Friday, September 3, 2010

Open Friday: The Role of Retro-Clones

I'm out for the day as usual, but I thought this week I'd dispense with the softball questions and go for something with a bit more substance (and possibly contention): do you feel it's the role of retro-clones to supplement or replace the games on which they're based? Both? Neither? Should they be viewed as distinct games in their own right, publishers' copyright work-arounds, or something else entirely?

I realize this question was chewed over a lot in the early days of the old school renaissance, but a lot has happened over the last three years and I suspect the perspectives of some might have changed in light of how things have played out and I'd like to hear about it.


  1. I personally don't look at the retro clones as "replacements" for the real thing. I like to think of them as a quick fix for those without the means to acquire the original books, or as a more convenient way to indulge in "classic" gaming (since most of the rules sets are available online for free). So I guess I'd fall on the side of "supplement" and not "replace".

    There are a lot of old-schoolers out there with definite dislike for the retro-clones, and don't see any purpose in using them; personally, I'm of the "whatever gets them in the door rolling dice" school of gaming...

  2. Retro-clones were needed at one time to keep the game in print. That was the authors' intent for the early clones, unless I am mistaken. Like stock car racing, it uses what came from the factory.

    The new generation of clone publishers are like hot-rodders, tinkering with what's under the hood.

    Different times, different reasons for publishing a clone.

  3. We've moved beyond retro-clones to whole new games. LotFP's Weird Fantasy rpg is a whole new game that just doesn't build on the past but demolishes part of it. I feel that this is a very good sign. We are no longer re-creating the past but putting together our own future.

  4. Ugh. What Badmike said, though I think this puts us (me anyway) on the side of replacement.

    If B/X was still available, I would certainly be telling people to buy IT, not Labyrinth Lord. But if B/X WAS available would Mr. Proctor have bothered to write LL? I'm not so sure he would. Certainly, the AEC is a brilliant piece of synthesis/game engineering, but I'm not sure LL was necessary to do it. In many ways, the AEC is his (Proctor's) own take on "the Companion book that never was," far different from my own (he adapts the adapted supplements books by adapting AD&D)...but definitely a valid choice.

    Now, though the writing of retro-clones (and compatible supplements) appears to have given OSR publishers a "taste" for writing and publishing. Was LotFP "necessary?" Only to communicate Raggi's vision of OD&D (which IMO is no less valid than AD&D which is simply "Gygax's vision of OD&D). Certainly not to play The Game. And the S&W

    Personally, I think the retros originally satisfied a niche what had been lost so that others could have the chance to play what we were so excited about. Now? I think it's launched a new wave of late bloomer game designers. There are people younger than the retro-cloners who have been writing other RPGs...indies and such. But several of the OSR folks (myself included) missed that 1st wave of independent publishing and are now getting the chance to stretch our creative legs.

    And if it helps discover what was great about role-playing...even Old School, wargamey, resource managing role-playing...well, hell I'm not going to argue with anyone facilitating a good time.
    ; )

  5. Retro-Clones also serve to allow people to play old school games cheaply and legally.

    Sure most of the old games can be had on-line at game stores or E-Bay but they can be expensive at times and unavailable.

    Now less legitimate sources have pretty much everything for free but some people respect IP law.

    Its nice to have say B/X and lots of adventures to buy whenever you want.

    Also in this recessionary environment, the lure of "free" can be leveraged nicely. Heck I'd say more than a few of our potential players have less ready cash then we did when these games were new. Since most of the games have a free and legal version and this means the chronically broke at the table can have rules and stuff to enjoy too.

    Personally as I said before on my blog , if we are smart we can take this from a niche of a niche of a niche into something sizable, we can be the upstart mammals feasting on dinosaur eggs instead slowly going extinct.

    The clones and the new games are our entry point.

  6. Retro-clones originally came about to ensure that the older games could still be played, despite having been out of print for any length of time. To borrow a phrase, they were system emulators.

    However, they are not the same as the old games - indeed, in some cases they bear only a passing resemblance to their parents - and should be regarded as entirely separate games in my opinion. Certainly, games like Labyrinth Lord, S&S and Four Colour Heroes have acquired their own identities and followers who never played the parents.

  7. Seems like retro clones are the result of a number of factors:

    1. Keeping the rules "in-print" so people can play. Pretty practical, though dubious. It's still easy (and somewhat inexpensive) to buy the original rules (BECM, AD&D).
    2. "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery." People who are technically-minded express this by repackaging the rules. It's homage.
    3. Desire for re-living the experiences they had when they opened a "New Game" and entered a new world that changed their lives.
    4. Desire to upgrade and fix things that appeared ill-conceived in the original rules.
    5. Finally, desire to infuse a better philosophy into the game. People who are self-conscious about their worldview try to write the rules from their perspective. So there are hard-core nihilistic rules around, and there are more "high fantasy" rules around. To me, this is one of the more interesting aspects of reading new rules.

    The usefulness of new rule sets is, to me, a bit uncertain. But I sure enjoy reading Swords and Wizardry or Labyrinth Lord and saying "I like the way they did that" or "Nahhh."

    As I read, I find myself saying, "I wish some really judicious fellow (James!)would cull all the really good ideas from all the clones (and from the originals) and put them under one cover." Heh. It'll never happen, and if someone tried, we'd all find some nit to pick. But at least we can all still strive toward perfection. Perhaps that's what it's all about.

  8. Before WotC pulled its PDF downloads, I categorized retro-clones as merely a way to safely publish compatible material. (Which is why I thought it such a tragedy that the OSRIC license was so poorly written. If you can't afford an IP lawyer, use an already-existing license written by one; don't play Amateur Hour like they did there.)

    After WotC pulled its PDF downloads, true retro-clones became the only legal way to give new players something other than an old, worn rulebook from a decades-old stock of books that are inevitably succumbing to entropy. (Which is why it's a tragedy that OSRIC includes at least one gratuitous and deliberate change from AD&D 1e that is not actually necessary.)

  9. I personally feel that a retro-clone can be judged on one or more of the following factors:

    PRICE & AVAILABILITY: replaces what can no longer be found easily or cheaply. If your best bet is to find the thing on Ebay for $75+, then you're not being too keen on paying that, unless you're a collector. So, for a generation of old-schoolers (who may not have their books anymore) or tyros (who may not want to pay that much to try), a retro-clone is the way to go.

    REVIVAL OF ABANDONED PROPERTY: If someone no longer wants/needs to reprint a classic game, then a retro-clone should revive the line. This will help if you want to publish supplements for something that's out of print.

    SLICKER PACKAGING: Often a retro-clone will look more like a newer game than a copy of Encounter Critical. It's often re-organized too, most times for the better.

    LOOK WHAT WE CAN DO: Some are just plain amusing. Look at Mutant Future (Post-Apocalyptic RQ) and Legends of Time and Space (The Fantasy Trip Space-Opera style). Not to mention the OD&D Conan and Barsoom supplements.

    If it changes too much then it's no longer a retro-clone. I have a D&D rewrite I'm working on. It's not a retro-clone. It's very compatible with older editions of D&D, but I feel as I've retooled a lot of things so that it's no longer a clone.

  10. I think both at the same time. The retro-clones were meant to archive and preserve the original rules and style of play, but it's also a spring board for creating new materials that take the classic game into a direction it hasn't gone before.

  11. I think the emphasis is changing now that market leaders have emerged and are consolidating their positions. Innovation (in an old school way) is now more key to a new clone's success.

    BUT there is a tension between innovation and compatiblity - check LOTFP focussing in on exploration/the unknown, it has a an implied setting that is Solomon Kane-ish but still has demihumans so it can be used with other resources.

    Will there be more TRUE CLONES attempting to nestrle as close to OD&D/AD&D/B/X as possible but each with minor twists to set them apart from the competition and the originals ?

    Or will there be a distancing from the desire for compatibility. Look at the age demographic and I think you have your long term answer.

  12. Like most ecologies, when a niche is left empty after it's previous occupant goes extinct (or in this case evolves into something else), something else will attempt to move in and colonise that niche. In gaming, the niche could be genre or stylistic; if it appears unoccupied someone will try and fill it.

    For most of the so-called OSR products the niche is both genre and stylistic. In many cases the bias isn't to emulate what has gone before, but is rather in reaction to what evolution has made of the original occupant. For example I see no difference between OSRIC and Labyrinth Lord emulating the early D&D and Pathfinder and FantasyCraft emulating 3rd ed. People enjoy that gaming niche (regardless of which one is under discussion) and wish to continue playing in it. When there is no official support available, the fans will continue to support the game (witness, for example, Runequest during the blight years, which was entirely supported by it's fan base, and in fact represented some of the more active years of it's existence [ones which actually shaped the current incarnations of MRQ amd Heroquest]).

    Another example, in genre this time, might be when there is an attempt to reoccupy an old niche. For example, when Sengoku was produced it was inevitable that comparisons would be made with Bushido. In fact Sengoku was made by fans in an attempt to recolonize the Chambarra genre after Bushido had effectively disappeared from the scene.

    In a sense we, the readers, are self-selecting the games we call OSR on the basis that they have colonised a niche that we have perceived as having been abandoned by one of the big boys. So a comparison with what has gone before is inevitable. Given that these are amateur [in the true sense of the word, being done "for the love of it"] productions, there is a higher sense of communal ownership of the product amongst the fan community, and an increased degree of self-identification with it.

