How To Get Started Playing Old-School D&D For Free



So you want to play D&D like you did when you were young. Or maybe you want to play D&D like the greybeards do, after you heard them laughing uproariously in your friendly local game shop about the time that one of their characters died in a preposterous way. Or maybe you've heard a lot about this "OSR" thing and all the awards the games keep winning, and you want to try one of those fancy books out for yourself.

Getting into a new facet of the role-playing hobby can be daunting. Sometimes there's overwhelming amounts of history or information spread out all over the place. Sometimes there's just a deep sigh emanating from your debit card as it senses what you're about to do. I'd like to make it easier on you and your wallet, so I've got some links, resources, advice, and other such things to help get you into the old-school D&D world easily without breaking the bank.

I've got your back. Welcome to old-school D&D!

* For the TL;DR-inclined:
You can scroll down to the section titled Help! and grab some pre-selected combos based on your tastes and circumstances. However, I really do recommend reading through this article if you're new to old-school D&D so you can pick up some of the specific knowledge that will help you, and so you can make your own informed choices!



Step 0: The Core Concepts

If you're coming from new games, or you've never played D&D at all, you might need help understanding what sets the old-school approach and style apart. It's not like modern D&D. It is separated by what it values: consistency, impartiality, emergent gameplay, and outside-the-character-sheet thinking. Several people, all smarter than myself, have written lovely introductory materials for this style of play, how to enjoy it, and how to succeed at it.

  • A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming by Matt Finch - The first of the popular guides to old-school D&D, by someone who has been instrumental in the popularization of the hobby in recent years.
  • The Principia Apocrypha by Ben Milton, Steven Lumpkin, and David Perry (with Evlyn Moreau) - The most recent guide to the principles of old-school gaming, lovingly illustrated and filled with elements of wisdom collected in the years since Matt Finch wrote his.
  • Philotomy's Musings by Jason Cone - A collection of house rules and essays on old-school gaming. Most of this document is considered a favorite of a wide swath of the OSR (or Old School Renaissance) community, with special love held for the section titled The Dungeon as a Mythic Underworld. Read that part if nothing else; it helps to contextualize the abstract nature of old-school dungeon crawling. The house rules can be ignored by the beginner, unless you feel they will make the game easier or more fun for you and your group.



Step 1: The Rules 

The wonderful thing about old-school D&D, and the OSR (or Old School Renaissance) that emulates and propagates it, is that so much of it is directly compatible out of the box or with very little effort. Therefore, selection of ruleset isn't as critical as it might be for modern gaming, where very little is cross-compatible. An example is that you could, with absolute ease, play an adventure designed for Labyrinth Lord using Dark Dungeons instead - whereas playing a 4th Edition D&D adventure in 5th Edition D&D would require a considerable amount of conversion. However, there exists enough variance and enough creativity in the world of old-school D&D to give you quite a few options to select from. Here is a non-exhaustive list of favorites:

