Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Clone Wars

One of the fascinating things about the Open Game License Wizards of the Coast introduced with the release of Dungeons & Dragons 3e back in 2000 is that it more or less guarantees that that that particular edition of D&D could legally remain in print forever. Indeed, Paizo's Pathfinder RPG is more or less just that -- 3e under a different name. Except for its trademarked name and a very small amount of IP (mostly iconic monsters, such as the mind flayer and beholder), any publisher can produce their own version of Dungeons & Dragons without having to ask WotC's permission or pay them one red cent for the privilege of doing so.

This is an entirely new situation. Neither 1e nor 2e, let alone OD&D or its descendants, was ever made open content and so, when a new edition was released, the previous edition effectively "died," which is to say, it had no legally permissible commercial support. Fans of those older editions had no choice but create their own material to share amongst themselves, which they did, often with great gusto. Still, I think it's fair to say that, especially in the days before the ubiquity of the Internet, it was very hard to recruit new players to an older edition of D&D once that edition went out of print. Thanks to the OGL, though, that need never be the case with 3e, provided someone is willing to publish it.

Interestingly, it also need never be the case with older editions either. One of the fascinating and unexpected twists of the opening up of 3e is that, because this edition, while different from previous editions, is nevertheless derived from them, enterprising people have been able to use 3e as the back door through which to retro-engineer early versions of the game, most notably the Moldvay/Cook Basic/Expert edition (in two distinct flavors) and 1e. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, no one has yet done this for 2e)

The whole reason why these "retro-clone" editions are possible is because the OGL basically amounted to WotC's admission that game mechanics are not copyrightable. This is pretty well established in law, as I understand it, but that never stopped TSR from legal bullying against third party publishers who tried to make a buck off of D&D by producing compatible products back in the day. WotC hoped that, by bringing third parties "inside the tent," so to speak, they could ensure better quality, greater compatibility, and -- perhaps most importantly -- feed sales of official D&D products.

Exactly how well the OGL succeeded on any of these points is a matter of some debate even eight years later, but it's clear that the most lasting effect of the OGL has been to inspire others to try and recreate retr0-clones of other beloved games from the 70s and 80s. I can't even begin to list all the ones I've encountered, but the ones of most interest to me are Mutant Future (a Gamma World clone) and DoubleZero (a James Bond 007 clone). I have no idea how Gary Gygax felt about OSRIC, but I do know that David "Zeb" Cook approves of the retro-clone of his Conan RPG, known as ZeFRS. James Ward, creator of Gamma World, has publicly spoken out against retro-clones, which he considers theft. I'm not sure that his position has much merit either philosophically or legally, but it's still fascinating to note that there's still a difference of opinion regarding the nature of these games.

As for me, I'm generally in favor of retro-cloning, if only because it theoretically ensures that the great RPGs of the past are not lost to future generations because some megacorporation has locked the rights away in a vault somewhere "just in case" they can squeeze some more money out of them at some future date. I'm increasingly of the opinion that the future of this hobby depends ever more on us than it does on game companies, some of whom have sadly turned RPGs into IP mines for novels and video games rather than into "products of your imagination," as the old TSR ads used to proclaim. I'm a big believer in do-it-yourself-ism and the retro-clone movement is all about that. I can't help but admire these guys for what they're doing, because they're quite literally preserving both the past and the future of our hobby.


  1. I love the cloning movement so much. It makes me six kinds of happy.

  2. I haven't been this excited about gaming since the early 80's and I can only echo your comments:

    "I'm increasingly of the opinion that the future of this hobby depends ever more on us than it does on game companies...the retro-clone movement is...quite literally preserving both the past and the future of our hobby."

    Dave aka Greyharp :)

  3. I'm really looking forward to Mutant Future too, but it's not a Gamma World Clone. It's based on the Labyrinth Lord rules, so really is a post-apocalypitc Moldvay/Cook D&D clone.

    Just started reading your blog yesterday. Keep up the good work!

  4. Re: Mutant Future

    Yes, true, it's not a true clone of GW, but it's clearly meant to fill a similar niche. I do wish it were closer to GW myself, but I know there's someone working on a "true" clone of GW 1e, so maybe we'll see that before long.

  5. Yeah, Mutant Future isn't a direct clone.
    However, GW 1e has a system that is a lot like Basic D&D, but with metric distances. When I was thinking about Mutant Future, I mulled over the clone issue a lot. To me, a retro-clone should be able to be compatible with its inspiration with very little work. In the end I felt that a science fantasy clone would need far too many changes in terminology to be easily used in this way, so that's why I'm not claiming MF is a "true" retro-clone. Also I wanted to make some systems more similar to Labyrinth Lord. Two things I never liked about GW 1e were the way radiation and poison were handled. Anyway, great blog!

