar
      SMHWorlds -
      This looks pretty cool. Love the feel of this.
    1. Tranquilis's Avatar
      Tranquilis -
      Not to sound overly dramatic, but Basic Fantasy is the game that gave me my hobby back. For someone like me who suffers from "analysis paralysis" when faced with seemingly endless rules/character/design options*, it is an incredibly liberating game creatively for me.

      * Yes, I'm one of those living oxymorons who thinks that more options (along with requisite rules, exceptions, etc.) actually stifle creativity. We usually hide under rocks with other Luddites, daring not to be so open with this kind of heresy online.

      The fact that BFRPG is free is absolutely incredible, and the POD version is ludicrously cheap.

      Mr. Gonnerman is a master of succinct and clear writing, and the editing and proofing in his products place BFRPG materials in the top tier along with the major companies, much less that of third-party/OSR products. The importance of well-proofed works seems to be lost on many folks today in all genres of writing.
    1. Solomoriah's Avatar
      Solomoriah -
      Wow, I'm humbled, Tranquilis! I can't take credit for the high quality of our proofing, though... our proofing team numbers anywhere from one to half a dozen people at any given time, always led by James "Chi" Lemon who is one of those people who can spot two side-by-side spaces from across the room. I know I owe them, and all the contributors of materials and artwork, for making the Basic Fantasy Project what it is today.

      If there is one thing I'm personally proud of, it's that I was able to attract all those people to the project. I wrote about this on my blog years ago, under the title "The Difficulty of Sharing." It's here, if anyone cares: http://basicfantasy.org/blog/?p=17

      Respecting the work of contributors, lifting them up, is probably the most significant reason for the growth of the Basic Fantasy community. You don't receive monsters or spells or adventures or whatever in perfect, finished form; often, you have to put significant work into them to make them great. But in a project like this, everyone does whatever he or she can do best... writing or drawing or proofing or whatever. And the more any project member does, the better he or she gets. I've watched so many of the members of the community improve over the years, and it always puts a smile on my face when I see the evidence before me.

      Well, I've wandered away from the point, as usual. Again, thanks, Tranquilis, and everyone else who has posted kind words in this thread. And Jack Daniel and jdrakeh, I'm happy you like Iron Falcon as well; I enjoyed writing it, but I have to admit, Basic Fantasy RPG is my first love.
    1. Irda Ranger's Avatar
      Irda Ranger -
      Great write up. BFRPG is one of the best OSR games, in my opinion. It was one of my "Top 3" during the dark days of 3.5/PF/4E, along with OSRIC and Labyrinth Lord.
    1. Yaarel -
      I appreciate the simplicity of Basic Fantasy, especially the simple core. Simplicity is powerful and elegant.

      Minimizing options has its appeal, as long as a player is lucky enough if one of the few options happens to be the one that the player wants.

      The Suppliments that add many player created options help open up more choices.

      This necessity to customize also makes the game bigger and more complex.

      Inevitably, a roleplaying game must allow for individuation and customization.

      Helpful design strives for simple (and balanced) ways to incorporate many different kinds of choices.
    1. Yaarel -
      In Basic Fantasy, I notice the old-school return to a ‘Magic User’ that is painfully less powerful than other classes at low levels.

      Heh, coupled with a return to each class having a different experience points table, so as to make balancing classes impossible, it reminds me of the virtues of the later editions.
    1. Flexor the Mighty! -
      Quote Originally Posted by Yaarel View Post
      I appreciate the simplicity of Basic Fantasy, especially the simple core. Simplicity is powerful and elegant.

      Minimizing options has its appeal, as long as a player is lucky enough if one of the few options happens to be the one that the player wants.
      I'm sure most fans of such systems would say they have tons options that are not locked to what is on the sheet. as in you need feat X to do this action, etc. Instead describe what you want to do an the DM will adjudicate. The quality of play in such systems can be amazing with a good DM or terrible with a bad one.
    1. Yaarel -
      Quote Originally Posted by Flexor the Mighty! View Post
      I'm sure most fans of such systems would say they have tons options that are not locked to what is on the sheet. as in you need feat X to do this action, etc. Instead describe what you want to do an the DM will adjudicate. The quality of play in such systems can be amazing with a good DM or terrible with a bad one.
      The options that are locked on the sheet, are few.

