I’m predisposed to like Eric Diaz’s Old School Feats. Firstly, the author sent me a review copy, which was very nice of him. Secondly, the core pitch appeals to me: that by adding one more layer of choices (feats) to old-school RPGs, you can actually simplify a lot of the weirdness (monks and barbarians are clearly just types of fighters, druids are clearly just types of clerics, etc), while also expanding the available character concepts.
However, I was a little concerned that a lot of the fun of modern OSR games is in the wacky classes (e.g. here’s a table of 100 GLOG wizards.) Obviously, no single book can replicate the creativity of the entire OSR scene, even via combinatorial explosion. One obvious solution would be to simply combine wacky GLOG-style classes with the resources in this book, although unfortunately a lot of them are tied into highly specific mechanics of the traditional core classes (more on this later.)
But this book doesn’t entirely abolish frivolous classes in favour of the core fighter/cleric/rogue/wizard(+race-as-class, optionally). There are also “packages”, which are basically classes (e.g. Sorcerer, Barbarian, Druid, Knight) broken down into feats. This is a nice open system that lends itself to homebrewing, and a lot of existing classes can be converted into feats this way with varying amounts of difficulty; a base that, if built upon, could easily produce a similar level of variety to GLOG or 3.5’s endless class options; I’m hardly the first to note that a feat is basically just a class feature with the class removed. I wish it had been expanded on further, however, it’s only a sparse two pages and the way it fits into the random class tables is largely left to the DM.
Like a lot of modern games, this book warns you that it’s kinda unbalanced and will break if you poke at it too hard. This always bugs me a bit, even if it’s more honest than pretending otherwise; balance is important. (Although I obviously appreciate that the amount of playtesting it would take to really balance so many options is not feasible.) However, it’s worth noting that literally everything in here can be applied via random table; that won’t appeal to everyone, but it has an inherent balancing effect in addition to the fun of seeing random characters come together.
It’s also worth saying that there clearly has been a lot of work put into balancing it, even if they acknowledge it may not have been enough to handle a real munchkin. The feats in this book are, like in 5e, theoretically designed to balance against Ability Score Increases, although with a different system designed to keep ASIs balanced in AD&D style games (the increase is proportional to how low the Attribute was rather than flat; I can’t actually speak to how balanced this is without trying it, but there’s clearly some thought and likely some playtesting put into it.)
On the other hand, the desire to let these feats replicate existing classes sometimes gets in the way of balance. To pick a random example, the Magic-User feat Charisma Casting simply lets a Magic-User’s casting attribute be Cha instead of Int. Is this actually an improvement, let alone one worthy of spending an entire ASI-equivalent on, or just a feat tax on people who want to play Sorcerer knock-offs? I could see a scenario where, say, you’re strictly rolling Attributes in order and get crap Int, but you/your character really want to be a Magic-User (although that’s exactly the opposite of how Sorcerers are supposed to work fluff-wise, that’s hardly an issue new to this book), but that’s pretty niche. If you’re randomly rolling feats, niche feats like this probably won’t apply to you – what are the odds your Magic-User happens to already have a higher Cha than Int!
This is part of a really core, though easily fixable, flaw in this book: the classic four core D&D classes are just as weirdly specific as the redundant ones this book is aiming to replace, and yet this book treats those idiosyncrasies as absolutely essential. Cleric feats rely on the exact mechanics of Turn Undead, Thief feats rely on the exact mechanics of Thief Skills and backstabbing, Magic-User feats rely on casting using Int and spellbooks and Vancian casting, and so on.
This book bills itself as being compatible with basically all OSR content. It’s not, not without a lot of house-ruling, so much that you may need to re-write or throw out easily half of the book. It’s not even compatible with the author’s own published OSR games system! Nor, RAW, is it capable of entirely replacing most of the classes it removes, because these feats only add abilities, never replace them (although see below for more on this.)
However, as I said, I think this is relatively easy to patch if (as seems likely) you aren’t playing exactly the brand of AD&D this game is actually designed for and compatible with. You just need to adjust the feat lists.
The book already has clearly sectioned off which feats can apply to any character, which to any character with basic martial proficiency (the Fighter/Other list), and which are aimed at very specific AD&D classes (Thief, Magic-User, Cleric.) If you aren’t using those exact classes, under the exact AD&D rules this book is written for, then you’re going to need to go through them and remove or adjust a bunch of them. (Or, I guess, you could just not use them, but that’s 3 of the 5 feat lists in the book! Still, boosting martials never hurt anyone.) In fairness, there are even a small handful of notes on how to handle specific “variant” rules, but far far too few to actually make most of the book compatible with most OSR systems out of the gate.
Not all the class-limited feats actually break if applied to other classes, and in fact cross-class feats are specifically suggested in many of the feat packages. I would have liked if [class]-themed feats were separated from strictly class-limited feats, perhaps at the beginning of the table so you could roll with a smaller die if you don’t qualify.
As for those feats that seem almost designed for replacing, rather than augmenting, existing abilities… this is discussed briefly towards the back in the Optional Rules & Designer Notes section, where it’s made clear that this is how they were actually used in a lot of the playtests. But there’s no system provided for doing this yourself, which is a shame, (even if it’s very easy to improvise one). It’s presented as a throwaway optional variant house-rule even though a lot of the system seems to treat it as the default.
Tradition demands that I comment on the formatting, artwork etc. of the book.
They’re nice. The art has a rather nice black-and-white retro look, a little generic, but that’s probably deliberate. I’m not going to be printing pages out and hanging them on my wall, but there were some nice little touches that (as an aspiring artist myself) I appreciated and might steal when drawing in that style. Stuff is easy to find and (I wish this weren’t praise, but in the world of RPGs it is) easy to read. I did catch a couple of minor typos, but nothing that was actually confusing or presented an issue (and, as it’s digital release, these can be fixed on the fly.)
Should You Buy This Book?
If you’re part of the core target audience – people who want a way to spice up a game if B/X, OSE, Labyrinth Lord, or some other retroclone that sticks very closely to the original rules – then yes, absolutely. It’s a great upgrade to those systems in my opinion.
If you’re already committed to another OSR game … maybe. It’s only $5, there are definitely some cool system-agnostic ideas in here, and won’t take that much hacking to get it to work. Even if you’re playing a non-OSR D&D game (or D&D clone), there are some ideas in here that will likely work in your system, and it’s worth thinking about.
If you’re looking for something that will run perfectly out of the box with zero balance issues or duct-taping required to make it work, then no, probably not. Even if you’re running a B/X game. It’s simultaneously very fuzzy and loose in some places and hyper-specific in others. But if that’s what you want, why on earth are you playing a B/X clone? D&D was never balanced right out of the box.
If you do decide to buy it, I guess I may as well toss in an affiliate link to Old School Feats, although I’m not really set up for them.