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.
 

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Yaarel

Mind Mage
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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Solomoriah

Explorer
I have funner games to play that are more my style.
And I'm not arguing your preferences, as they are your business. I'm just arguing your technical statement. In BX, BECMI, and most Basic-era retro-clones I'm familiar with, all characters of all classes are good for about one fight at first level. Fighter, cleric, thief, magic-user, unless they are very lucky, they all need to take a day off after a single fight. Casting just one spell in a fight that is likely to not last more than four rounds is not that much of a limitation; and if that one spell is sleep, yeah, the rest of the party might go on to a second fight where the magic-user doesn't have a spell, but it's still unlikely they'll go for a third before resting.
 

Tranquilis

Explorer
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.

I loved 5e _except_ for the cantrip system. To me, it made the casters woefully bland. It mattered little what the description of a damage-causing cantrip was, for instance: it was just another 1dX attack repeated round after round. Even the PCs tired of it eventually.

Like the Coke bottle in "The Gods Must Be Crazy", I dumped my 5e books and my village is a simpler, happier place for it.

Yes, you can stare, and no need to whisper: I'm used to it

Cantrips are meant for color and creativity. In fact, they beg for it. There are several official and quasi-official systems to give low-level PCs a fair or even unlimited number of these minor magicks - even for other character classes. Many of these came from 1e and 2e.

Magic users are not unacceptably, irredeemably weak at low level. They simply require a different type of play style from other character classes. The well-timed Sleep spell followed by skulking behind the fighter until the next morn appeals to some like me!
 

Yaarel

Mind Mage
And I'm not arguing your preferences, as they are your business. I'm just arguing your technical statement. In BX, BECMI, and most Basic-era retro-clones I'm familiar with, all characters of all classes are good for about one fight at first level. Fighter, cleric, thief, magic-user, unless they are very lucky, they all need to take a day off after a single fight. Casting just one spell in a fight that is likely to not last more than four rounds is not that much of a limitation; and if that one spell is sleep, yeah, the rest of the party might go on to a second fight where the magic-user doesn't have a spell, but it's still unlikely they'll go for a third before resting.

I never played Basic, so I am talking specifically about 1e.

Between 1e ‘vancian’ spell prep, one slot per day, nonmagical daggers, excessive fragility, imbalanced classes at low levels, and so on, my experience with the 1e Magic-User was ... frustrating.

Generally, the Magic-User was active once per gaming session, while the other classes continued to do contribute.

Moreover, later editions resolved these frustrations. Many D&D players shared these same concerns.



My impression is, the 1e fighter players loved it when the magic-user player did something once in a while. But for the 1e magic-user player, being able to do stuff only once in a while was horrible.



Regarding Sleep. The fact that one spell can be so out-of-balance compared to other spells in the same spell level, is itself a problematic that needs correcting.



I want other players to enjoy the styles that they enjoy. Im just saying that I was unhappy with the 1e Magic-User. So much so, I balk when I see it.
 



Lanefan

Victoria Rules
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.
Why have dagger as your proficiency when you can take staff? Staff has some reach (so you can fight from behind a meat shield), and being proficient sets you up nicely for later should any of those very nice magical staves happen by your way...

Heh. I am glad the new iterations of D&D have ... corrected this nonmagical torture hazing.
Yeah...in 3e they're too powerful at all levels, rather than just the high ones. In 4e you can't tell them apart from all the other classes, so what's the point. In 5e they're solar-powered instead of gas: far less vroom-vroom when you need it (because so many spells have been nerfed from what they once were) but they can putter along all day.

Lan-"somehow without my really intending it, most of my active characters these days are MUs"-efan
 

Solomoriah

Explorer
No such thing, unless you've decided that fighters and clerics and thieves below 4th level can all use magic-user scrolls and wands and what not.
As a GM you can make that decision, but as a player, you're stuck with your GM's personal issues. Many GM's actively avoid handing out scrolls or wands, or otherwise limit them (such as giving a wand with very few remaining charges) for fear of the magic-user outshining the rest of the party. Meanwhile, that same GM may be handing out +1 weapons and armor like candy; the magic-user will eventually end up with a leftover dagger +1, but otherwise does not benefit from this largesse.