      For example, if you want play a mage who is competent at level 1, roughly as competent as a fighter is at level 1, the only way a DM can adjudicate this is by rewriting the rules and locking new mechanical options on the sheet.
    1. Flexor the Mighty! -
      Quote Originally Posted by Yaarel View Post
      The options that are locked on the sheet, are few.

      For example, if you want play a mage who is competent at level 1, roughly as competent as a fighter is at level 1, the only way a DM can adjudicate this is by rewriting the rules and locking new mechanical options on the sheet.
      Class balance is a totally different thing. Weak low level magic users goes back to OD&D, personally I'm glad for the cantrip system in 5e.
    1. Lanefan -
      Quote Originally Posted by Yaarel View Post
      In Basic Fantasy, I notice the old-school return to a ‘Magic User’ that is painfully less powerful than other classes at low levels.

      Heh, coupled with a return to each class having a different experience points table, so as to make balancing classes impossible, it reminds me of the virtues of the later editions.
      How does each class having a different advancement table make balancing classes impossible when the variable tables are in fact a very good balancing mechanism?

      Also, you complain that MUs are underpowered at low levels but don't reference what they're like at high levels...and if they take charge at high levels then playing one is simply an example of short-term pain for long-term gain - for those for whom character-vs.-character balance in the moment is that big of a deal in the first place.

      And - unlike 3e and 4e D&D - in old-school games (and to some extent 5e D&D) there's nothing saying the characters in a given party all need to be the same level in order for the game to work. A range of levels within the party is not only to be expected but is naturally going to develop over time, particularly if the game incorporates any or all of: variable advancement; sudden level loss (e.g. from a Wraith); sudden level gain (e.g. from a Manual of Stealthy Pilfering); individual rather than group xp awards; surviving characters earning xp while temporarily dead ones do not, for the time while they are dead; new or replacement characters entering at a fixed level or below the party average.

      Lanefan
    1. Pjack's Avatar
      Pjack -
      it doesn't feature the works of creators who spend their copious free time being edgy online.

      This is unnecessarily snide. There are a multitude of ways to indicate that you appreciate the tone of this design without implying that other people's creative endeavors are a waste of time.
    1. Solomoriah's Avatar
      Solomoriah -
      Quote Originally Posted by Yaarel View Post
      For example, if you want play a mage who is competent at level 1, roughly as competent as a fighter is at level 1, the only way a DM can adjudicate this is by rewriting the rules and locking new mechanical options on the sheet.
      This question comes up time after time in regard to classic games, but it's objectively, provably wrong. See my blog post here: http://basicfantasy.org/blog/?p=151

      The blog post is, of course, specific to Basic Fantasy RPG, but I know for a fact that it applies equally to BX, and is probably approximately correct for 1E (though 1E does toughen up the other core classes relative to the magic-user, I don't think it's substantial enough to override my argument).
    1. Yaarel -
      Quote Originally Posted by Solomoriah View Post
      This question comes up time after time in regard to classic games, but it's objectively, provably wrong. See my blog post here: http://basicfantasy.org/blog/?p=151

      The blog post is, of course, specific to Basic Fantasy RPG, but I know for a fact that it applies equally to BX, and is probably approximately correct for 1E (though 1E does toughen up the other core classes relative to the magic-user, I don't think it's substantial enough to override my argument).
      I have played 1e with a group of friends, extensively.

      My own experience, first hand, is the Magic-User is unacceptably powerless at low levels. (Also the Mage is unacceptably too powerful at high levels, but at those levels the entire gaming system is falling apart anyway.)

      The idea of casting Magic-Missile *once* ... and then *melee* fighting for a dagger pittance for the rest of the gaming session, is a style that I found frustrating. Heh. I am glad the new iterations of D&D have ... corrected this nonmagical torture hazing.

      Haze the Mage at low levels, so it can become broken at high levels (which rarely are reached anyway).

      Say no to hazing.

      Hazing is a crime.
    1. Yaarel -
      To be fair, I am critiquing AD&D 1e. I have no experience with Basic Fantasy. And even a glance at BF suggests the higher levels of Magic-User seem a bit more saner - with spell levels only reaching 6 at level 20.

      But that magicless level-1 magic-user, is enough of a bad experience for me to shy away from BF even without trying it.

      I refuse to play a mage that has no magic. Never again.

      I have funner games to play that are more my style.
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