  • Labyrinth Lord Revised Edition (No Art) - When it comes to $Free, Labyrinth Lord is the go-to retroclone of the 1981 Basic/Expert set version of Dungeons & Dragons by Moldvay and Cook. Hell, for a great many old-school gamers, it is the go-to at any price! It is nearly identical to the B/X rules, with the exception of clerics now getting a spell at 1st level. If you have no idea what you're doing but you wanna jump in with both feet, I recommend starting here.
  • Labyrinth Lord Advanced Edition Companion (No Art) - This expansion for Labyrinth Lord adds optional rules to the B/X clone to enable the use of AD&D character classes and races while hewing close to the B/X rules in general. This is a good addition if you or your players would prefer being a Dwarven Thief instead of just being a Dwarf or a Thief as you would in pure B/X (or, in this case, in Labyrinth Lord). This is not required or recommended for those who are brand new to old-school D&D.
  • B/X Essentials (Plain-Text Version) - This is an extremely effective reorganization of the 1981 Moldvay/Cook Basic and Expert sets, dividing the rules into individual booklets. Because this is designed as a reference, it is low on explanation and context that you might find in other retroclones. While many experienced old-school D&D players use these, it may not serve new players as well as Labyrinth Lord's version of the same rules. Therefore, if you are brand new, you might want to err on the side of caution and go with Labyrinth Lord; however, if you are familiar with the rules already and just need to have a set at the table without opening your wallet, this is a great option. Each booklet contains all the rules pertaining to its titular subject: Core / Classes / Monsters / Spells / Adventuring
  • Lamentations of the Flame Princess (No Art) - Lamentations of the Flame Princess is probably what you've heard about if you're here because you're curious about old-school gaming after seeing a bunch of OSR titles win at the ENnies year after year. It is a clone of the 1983 BECMI rule set, which is very nearly identical to B/X on it's own (there are very minor differences that will not impact play). LotFP uses this rule basis, but has some changes to suit James Raggi's tastes. Most notable changes include ascending Armor Class, replacement of the Thief with the Specialist (and a new skill system for that class), a silver standard replacing the gold standard expected in D&D, and an intentional focus on weird horror reflected in its spells and preference for all-human campaigns. If you are strictly interested in paying for and playing the award-winning modules published by Lamentations of the Flame Princess themselves, this is definitely what you want. If you want to play all kinds of old-school adventures, this is still a very slick take on the B/X system, but you'll need to convert AC and GP/SP (not a big deal, see below)
  • Lamentations of the Flame Princess (No Art Referee Grindhouse Edition) - An older version of the free rule book for LotFP, with a focus on presenting the game to the referee (aka DM, GM, etc). This means it includes more resources for converting extant OSR and original TSR material to the rules that LotFP modifies, including that ascending AC system and so on. On page 69, an entire section is dedicated to making conversion very simple, covering any and all aspects that LotFP altered; at the end of this section on page 76, a simple reference chart will make conversion between LotFP and any of the systems listed in this blog post basically instantaneous.
  • Basic Fantasy Roleplaying Game - BFRPG is an effort to create an old-school gaming experience from the unified mechanical framework of the d20 system popularized by 3E and 3.5E D&D and carried on to this day in Paizo's Pathfinder RPG. It attempts to approximate the B/X rule set using these mechanics, and manages to do a pretty good job, however, there are changes. Characters have far more options (multi-classing, race and class as separate things) and many saving throws are impacted greatly by class or race. The system also employs ascending AC and attack bonuses. If you want pure compatibility with the entirety of the offerings from the original TSR days and the new OSR stuff, this is not your best bet as it will require some tinkering. However, it does have a massive fanbase behind it churning out mountains of free conversion information, supplements, and adventures and it might be an appealing way for folks used to 3.5E and Pathfinder to dip their toes in the water of old-school gaming.
  • Swords and Wizardry Core Rules - The Swords and Wizardry Core ruleset is mechanically derived from the d20 system, but designed to reproduce the experience of the original Dungeons and Dragons game by Gygax and Arneson from 1974, with the addition of the first supplement (Supplement I: Greyhawk, which introduced the Thief class). This means some minor things differ between this retroclone and those other retroclones derived from the 1981 B/X rules by Moldvay and Cook - however, by and large, things will be compatible with zero or very minor modification. There is a further complication to total compatibility, though: beyond just the very small gap from original D&D to B/X D&D, Swords and Wizardry also differs in several ways of its own. Most notably, Swords and Wizardry does away with the system of saving throw mechanics found in both original D&D and B/X D&D, replacing it with a proprietary unified saving throw system that can fundamentally alter the gameplay of many spells and effects. This is not a critical change for new folks, because they lack the familiarity with the extant system and can simply read "roll save vs dragon breath" as "roll save" (it's actually quite pleasant and simple!) but it might bother returning players trying to get back into their old games. Also of interest to those attracted to this game because of its d20 framework, Swords and Wizardry includes optional ascending AC rules.
  • Swords and Wizardy Complete Rules - The Swords and Wizardry Complete rules are similarly based on the 1974 original Dungeons & Dragons game, and similarly differ with their unified saving throw. As with the core rules, an optional ascending AC system is included. The Complete rules are separated from the Core rules by the inclusion of content from the other four supplements published by Gygax and Arneson for the original Dungeons & Dragons edition. This means more classes, more spells, more deity options, and so forth.
  • Dark Dungeons (PWYW) - Dark Dungeons is a retroclone of the 1991 Rules Cyclopedia version of the Dungeons & Dragons game, by Aaron Allston. Rules Cyclopedia was a revision of the Basic/Expert/Companion/Master/Immortal (BECMI) rule sets by Frank Mentzer, dating back to 1983. BECMI supplanted Moldvay and Cook's B/X rules from 1981. Whew! That's all a way of explaining that Dark Dungeons is essentially compatible with anything compatible with B/X or the retroclones derived from B/X as there are very few differences of value between B/X and BECMI. The Rules Cyclopedia is considered by many to be the "most D&D ever put in a single book" and allowed you to play characters in the basic rule system from 1st to 36th level. This retroclone is generally very faithful, and mostly differs where the Rules Cyclopedia made errors or was vague; the creator posted a list of his changes but for the newcomer that information is not particularly important. The bottom line is that this will work with any original TSR adventure or new B/X-derived OSR adventure without any conversion. This is technically Pay-What-You-Want, but the recommended price is $0.00 - you are very welcome to tip the retroclones editor's work if you like, but it's unnecessary. 
  • OSRIC - OSRIC was the first retroclone and is designed to copy the rules found in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1st Edition. It is mostly a reference designed to enable folks to produce new adventures for AD&D 1E, but it is playable as-is for those who wish to emulate AD&D 1E. The rules of AD&D 1E are broadly compatible with B/X (and derived clones) but add significant complexity; as you might guess from the name Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, the 1st Edition game was designed to compile and refine supplemental materials from the original game and present an enhanced and more complicated game to experienced players (while the Basic and Expert sets were meant for newer players). Because of this, OSRIC mechanics will be compatible with OSR adventures that use the B/X framework just fine, but will have elements you may not use or care for. It is on this list mostly for those looking to get back into old-school gaming, rather than those joining this hobby for the first time.




