Gavin Norman, Necrotic Gnome, Talks Old-School Essentials and D&D 5E Dolmenwood
  • Gavin Norman, Necrotic Gnome, Talks Old-School Essentials and D&D 5E Dolmenwood


    Gavin Norman founded Necrotic Gnome to produce rules, adventures, and settings for Basic/Expert D&D. He’d played D&D as a kid in the 80s and when he returned to gaming as an adult he tried D&D 4E and Pathfinder. Because Basic D&D does not have rules for everything it requires a discussion between players and GM which Gavin enjoys. Instead of rolling to detect traps a player describes what and where they are searching which he found appealing. He decided he wanted to return to a simpler game that was more open ended.




    While Gavin uses Basic D&D core rules as written he enjoys creating his own classes, magic items, spells, and monsters. His first published work, the The Complete Vivimancer, is a spellcasting class that warps flesh to his own ends. This zeal for creation led him to his first kickstarter and offering the Basic/Expert rules not only as a hardcover but also in five separate hardcover books. As Necrotic Gnome publishes future books new classes could be swapped for old or mixed and matched. Other rules can be moved in and out as well. The modularity of Old-School Essentials is critical to its ongoing development.

    Old-School Essentials, heavily developed and discussed at Necrotic Gnome blog, developed from B/X Essentials, a direct reproduction of the original 1981 Basic/Expert rules. Old-School Essentials includes two page spreads of related rules so the rulebook can be laid up flat on a table with everything needed on a topic at the GM’s fingertips.

    New books are already being developed, with classes and spells from Advanced D&D 1E being converted to Old-School Essentials and more rules to come. In addition, Gavin has been building a setting called Dolmenwood in a series of zines.

    An exciting development for Dolmenwood is it will be released for both Old-School Essentials and D&D 5E. His second kickstarter will be for a large campaign book for Dolmenwood with details on the history and background with 184 hexes describe (perhaps expanding into a second book). A player character book and monster book will follow. Dolmenwood can be added as a location in a larger campaign setting if desired.

    A fractured fairytale campaign setting, Dolmenwood blends together the creepy, whimsical, and psychedelic into a witch’s brew and unleashes it in a mythic brooding forest. This weird eldritch wood is home to otherworldly elf-lords, talking beasts, and flying witches armed with magic to enthrall the helpless wanderers of the forest.

    Dolmenwood has been described in zines and adventures so far, but with the upcoming campaign book it will get the deluxe treatment. Gavin has a goal of having a full color illustration for every monster in the eventual Dolmenwood monster book.

    Gavin plans parallel development of new rules for Old-School Essentials while working on Dolmenwood. He is working on post-apocalyptic rules, advanced monsters and treasures, adventures, and working with third parties for their development of adventures.

    Gavin says that all editions of D&D have their own charm, pros, and quirks. All of them are worth checking out and running to experience their different flavors of fantasy roleplaying. He hopes players of newer versions of D&D will experience Basic D&D in Old-School Essentials.

    For D&D 5E and Pathfinder players, Gavin recommends trying Old-School Essentials to find out how older games were run and played all while enjoying a modern layout and careful editing. He has a tremendous respect for the new versions of D&D but he also values older versions. He encourages players to try a looser style and engage in discussion between players and GMs as a world is explored through improvisation and description.

    This article was contributed by Charles Dunwoody as part of EN World's Columnist (ENWC) program. Please note that Charles is a participant in the OneBookShelf Affiliate Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to DriveThruRPG. We are always on the lookout for freelance columnists! If you have a pitch, please contact us!
    Comments 19 Comments
    1. imagineGod's Avatar
      imagineGod -
      Grateful article. Probably, I must be one of those relative newbies who did not know the difference between B/X and the BECMI boxes of D&D memorabilia.

      Anyway, these new-ish Old School Essentials definitely seem more approachable than the Rules Cyclopedia.
    1. Tyler Do'Urden -
      Dolmenwood sounds like something up my alley... I'll be looking forward to seeing it.
    1. paladinn's Avatar
      paladinn -
      What's the advantage of OSE over established products like Swords & Wizardry or Labyrinth Lord?
    1. Hugh Acton's Avatar
      Hugh Acton -
      Quote Originally Posted by paladinn View Post
      What's the advantage of OSE over established products like Swords & Wizardry or Labyrinth Lord?
      OSE is an exact clone, as opposed LL or S&W. Also, it's presentation is designed for easier table reference and modularity. I have the BXE (same stuff, old name) in the POD paperbacks and they are quite handy. I've introduced the game to lots of players at my FLGS and many do love the difference in style of play from 5e.
    1. EthanSental's Avatar
      EthanSental -
      Everyone has their go to game system it seems Some like dwarf and elf as a class etc, glad people are still supporting the games they enjoy!
    1. paladinn's Avatar
      paladinn -
      Guess I'm kind of a LL fan. I love how the AEC allows AD&D 1e-ish and B/X-ish characters to play together seemlessly. Kind of the best of both worlds without all the stuff in 1e that we never used anyway.

