Wednesday, November 18, 2009

REVIEW: Original Edition Delta: Book of Spells

One of the most enjoyable aspects of the old school renaissance is seeing the large number of house rules and variant interpretations of OD&D that are used in individual campaigns. From my perspective, each campaign should be as unique as the referee who runs it and the players who participate in it. Some of the best old school blogs include not only listings of house rules but also discussions of the rationales behind them. I find material of this sort endlessly fascinating, since it's a latter day example of the kind of idiosyncratic creativity that was commonplace in the early days of the hobby. It also helps put paid to the notion that the old school movement supposedly marches in lockstep according to one rose-colored tune.

One of my favorite blogs is Delta's D&D Hotspot, written by Daniel Collins. Dan's been posting his thoughts about D&D online for a long time -- far longer than most -- and he's been playing OD&D even longer. I consider him one of the more thoughtful and experienced commentators on OD&D out there and, even when I disagree with his opinions, such as giving saving throws for any spell that has potentially negative consequences, I'm always interested in his explanation of why he holds that opinion. His musings on his blog and elsewhere have often caused me to re-evaluate my own thoughts, which is a remarkable feat, given how hidebound I can be. In short, Daniel Collins is someone worth listening to.

On his blog, Dan's been discussing his version of OD&D, which he calls "Original Edition Delta" or "OED" for short. OED nicely boils OD&D down to its essentials, clarifying some rules without eliminating the need for referee judgment calls and rationalizing other rules without eliminating the charming quirkiness of the original game. Again, I don't agree with all the choices he's made, but OED is nevertheless a version of OD&D I'd enjoy playing and I've pilfered a few ideas from it in my own Dwimmermount game.

So, when Dan released Original Edition Delta: Book of Spells, I was intrigued. What did he have in store? As it turns out, Book of Spells is an 18-page product (available in both print and PDF formats) that presents, as fully open content, all the magic-user spells of 6th level and below presented in the little brown books, with select additions from Supplement I. Dan did this for a couple of reasons. First, it fills the void left by the removal of legal OD&D PDFs by Wizards of the Coast earlier this year. Second, it gives players of magic-users (and referees) a "spellbook" they can easily consult during play rather than having to flip through an entire rulebook for just a few specific pages.

What's most remarkable about the spell descriptions is that, with very exceptions, they're no more than three lines of text long, including information on range and duration. Most of the descriptions eliminate "negative" statements and limitations, on the notion that OD&D magic should be rare and potent and that the primary determinants of what it can and cannot do are player ingenuity and referee adjudication. This results in a very bare bones presentation, but one that is strangely inspiring to those of us who see OD&D not so much as a complete game in itself as an invitation to create one's own game from its piecemeal rules.

Book of Spells is an admittedly specific book and I can't say it's a "must-have," particularly for those who already own the LBBs + Supplements. However, it's nevertheless a very fascinating take on OD&D magic-user spells, one that strips away the limitations of later editions, concessions to convention play, and other needless worries that have emasculated D&D magic over the last 30+ years. Reading Book of Spells is like reading a recently-unearthed ancient text, one free from later glosses so that it can be read with new eyes.

Original Edition Delta: Book of Spells consists almost entirely of dense text, with only four illustrations (counting the cover) to break it up. It is, however, very readable and well edited. It's also a bit expensive considering its length but that's hardly a damning critique of what is a useful and inspiring product. I don't expect it to set the old school gaming world on fire, but I do think it could occasion quite a lot of fruitful discussion about the power and utility of magic in OD&D, even among those who are already playing the game. That's a pretty remarkable feat in my opinion.

Presentation: 6 out of 10
Creativity: 7 out of 10
Utility: 6 out of 10

Buy This If:
You're looking for a concise presentation of OD&D magic-user spells free from later accretions.
Don't Buy This If:
You prefer more expansive (and restrictive) spell descriptions.

1 comment:

  1. I really like the simplicity and clarity of these spell descriptions. The vast stat blocks and text descriptions of later editions really suck the magic out of spells.