Labyrinth Lord, written by Dan Proctor of Goblinoid Games, is, as everyone who reads this blog undoubtedly knows, one of the primary retro-clone games currently available. It's explicitly modeled after the 1981 Dungeons & Dragons Basic and Expert rules written by Tom Moldvay, David Cook, and Steve Marsh. Like all retro-clones, LL necessarily introduces some mechanical wrinkles that cause it to deviate from the original game rules but (it is hoped) in so slight a fashion as to be unnoticeable in play. On this score, I feel that LL succeeds admirably; it really is a terrific approximation of the Moldvay/Cook rules and, given that its entire text is both completely open and available free to download, the game offers a tremendous opportunity to keep the spirit of "Red Box fantasy" alive and well with new products.
The release of Original Edition Characters, though, suggests that Proctor has something even more ambitious in mind for Labyrinth Lord. Available either as a PDF or a printed book, this 66-page product is self-described as "a player's handbook of Original Edition character options." Of course, by "Original Edition," Proctor means OD&D, as should be apparent from the excellent cover art by Steve Zieser, which recalls the box art from the fourth and later printings of that game. Original Edition Characters is thus an "emulator" for LL, one that enables you to play in a style more closely approximating OD&D than the default Moldvay/Cook vibe of this retro-clone.
In practical terms, this primarily means changes to the way character classes work (including the elimination of the Thief and the demihuman classes), as well as the way ability scores function. The changes to LL are instituted elegantly and while they don't always reflect absolute fidelity to OD&D -- Fighting Men, for example, get 1D8 hit points per level rather than the variable number of D6s + bonuses of the little brown books -- the end result is something that, on a functional level, feels very much like OD&D, albeit one with a bit more clarity of presentation.
That's probably a good thing, since Original Edition Characters is intended as a "player's handbook." That is, it's geared toward being a handy reference for players as they create their characters. Referees will find it essential as well, but the product is written in a way to give players everything they need to play. I think this is an amazing thing, given both the brevity of the product -- the bulk of its 66 pages is taken up with spell descriptions -- and its low cost. I've long been of the opinion that what the hobby needs is a simple, inexpensive intro game that isn't a "crippleware" product that's an elaborate advertisement for a more complex, expensive game that's the "real thing." Original Edition Characters is a good example of the kind of thing I'd like to see more of.
If this product has a flaw, it's that it cleaves a little too closely to the baseline Labyrinth Lord rules, particularly when it comes to spells and their effects. It's true that the list of spells in Original Edition Characters is closer to that of the three little brown books (plus supplements -- magic missile is included, for example), but the descriptions of these spells, so far as I could see, are not at all different from those in Labyrinth Lord. Now, on one level, this is a good thing, both because it helps unify the LL "brand" and because it avoids confusing players and referees already familiar with the baseline LL rules who might simply assume spells work identically. The problem is that, at least according to some interpretations of OD&D, part of its appeal is attempting to make sense of its often-unclear spell effects. OD&D is a text that demands its reader engage it, because it's well nigh unplayable with such engagement. Original Edition Characters makes fewer such demands than say Swords & Wizardry, owing to its retention of LL's clarity, but then I suspect that's part of the point.
Despite this possible criticism, I think one of the most important things about Original Edition Characters is that it reminds us that, whether your favored version of the game is OD&D, OD&D + Supplements, Holmes, AD&D, Moldvay/Cook, or even Mentzer, these games all have far more in common with one another than they do with their wayward descendants. It's something I need to be reminded of from time to time myself, so I'm grateful to Dan Proctor for having done so. What he's done here is show that, with a few mechanical tweaks and the right frame of mind, you can easily switch between modes of play to reflect one of several distinct "eras" of old school play. Given that the foreword makes reference to an upcoming LL product called Advanced Edition Characters, we'll eventually see how far this approach can be taken and just what it will mean for the old school revival.
Final Score: 4½ out of 5 polearms