      Want a dwarf class character in a group with a 1e paladin and druid? Go for it! I believe you could even multi-class between a racial class and a "normal" class if you chose.

      I do wish the goblins would do a supplement to allow features from 2e. I'd Love to see how some of the kits, specialty clerics, MU schools, etc. work in that framework.
    1. Jiggawatts's Avatar
      Jiggawatts -
      You know what would be an instant buy from me, a well done AD&D 2nd Edition retroclone with evolutions. There is a metric ton of Basic clones, several 1E ones, but for 2E there is For Gold & Glory (which is basically like OSRIC, just an index and clean presentation of 2E as is), and the utterly failed Myth & Magic from several years back, and literally thats it.

      Give me a 2nd Edition with a cleaned up skill/NWP system, inverted AC/atk, and juicer classes and I might have a new main game. Would love to see all the fun that could be had with new kits and specialty priests especially.
    1. EthanSental's Avatar
      EthanSental -
      Wholeheartedly agree wit Jiggs for a 2e update.
    1. paladinn's Avatar
      paladinn -
      It's so sad that Myth & Magic failed. That was a really cool game.. what 3.x should have been, IMHO.
    1. Koren n'Rhys's Avatar
      Koren n'Rhys -
      @paladinn
      Necrotic Gnome is producing thier own version of the 1E content. As part of the Kickstarter, Gavin did a book of the races and classes, and a second volume with Druid & Illusionist spells. Also included are some 1e rules (poison, 2-weapon fighting, weapon specialization, among others) as well as rules for separating race and class if desired. He intends to add more as well - monsters, treasures, etc. Not sure about spells - I do hope more M-U and Cleric spells get brought in for variety. The problem, as Gavin has mentioned, is rejiggering things to fit into B/Xs range of 14 class levels and only 5&7 spell levels rather than the 7&9 of 1E.

      For me, OSE wins hands down over LL due to its concise, clear writing and presentation. Honestly, the biggest thing about LL that bugged me to an irrational degree was the crazy XP charts. Those numbers drive me nuts!
    1. paladinn's Avatar
      paladinn -
      I don't mind the 7/9 spell levels of AD&D (or the AEC).

      So it looks like all these things are going to be separate books? Isn't that going to end up more expensive than one or two books?

      I wasn't a part of the Kickstarter, so I have no idea what it looks like. I'm honestly a bit skeptical of Kickstarter after the Myth & Magic debacle. Which was a crying shame, as M&M had some really good things.

      I would love someone to pick up the M&M ball and incorporate a few 5e-ish things like spontaneous casting, attribute saves and a unified XP/ level progression. Maybe give it a race-as-class option for B/X fans.
    1. Koren n'Rhys's Avatar
      Koren n'Rhys -
      The Kickstarter was for multiple high quality hardcover books, yes, though there is also an all-in-one volume option also. Old-School Essentials is designed as a modular system - the core rule set of BX, but then you can add, or swap out, the other parts. Races, classes & equipment are one book, so you can use the "classic fantasy" options of base BX, or the Advanced options of AD&D, or something entirely different, like post-apocalyptic, sci-fi, etc. Same with Monsters (classic, lost world, cthulhoid horror), Treasures, or Spells. That's all spelled out on the KS page.
    1. paladinn's Avatar
      paladinn -
      This sounds pretty ambitious. How much of this was part of the initial Kickstarter?