    [There is also a strong reactionary component to OSR gaming, particularly in opposition to current trends in emphasising narrative gaming and rule complexity, which drives people towards an identification with this community. However it is not the reason for the existence of the game products, and should not be mistaken as such.]

  13. I always felt the retro-clones were for keeping the classic rulesets alive and encouraging people to play them. They do that by:

    1) Making the rules available (often for free)
    2) In some cases, consolidating the rules under one cover and re-presenting the rules in slightly clearer language.
    3) Making it simpler to publish new material for the systems.

    Like many older gamers, I have my copies of 1e, B/X, RC, etc. But those treasured tomes are getting a bit frail from frequent read-throughs. I have 4 copies of LL in my house now (1 printed PDF in a binder, one red haardcover, one purple softcover, and one revised softcover) and two AECs (1 binder pdf and one softcover). I can have friends over and let them paw through those as they sling dice and munch chips without fearing for the original copies that sit on my shelf. Likewise, I can email them a link and they can download the free pdf for a personal copy then decide whether to buy.

    (BTW as a publisher, having digital pdfs of the books to do keyword searches on? FTW!)

    Are the retro-clones "replacements"? I don't think they are intended as such in spirit, but they certainly fulfill that role on my table, but only in the physical sense. When I play LL, I am playing B/X, even if I err toward the LL version of the rules that are slightly different (which I largely do because A) those are the rules in front of the players, and B) If I'm running a playtest for publication, it needs to match the rule book).

  14. If a game tries to be anything other than a completely faithful reproduction of an out of print game, then it is not a retroclone. Plain and simple.

  15. For me, I view the original material as a set of primary documents in that I always begin/return to them when starting a new game.

    Having said that, the clones (and house-rules) take over from there. The clones are easily accessible, cheap, and have creative communities.

    I want to play D&D and have no interest (or time) to play new D&D-type RPGs.

  16. As an OSR Publisher, player, and referee the clones mean the following to me.

    1) A safer harbor in which to publish my own works based on the games I love.

    2) A means of expanding the number of gamers that I can play with by having a product that is easy to find and buy.

    There is one store in a 300 mile radius of my town that you can go in and reliably buy a copy of an older edition (Warzone Matrix in Cleveland). Another that may have them (Books Galore in Erie).

  17. For the most part, I still see the clones as a means to publish support material for the real games. I prefer to run the originals. For example, I recently started running AD&D for a group of newbies, and had no difficulty at all acquiring an inexpensive supply of [i]Players Handbooks[/i] for them.

    The one original where I find that more difficult is OD&D, itself, simply because it has become relatively expensive to get the original booklets.

    I'm glad I own the originals, because as nice as the clones are, I'd rather run the real deal. I think the clones are great, but I also think that each of them has some changes or omissions, and I like Gygax's writing, and in the case of OD&D, I'm still amazed at how much gaming and campaign material is packed into the LBB.

    I wish WotC would make the TSR-era PDFs available, again. I don't care if they don't release the 3e and 4e material, but I don't think releasing the TSR material would hurt them at all. It would be good, all around.

  18. I think the retro-clones serve all those purposes. However, I do think a transition is happening, where more originality is being injected into the OSR. I have a bunch of the old material, so aside from the retro-clone modules, I never had much need. I am excited about these new interpretations, however. To me old school has always been more about an attitude than the specific material.

  19. In the simplest terms, I'd say that the retro-clones offer opportunities for both supplementation and replacement, dependent on the circumstances.

    I love my Basic & Expert D&D softcovers, and I've played them quite extensively as is for the past 30 years, but I also find merit in many of the new retro-clones, which offer what could be either alternate rulesets, or a cornucopia of "house rules" for implantation into an existing campaign run with the original rules.

    I've never had the opportunity to play with the three original books, but I love that Swords & Wizardry WhiteBox (my retro-clone of choice) offers me the opportunity to replicate those books (more or less) for my players. I love the simplicity... not that B/X isn't simple, too.

    In the end, I'd say that the retro-clones offer opportunities to those new players interested in "old school roleplaying" who don't have ready access to original materials, and they offer a treasure trove of supplemental rules for the grognards of the group.

    It's like one of my player's said [upon learning that we were playing WhiteBox supplemented with B/X, Labyrinth Lord, and a couple other rulesets]: "You got chocolate in my peanut butter... no, I got peanut butter in your chocolate!" Not only are the original materials and the retro-clones good on their own, but they can make for some excellent roleplaying rules melanges.