Step 2: The Adventures

There's no earthly way I could collect the sheer volume of free old-school adventures available on the internet. Like, there are so many that you could conceivably be playing just free content from now until the day you die and never run out. Therefore, I've tried to collect a few of the free adventures and dungeons that are popular and well-reviewed enough to be considered a fair introduction to the genre. Not all options are as polished as the ENnie-winning darlings that may have gotten you interested in old-school D&D, but they're also not going to cost you a cent.

Levels 1-3
  • Better Than Any Man (PWYW) by Lamentations of the Flame Princess - Technically Pay-What-You-Want, but you are invited to take it for free as it was a free giveaway module by Lamentations of the Flame Princess on Free RPG Day in 2013. Absolutely excellent adventure with tons of content. It trends towards a vision of the real world under the shadow of the bizarre and scary, as with most things LotFP. This will work out of the box for LotFP and will require statblock conversion for other games.
  • The Tomb of Sigyfel by Goblinoid Games - The official starter adventure for Labyrinth Lord, suitable for complete newcomers to the old-school gaming experience. This will work out of the box for LL, OSRIC, Dark Dungeons, and descending AC S&W. It will require statblock conversion for use with LotFP, BFRPG, or ascending AC S&W.
  • Tomb of the Serpent Kings by Skerples - A "teaching dungeon" for beginners developed by Skerples with plenty of help from the community every step of the way. Many people recommend it as an excellent intro or playtest adventure any time that question comes up. Thanks to the kindness of several industry folks and the wisdom of many minds working together, this might be the one of the highest production value, most polished and tested adventures you'll find. This will work out of the box with everything, because it relies on you to bring your own monster stat blocks.
  • Prison of the Hated Pretender by Gus L - One of the OSR community's best reviewed free modules. Suitable for teaching new players and for returning players; provides a complex area full of interrelated factors to navigate. This will work out of the box for LL, OSRIC, Dark Dungeons, and descending AC S&W. It will require statblock conversion for use with LotFP, BFRPG, or ascending AC S&W.
  • Under Xylarthen's Tower by Jeff Rients - A simple enough dungeon crawl by one of the biggest brains of the OSR, Jeff Rients, in years past. Suitable for one-shots, convention games, or a home delve. This will work out of the box for LL, OSRIC, Dark Dungeons, and descending AC S&W. It will require statblock conversion for use with LotFP, BFRPG, or ascending AC S&W.
  • Dyson's Delve by Dyson Logos - Dyson called it his "mini-megadungeon" and it generally plays like one. It is a deep dungeon of deadly hazards with fantastic maps, and you can mostly slot it in anywhere you like and reskin its origins with ease. This will work out of the box for LL, OSRIC, Dark Dungeons, and descending AC S&W. It will require statblock conversion for use with LotFP, BFRPG, or ascending AC S&W.
  • Chaotic Caves by JD Neal - A popular BFRPG adventure usually held up by the BFRPG community as a great starting point for getting into the system. It is largely attempting to copy the experience of playing the original B2: Keep on the Borderlands adventure that was packaged with the 1981 Moldvay Basic D&D rules back in the day, and does a fair job of it for a free module. It will require statblock conversion for use with other games.

Levels 3+
  • Challenge of the Frog Idol by Dyson Logos - Folks review this highly, and Dyson is one of the most popular cartographers and illustrators around. This will work out of the box for LL, OSRIC, Dark Dungeons, and descending AC S&W. It will require statblock conversion for use with LotFP, BFRPG, or ascending AC S&W. 
  • Monkey Island by JD Neal - Another popular BFRPG adventure designed to clone much of the feel and interesting features of a classic module from 1981's Cook Expert rules. This one is borrowing very heavily from X1: The Isle of Dread. It will require a statblock conversion for use with other systems besides BFRPG.

Anthologies and Misc
  • Basic Fantasy Roleplaying Game Adventures by Various - There are several complete adventure chains (BF series, JN series, etc) and several multi-author anthologies available completely free here. If you selected BFRPG as your system of choice, downloading these free adventures is a good way to get a vast amount of game material at no cost, perfectly tailored for your preferred system. These will obviously require stat block conversion for use with other systems.

Bonus Round: Free Settings
Slot your adventures into these worlds and regions, premade and ready to go.



Step 3: The Helpers

This section provides links to free resources to make your journey into old-school gaming easier or faster. The internet is, again, simply too full of resources to exhaustively link every free map or whatever in this location; my goal is to pick out a few useful ones that I think might help you out in your quest to enjoy old-school D&D.

These should be useful to just about everyone starting out in old-school gaming. For example, even if you chose to download LL which is compatible with old TSR modules, you may want to play a LotFP module later and therefore you'd have a conversion document. The OSRIC references are equally handy for DMs of LL/S&W/DD/OSRIC as the statblocks are basically 1:1 between these. The time and campaign trackers are invaluable for anyone playing old-school games. And so forth.




Step 4: The Thinkers

You might be thinking you need more information, or more options. Maybe you are sure you will need a specific class archetype to satisfy your friend who has only played XYZ for the past 10 years, or maybe you are a tinkerer by nature, or maybe you feel like you could just use some hints on what, exactly, is the thought process behind half of this. That's all good stuff, and you're in luck.

There is also a profound amount of advice and assistance written about the subject of playing, refereeing, tinkering with, and creating old-school gaming materials. There are a million blogs out there, including this one, producing an endless stream of old-school D&D content; the scene has been incredibly fruitful for over a decade at this point. Here are some links to get you started:

  • Links to Wisdom - A collection of links to popular blog posts filled with thoughts and house rules can be found here; it is sort of a highlight reel of ideas that might help you enjoy your game more.
  • OSR Challenges - Arnold Kemp talks about the mindset behind creating and overcoming challenges in old-school gaming, which is much more important than choosing and fighting monsters. 
  • XP for Gold - Joshua Macy explains some of the thinking behind the XP system in old-school D&D - that is, XP comes mostly from treasure successfully retrieved from the dungeon, encouraging clever play to avoid enemies and their traps moreso than just muscling through as found in games where XP mostly comes from monster kills.
  • How to Awesome-Up Your Players - Jeff Rients, our large-brained friend whose name you keep seeing in this article, discusses ways to keep players engaged and interested, and how to have a great time by keeping the focus on their trials and successes.
  • A Guide for New Dungeon Masters - Courtney Campbell has a very prolific blog, and one of his best articles is about getting your bearings as a brand new DM and getting out there and actually doing it. Good read for sure, even if you're not going to be the DM/referee for your game; it will help you appreciate what is happening around you so you can interact better and, in turn, have much more fun together!



Step 5: The Gamings

This is the fun part. Go get your friends! Sit at a table! Shout at rat bastard traitor dice together! Die horribly in pits! Tear up character sheets! It's a ball. This is the best part of the whole hobby. You get to develop ridiculous stories through the sheer insanity of random dice results and preposterous roll tables. You get to laugh about it for years. You get to see if you can outwit your friends AND a dragon one of them is controlling. You get to decide how many orcs are behind a door waiting to stomp your buddies to death and giggle at their shock. This is where all the fun is.




