"Lonely men are we, Rangers of the wild, hunters - but hunters ever of the servants of the Enemy; for they are found in many places" - Aragorn, The Fellowship of the Ring
"Lonely men are we..." These days, we all relate. The Great Separation has fallen upon us and a chance conversation prompted me to investigate RPGs online as a way of bringing my friends together. Since we are all the greenest neophytes when it comes to this medium, the game has to be the simplest sort - and that set me off exploring the wonderful world of D&D retro-clones.
Top row L to R: White Box, Swords & Wizardry, Swords & Wizardry: White Box, Labyrinth Lord, Basic Fantasy
Bottom row L to R: Blueholme, Dungeon Crawl Classics, Dark Dungeons, Old School Essentials, OSRIC
There's a whole other blog out there reviewing and reflecting upon these things, which are affectionate (or obsessive) interpretations of the old D&D editions: Holmes' Basic, Moldvay/Cook, Mentzer's BECMI, 1st edition AD&D and even 3rd edition. All made possible (or given a loose legitimacy) by Wizards of the Coast's Open Gaming License (OGL, 2000). This prompted fans to create new versions of "the first fantasy roleplaying game" so long as they stayed clear of its distinctive creative properties. In practice, we are surrounded by delightful homebrew versions of early D&D, some with exemplary art and production values, others embracing an amateur/underground aesthetic.
Maybe this will help...
After browsing through OSRIC (2008), Blueholme (2013) and Basic Fantasy (2013) and rebounding painfully from Dungeon Crawl Classics (DCC, 2012), I settled on White Box (2017).
A World without Ernie
White Box is a sort of retro-clone of a retro-clone. Swords & Wizardry was a game that took the Original D&D Rules of 1974-7 (which came in the titular 'white box') and tidied them up and rationalised them, creating a quirky antique version of AD&D. Marv Breig then came out with Swords & Wizardry: White Box, going for something even more stripped back and archetypal: 122 pages in small book format, detailing 3 classes (no Thieves!) and 3 races, levels up to 10, spells up to 6th level, all Hit Dice and damage dice are six-sided. Charlie Mason's White Box takes Breig's idea and makes it a thing of beauty: wonderful B&W illustrations in a professionally amateur style, adding in Thieves and some atmospheric fey creatures. It's a delight.
You can buy the inexpensive softback from Lulu (left and centre) or pick up the White Box PDF for pay-nothing from drivethrurpg (right)
What Breig and Mason have done goes beyond cloning D&D: it's more like an alternative paradigm. Imagine a world in which young Dave Arneson back in 1972 wants to show his Blackmoor game to a games designer who could publish it... but instead of heading up to Lake Geneva to show it to Ernest Gary Gygax, he drives down to Phoenix (for some reason) and shows it to public librarian Ken St Andre, the guy who would be inspired by the idea of D&D and appalled by the rules and created Tunnels & Trolls in 1975.
What would D&D have been like if the verbose, dictatorial Gygax had been out of the frame? What if freewheeling visionary Arneson had teamed up with someone who possessed Gygax's talent for systematizing but had a generous, romantic philosophy of gaming? That's what White Box feels like: D&D with the Gygax taken out.
It's a delicate aesthetic and easy to mishandle. Swords & Wizardry produced quite a few expansions for Breig's White Box but the distinctiveness seems to drain away. Salvatore Macri's White Box Heroes (a free PDF) adds in Thieves and the other familiar subclasses as well as Gnomes and Half-Orcs. There are some entertaining new classes (Tunnel-Fighter and Summoner) but too often the product feels as if it has directly ported across Gary Gygax's formulations from AD&D rather than approaching the game afresh in the style of Breig's S&W: White Box.
Simon “Noobirus” Piecha does a better job with White Box: Expanded Lore (a pay-what-you-want PDF). This expansion Mason's White Box introduces Bards, Druids, Monks and Paladins in a format that takes inspiration from the originals without being enslaved to AD&D. For example, every Druid picks two animals forms (one small, one big) that they can adopt once a day and in which they receive a bonus to Armour Class and a 1d6 attack. So simple yet so liberating.
Expanded Lore introduces a few things to differentiate and beef up flimsy White Box characters. Some are familiar, like the gradated bonus/penalties for attributes (-3 for a score of 3, going up to +3 for a score of 18) but others are more novel. Character classes get new abilities, like Magic-Users gaining familiars, Druids speaking with animals and Paladins having mounts while Fighters choose from a range of sub-classes. A lot of these powers used to be available when OD&D/AD&D characters reached a certain level or through learning a spell, but White Box now gives them away to all, free gratis. And why not?
Similar are the new Feats characters choose from at 3rd, 5th, 7th and 9th level - and boring Humans get a Feat at 1st level too. These Feats are way more significant than the fiddly Proficiencies introduced in 2nd edition AD&D: being a 'Quick Learner' means you get a 10% bonus to all earned XP, 'Linguistics' lets you pick up another language, a Fighter can get a free attack after killing an enemy with 'Cleave'. Rules like this move White Box into a distinctive category of its own, offering fairly high-powered heroic adventuring with stripped back rules. It's a heady combination.
It's inspired me to fill in some of the gaps by offering my own White Box versions of the character classes missing from Expanded Lore, starting with the lonesome Ranger.
