Basic Fantasy RPG: Old is new again

You can always count on Comics on the Brain to review something that’s well out of its publishing cycle. Comics from the 1970s, sure. Movies from the 1990s. Toys from the 1980s. Short stories from the 1940s.

No problem, that’s CotB’s specialty!

Now we’ll do the same with “Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Game,” a so-called retro-clone game that takes early RPG principles and features and then merges it with a modern ruleset.

In this case, Basic Fantasy swipes the old look and feel of the Basic Dungeons & Dragons, usually called the Red Book game by collectors, and fuses it with the rules of the third edition of the D&D game.

If you want to get the rules for yourself, and they’re totally free in digital format, just hop over to the game’s website and download them in PDF form. We opted to buy the game off of Lulu so that I could have it in paper format. More importantly, CotB actually had them printed into a spiral-bound book so the game is especially easy to read and use at the game table. Sure, it’s a more little difficult to store this way, but CotB loves the functionality.


Right off the bat, people who played the Red Book D&D will recognize the design. Basic Fantasy lifts the early TSR fonts and layout, which warms the heart of many a grognard. In particular, it uses the exact same (or nearly the same) headline font.

Also harkening back to the days of a pre-digital world, the illustrations inside are retro looking. These aren’t great works of art but they have a kitschy flavor to them that helps to spark the imagination.

The layout follows a similar track. It isn’t splashy, and harkens back to the days when a straight line was all that was needed to guide your eye, rather than alternating shades of half-tones.


The primary goal of Basic Fantasy was to make playing an RPG easy again. To do so, the writers and contributors took a good look at the early version of the D&D rules. Back then, the game was more about building a living story that it was about angling for the best  bonuses.

To keep the number-crunchers under control, Basic Fantasy sticks with the basic classes: Cleric, Fighter, Magic-User and Thief. They stuck with the basic races (Dwarf, Elf, Halfling and Human). Kept the weapons list short. And followed the leads Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson with relatively short lists for their monsters and spells.

These selections mirror the Red Book D&D in its simplicity, and its that simplicity that makes this game a perfect tool to introduce new players (from young to old) to the world of RPGs. It’s better to offer them something like this than to have them lost and flustered while trying to play catch-up with more experienced players. Instead, this game’s basic nature gets them on equal footing faster than almost any other RPG.


Though Basic Fantasy takes a cue from the original Basic D&D rules, it really models itself after D&D 3.0, which presented a more-unified gaming mechanic than earlier versions of the game.

Basic Fantasy, therefore, is instantly familiar with modern players and intuitive for new players too: You learn the simple task resolution system for one thing, and you’ve learned it for the whole game.

Don’t be fooled though, Basic Fantasy pares down this rule system too. Gone are feats, movement rules and skills. Instead, it wants players to rely on their own ingenuity and creativity to make up for those rule-benders.

Still, the game doesn’t ignore some of the classic D&D tropes. Watch out for the dreaded “Save or Die” rules that could turn a shining hero into a steaming corpse with a single roll!


The Basic Fantasy game is a complete package. You only need to download this simple file to get the whole game. As such, it includes a decent collection of monsters to challenge the players.

These are your standard group of monsters, along with a collection of animals, undead and mythological creatures. Almost all of them include a simple illustration, but game masters should make sure to read the descriptions too, since that’s where the best flavor of the book is.

Using these standards is another way to help new players get up to speed. Most everyone knows what a medusa is, so they have a basic idea on what it looks like and the best way to vanquish it. Ask 100 people what a Tentamort is, and 99 of them will ask you to leave the room.


When you first look at the Basic Fantasy RPG, you’re going to ask yourself “What’s the point of this?”

After all, it is a purposeful stunting of a much broader rule system. It’s filled with below-professional art. It’s an effort to limit a player’s choices.

But once you start reading it, and better yet playing it, you see that it’s a kick in the junk of your imagination. It makes you look for all the angles in your character, rather than a collection of numbers.

It begs to spend time role-playing and stop adding up bonus numbers.


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3 Comments on Basic Fantasy RPG: Old is new again

  1. Hey, one of my forum members pointed this out to me, and I have to say thanks for a great review! Let me also point out that, while it is true that you only need the core rules to play, the page you linked to contains many adventure modules, rules supplements, and handy forms (including, of course, character sheets) created by the many members of the Basic Fantasy project. We’ve got lots of good stuff to share, and we’re always happy to see some new people on our forum site!

  2. Thanks! It’s a really nice book and I am really glad I bought the spiral-bound version of it. In fact, anytime I but a new Lulu-based game, I’ll be sure to get the spiral version.And a major “attaboy” to you guys for recapturing the old look and feel of the game!

  3. It’s more than just look and feel; mechanically, the game is as close to the original as I felt comfortable making it. The only “modern” rule is ascending AC, which, as I’ve said many times, I’d have used back in ’81 if I’d heard of it.

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