      I like the sound of this, but it really does seem like overreach. But then, there are a lot of genre games that are Labyrinth Lord compatible: Realms of Crawling Chaos, Mutant Future, Starships and Spacemen, etc.
    1. Koren n'Rhys's Avatar
      Koren n'Rhys -
      The KS itself was for the five core "Classic Fantasy" books, which make up BX, as well as the first two Advanced books, as I said above. The only other one in the works that I am aware of is the post-apocalyptic book. That one is more Mad Max and not Gamma World/ Mutant Future.
      The are certainly some he wants to do through Necrotic Gnome (more 1e content, psionics and others) , but I think the hope is that others will write the additional genre books and bring outside ideas to the table.
      I don't know that I have the... drive? to see it through, but am tinkering at a cyberpunk/Shadowrun supplement, for example.
    1. Ralif Redhammer's Avatar
      Ralif Redhammer -
      Funny, I just picked up an issue of Wormskin, the Dolmenwood zine. I heard about it on the Appendix N Book Club podcast. I dig the stuff so far. It’s got a folksy-strange feel to it. Even if you're not running a B/X or comparable game, it seems like there's still plenty you could use and adapt easily.
    1. timbannock's Avatar
      timbannock -
      I'm a backer of the KS. Here are my feelings and notes:

      1. Development is like 99% done. We've already got the books, with the exception of the Advanced stuff, but the previews have proven those are very far along and just need some final edits and layout. Art is coming in, and literally every week I get an updated version of the books. Because this started as BX Essentials, Gavin already has years of playtesting and experience with writing the rules in the most concise way, and formatting the books in the most readable way.

      2. I'm a huge OSR fan, and tried out a great deal of them. I'm also a big fan of race separate from class. But the facts are that -- as a content creator myself -- it pays to know what people are playing, and people are playing AD&D and BX more or less as-is in droves, with every OSR game lagging behind in sheer numbers. (Based on who's playing what as reported by the bigger VTTs, so keep in mind this isn't a statement of factual numbers, but is a pretty good indication). As such, it's super helpful to have a modern layout and easy-to-use reference for BX. (For AD&D, there's OSRIC and/or my original AD&D books...which I still have, so I might as well just use those over OSRIC for reference).

      3. The use of two formats -- one big compendium or 5 smaller books -- is purely there to allow for the format you use most, and aren't meant to be confusing or require extra buy in. Some folks aren't going to use the fantasy-specific rules, so they can get away with just 2 or 3 of the smaller books. Folks going for the full experience can pick up the combined tome, or, if they find themselves often referring to multiple books at once, get the benefits of having several smaller books. Totally up to you. I prefer many smaller books purely based on ease of reference. It's why I'd always prefer 3 core rulebooks versus one big honkin' rulebook for D&D/Pathfinder-style games. Just my opinion there. And his edits and revisions show his commitment to re-delivering with fixes, corrections, and better ideas as he goes along. I have B/X Essentials, and I'm not even mad that I'm "rebuying" some of that with Old School Essentials, because my preferences aligned with what Gavin is updating by going to Old School Essentials. He's reformatting the books, and importantly, better organizing certain information to account for folks who do plan to use the core rules while not necessarily using some of the genre-specific fantasy stuff. He's also adding in two simple options: THAC0 and Ascending AC. I'm all about that, because that's exactly how I play the game. Some people won't be, but honestly, the BX Essentials books still work as-is, so no loss there.

      4. Gavin's ideas are indeed expansive. But he's delivered. Gavin's also not a one-man team, though I'm pretty sure he mostly started that way. Since BX Essentials launched, it's picked up a strong fanbase. Now, with Old School Essentials, he's relaunching and has a pretty big and clearly growing pool of playtesters, editors, artists, and other folks directly pitching in. So it's a team effort, and that helps ensure the output is there.
    1. reelo's Avatar
      reelo -
      Quote Originally Posted by timbannock View Post
      Gavin's ideas are indeed expansive. But he's delivered. Gavin's also not a one-man team, though I'm pretty sure he mostly started that way. Since BX Essentials launched, it's picked up a strong fanbase. Now, with Old School Essentials, he's relaunching and has a pretty big and clearly growing pool of playtesters, editors, artists, and other folks directly pitching in. So it's a team effort, and that helps ensure the output is there.
      As a backer, and also as someone who already has the 5 "old" BXE booklets, I couldn't agree more.
    1. lolomopa0022's Avatar
      lolomopa0022 -
      Quote Originally Posted by paladinn View Post
      It's so sad that Myth & Magic failed. That was amy ip birthday wishes tneb really cool game.. what 3.x should have been, IMHO.
      Grateful article. Probably, I must be one of those relative newbies who did not know the difference between B/X and the BECMI boxes of D&D memorabilia.
    1. paladinn's Avatar
      paladinn -
      M&M was sweet. All the good stuff from 2e with none of the crap that came later. And just enough of the "modern" stuff from 3.x

      If there was a version that also included the magic system from 5e and attribute-based saves, I'd play it in a heartbeat.
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