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

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Are you going by 1E, or Basic Fantasy?
I'm going by 1e.
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.
Ouch.

And so much for playing Gandalf (movie version) or many other standard-trope mages. Interesting (and odd, I must say) design choice.
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).
Never mind that magic staves tend to be far more useful to MUs than magic daggers, once that time comes around... :)
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.
Meh. Unless I've got daggers (and dexterity!) to spare I'm hanging on to all I've got. That way, when I fumble and drop one I can quickly pull out another... :)

Lanefan
 

HywayWolf

Visitor
This discussion of a weak and useless magic user has me wondering if some people never do anything other than attack. It seems to me that its a lack of imagination that makes playing a weak MU seem boring. A MU is intelligent. If he isn't using that intelligence to tweak additional clues and details from the DM and keeping the meat sheilds from doing stupid stuff then maybe that player shouldn't be playing a MU.


A sleep spell is like having a claymore mine that reconstitutes every day. You can use a charm spell to get yourself a personal bodyguard if you use it on a a being with the right balance of fighting ability and mush for brains. And it doesn't take a lot of hit points or even a spell to pour oil on a floor and light it if an enemy is dumb enough to enter it.
 

Saelorn

Adventurer
And so much for playing Gandalf (movie version) or many other standard-trope mages. Interesting (and odd, I must say) design choice.
To be fair, the D&D wizard has never been a very good representation of anything other than a D&D wizard. Basic Fantasy magic-user may not be allowed to wield a quarterstaff or sword, but Gandalf can't fly or throw lightning bolts.
Never mind that magic staves tend to be far more useful to MUs than magic daggers, once that time comes around... :)
Yeah, but do you really want to hit someone with your staff of the magi?

The good news is that, as far as Basic Fantasy is concerned, the character doesn't have to choose any weapon proficiencies. All magic-users are proficient with both the walking staff and the dagger, and there's no risk of finding a magic weapon that you could theoretically use but didn't actually train for.
 

Solomoriah

Explorer
First let me say, to those of you who have complimented Basic Fantasy in between the magic-user arguments: Thanks for your kind words!

A walking staff is 5-7 feet long, depending mainly on the preferences of the character. Yes, you can swing one and hit someone, but that's not how you use a walking staff as a weapon when you want reach. You use it like a spear, striking with the end of the staff in a plunging motion. You can readily reach over a dwarf or halfling front-row fighter (don't laugh, I've seen some pretty gnarly halfling fighters) and do harm to someone in front.

I may be the only person here who had a course, however brief, in riot control applications of a baton. You'd be surprised how much harm you can cause with the butt of a 3 foot rod... a walking staff is just more of that.

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.
I'm not sure why you say "melee equivalent" when it's a missile weapon, but regardless, if you ever think you might want to throw a dagger, naturally you'd buy a bunch of them. One fighter character of mine had six on his person, and that's besides his sword and bow. Three were on a bandolier, one in his boot, one on his belt, and one attached to the side of his backpack so he could draw it while putting his hands up. For a magic-user who does not have to bear the weight of armor or those heavier weapons, six daggers would be about my minimum.
 
I brought the print version off amazon a year or so ago, not a bad RPG system, very much akin to the classic D&D game I grew up with (red box), my only real critism is some of the artwork in the book is really bad, otherwise, everything you need to play a decent RPG campaign.
 

TwoSix

The hero you deserve
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?
Considering low-level mages are generally considered underpowered, and high level mages are extremely strong, it seems like the right approach would be to give mages fast leveling from 1-8 or 9, and then drastically slow their advancement afterwards.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Considering low-level mages are generally considered underpowered, and high level mages are extremely strong, it seems like the right approach would be to give mages fast leveling from 1-8 or 9, and then drastically slow their advancement afterwards.
They get going at about 5th level: fast through 1-4, average through about 5-9, then quite slow from there on might work.

That said, having them slow all the way along means yes the ground is littered with dead low-level mages, but they'll already be about a level behind once the party average gets to about 9th.
 

jmucchiello

Adventurer
They get going at about 5th level: fast through 1-4, average through about 5-9, then quite slow from there on might work.

That said, having them slow all the way along means yes the ground is littered with dead low-level mages, but they'll already be about a level behind once the party average gets to about 9th.
I think TwoSix was saying they should not require more XP to get from level 1 to level 2 than other more powerful classes do. But, IIRC, wizard is the slowest of the 4 classes getting from level 1 to level 2. At any level of XP: 20,000 or 40,000 say, the other classes are either higher level or will reach next level sooner than the wizard.

