OSR Old-School Essentials and Basic D&D Campaign Building

In 1981, Basic Dungeons & Dragons by Tom Moldvay released, quickly followed by Expert D&D by David Cook. The Old-School Essentials Rules Tome by Gavin Norman combines both sets of rules along with errata together into one book. Combined with adventures penned by Moldvay and Cook themselves, an entire 1981 D&D campaign can easily be built and run.


Old-School Essentials combines the 1981 Basic and Expert D&D rules together with not only errata but also using a modern layout. For example, spells of a similar level are all displayed together when possible. Also, all the rules for combat are combined into a two page spread when the rules are opened to those pages.
Old-School Essentials is also filled with beautiful art including several one and two page full color spreads by various artists in various styles that together create a unique OSE style all its own. The numerous black and white art pieces are also amazing. Two pieces depict the same set of adventurers first setting off on adventure and then in a fight in a dungeon while adventuring.


The wonderful thing about Old-School Essentials is that the Basic and Expert D&D rules have not been modified or house ruled (although a couple of optional rules are included). It has an advantage over the D&D Rules Cyclopedia in that OSE runs up to level fourteen not thirty-six. Since high level D&D is played much less often, those extra levels won’t be needed by many groups. OSE is also less complex than the Cyclopedia.

Because the rules are 1981’s Basic and Expert rules, they can be used to run modules from that time directly. Moldvay and Cook wrote a variety of adventures and together they form a nice symmetry of five adventures. Moldvay rewrote the Palace of the Silver Princess by Jean Wells and penned Castle Amber. He and Cook co-wrote The Isle of Dread. And Cook wrote Master of the Desert Nomads and Temple of Death. While both authors wrote other adventures, these five work together well. Two by Moldvay, one by both, and the last two Expert modules by Cook.


All of the Expert adventures have wilderness maps and the original Palace of the Silver Princess (green cover) also has an overland map. While I could use Mystara, a world co-created by Moldvay, directly, I like the idea of combining all these kingdom maps together to create a smaller setting of fairy tale land, storm wracked sea, and burning desert. While AD&D to me will always be swords and sorcery rubbing shoulders with science fantasy, Basic D&D is fairy tale stories of princesses and dragons juxtaposed with fantasy pulp adventure in wild lands and other dimensions.

I ran The Lost City, also by Moldvay, adventure at Gen Con and I know the body count for Basic D&D can be high. I will likely encourage my players to create three characters and as a group decide which party of adventurers they want to start with by picking one of the three to start playing. I like the idea of going back to different experience tables that will vary the character levels, treasure for XP, and the real thrill of danger the game offers. I also like the idea of only having to track hit points and spells cast in combat. While I love modern games like Forbidden Lands there is a bit more track in many newer games.

Old-School Essentials is worth checking out whether you want to create your own world, play some old school adventures especially those written by the authors of 1981’s Basic and Expert D&D, use it with Dungeon Crawl Classics adventures, or if you simply want to read it to inspire and inform your current RPG of choice. I highly recommend the Old-School Essentials Rules Tome as a one complete book of quintessential D&D rules. It has a smaller page count, less complexity, and fewer levels than the D&D Rules Cyclopedia and so offers a different take on a one rulebook complete D&D system.

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Charles Dunwoody

Charles Dunwoody

Lurker Above

As someone else noted, the biggest advantage of OSE is the way they adapted 1e races and classes for B/X. Much smoother than some of those pseudo prestige classes from the RC. And you could still easily use options from the gazetteers or RC (like the War Machine). We did use the weapon mastery back in the day, but it's a bit clunky to keep track of all the things really high level characters can do with weapon mastery. But one could streamline it if you want to go beyond level 14 with OSE.

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