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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