Microlite81 (Part 1: Just the Essentials)

So far during the pandemic’s stay-at-home orders I’ve crash-coursed Roll20.net, spent a lot of time developing adventures for it, started some online B/X games, and worked quite a bit on some of my potential rules variants. In addition, I’ve bought a number of game-related things I’ve wanted, mostly in PDF, and printed and bound a few of them with all my extra time.

Microlite81 Digest Edition

One of the things I’ve wanted to look at for a quite a while are the Microlite rules. I remember looking at them years ago (when I think they were relatively new) and being impressed with them despite their D20 basis. I liked the boiled-down basic approach and the lightweight rules despite the newschool chassis to the whole thing, similar to how I was intrigued by the Dungeonslayers rules around the same time. I’ve looked up the Microlite system a few times over the years but have been put off by the plethora of systems and variants of each system. While I appreciate the effort to make a wide range of options available, it’s a lot to digest when thinking about diving in.

During the quarantine, RetroRoleplaying has made a Microlite bundle of basically everything available on DriveThruRPG for $24.98, and when our lockdown got extended a few weeks ago I pulled the trigger. I’m glad I did.

The goal of the oldschool Microlite games is to “recreate the style and feel of that very first fantasy role-playing game published back in 1974 without giving up all of the clearer mechanics of modern D20-based versions.” I recognize that many old-timers might scoff at the idea of using newer mechanics for older-style games, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with newer mechanics. Even if you prefer the older ones (like I do).

It’s taken some time, but I think I’ve got the basics down: Microlite20 is the rules-light game built on the D20 foundation, and the various lines I’m interested in are oldschool-styled games built on Microlite20:

  • Microlite20 – Newschool rules-light D20 (68 pages in “Comprehensive” form)
  • Microlite74 – Oldschool rules-light D20 game based on Original D&D (20, 28, or 32 pages)
  • Microlite75 – Oldschool rules-light D20 OD&D using more original-ish XP and advancement than Microlite74’s D20-style system (38, 56, or 90 pages)
  • Microlite78 – Oldschool rules-light D20 game based on 1e AD&D (158 pages)
  • Microlite81 – Oldschool rules-light D20 game based on 1981 B/X Basic/Expert D&D (46, 60, or 128 pages)
  • Microlite81 Advanced – Oldschool rules-light D20 game based on B/X D&D with classes, spells, monsters, and magic items from AD&D (206 pages)

Those page counts are accurate, with multiple numbers for some of the games representing various versions of that game. For instance, Microlite74 has three regular versions: barebones Basic (20 pages) representing the material in the three original books, expanded Standard (28 pages) incorporating material from supplements and magazines, and enhanced Extended (32 pages) with additional material and house rules. All are complete games with characters, spells, rules, monsters, and treasures, though in some of the versions spells and monsters get only a line or two, each.

It’s amazing how much material can be crammed into so few pages when you boil it down to the bare essentials and assume that the players already know what RPGs are and how to play them. (Using a small font doesn’t hurt, either.)

In addition to the Microlite game lines summarized above, there are additional “specialty”-style versions, including a Swords & Sorcery version of Microlite74 and a version that uses only d6s. Also, a number of the games are available in digest-sized editions and even .epub and .mobi for ereaders.

That plethora of games can be daunting, but it also means that the right combination of elements you’re looking for could be already there on the list.

There are a few other games included in the DriveThruPRG bundle, including the game that got me searching DTRPG in the first place: BX Advanced. Unlike the Microlite lines, which are not intended to be a clone of the old rules, but rather a conversion of them to a rules-lite D20-based system that encourages old-school play without strictly old-school rules, BX Advanced is more of a traditional retro-clone, recreating a 1e AD&D game built on a B/X chassis.

Many of these games are available for free or Pay-What-You-Want, so it’s quick and easy to grab one or two to check out. Just be careful…you might end up getting sucked in. And if anyone out there is a Microlite junkie, don’t be shy about pointing out errors in my descriptions…I’m still struggling to take it all in and grasp the exact details.

NEXT: The Microlite81 line in more detail. Four versions of B/X on a D20 engine, with a lot of bells and whistle options.

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