OSR Buyer's Guide
I see Youtube videos and lots of posts asking the question, where do I start with OSR? As a person interested in the hobby, where do I go and what do I buy? There is a feeling the OSR community is very difficult for new players to enter, and the options and guides on how to get started are lacking. I tend to agree. So what I wanted to do is present a short guide, from my experience and the games I have played, on where to get started in OSR. Note this isn't an exhaustive list, and some of the big players are missing - as this is from my experience and perspective. I will add games as I read and collect them though. My perspective may have value to people and steer them in the right direction.
Also, if you have your own list, your own feelings, and other games - please create and share a list of your own! Link them here in the comments if you want! The more OSR buyers guides for new players out there the better, and having these lists and resources allows people to get a diverse range of reviews and opinions on the best OSR games to get started with. We need these sort of "entry points" for new players because I feel things can get confusing with all the options, games, communities, and change in the OSR world.
At the time of this writing, the Classic Fantasy Rules Tome is your best bet for an all-in-one book. Click on that, and if you are in North America you will be taken to another site to buy.
If you are just starting out in B/X or the OSR, buy this book and start here. You will not be confused, everything you need will be here, the rules are incredibly clear and easy to understand, and the artwork and book quality are about the best you can buy. This is a book that can seriously impress both people new to the hobby and long-time players.
Everything is so easy to handle and run, even the monsters have all of their attacks and special rules laid out clearly. Spells are clean and well-organized. Rules are check-listed and presented cleanly. The rules for any concept are cleanly laid out on one or two pages, and you won't be flipping back and forth to find things or understand them.
This is one of those games I could give to someone who never played a pen-and-paper game before and be confident the book would guide them through all the concepts without too much help from veteran players. I feel the book would also hold their interest with the art, style, and presentation. Very few games I can say that about these days.
The Advanced Fantasy book is coming out in 2021 and will provide more options and content, and I expect that will give Labyrinth Lord a real competitor for variety while still maintaining compatibility with the classic rules tome. Right now, this is more of a basic-flavored game with the original content and game material, and when the advanced book comes out we will have an option between basic and advanced play with more options and content.
I get the feeling a large part of the OSR community is getting behind Old School Essentials just on the strength of the books, art direction, modularity, and organization of the rules. If you are looking for the next big thing, love clarity, and want to have an incredibly nicely put together book - starting here is a great choice.
My only real reservation about recommending OSE to new players, that it may be a better resource for veterans who are used to the material and the book speeds through a lot of the detail that makes the world come alive. If you don't know what a Hobgoblin of Lizard Folk are, the descriptions in Labyrinth Lord and other games may give you a better feel for what they are and how they work in the game world.
Also, if you are looking for something more than B/X and you find the limitations and rules to be a bit dated, I would recommend a game with updated mechanics such as Old School Essentials or Castles and Crusades as more your thing.
The OSR community goes through different phases of picking a "standard bearer" game for B/X, and this isn't to say everyone agrees or this is the best one - it is merely what specific version of the game at one point and time a lot of the B/X material was being produced for. If Old School Essentials feels like the current standard bearer, Labyrinth Lord was the previous one (in my experience, others may see this differently). Two of the best mega-dungeons (Barrowmaze and Forbidden Caverns of Archaia) were written for Labyrinth Lord, although those are both mostly B/X compatible and could be used with any B/X game. Many other books were published to expand the game in monsters, settings, and classes and these are all great resources.
Labyrinth Lord is not as nicely laid out as Old School Essentials, but it does have a unique mix of B/X rules and additional 1e content from both major lines of the game in the 1980's that provide a wide variety of monsters, spells, classes, and options all in one book. Add to that a lot of the indie material published for Labyrinth Lord and you have a version of B/X that is still a solid option, well supported, and playable as other B/X games.
The game feels like a mix of the old basic style rules with a lot of advanced material added. This is the way a lot of us played back in the day, we just pulled in content from the hardcovers and kept the fun going. The presence of demons and devils is a huge selling point, along with the higher-powered spells, magic items, and monsters. The game's strength is compatibility with older material and a mix of content from different but similar systems of that era. You can also use just about any B/X or advanced module with this game and it just works - the compatibility is excellent.
