There’s a lot of cool minimalist and “OSR-Adjacent” D&D clones out there. Black Hack, Into the Odd, and Knave are a few of the titles many talk about.
But the one that stole my heart is a little title named Vieja Escuela, a Spanish RPG that had been translated to several languages (including English). The name itself means “Old School” — it’s a set of rules born out of a fanzine of the same name. It has roots in several clones, including Microlite20, Swords & Wizardry, and Whitehack.
First off, the size: 16 pages, including a character sheet and the OGL. It’s the perfect zine-sized rules, and it covers quite a bit. It’s surprisingly detailed, albeit compact. It doesn’t bog you down with fluff or tutorials — it assumes you know the type of game it is, and jumps right into it.
Character creation is the standard rolling 3d6 for the six attributes we all know, with modifiers ranging from -2 to +2. Four races (Human, Elf, Dwarf & Halfling) and three classes (Fighter, Rogue, Magic-User). Every race and class gives you two talents. You also choose a Background (in a 1-sentence description) and then choose four of 6 skills: alertness, communication, lore, manipulation, stealth and survival.
The skills presented here are an interesting twist — modern players of d20/3e and newer will probably scoff at how few there are. OSR types may scoff they’re even in there. Their execution in the rules is even more intriguing: it’s not Stat+Skill, instead they’re chosen over an attribute. On top of that, attribute scores remain static (at least in terms of character advancement) while skills improve over time. The creators stated that they felt experience is more important than attributes, which I can’t really argue with that presentation.
You may have noticed that there’s no Cleric class. There are two reasons for this: First, it’s a game with an implied sword & sorcery vibe — magic is dangerous, and the gods are pretty absent. The other reason is because of the magic system itself. It’s a freeform system, inspired by Whitehack, with a pretty simple-yet-effective guideline attached to it. In short: the Magic-User has a number of Magic Points available per level. When they cast a spell, they must “name it” to give it form. You then haggle with the GM about how many points the effect will cost. The guideline mentioned is 1 Point = 1d6 Damage or Healing, or a level of effect. For bigger effects the GM may also put in other sacrifices: health, money, stats, etc. Matter of fact it should be noted that a Magic-User can sacrifice 3 Hit Points for 1 point of Magic.
The mechanics of the game are roll high on a d20, adding modifiers, usually against a difficulty number. The lowest difficulty is 11+, for standard or hurried tasks (if it’s easy, the game asks, why roll?). After that the difficulty escalates by 3 (14, 17, and 20+). There is a 5e “Advantage/Disadvantage” system present as well.
Combat uses rolls against an ascending Defense score, modified by ability scores and an attack bonus by level. “Saving Throws” here are rolled vs Difficulty using a combined bonus of Ability Modifiers and an “Instincts” score. I would love to point out that Wisdom functions as a “Sanity” score in this system, and there are even times to make a Charisma roll in this system! (Primarily for attuning magical items.)
On tasks, as I’ve mentioned, the player uses either an ability score or a skill. If their Background would offer experience in dealing with the task, they get a +2. If it’s deeply connected to their Background, they get to roll with Advantage. I LOVE THIS. At first I was worried the skills and attribute modifiers were too small, but working within your background concept offsets the odds and makes even simple Level 1 characters playable and somewhat competent.
Monsters are short, sweet little stat blocks. Their Level determines their Hit Dice, Attack Bonus, and their Instincts score. This makes it incredibly easy to arbitrate NPCs and new monsters on the fly. Should also be pretty easy to convert most OSR stat blocks by just focusing on their level and any important attacks or features.
Magical items are pretty straight forward — anyone can use potions, magic-users and thieves can read magic scrolls. Enchanted items, however, are sought after but also risky — especially since most of these items are considered to be intelligent (we have an example of a sentient sword that will fight on its own, but if its own avoids combat it may turn on them!)
Characters level at the same rates, and the game is presented on a B/X-style scale of 1-14. At level 6 you acquire a third talent for your class (Fighters get a better crit range, MUs get a familiar, and Rogues can use magic scrolls.) At 10th level, you get a new background, but this one is tied to a title of importance — Baron of a Region, Leader of the Thieves Guild, Archmage of the Tower, etc.
The XP system itself is swift: Every session the GM awards 1-3 XP. At 10 XP, you level. It’s easy, it allows the GM to set the pace or the rewards, it’s not dependent on slaying monsters or acquiring treasure, and it’s a bit more detailed than leveling up after every adventure or milestone arbitrated by the GM.
As time goes on, I realize just how elegant and thought out the rules are. It’s a very nice middle ground of old-school and modern gaming ideas. Where I was initially concerned that it was too simple, and that characters would play too similarly, I realize there’s plenty of wiggle room for players and DMs to tinker without having to really add new rules.
The free-form casting may be tricky for some players or GMs but I find it pretty liberating, especially since it’ll still play nice with most OSR content. I’ve actually printed Maze Rats spell generation tables, as well as Knave’s 100 Level-less spells to keep for inspiration and ideas (and also to randomly produces scrolls for players to find.)
While I tend to groove the options and “fullness” of games like D&D Rules Cyclopedia or Swords & Wizardry Complete, VE hits all the right notes for me — it has enough familiar mechanics that players of both old-school and modern can pick up. The number ranges are easy to track, and monster stat blocks can fit on a post-it note. The generalized skills and Background mechanics make it easy to make a variety of characters. The free-form magic system is simple, infinite but reeled-in. Easy to add on to and plays nice with other OSR games. And, most importantly: I can pack this whole game up and take it anywhere no problem!
FIND VIEJA ESCUELA HERE: