Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Retro-clones and I

There were lots of good comments to yesterday's Open Friday question. Thanks to everyone who took the time to share their thoughts.

I personally see clones serving two purposes. The first is to provide a legal means to support older RPGs that are no longer in print. While this primarily benefits publishers who want to sell new supplements or adventure modules, it's also quite useful to hobbyists who want to post such things to blogs, websites, or forums. Remember how TSR treated online resources produced by amateurs in the 90s? Retro-clones, operating under the OGL, obviate that concern. The second purpose is to ensure that, rather than relying a dwindling supply of older gaming materials, newcomers can purchase old school RPGs easily and cheaply.

As time goes on, it's inevitable that the retro-clones will replace the original games of which they are clones. As I mentioned above, there are a finite number of original games still available for purchase and that number will only decrease with time. You can already see this principle in action with regards to OD&D, whose LBBs and supplements are both increasingly hard to acquire and to acquire without spending a small fortune. Twenty years from now this situation will only be worse. This is why I'd like to see more close clones of older games rather than games inspired by them. I have no objection to original games that draw on older ones for inspiration, but, without close clones, certain games will become ever more inaccessible to players who lack access to the originals.

I'll add that, while I think it'd be terrific if WotC again made older products available in PDF form, their doing so doesn't affect retro-clones in any way. The ability to get hold of Moldvay/Cook again would be great, but I wouldn't ditch Labyrinth Lord if it ever happened. Why? Well, I seriously doubt that WotC would release its older materials under any form of open license and, yes, one can legally make support materials for these materials without an open license, it's less legally safe than doing so under the auspices of something like the OGL. More importantly, a PDF, useful as it can be, is no substitute for a printed product. Without actual physical books available from your local hobby store, you can't easily attract many newcomers to these games, thus the need for retro-clones.

Now, some old schoolers don't actually care about attracting newcomers. They're quite content in their existing gaming group and online communities and, for them, retro-clones, PDFs, and support materials are only important to the extent they support them and their interests. I can understand, even respect, that position, but it's not one that I share. I have no illusions that the ongoing old school renaissance is going to make tabletop RPGs, let alone old school ones, mainstream again the way they were in the 80s. We're never again going to see 12,000 copies of any game being sold each month. I'm fine with that. Nevertheless, I think it's vital that close clones of many of these older games exist and be available in local game stores. Without them, this segment of the hobby is only going to shrink further and I certainly don't want that. For me, clones are a way to ensure a future independent of the whims of game companies.

25 comments:

  1. "As I mentioned above, there are a finite number of original games still available for purchase and that number will only decrease with time."

    I think this is a little naive. PDF files are not finite in quantity, and whether WotC chooses to sell them or not is ultimately incidental to their availability and propagation.

    One can be as gung-ho a copyright law zealot as they come, but that doesn't change the facts.

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  2. I think this is a little naive. PDF files are not finite in quantity

    I was referring to the original print products -- that is, the physical copies of those old games. Those are definitely dwindling in number and availability.

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  3. As a collector of RPGs, I love the fact that the retro clones allow me to play the older games without having to use my original books. A thirty year old book is invariably going to breakdown after repeated uses. I'd rather preserve my originals and use the newer versions. It's just cheaper and easier to purchase one copy of Labyrinth Lord or Swords & Wizardry than buying two copies of Moldvay or Mentzer or Holmes--one copy for collection, one copy for play.

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  4. It doesn't matter to me whether the OSR movement makes TTRPGs mainstream again. What matters to me is that the retroclones allow us to explore those early years again, but with the benefit of our adult insight.

    Those of us who have been gaming for long enough have seen styles of play and styles of game come and go. Ultimately, it doesn't matter what the flavour of the month is, we will always come back to our favourites. If we can have flash versions of Asteroids and Spectrum (Timex Color for non-Brits) emulators, why not for the old TTRPGs?

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  5. You can already see this principle in action with regards to OD&D, whose LBBs and supplements are both increasingly hard to acquire and to acquire without spending a small fortune.