  6. Re: Mutant Future

    I understand and support what you're doing with the MF, Dan. I think it's a very reasonable way to go, particularly since you've already got LL out there and people obviously enjoy it. I remember, back in the day, being ticked off that GW 1e didn't use a system closer to D&D, so I am sympathetic to your decision.

    At the same time, I think we do need a "true" clone of GW (and other games) out there, if only to preserve its DNA for the future. I have a sinking feeling that so much of the heritage of this hobby is going to wind up trapped in Hasbro's IP vaults, along with Avalon Hill's great wargames, never again to see the light of day. I would hate to see that occur, so the more OSRIC-like projects out there, the better.

  7. If someone can safely pull off a "true" clone of GW, all the power to them, they'd have my support!

  8. Re: "True" clone of GW

    Mine as well. I know that Kellri at K&K has expressed a desire to do this and I've offered my assistance if he needs it. Jim Ward, as I said, is opposed to this idea, preferring that people forget about GW and focus on his new MA instead. I understand his position, but the reality is that he doesn't own GW anymore and likely never will, so a clone is a surer way to guarantee that game's future than hoping WotC decides either to open it up or revert the rights back to him, neither of which seems at all likely to me.

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  10. Nice post, James. I agree with most of your observations. I'm a big fan of the retro clone movement as well, if for nothing more then the preservation of the old school genre. It would certainly be great if Hasbro would make some of these older titles available (even if it were simply in a miniature format, ala the tiny book versions of the 1e DMG, PHB and MM from years back). Labyrinth Lord is by far my favorite of the retro-clones out there, because it's so true to the original. I doubt I'll ever actually use any retro-clones on a regular basis, but I appreciate the fact that they allow individuals to not only publish retro modules and settings, but to also possibly discover the advantages of D&D's earlier editions. As someone who uses little or no published material, I don't have much need for C&C, OSRIC, BFRPG, LL, etc. but I think they are important for the future of this hobby we all love.

    That said, I have LL and have used it a half dozen times. Excellent piece of work by Dan Proctor!


  11. When Jim and Craig re-release MA 1e as a POD book
    (which will happen before long), they will certainly have my $ support. I'm just not really interested in later versions. Craig does support retro-clone efforts, even if Jim doesn't.

  12. Re: MA POD

    That's right! I'd forgotten about that. Do we have any idea when this'll be available? When I was a kid, I searched around for a copy of MA for the longest time and could never find one. Even now, I still check out eBay for copies but they're always at exorbitant prices, so I've given them a pass.

  13. Sometimes I think the hobby would be better off without the industry. Wait...make that "often". (^_^)

    As for theft: Personally, I'm more tempted to call the companies that force out the creative people but keep the intellectual property and ruthlessly exploit it thieves. Yeah, I know it's all legal. Yeah, the creative people usually made agreements and accepted some compensation. I still see "wrong" written all over it.

  14. (Forgot to check notification of further replies.)

  15. Re: Theft

    I'm inclined to agree. I think, for example, that WotC should have given Blackmoor back to Dave Arneson, or at least allowed him to use the setting and its concepts royalty free in perpetuity. There is exactly zero chance that WotC will ever do anything with Blackmoor, so why should Hasbro get to lock the IP associated with it away forever? Mind you, I have no head for business, so I'm sure there are "good" reasons why magnanimity of this sort shouldn't be done. It's still a pity.

  16. I call myself a neo-grognard. I gamed a lot in high school, but fell away from the hobby completely till 3e came out. I collected the 3e core books and some supplements but never actually played, and lost track of the hobby again.

    After stumbling across the 4e preview books I got interested in D&D yet again. But it's discovering the retro-clones [and pseudo-retro Encounter Critical!] that has me really geeked to game again. I played D&D for the first time in (dang!) 17 years last weekend. 3.x, but it's the old school style games that fuel my excitement. Hence, neo-grognard.

  17. "I have a sinking feeling that so much of the heritage of this hobby is going to wind up trapped in Hasbro's IP vaults, along with Avalon Hill's great wargames, never again to see the light of day."

    And don't forget that this trend of gaming IP consolidation began when TSR took over SPI and thus gained their entire library as well. And, of course, as the chain goes, now Hasbro owns "War in Europe" too. :-(

  18. Re: IP consolidation

    Yes, it's an unfortunate thing. I positively hate the way that some great games are now held in perpetuity by companies with no intention of ever doing anything with them. I'd say it's criminal, but I already have too much of a reputation for hyperbole. Suffice it to say that I wish a lot of game properties were "freed" to return to their creators rather than languishing in IP hell.