For the past six months, I have been playing in a weekly game of Engines & Empires, a retro-clone of the BECMI version of Basic D&D with a rather interesting twist. While most fantasy role-playing games are set in a medieval setting, E&E takes place in a fantasy setting that has just experienced it's version of the Industrial Revolution. This setting is the basis for a new look at a classic game.
While it possesses the staple elements of fantasy role-playing: swords, plate armor, magic, elves, etc, the introduction of a more technologically advanced society has introduced some new races and classes to E&E, as well as making changes to the traditional game. The most noticeable is the introduction of the Technologist class, a scientist who uses devices the way wizards use spells. The Technologist (and it's demi-human counterpart, the gnome) specializes in one of three realms of science; biology, chemistry or physics, and uses that knowledge to create items that can heal, damage, or create other effects normally in the realm of magic.
Other noticeable changes are to the Magic-User, Cleric and Thief classes. The Mage is mostly unchanged, but now uses Charisma as his primary attribute. Force of will is now more important in shaping arcane forces than Intelligence (the realm of the Technologist). The Cleric has been replaced by The Scholar, who has all of the abilities, but is no longer tied to a given religion. They tend to fall into the realm of the parapsychologist or vampire hunter archetype. One major change is that scholars require spellbooks, where clerics did not. This makes clerical scrolls more valuable to the scholar. The Expert class replaces the Thief as the skill-based character. However unlike the Thief, the Expert is not limited to areas of stealth and lock-picking. Instead he is alternatively a jack-of-all-trades or master of a few. The class is more reminiscent of the 2nd edition AD&D Bard as far as balance of powers go.
One of the big changes is the introduction of firearms to the game. Unlike AD&D's attempt with the arquebus, E&E treats guns like any other missile weapons, only a but more powerful. There's no need to worry about misfires or exploding dice. I was a bit skeptical of the introduction of firearms at first, but overall they didn't make things unbalanced.
Character creation is fairly quick, even with the addition of a small skill system. People new to RPGs usually can create a character in under five minutes. All of the classic classes, plus some new ones, are available. E&E uses the "race as class" system that BECMI did. Each demi-human race corresponds with a human class (dwarves are fighters, elves are scholars, gnomes are technologists, etc.) with some minor differences. The campaign setting is well thought out, with a world similar to our own, but that has clearly gone off in a different direction.
Engines & Empires is an OSR game that is compatible with both Labyrinth Lord and Dark Dungeons. Both ebook and print versions are available through Hulu. E&E's creator, John Higgins, blogs regularly at Ludandi Gratia.
Recommendation: Highly recommended for fans of old-school gaming who are looking for something new, but is not too far out of their comfort zone.