    Hell, 30 years ago when I first started getting into D&D, the LBBs were completely unavailable and rare to me. I didn't even know they existed until much much later.

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  6. "I was referring to the original print products -- that is, the physical copies of those old games. Those are definitely dwindling in number and availability."

    This is true, but I freely admit that print fetishists like me are not the future. As the numbers of these physical books dwindles, so will the demand for them except among collectors and oddballs like me.

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  7. And as a side note, even printed versions of classic D&D rulebooks are not truly finite anymore.

    I have, on my bookshelf, a perfectbound copy of Joseph Bloch's "Castle of the Mad Archmage." No crummy printout in a three-ring binder, mind you: An actual professionally-bound book with a glossy color cover that looks as as "legit" as anything else on my shelves. Looking at it, you'd never know it wasn't "officially" distributed in this form. It cost me very little to have made. Somewhere in the range of $10-$12, as I recall.

    Of course, CotMA is a completely free product and me making a (unique) bound copy for my own private use doesn't violate any laws or cross anyone's moral lines, but if we're already talking about people "pirating" actual old D&D rulebooks in PDF form, why assume they'd balk at doing the same thing with them?

    So there you have it: "New" print copies of old rulebooks, produced cheaply and easily.

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  8. I seriously doubt that WOTC will release any of their earlier product, let alone under any form of open licence. The simple fact is that the management appears to view the earlier products as competition with the new edition (especially now that the Red Box beginner's games are being introduced). In fact the various handbooks for the 4th ed are now seen as competition for new boxed product.

    In retrospect, this was a mistake, since it practically forced the development of Pathfinder and Fantasy Craft let alone the retro-clones. Assuming that your customers will simply follow where you will lead is a considerable act of hubris.

    But also in the times they are a-changing ledger is the addition of the Internet to the equation. Occupying a space in a bookstore or games shop is becoming less important as an entry vector into the game. I think cross-media RPGs are what will attract new gamers. People will be happy having played Dragon Age Origins and they will discover Dragon Age the RPG where they can extend on the property. This will be the new gateway into role-playing, although it will probably be unsatisfactory to many.

    But I think what is going to be more important when people build a toolkit that allows the simple creation of a virtual computer world without a great deal of specialized knowledge. When people can easily create in a virtual environment the art of tabletop (admittedly virtual) role-playing will be rediscovered.

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  9. @James I agree with your blog post 100%. Mirrors my sentiments as well.

    @Will, one problem with reprinting older books is finding a good scan in which to print from. Many of the WoTC pdfs have issues in the quality of the scan.

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  10. > As time goes on, it's inevitable that the retro-clones will replace the original games of which they are clones.

    You never replied to my previous rebuttal of that comment afaik, James.

    Why are you so certain that a retroclone (by whatever definition) that sells a few hundred - or even a few thousand copies - is going to be any more "available" or "popular" 20-25 years down the line, far less kill off the originals that sold hundreds of thousands, or even many millions? I suspect that even Bill Underwood wouldn't have been so naive as to believe that. ;)

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  11. You never replied to my previous rebuttal of that comment afaik, James.

    If there was a "rebuttal," I never saw it. Blame the large number of comments and emails I get every day and the limited amount of time I have to answer them all.

    Why are you so certain that a retroclone (by whatever definition) that sells a few hundred - or even a few thousand copies - is going to be any more "available" or "popular" 20-25 years down the line, far less kill off the originals that sold hundreds of thousands, or even many millions?

    Because the "source code" of those retro-clones is freely available and anyone who wants to sell their own version of them (or a variant thereof) can do so without having to rely upon a game company or the vagaries of third party sellers. That fact won't change 10 or 20 years down the road, regardless of whether the original producer of any of these clones is still around. The same cannot be said for the original games on which they're based.

