Monday, October 4, 2010

REVIEW: B/X Companion

These days, I'm more than a little swamped with things to keep me busy. Between posting to the blog, working on Thousand Suns, keeping up correspondence, and the responsibilities of parenthood, a lot of stuff gets pushed aside on to the "do it later" pile, including, I am embarrassed to confess, a lot of the books and PDFs people kindly send me for review. I was steadily working my way through them, hoping to have a couple more (at least) done this week, when a friend of mine stopped by this weekend and asked if I'd bought a copy of Jonathan Becker's B/X Companion. I admitted that I hadn't yet, for various reasons, but that I hoped to get a copy sometime soon, perhaps later in the month as a birthday present to myself. My friend told me I could read his copy and so I did -- in a single sitting, into the early hours of the morning.

It's rare that a gaming product, even a very good one, holds my attention long enough that I read it cover to cover in a single session but the B/X Companion did just that. For those of you who don't know, this book is an attempt to produce one of the "lost" products of the hobby, the fabled D&D Companion mentioned in the Cook/Marsh Expert Rules. As described there, the D&D Companion would have dealt with characters of levels 15-36, providing new spells, magic items, monsters, and other material intended to extend a campaign into higher-level play. The D&D Companion, alas, was never written, although a boxed set calling itself Companion Rules did appear as part of Frank Mentzer's re-write of the game line in the mid-80s. But, good as that boxed set was in some respects, it wasn't the D&D Companion we'd been promised in 1981, a feeling Jonathan Becker obviously shared, leading to his writing of the book under review.

The B/X Companion is thus written as if it were an add-on to the 1981 edition of Dungeons & Dragons (Moldvay/Cook/Marsh or "B/X"). It is thus not a complete game in its own right but rather presumes the reader also owns the original B/X volumes or, as a substitute, Labyrinth Lord from Goblinoid Games. Its compatibility with Labyrinth Lord is close but not perfect. The B/X Companion cleaves very closely to the original rules, so certain tables in LL, such as combat or saving throw matrices, to cite but two, don't match up with those in this book. It's not a huge issue, but it is worth noting. Likewise, the B/X Companion doesn't appear to have been written under the OGL, which is odd, given how much material it uses from D&D. I honestly don't know on what basis it was released at all, since every retro-clone I've seen to date, including some that stray quite far from the source material, make use of the OGL as a legal bulwark, if nothing else.

Purely as an artifact, the B/X Companion is an amazing piece of work. Though its beautiful cover art is by Brian DeClercq rather than Erol Otus, it nevertheless manages to capture the look and feel of the B/X ruleset. The same is true of the interior artwork by Michael Cote, Kelvin Green, David Larkins, and Amos Orion Sterns, all of whom have produced some excellent pieces here. I was particularly taken with Green's work, whose homage to a piece from the LBBs is very nicely done (and it reminds me that I really must procure his services in the future). The layout and presentation of the book is a very good match for its illustrious predecessors, as is the voice in which it is written. The B/X Companion can therefore be called a nearly pitch-perfect evocation of that 1981 D&D rules.

Of course, what really matters most of all are the rules and it's here that the book shines. Though I could enumerate literally dozens of areas where I disagreed with Becker's choices or would have done something differently, the fact remains that the overall approach of the B/X Companion is one with which I heartily agree. The whole book is only 64 pages in length and adopts the same lean elegance as Moldvay/Cook/Marsh. Spell and monster descriptions, for example, are rarely more than a couple of paragraphs in length, with each paragraph being only a sentence or two. Magic items are even more spare in their presentation. Despite that, Becker packs a lot of punch into his descriptions and the new material he presents should serve as excellent spurs to the imagination of referees and players alike.

What's particularly interesting to me, though, is that the B/X Companion contains a lot of genuinely new material. Yes, there are the requisite nods to OD&D's Supplements and to AD&D staples, but what I immediately noticed was how many new spells, monsters, and magic items were included in this product, thereby increasing its utility even to players of other versions of D&D. Likewise, the simple but effective mass combat and domain management rules ought to be easily portable into other rulesets. Truth be told, there's a lot here that could be transported elsewhere with only a minimum of work and, believe me, I am sorely considering doing so.

Taken as a whole, the B/X Companion is nothing less than an alternate take on what high-level play means in Dungeons & Dragons, a take that eschews the absurdities of both Mentzer's quest for immortality and WotC's vision "epic level" campaigns. In its place is a lower key but nonetheless heroic style that has a much more "human" scale, if that makes any sense, one that is a plausible outgrowth of the world implicit in the B/X rules. About the only place where I think Becker strays from this vision is his cop-out regarding demihuman characters, who, while they can no longer gain levels, can still accrue experience and thus improve their combat and saving throw chances. It was an approach I didn't much care for in Mentzer and find even less agreeable in the context of Moldvay/Cook/Marsh, but it's easily ignored.