Help!

Hopefully you picked a game, an adventure, any useful documents you need, and you're on your way to sitting down at the table with your friends without paying a penny. But maybe you're confused because I write like a long-winded drunk zebra, or you're paralyzed by too many options, or you're just needing a few clarifications to get all the way there. Whatever it is, we can find a solution!

1. First, let's make things really easy. Here's some prepackaged combos for you based on some tastes/circumstances.

  • Returning Greybeard: You are returning to old-school gaming after years away, you remember playing back when everyone called it "Ay-Dee-En-Dee", you want broad cross-compatibility with old TSR products and new OSR products, and you would love to play your old collection of modules or your own homebrew adventures forever: OSRIC, Dungeon Turn/Time Tracker


2. If that doesn't solve your problem, you might want to consult some other sources to find that missing puzzle piece:


3. And if all else fails, ask someone!
  • Twitter #osr and #dnd hashtags - Badger OSR nerds any time of day because we cannot escape our omnipresent cellphones.
  • Dragonsfoot Forums - Very knowledgeable forum, originally very specifically dedicated to TSR modules and games, but now with a small subforum for OSR and retroclone discussions as well.
  • r/OSR/ Subreddit - Growing spot for OSR and retroclone discussion, will only get busier as G+ sunsets I suspect.


I sincerely hope this guide has made getting into old-school gaming easier (and cheaper) for you. It is a fun way to play with friends and the growing number of folks playing this way would probably agree that it is interesting, challenging, and rewarding. From here, the sky's the limit: you could splurge on some prettier versions of your chosen rules, you could pick up a billion free adventures or take a look at the incredible paid modules that have won the OSR so much acclaim recently, and most importantly, you could write your own systems and adventures altogether! I look forward to seeing you around the OSR internet or with your head buried in a book at GaryCon or North Texas RPG Con someday! If you need further help or just want to chat, you can always yell at me over on Twitter where I post as @dungeonspossums.
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13 comments:

  1. Awesome — it’s a meta-primer and an intro. Love it!

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  2. Great article, bookmarked for when I need some OSR inspiration

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  3. Very nice!---after work, I'll post back with some additional links to consider including :D

    Allan.

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  4. What an enormously useful resource! Thanks!

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  5. I had been thinking about doing something like this, glad to see you beat me to the punch - this is excellent.

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  6. This is an excellent post. I would note that it's also not particularly difficult to introduce old-school play to a low-level 5e or Pathfinder game. The feel of danger (especially compared to B/X!) will be a bit off, and you'll still want to establish OSR principles of play with players, but it's a nice way of using great material with a ruleset that's often easier to recruit players for. One of my favourite OSR modules is technically written for Pathfinder.

    Main conversion notes:
    * old-school monsters with 1 Hit Die should be replaced with 5e monsters of Challenge Rating 1, and so on. Just reskin stat blocks, no-one will know.

    * Let people discover and disable traps (or at least big mechanical traps) through cunning narration. Don't force a roll. The 5e rerelease of The Sunless Citadel (in Tales from the Yawning Portal) is a good example of traps written this way.

    * definitely include monster/NPC reaction rolls, they're an important part of making the game not all about combat. This can be the traditional 2d6, or it could be a d20 + Cha roll, with "monster auto-attacks" on natural 1, and "monster auto-helpful" on natural 20.

    * you might consider restricting classes to the main 4, but letting players swap out class features for other ones based on in-game actions. i.e. there's no Barbarian class, but a Fighter who journeys to the tree growing on the Site of the First Murder and eats of its fruit can get a rage ability. Make the game less about your character's build, and more about their in-world actions.

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  7. I'd also recommend the GLOG for the d20 Refugee+ crowd, thanks to its easy multiclassing and absolutely stupendous amount of classes.

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  8. zowie! a lot of known resources and plenty more to add to the library...

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  9. Usually I never comment on blogs but your article is so convincing that I never stop myself to say something about it. You’re doing a great job Man,Keep it up.
    Cheating Playing Cards in Assam

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  10. You wouldn't happen to have an alternate copy of the dungeon tiles, would you? The link on your linked page is down?

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