    Right now, if I want to get a copy of the Little Brown Books, I'm looking at an investment of somewhere between $50-100, assuming a copy is even available. That situation is not likely to improve over time. A clone is a hedge against the possibility that, down the line, the original games will become either so rare or so expensive as to prohibit non-collectors from picking up copies of them.

    I suspect even Bill Underwood wouldn't have been so naive as to believe that. ;)

    As is so often the case, your elliptical comments elude me.

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  12. As the numbers of these physical books dwindles, so will the demand for them except among collectors and oddballs like me.

    You paint a truly dark vision of the future.

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  13. And since it was not answered...

    > As time goes on, it's inevitable that the retro-clones will replace the original games of which they are clones.

    Why inevitable?

    As copies of original TSR rulesets currently outnumber the clones by thousands-to-one, why not get those into the hands of gamers by truly attempting something innovative like a general recall on those to FLGS hubs in the name of old school gaming (OSR-funded if required)?
    Or is creating new product just more sexy, all round?

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  14. "We're never again going to see 12,000 copies of any game being sold each month."

    I'll bet World of Warcraft sells more than 12k units per mo. There is still a huge fanbase for fantasy gaming. Unfortunately, most of it has been captured by the computer gaming market, which, for all of the advantages it has in immersing a player in the environment, lacks the infinite possibilities of open-ended TTGs.

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  15. > As is so often the case, your elliptical comments elude me.

    Well, since my lengthy reply /was/ posted and visible on the board briefly, but has vanished now when I've refreshed my browser tabs, I'll just have to let others work that out.

    If for some reason that ended up posted on the wrong thread, please let me know James.

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  16. I think I have to agree with irbyz here, but for somewhat different reasons. Based on known sales of B2, there are well over a million copies of Holmes + Moldway floating around out there. I see several on ebay right now going for $8 to $15. (LBB has always been harder to source, but that's why the Game Wizards repackaged it as a "collector" set back in 1977.)

    Unless a lot of newcomers come to the hobby and actively seek out 35-year-old product, supply is not really a problem. The fact is, a world where only oddballs and collectors want a blue box is not a dark or distant future. That world is now.

    Despite worries about how "we" will supply newcomers, I actually don't see that many life-long non-gamers coming to the old editions. What I see is a lot of people who played around 1980-3 and left coming back after years away. I also see some younger people who already play newer games moving "upstream" toward the old material, but they're already part of the rpg audience.

    For the old gamers who are coming back, I suspect the "source code" is of secondary value compared to the nostalgic rush of being reunited with those books that we loved when we were children. I know that if I were to buy rulebooks for my kids, I'd spring for beat-up Holmes basic for them . . . but to be honest, I'll just let them paw through mine if they show any interest.

    Now it may sound like I'm bearish on publishers looking to keep the "source code" in print. But here's the platinum lining: What if old-school evangelists aggressively target those 950,000 or more now-aged kids out there who played Holmes/Moldway (or some other edition) in the golden age and are now looking for a way to reconnect to their childhoods?

    I think capturing even 3% of that lost market would make an authorized facsimile reprint a self-sustaining enterprise for the copyright holders...and maybe even generate some royalties for the surviving original authors.

    The problem, of course, is that these "lost tribes" don't look like gamers any more. They look like anyone you may happen to meet at the office or on the street. How about it?

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  17. Original games, plural, in your own words; not just talking about OD&D ("it's inevitable that the retro-clones will replace the original games of which they are clones").

    That wasn't intended to be an exhaustive example of the principle I'm defending. I figured by referencing the LBBs, it might be a little more clear where I'm coming from, but, alas, I was naive to think so.

    In any case, I declare surrender on this topic. I'm frankly tired of going around in circles with you about it. The vast majority of gamers, even those not sympathetic to the OSR, understand the purpose and necessity of retro-clones, even if they personally have no use for them. And I'm neither a tolerant nor patient enough person to rehearse a conversation that's been had hundreds of times on this blog and many others.

    So, let's just agree to disagree and move on.