It doesn't change the math, though. Even in 1E, where the other classes were buffed up, no beginning party treated fairly by the DM should reliably fight more than two battles before retiring for rest. Yaarel's described situation, where the magic-user casts one spell and then sits out the entire game session, should just not happen very often, statistically speaking, unless the DM is fudging or something.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
As a GM you can make that decision, but as a player, you're stuck with your GM's personal issues. Many GM's actively avoid handing out scrolls or wands, or otherwise limit them (such as giving a wand with very few remaining charges) for fear of the magic-user outshining the rest of the party.
Depends on whether the wand is rechargeable or not; but when non-rechargeable wands have limited charges their use becomes a more interesting question of resource management. I don't mind this.

Meanwhile, that same GM may be handing out +1 weapons and armor like candy; the magic-user will eventually end up with a leftover dagger +1, but otherwise does not benefit from this largesse.
Maybe. Yet that same DM could be putting the party into situations where they'll be taking down some other MUs, who will leave behind spellbooks...an expensive resource of use only to the MU. Also, any MU worth her salt isn't going to care much about magic weapons if the DM's in a giving mood; she's going to load up on defensive gear (bracers, ring of protection, items of resistance, etc.), wands, devices of spell storing, and other funky stuff. Weapons will be at the very bottom of the list and armour won't be on it at all seeing as she can't use any.

It doesn't change the math, though. Even in 1E, where the other classes were buffed up, no beginning party treated fairly by the DM should reliably fight more than two battles before retiring for rest. Yaarel's described situation, where the magic-user casts one spell and then sits out the entire game session, should just not happen very often, statistically speaking, unless the DM is fudging or something.
You're making a big assumption here: that the party will stop for the day when it makes reasonable sense to stop, and not just plow on ahead anyway... :)

Lan-"sometimes problems arise for the party because the DM isn't treating them fairly, but many other times their problems are all self-inflicted"-efan
 

Solomoriah

Explorer
Maybe. Yet that same DM could be putting the party into situations where they'll be taking down some other MUs, who will leave behind spellbooks...an expensive resource of use only to the MU. Also, any MU worth her salt isn't going to care much about magic weapons if the DM's in a giving mood; she's going to load up on defensive gear (bracers, ring of protection, items of resistance, etc.), wands, devices of spell storing, and other funky stuff. Weapons will be at the very bottom of the list and armour won't be on it at all seeing as she can't use any.
I think you've missed my point. GIVEN: Statistically, the situation described by Yaarel should not happen in the (A)D&D games of the late '70's or early '80's. GIVEN: The situation happened (I'm taking him at his word). THEREFORE, there must be some reason outside the statistics, and pretty much the only reason I can think of is that the DM treated the PC's unfairly with respect to treasure, or die rolls, or specific choice of monsters, or something else I can't think of off the top of my head. You're talking about what the DM "could" be doing, but that's tangential to the situation presented.

You're making a big assumption here: that the party will stop for the day when it makes reasonable sense to stop, and not just plow on ahead anyway... :)
... and then they die. happens all the time ...
 

Yaarel

Mind Mage
One of my favorite 1e characters was a Druid. Tough in melee combat, with potent spells, ... and had healing. A few ‘spell researched’ spells to customize it (like a Slime that was sort of like Grease), I was happy.

Between the 1e Druid, 3e Psion, the 5e Bard, the 5e Bladesinger, it shows.

D&D can have a full spell caster Wizard − who is also competent in melee, rough-and-tumble, and virile,

and the game works fine.
 

Yaarel

Mind Mage
GIVEN: Statistically, the situation described by Yaarel should not happen in the (A)D&D games of the late '70's or early '80's.

Many players complained about the inferiority of low level Magic Users.

The claim that it ‘should not happen’ seems somewhat Marie-Antoinett-ish.

At a Gen Con, when the D&D design team announced that it was getting rid of vancian casting, the entire audience broke out into thunderous applause.
 

Ravenheart87

Explorer
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.