White Box Rangers, Revisited
As I mentioned, Salvatore Macri's Ranger sub-class for S&W White Box Heroes is really just the AD&D Ranger. So to construct an authentic White Box Ranger, I thought I'd do a bit of paleo-RPG research and unearth the original Ranger, the model Gary Gygax worked on to create the AD&D version.
The Ranger turned up in the summer of 1975 in the pages of Strategic Review, a magazine that TSR produced to promote its games in the days before Dragon Magazine. It was created by Joe Fischer, a player in one of Gary Gygax's D&D groups.
The Ranger is clearly a D&D analogue of Aragorn from Lord of the Rings: a wilderness tracker who is good at fighting 'giant class' enemies (orcs, ogres, etc) but can also use crystal balls, healing magic items and, at higher levels, cast spells from both the Cleric and Magic-User lists.
Like a lot of new classes designed by the players who would like to play them, the Ranger shows a very clumsy power creep. Two hit dice at first level? Gaining 4 XP for every 3XP earned - not only overpowered but fiddly as well since it would be easier to scale back the XP requirements by 25%! Then that massive damage boost against 'giant class' opponents, which turns out to mean all the humanoid monsters you routinely meet in dungeons. Aragorn is an exceptional hero, but Joe's Ranger class tries to make every high-level Ranger capable of the stuff Aragorn accomplishes in Tolkien's books.
The Fresh King of Gondor
When the Ranger turns up in the 1978 AD&D Players Handbook we see the tempering effect of Gygax's experience as a rules-writer. Double Hit Dice are still there, but only d8s, while regular Fighters have been promoted to d10s. This makes Rangers tough at 1st level, but their advantage diminishes as they progress. The ludicrous XP boost has gone, although Gygax reduces the level XP requirements slightly. Otherwise it's very similar: Gygax loves percentile tables with minor variables. Druid spells replace Clerical spells (since there were no Druids when Joe Fischer created the class in 1975) and the restriction to Rangers adventuring in pairs has been slightly lightened: groups of three Rangers can now adventure together, for some reason. Gygax extends the Ranger's alertness to surprising monsters as well as not being surprised.
I want to do a more thorough job than Gygax did editing Joe Fischer's ideas:
My table has Rangers advancing a bit slower than White Box Fighters at first, but overtaking Fighters (slightly) at the highest levels. I'm keeping the 2 HD at first level - six-sided Hit Dice in White Box - because it seems to be enshrined by tradition. However, at 3rd and 7th level they only get a +1 bonus to HP (and don't add Constitution bonuses either) so that advantage disappears in the mid-levels. The Saving Throws are rubbish. That's adapted from Salvatore Macri's treatment of the Fighter subclasses. They get the standard Fighter bonus of +2 vs Poison/Death however.
I'm giving Rangers the Druid spells from White Box Expanded Lore but there seems to be no reason why they should have Magic-User spells too. By way of compensation (and because the class only has 10 levels now), they gain access to these at 5th level, rather than 8th (Macri and Gygax) or 9th (Fischer).
Charlie Mason handles White Box Thief skills as a single ability called 'Thievery' that is rolled on 1d6 and successful on 1-2 at lower levels. This is simple and matches up with general skills at opening locks, breaking down doors and finding secret doors, which White Box lets all characters attempt with success on 1-2. So let's treat Tracking in the same way: it's easier to give a bonus or penalty to something as blunt as that.
The idea that wary Rangers are harder to surprise makes sense, so let's keep that as an extra ability. There's no need to extend to them the increased likelihood of surprising monsters. What's the rationale for that, especially when heavily armoured Rangers accompany armoured and noisy parties? However, I think I'll go back to Fischer's idea of the Rangers never adventuring together in groups of more than two.
White Box doesn't offer tables to roll up followers for high level characters and the old tables were invidious: with the possibility of getting ordinary fighters, or perhaps a pair of Unicorns, a Lawful Werebear or a Gold Dragon, a single dice roll could have momentous ramifications and offered a sore temptation to cheat. Best to let the DM decide or negotiate it.
Rangers don't get the Combat Fury ability that lets ordinary White Box Fighters attack 1HD monsters a number of times equal to their level. They don't get to choose a sub-class from Expanded Lore. But I'm going to offer them a bunch of Feats that replicate the original powers Fischer bestowed on them:
Since White Box PCs pick a Feat each time they reach an odd-numbered level (and Humans get a Feat at 1st level too), this offers plenty of opportunity to craft your Ranger PC towards the crystal ball-viewing, healing magic-using, orc-slaughtering and giant-toppling stereotype. But you might prefer to select from Charlie Mason's generic Feats instead:
This adds up to a Ranger who is a Fighter with tracking powers, hardier at low levels than ordinary Fighters but less effective against hordes of mooks at higher levels, able to use some Druid spells from mid levels onwards but let down by weak saving throws and a lack of martial Feats. If you want to, you can build this character towards the Aragorn stereotype; if not, you can develop her in a different direction. That's what I want from White Box roleplaying.
You might have noticed the Trauma exemptions for Rangers? These are based on my interpretation of Arnold Kemp's Trauma & Insanity rules. Rangers are not as brutal as Fighters: they gain Trauma from seeing companions die. But crossing the Misty Mountains in a snowstorm, they can do that. And they always volunteer to do look-out duties!
30 Minute Dungeons
Essays on Forge
I'm a teacher and a writer and I love board games and RPGs. I got into D&D back in the '70s with Eric Holmes' 'Blue Book' set and I've started writing my own OSR-inspired games - as well as fantasy and supernatural fiction..