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  18. I'll bet World of Warcraft sells more than 12k units per mo. There is still a huge fanbase for fantasy gaming. Unfortunately, most of it has been captured by the computer gaming market, which, for all of the advantages it has in immersing a player in the environment, lacks the infinite possibilities of open-ended TTGs.

    Oh, definitely. WoW and games like it are D&D's competition these days. Many of the people who, in the past, would have picked up tabletop roleplaying are instead choosing MMOs and other fantasy computer games. Consequently, tabletop gaming will likely be forever relegated to a niche within the much larger niche of fantasy gaming that, ironically, it helped to create in the first place.

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  19. I think capturing even 3% of that lost market would make an authorized facsimile reprint a self-sustaining enterprise for the copyright holders...and maybe even generate some royalties for the surviving original authors.

    If you've got some ideas on how to do this, I'd love to hear them.

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  20. It just came to me about an hour ago myself, so I'm still ramping up. Probably the easiest way to start is to leave a copy of Holmes or Moldway around the house for non-gamer friends to "trip over."

    If they go, "wow, how wonderful, I loved that game, I had no idea it was still out there," you've got one of your lucky 3%. If not, no real loss. They probably know we're a little odd already.

    Facebook is a great place to find those kids you played with 30 years ago. Where are they now? Do they remember?

    This would be a long-term project but if anything, the laws of nostalgia are in our favor as the college students who picked up the LBB in the 1970s . . . and left . . . lurch toward empty nest and retirement. After that, the Holmes and Moldway "bulge bracket" ramps up fast behind them.

    A bit more of the math: I don't have any "sales" numbers for the clones on hand so don't know how many "OSR" types there really are. Ten thousand? Let's be generous and say there's another 5,000 who never left, so don't see any need for a "renaissance" at all.

    I don't care whether your poison is Moldway or Mentzer or ADD+UA-FF. If everybody gets *two* friends to return to any flavor of the game, you've got critical mass by contemporary publishing standards. You get *three*, and you probably have more people back in the game than copies of the LBB originally sold. Then you've got your supply problem.

    But you've also got a reason for the copyright holders to reprint and give have a little left for Ward, Cook, the artists, the widows and anyone I'm forgetting.

    Maybe for some reason the OSR world is already much bigger than I think. In that case, everyone can rest after bringing two friends -- children, students, co-workers, the lost tribes -- to the game. But let's be ambitious. Three out of a hundred of the people who loved this game 30 years ago and left us.

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  21. Oh yeah...

    http://www.acaeum.com/library/printrun.html

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  22. > So, let's just agree to disagree and move on.

    There are other people on this blog, James, and a wider discussion beyond your personal beliefs in order to help ensure the continuation of "old style RPing" but that's entirely your call to continue to treat differing opinions more like negative personal attacks rather than focusing to positive opportunities in the bigger picture as in bombasticus's example, above, which would also benefit if it were possible to get FLGSs more "on board" to help improve supply in the second-hand market, as well as selling retroclones (and a darn sight easier to set up an "old school gaming evening" using the former, too, rather than breaking out the new shop stock of retroclones).

    > And I'm neither a tolerant nor patient enough person

    That much is obvious. You probably should have kept that "legions of fawning sycophants, from whom he will brook no dissent" quote since it apparently wasn't only made in jest.

    I'll presume my missing discussion post just vanished due to a software glitch after it was made in that case.

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  23. Bombasticus,

    Some interesting ideas there! Thank you for sharing them.

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  24. I'll presume my missing discussion post just vanished due to a software glitch after it was made in that case.

    After this comment, I can assure you that any future vanishings of your comments won't be due to a software glitch.

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  25. I don't think so much that a physical product will introduce people as word-of-mouth. I game on my laptop, with it as my DM Screen, and it serves me better than any other screen, as I can easily navigate to what I need when I need it.

    Of course, I remember showing my AD&D book to a gal I was sweet on several years ago. The result was that she made the sign of the cross and avoided me like the plague. LOL

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