I always find it amusing when people come with the "one magic missile" example. Magic Missile is a trap, the most worthless, useless spell, but people seem to be keen on chosing it because "oooh it does damage". If you expect the AD&D magic-user to be a damage dealer, then of course you will find it disappointing. Until level 5 when Fireball and Lightning bolt are available the magic-user is a utility class. Forget about Magic Missile. Sleep can automatically win an encounter without dealing damage, Charm can get you through situations where parley fails, and Hold Portal can save the whole party's hide. Low level AD&D isn't about combat, it's about survival, and the magic-user with the right spells can turn the tide in this.

Also note, that while the number of spell slots is indeed low, the magic user can use wands, scrolls, and other expendable magic items, which should be also part of the loot. People often forget about these, but for low level adventures they are invaluable. And if you are out of everything, you still don't have to melée with 1d4 HPs: you can use darts from a distance, or run away - since as I've told above, low level AD&D is a game of survival, not battling monsters at all cost. Heck, monsters even barely give any XP! It's not worth wasting resources on them unless needed - trick them, evade them, and escape with their treasures.
 

rmcoen

Explorer
Thank you for writing the article, and bringing this new system to light (for me). I'm always interested in seeing other options and opportunities.

Ultimately, the *story* is what brings and keeps the players in an RPG; otherwise, you're playing a miniatures game, which tends to attract a different sort of gamer.

The mechanics of the system can influence the way the story plays out, and the background of the world (such as in WOIN, the understanding/statement that "magic is freely available, even a farmer likely knows a cantrip or two"). A system that emphasizes warrior capability at low levels should consequently have a game world where military might is ubiquitous; if mages that survive to high level are world-shaking (or -breaking), then the biggest and baddest of the BBEGs will be mages. If classes are "balanced" against each other, then threats at all levels could come from all class types. Neither is "wrong", from the story side; neither will save a bad story.

As a player, I don't like being a fighter when my only choice, round after round is "I hit the X with my weapon". I especially don't like it when my companions are charming things, blasting them with fire (holy or arcane), changing them into toads, sending them on perilous microjumps through elemental planes, or trapping them in giant globes of water. Or even putting them to sleep. I much prefer "I hit the X with my weapon, and knock it backward into the [hazardous thing on the map, posisbly created by my allies]", or "I force all the foes to focus on me for a round" [i.e. taunt], or some other interesting effect. When I run out of HP, I'm done.

As a player, I don't like being a mage that "runs out" of magic. Like a gunslinger with only 1 or two bullets. My skills with a weapon (I tended to pick the crossbow, depending on the game system) shouldn't be the majority of my contribution for many levels of play. With my spells being such a limited resource, they tended to be hoarded (like those precious scrolls - can't tell you how many campaigns ended with scrolls and potions unspent!). If we reached mid-level play (6th-8th level), things were balanced. If we reached high-level play... the campaign usually ended, or devolved into "The casters will decide on the goal, how to get there, how to execute it. The warriors will stand here, here, and here, and take hits." (Generally, I didn't even bother with "combat spells" at low level... instead focusing on long-lasting defense/buffs, and utility magic.)

As a player, then, these are reasons I would look for the "not-incompetent-warrior spellcaster" - be that a cleric, a druid, a multi-/dual-/hybrid-class, whatever. Can survive battle, and can participate in the "fun" magical side that is why we play a *fantasy* game, and not a "medieval simulator".

Having gotten all wordy about "as a player", let me turn around and say... as a GM, *my* personal ideal system is one where combat is dangerous regardless of level - especially if you aren't smart - and skill is more important than equipment (https://index.rpg.net/display-entry.phtml?mainid=86 IRON HEROES). I like magic being confined to the magical, but where player character spellcasters can be participants in all combats; flashy, powerful, but not eclipsing. No amount of swordmastery will get you across that ravine like a Jump/Fly spell can, but no mage can lay waste to an army alone - or indeed, survive ambush by a handful of bandits.

Basic Fantasy might not be that system, but I don't mind taking a look and seeing what ideas and innovations can inform my stories, and the ever-changing "ideal" in my head!
 