If they are supposed to be weak at the beginning, why do they level up slower?
 

Saelorn

Adventurer
If they are supposed to be weak at the beginning, why do they level up slower?
If they are much stronger than a fighter of equivalent experience once they get to high levels, but only slightly weaker than a fighter of equivalent experience while they are at low levels, then it makes sense to extend that part of their career in order to further shift their balance across all levels. It wouldn't be balanced if wizards were only weak at low levels, but then they were also the first ones to grow out of those low levels.
 

jmucchiello

Adventurer
If they are much stronger than a fighter of equivalent experience once they get to high levels, but only slightly weaker than a fighter of equivalent experience while they are at low levels, then it makes sense to extend that part of their career in order to further shift their balance across all levels. It wouldn't be balanced if wizards were only weak at low levels, but then they were also the first ones to grow out of those low levels.
But how about 2nd or 3rd? Why last?

What if they reached 5th level first but 6th level last? That would not be fair? If they are such power houses at high levels, deny them reaching high levels first. That's a given. But reaching midlevel last isn't provably better (or worse) than not reaching midlevel first.
 

Saelorn

Adventurer
But how about 2nd or 3rd? Why last?

What if they reached 5th level first but 6th level last? That would not be fair? If they are such power houses at high levels, deny them reaching high levels first. That's a given. But reaching midlevel last isn't provably better (or worse) than not reaching midlevel first.
The basic design concept is that, since they spend so much of the end-game as the strongest class, they should spend as much as possible of the start-game as the weakest class. If you let them reach second level before the cleric did - if the magic user reached second level at 1400, compared to the cleric at 1500 - then suddenly the magic user isn't the weakest class for that bracket between 1400 and 1500. And while it wouldn't be the end of the world if they had that small boost early, given that the cleric would surpass them again so quickly, the goal here really is to maximize the amount of time they spend as the worst.

Without getting into spreadsheets, an argument could be made that end-game starts as soon as the magic user reaches fifth level. That one level is such a huge boost for magic users, and nothing a fighter or thief gets can ever compete. With such a small window to work with, they really need to cram as much inferiority into there as possible in order for things to balance in the end. And while there are certainly other balances that could have been struck, I can't fault them for following Gygax's lead here, given the nature of the product.
 

pemerton

Legend
In 4e you can't tell them apart from all the other classes, so what's the point.
That suggests to me that you haven't played much 4e. A 4e wizard stands out from other classes (except to some extent sorcerer) because s/he is casting magical spells.

Considering low-level mages are generally considered underpowered, and high level mages are extremely strong, it seems like the right approach would be to give mages fast leveling from 1-8 or 9, and then drastically slow their advancement afterwards.
Whereas in AD&D, they are slow up to 6th level, then fast until 13th level, then need the same number of XP as a fighter to get to 14th level (ie 1.5 million in total), then slow again. It's a bit weird.

I think the Moldvay tables are a bit less wonky (because they use a common name level of 9th). In Basic Fantasy (which I think is just tracking B/X in this respect) MUs need 25% more XP than fighters at all levels.
 

jmucchiello

Adventurer
The basic design concept is that, since they spend so much of the end-game as the strongest class, they should spend as much as possible of the start-game as the weakest class. If you let them reach second level before the cleric did - if the magic user reached second level at 1400, compared to the cleric at 1500 - then suddenly the magic user isn't the weakest class for that bracket between 1400 and 1500. And while it wouldn't be the end of the world if they had that small boost early, given that the cleric would surpass them again so quickly, the goal here really is to maximize the amount of time they spend as the worst.
What? that 1400-1500 window would give the TWO!! daily spells and then back to fighting with a stick/dagger and AC 10 (need DEX 15+ to get AC bonus is 1e). The cleric is down one spell, sure, but he has ARMOR. I don't think a 1st level cleric is weaker than a 2nd level mage in 1e.

Without getting into spreadsheets, an argument could be made that end-game starts as soon as the magic user reaches fifth level. That one level is such a huge boost for magic users, and nothing a fighter or thief gets can ever compete. With such a small window to work with, they really need to cram as much inferiority into there as possible in order for things to balance in the end. And while there are certainly other balances that could have been struck, I can't fault them for following Gygax's lead here, given the nature of the product.
Can't find fault following Gary's lead?

