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.