My impression is, the 1e fighter players loved it when the magic-user player did something once in a while. But for the 1e magic-user player, being able to do stuff only once in a while was horrible.
I played a level 1 mage in AD&D, and I was doing stuff all the time. A lot of that stuff involved hitting things with my staff, sure, but that's not much different than what the fighter was doing. Something to keep in mind about low-level magic-users in both 1E and Basic Fantasy is that they aren't that much worse at fighting than the fighter is.

Looking at Basic Fantasy, because I have the book at hand, magic-users have 1d4hp and weapons that deal 1d4 damage, while the fighter has 1d8hp and weapons that deal 1d8 or 1d10 damage. Unlike 3E, you don't necessarily have the fighter adding +3 from Strength while the spellcaster subtracts 1. The magic-user's contribution with a weapon is not negligible!
Why have dagger as your proficiency when you can take staff? Staff has some reach (so you can fight from behind a meat shield), and being proficient sets you up nicely for later should any of those very nice magical staves happen by your way...
I don't know where you're getting that. I don't see where in the book it suggests that a walking staff has any sort of reach. A dagger, on the other hand, definitely looks like it can be thrown for an equal amount of damage - with a bonus to hit, if the enemy is within 10 feet!
 

Solomoriah

Explorer
Questions of the reach of a weapon are left to the GM to adjudicate; I would allow it, for example. One of the key features of the Old School is that things don't have to be in a rulebook to be okay. rmcoen mentions taunting an enemy to get it/them focused on you... this works just fine in BFRPG, without needing a specific mechanic. The GM may make up whatever seems appropriate to the situation.

Insulting the enemy's mother almost always works, for example...
 

Questions of the reach of a weapon are left to the GM to adjudicate; I would allow it, for example. One of the key features of the Old School is that things don't have to be in a rulebook to be okay.
Fair enough, but by that merit, the enemy should equally be able to strike past the fighter and attack the magic-user if their weapon is at least as long as a club. The magic-user's walking staff isn't nearly as long as a quarterstaff, after all.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I don't know where you're getting that. I don't see where in the book it suggests that a walking staff has any sort of reach. A dagger, on the other hand, definitely looks like it can be thrown for an equal amount of damage - with a bonus to hit, if the enemy is within 10 feet!
I see a staff as being a 6-foot-long sturdy piece of wood (like what Gandalf/Saruman carry in the LotR films only without all the fancy enchantments; or what Little John uses in most versions of Robin Hood), and a 6 foot long weapon is more than enough to reach over the Dwarf's head and club an Orc senseless.

And while throwing a dagger sounds fine in theory, in practice it means you've just disarmed yourself. It's the melee equivalent of a Magic Missile, only for less damage and not guaranteed to hit. :)

Lanefan
 

I see a staff as being a 6-foot-long sturdy piece of wood (like what Gandalf/Saruman carry in the LotR films only without all the fancy enchantments; or what Little John uses in most versions of Robin Hood), and a 6 foot long weapon is more than enough to reach over the Dwarf's head and club an Orc senseless.
Are you going by 1E, or Basic Fantasy? One of the interesting changes in Basic Fantasy is that the only staff a magic-user can use is a walking staff, otherwise known as a club or cudgel. I definitely preferred the quarterstaff over the dagger in AD&D, because 1d6/1d6 is better than 1d4/1d3, but it's less compelling when they're both just 1d4 (though I suppose it would swing back around to staff if I thought the DM would let me swing it past the front line).

And while throwing a dagger sounds fine in theory, in practice it means you've just disarmed yourself. It's the melee equivalent of a Magic Missile, only for less damage and not guaranteed to hit. :)
A weapon that you can throw once is better than an otherwise-equivalent weapon that doesn't even give the option to be thrown. Unlike with Magic Missile, you also have the ability to re-load by picking up another dagger. I didn't notice at a glance what kind of action it required to draw another weapon, though.
 

mordrid82

First Post
This is the system that reignited my love for fantasy gaming. The simplified rules and structure also allowed me to use this system to introduce my kids to gaming as well. I own several of the books in print form and planning on getting more. Wonderful write up for a marvelous system. Iron Falcon is also amazing as well and I recommend all to check it out.
 

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