All in all, the B/X Companion is a triumph, both as a physical product and as a work of the imagination. It's probably one of the best things to come out of the old school renaissance this year and I can't wait to snag my own copy to sit proudly on my shelf alongside my dog-eared copies of the B and X rulebooks.

Presentation: 8 out of 10
Creativity: 10 out of 10
Utility: 7 out of 10

Get This If:
You're a fan of the B/X rulebooks or are looking for an alternate approach to play above 14th level.
Don't Get This If: You don't have any interest in the B/X rules or prefer high-level characters to be more over the top in their power and ambitions.

33 comments:

  1. "In its place is a lower key but nonetheless heroic style that has a much more "human" scale, if that makes any sense,..."

    It does, and that makes it more appealing to me.

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  2. Good review, James.

    And I don't just say that because your observations jibe with mine that I made in my video review! ;-)

    I am genuinely looking forward to incorporating some of JB's ideas into my games.

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  3. I ordered mine and anxiously waiting for it for it to be shipped.

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  4. I do not see why Frank Mentzer's method is absurd. It is clearly different from JB's and it is not something that interests me either but to each his own.

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  5. There's only one thing which makes me question his slavish adherence to the 64 page ideal, and that is the combat tables which are broken up on two pages. Otherwise it's a pure beauty.

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  6. Is the enough margin room on the inside for a 3-hole punch?

    Just curious.

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  7. R. Lawrence Blake said...

    Is the enough margin room on the inside for a 3-hole punch?

    Just curious.


    Sadly, no. I mentioned this in my vlog review. The interior margin is a little tight. You could TRY it, but I think you'd end up catching some text.

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  8. It's not published with the OGL or any other license http://bxblackrazor.blogspot.com/search/label/ogl
    As a regular follower of JB's blog I was floored to find out that he didn't do any sort of research for licensing. He just decided to publish the mythical 3rd Book and did it.

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  9. Thanks for the review. I've been going back and forth on ordering the B/X Companion, and just read some other reviews over the weekend while trying to make up my mind. This one just pushed me over the line, and it's now been ordered. :-)

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  10. The domain management rules sound interesting. I might have to pick it up just for those, but since I don't actually own B/X D&D (I have LL and a copy of Mentzer Basic), I wonder how much conversion I'll have to do.

    Normally its pretty minimal for anything other than characters though, and not even that much for characters.

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  11. Thank you James for the kind words. I would consider it an honour to provide art for one of your projects.

    However, I do have to confess my ignorance. I have never seen the original D&D books, so any homage was purely accidental.

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  12. Great review. I already wanted it, now moreso. :) Problem is I don't buy physical gaming books anymore, and a PDF isn't available. I hear he intends to eventually, so I'll have to wait until then. I know I'm probably the odd duck there, but PDFs take up way less shelf space considering I'm not an active gamer, just a nerd who likes to read rules.

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  13. I would like more details on what "alternate take on what high-level play" means. No needs to cut a paste the whole dang book, but I'm curious: If it's not the Mentzer approach or "same as before, just with bigger numbers" like WotC, what is it?

    You mentioned domain rules, but that's hardly new, as both AD&D and Mentzer had those.

    Thanks.

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  14. Thanks for the insightful review. Certainly a purchase for a variety of reasons.

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  15. For what it's worth, I like Mentzer's Immortals rules. I'm not knocking the B/X Companions' rules, as I haven't read them yet, but I think that Mentzer's rules are arcane, devious, and difficult to understand- as they should be!

    Just as a quick question, is the book hardcover or soft?

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  16. If a judge thought Ad&d was different enough from 0d&d so that Dave Arneson no longer shared the copyright with Gary Gygax, I don't see how anyone at all needs to even pay lip service to the OGL when making their own game.

    Am I wrong in how the lawsuit played out?

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  17. N.Wright, like the basic and Expert books upon which it's modelled, the Companion is a softcover volume.

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  18. Is there a PDF option? I am interested in checking this out, but the price for a 64-page booklet is pretty steep - I think I understand why, but that doesn't lower the price.

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  19. outlander78, no pdf at the moment, but I believe that JB has said we will consider it.

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  20. Put me down as one vote for a PDF. The price is a bit steep for 64pp. paperback, especially as I'm not currently running a game.

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  21. @ JM: Thank you for the kind review...I'm glad you finally got a chance to read it!

    A couple-three notes:

    All the artists were great. I'd recommend them to anyone looking for illustrations for their own projects. I couldn't have been happier with Brian's cover (truly), and the interior pieces really make the book worth a read.