Labyrinth Lord is kind of the Windows of the B/X world, compatible, huge, well supported, but sometimes arcane; where OS Essentials is the Mac, slick, intuitive, organized, and focused on a limited set of options.
That said, I feel the game is a little less new-player friendly just because of size and depth of options. There is also a split-personality basic/advanced concept in character creation that could confuse new players, but it is all compatible so you can't really make any huge mistakes creating a character. It is still more new-player friendly than many of the modern versions of games sold by big companies though, and requires a lot less understanding in terms of page count and concepts.
Also worth noting is the Labyrinth Lord compatible science fantasy post-apocalyptic game Mutant Future, which is an excellent retro-clone game of mutants and sci-fi mayhem. Also note this game also has two books that can be used together, a Basic version of the game and an Advanced. Both of these books are contained in the above all-in-one version, and those books are meant to be a spilt sort of introduction to a basic version of the game, and then an "added content" version - while all being compatible material.
As I mentioned above, there is a benefit to a less-condensed book that slows down and describes things more fully - especially for new players who may not know a lot of the monsters, magic, and treasure in the game. If you are a player that likes to read and be inspired by longer passages, seriously give Labyrinth Lord a look, relax, and read it like a fantasy novel.
The most inexpensive way of getting into OSR and joining a huge B/X community is with the excellent Basic Fantasy RPG. This is a B/X style game emphasizing simplicity and a low-cost of entry. The books are all printed at-cost, so you can buy the full game on Amazon for under ten dollars.
Basic Fantasy is a great starting point, very simple, clearly presented, and especially easy for kids to learn and play. The low cost means everyone can afford the books, and you can download the full rules for free. If you want to try B/X and spend zero money, Basic Fantasy RPG is an excellent starting point.
Basic Fantasy is also another new-player friendly game, and while not as cleanly organized as OS Essentials, the presentation is very easy to grasp concepts, find things, and understand what is going on. A new player could understand what is going on from this book without much help and be able to start playing.
There are also a good number of community-developed resources you can download and add to your game for free, should you want to go that way. Basic Fantasy RPG has the feel of an open-source community software project where many contribute and the best ideas rise to the top. The art and book quality aren't as high as some of the other games on this list, but the open nature and simplicity more than make up for those shortcomings.
This game is more the standard set of B/X options without the 1e expansion material. If the price of Labyrinth Lord or OS Essentials seems too high for you to commit to a purchase, please start here, dive in for free by downloading the rules, and get started!
At first glance the game is incredibly chart-heavy, more heavy than most other OSR games, but those charts are filled with a unique and deadly flavor of old-school inspirations and horrible things that can happen to your character in a variety of actions and results. The game also uses a whole new set of Zocchi dice like the d14, d5, d3, d16, and others - so this may be a good thing for some or complicate things for others.
The dice are there to be the game's task difficulty system. Start at a d20. Got some factors making the roll harder? Knock the die down a few steps, such as a d16 or d14. Is it easier? Go up a few steps, back to the d20 or even to a d24. Roll. Done. No modifiers or multiple dice in a throw needed.
The game does not feel as straightforward as Basic Fantasy or OS Essentials. For experienced players looking for a game with all sorts of charts to describe the terrible fates their characters endure (especially to magic), I would recommend this in a heartbeat just due to the art, presentation, and flavor of the rules and experience.
As a first-time game I would be slightly hesitant to recommend this to a new player without someone to guide them through play, or a group already playing this to jump in with. The basic play of this game is just like B/X, but with extra levels of chaos and fun with tables around the magic system.
This game has replaced Pathfinder 1e in my mind for the gonzo fantasy TTRPG experience. It does more in way less books, captures the "Heavy Metal" feeling I want, and does so with a respect of the OSR standards but it takes everything in a new and cool direction. At first I shied away from this game, once I dove in I found a lot to love and it replaced a shelf-full of books and did so cleanly, more simply, and with a style and flair for the gonzo dramatic that I love.
I know I left a few off this list, and probably your favorite. They are coming as I get time to work on this page. More soon!