Whereas in AD&D, they are slow up to 6th level, then fast until 13th level, then need the same number of XP as a fighter to get to 14th level (ie 1.5 million in total), then slow again. It's a bit weird.
If 5th level is when they start their big power level rise, why did Gary make leveling up 6th thru 13th level so fast for MUs? 10th level for fighter starts at 500,001 xp, 250,001 for MU. This is the opposite of what it should be. 10th level was usually the end of a 1e game. And the wizard got there in half as many xp as the fighter.

Perhaps, this is because the fighter is supposed to get more xp from combat than the MU. Why would that be? Because the mage is still more of a fireworks display than a evenly distributed damage dealer.
 

Solomoriah

Explorer
The nice thing about Basic Fantasy is that it is easy to change these things if you don't like them; in fact, you can even publish a supplement on our forum (and if it's well thought out and properly finished, on our Showcase) to share your idea with others. Basic Fantasy RPG is designed with loosely-coupled game mechanics, making changes like this easy.
 

Saelorn

Adventurer
What? that 1400-1500 window would give the TWO!! daily spells and then back to fighting with a stick/dagger and AC 10 (need DEX 15+ to get AC bonus is 1e). The cleric is down one spell, sure, but he has ARMOR. I don't think a 1st level cleric is weaker than a 2nd level mage in 1e.
That's AC 11, thank you very much, and it's a little bit easier to get an AC bonus in Basic Fantasy IIRC. And then you're back to hitting things with a stick, or throwing daggers, for a very meaningful 1d4 damage compared to the 1d8 that the fighter is doing.

The cleric may have better armor and weapons, but their spell list isn't as powerful, even at level 1. Clerics don't get sleep, for instance. More importantly, a level 2 magic user has 2d4 hit points, compared to the 1d6 that the level 1 cleric has.
Can't find fault following Gary's lead?
In any other game, sure, ignore all of Gary's bad ideas. In this kind of product, it's to be expected.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
If 5th level is when they start their big power level rise, why did Gary make leveling up 6th thru 13th level so fast for MUs? 10th level for fighter starts at 500,001 xp, 250,001 for MU. This is the opposite of what it should be. 10th level was usually the end of a 1e game. And the wizard got there in half as many xp as the fighter.

Perhaps, this is because the fighter is supposed to get more xp from combat than the MU. Why would that be? Because the mage is still more of a fireworks display than a evenly distributed damage dealer.
Yeah, this makes no sense. Even less in that most xp in 1e as written comes from treasure rather than combat, so any edge the Fighter might have got from combat is severely mitigated.

Then again, I suppose it's possible (speculating here) we're seeing the results of EGG designing on the fly and during the design process his reacting to what was happening in his own game. He may have seen that he'd crippled low-level MUs and so sped their advancement up in the 6th-12th range as a quick fix; and the PH then went to print before this range got played through.

Solomoriah said:
The nice thing about Basic Fantasy is that it is easy to change these things if you don't like them; in fact, you can even publish a supplement on our forum (and if it's well thought out and properly finished, on our Showcase) to share your idea with others. Basic Fantasy RPG is designed with loosely-coupled game mechanics, making changes like this easy.
Props for this! One of the best aspects of 1e is that one can make big changes to one part of it without adversely affecting too much elsewhere.

As a side effect, in this particular case the modularity also allows a DM to speed up or slow down advancement overall in her game by simply tweaking the xp tables, without knock-on effects elsewhere.

Lanefan
 

jmucchiello

Adventurer
The nice thing about Basic Fantasy is that it is easy to change these things if you don't like them; in fact, you can even publish a supplement on our forum (and if it's well thought out and properly finished, on our Showcase) to share your idea with others. Basic Fantasy RPG is designed with loosely-coupled game mechanics, making changes like this easy.
Kudos for the showcase. That's a great way to publish a game like this.

If you had stopped at the semi-colon, I'd have just said you can tweak any game. Several long running 1e games I encountered (in different and distinct play groups) were a mix of 1e, runequest d% skills, and a third odd-ball thing. Tweaking the game has always been an option.
 

Solomoriah

Explorer
Classic RPGs tend to be loosely coupled, so yeah, it's long been possible to make the game work however you like. However, many modern games are tightly coupled, so that changing one part of the rules runs the risk of creating unexpected problems in another.

But yeah, offering a way for people to contribute is one of the most important things you can do to build a community.
 

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