    There IS quite a bit of new material in the book. I wanted it to be more than just a "curiosity on the shelf" even for those folks who insist they'd rather play a different game than B/X. Plus, I'm a creative person, dammit! I think all of it is readily adaptable to any pre-2000 version of the "original fantasy adventure game."

    Finally, this book isn't a "retro-clone" of anything...certainly not Frank Mentzer's Companion rules. I consider it to be its own book, one that "might have been, but never was." As such (and as I don't infringe on WotC's intellectual property), I didn't see the need to invoke the OGL.

    Did you like that leprechauns grant wishes? That was one of my favorite parts.
    : )

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  22. I do not see why Frank Mentzer's method is absurd. It is clearly different from JB's and it is not something that interests me either but to each his own.

    You're right; "absurd" was probably too strong a word. The "quest for immortality" theme is simply one that I find tedious and dull and that holds zero interest for me. I associate it strongly with the kind of gamers who used the DDG as a kind of uber-Monster Manual and boasted of their characters having slain Thor and taken possession of Mjolnir and whatnot. It's a sore spot with me.

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  23. Sadly, no. I mentioned this in my vlog review. The interior margin is a little tight. You could TRY it, but I think you'd end up catching some text.

    Yeah, it's one of the few small flaws in the physical presentation of this book, which is otherwise a beautiful evocation of the B/X books.

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  24. The domain management rules sound interesting. I might have to pick it up just for those

    Like everything in this book, the rules themselves are quite small (only 2 pages) and expect a lot of referee adjudication to work well. I like what Jonathan did here, but I'm not sure I'd recommend you get the book solely for those rules.

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  25. I would consider it an honour to provide art for one of your projects.

    That'd be terrific. I should drop you a line sometime soon and check on your availability.

    However, I do have to confess my ignorance. I have never seen the original D&D books, so any homage was purely accidental.

    The piece on page C64, with the swami sending his spirit into the planes beyond reminded me a lot of a piece from Volume 3 of the LBBs that showed a djinni. Looking back at both pieces now, the resemblance is more passing than I'd originally imagined, but it's still a terrific illustration.

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  26. I would like more details on what "alternate take on what high-level play" means. No needs to cut a paste the whole dang book, but I'm curious: If it's not the Mentzer approach or "same as before, just with bigger numbers" like WotC, what is it?

    When I said an "alternate take," I didn't mean alternate to what we've seen in D&D before. Some of what's here we've seen versions of in AD&D and other iterations of OD&D. My point was that it was alternate to what WotC has been pushing for the last decade or so and what Mentzer did in his later boxed sets.

    The B/X Companion assumes a typically "Conan-esque" future for the PCs -- ruling a dominion and adventuring against higher stakes but the scale remains "human," which is to say, there's no talk of world-shattering evils or apotheosis or any of that sort of thing. I wouldn't say this book offers anything you haven't seen before by any means, but it is something I haven't seen associated with D&D in a long time, so I thought it worth mentioning.

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  27. I think that Mentzer's rules are arcane, devious, and difficult to understand- as they should be!

    The Immortals rules? To be totally honest, those rules were so far removed from anything resembling D&D that I never bothered to learn them. I bought that boxed set out of curiosity and was struck almost immediately by how bizarre they were. They're effectively a different game entirely.

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  28. Am I wrong in how the lawsuit played out?

    No one knows precisely how the lawsuits played out, so it's hard to say. My suspicion has always been that TSR ponied up some money in order to get Arneson's acquiescence to their claims, but that's based on nothing but a gut feeling. I'd love to know the exact details of the suits and how they were resolved.

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  29. The astral projection image is one of my favourites. There's a definite influence from Ditko's Doctor Strange comics, and from what I do know of the original D&D books, there is some, er, repurposed Marvel art in them, so I'm not surprised if there is a level of similarity.

    I shall have to ask around the local gaming community to see if anyone has the original books so I can do a comparison.

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  30. I associate it strongly with the kind of gamers who used the DDG as a kind of uber-Monster Manual and boasted of their characters having slain Thor and taken possession of Mjolnir and whatnot. It's a sore spot with me.

    The problem with this statement is that you confuse examples of poor play with a campaign style. High level gaming and quests for Immortality can be played well and poorly, just as dungeon crawls can.

    In many Internet discussions, I see statements about what D&D should be like and what kind of games are not D&D. The great thing about D&D is that it can be anything you want. This is one of the reasons why I prefer RPGs to Boardgames. One of the great things about the BECMI expansions was that it introduced new possibilities to what D&D could be.

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  31. I doubt that you'll still answer my comment on this post, but I wanted to thank you for advising me against getting it. I need to save my money and anything above level 10 is usually too high level for me anyway.

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  32. @Kelvin: You can see the image right here on Grognardia, including an analysis of its pose-swipeyness from Doctor Strange.

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  33. Justin, thanks for that! How ironic that it was here where I saw it in the first place!

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