    The Fool on the Hill

  20. Realistically? I don't think they really have a purpose at this point. A lot of cool, creative material has come out without the stamp of one retro-clone or another on it, as much as has been released under the OSRIC, LL, BFRPG or S&W banners.

    There is objectively no need for Labyrinth Lord or OSRIC as games; B/X D&D and AD&D manuals are easy to find and wind up being cheaper than a hard copy of the clones. The only utility they have are as free legal PDFs, and I hate reading things in PDF. For me, the big problem is actually Swords & Wizardry; it poses as a clone of OD&D but is actually a game with significant differences. OD&D is the only edition with major rarity issues, and as such a genuine clone like OSRIC or LL would have been useful. S&W, while not a bad game in and of itself, fails completely at being this for OD&D. I couldn't substitute it for the 3 little books when running a game without changing a dozen fiddly things, which you cannot say about OSRIC or Labyrinth Lord.

    For me, the utility is in the "non-clones." That would mean LotFP, Spellcraft & Swordplay, Dragons at Dawn and so on. (Swords & Wizardry really should fall under this category, but because of its marketing it doesn't.) These I view as legitimate parallel games that ideas can be cribbed from, much like Tunnels & Trolls was seen in the very early days of D&D. I think people should come out with this kind of game.

    The only other thing I'd be interested to see is a clone of OD&D other than Swords & Wizardry. Unfortunately that game has created a meme that it "is" OD&D, and it doesn't seem likely that this will happen.

  21. S&W WB has replaced OD&D, B/X D&D, and AD&D as my game of choice. In fact, I recently sold all my pre-2nd Edition D&D stuff to a local collector (having bought the PDFs when they were legal) and bought a couple of new guitars and an amplifier with the proceeds.

    S&W has the basic framework and I have no problem adding to and tweaking it to suit my needs. I have no need of the older games -- the "clones" (which I view as separate games in their own right) are (IMHO) better written, better organized, and better for introducing newbies to the hobby....all this from someone who started in 1977 with OD&D. ;)

  22. @Wayne Rossi:

    In the past 33 years I've never seen any two OD&D games run the same -- there is no definitive ruleset -- some hewed closer to "by the book" and others were way out in left field. In the end, they were all OD&D. This is the way the game has always been played.

    S&W is close enough to OD&D for most, so...if you crave a "pure" OD&D clone that badly, maybe you should step up and write it. You could just use S&W as a starting point and "change back" the few things that were altered or cut. ;)

  23. @Wayne Rossi

    I agree with Wayne. I really wish there was a true OD&D clone available. There are just too many differences between OD&D and S&W WB that I would never refer to it as a OD&D White Box "clone."

    Most old-schoolers I know, including myself, play OD&D core with no supplements, because we prefer the rules as they were with room to house-rule as we saw fit. Unfortunately, S&W has many house-rules written into the game system which doesn't sit well with me. I would have preferred a "less is more" approach", with less house-rules and more room for players to house-rule themselves.

    I would love to see something as close to the original source material as possible without tweaks and/or house-rulings.

    Just my two cents!

    --Fandomaniac Rob

  24. *cough* Original Edition Characters*cough* ;-)

  25. This comment has been removed by the author.

  26. Just one story. I was in the local game store about 2 mo. ago, and saw a group playing OSRIC. The group had a GM who was in his 30's ish. The party was 5 teen-agers who looked like they were having a BLAST!

    It gives the chance for the first time small publishers to get into the field. I dont know what the royalties to WoTC are for 3.0, 3.5 or 4.0, but i'm sure their hefty.

  27. Depends on the clone.

    OSRIC is an AD&D supplement that allows me to play AD&D games.

    Spellcraft & Swordplay is a new game that allows me to play something like OD&D.

    Labyrinth Lord is a new game that lets me play something like how I actually played Basic D&D at the time.

  28. So, just as a point of argument, let's say that WotC were to make a PDF or some other electronic version of 1981 B/X available as a free or inexpensive download. How many new people would that attract to OS gaming, and how many existing retro-gamers would switch to 'the real thing'?

  29. Retro-clones definitely served the purpose of helping to keep out-of-print rulesets alive.

    That being said, I am looking forward to the sort of houseruling publishing (such as AEC, LotFP, etc) that allows these games to develop beyond artificial limitations of nostalgia or blind reverence. Many of the older systems have plenty of excellent ideas. They also have plenty of horrible ideas. Allowing the groups who like certain ideas to develop them in an organic fashion will add a lot of value to game tables around the world.

  30. Labyrinth Lord allows me to share a copy of the rules electronically with new players. LL means that I always know that for the rest of my life a new player to my group will be able to easily have a fully legal copy of the rules.

    LL allows me to print out as many copies or subsets as I like.

    LL allows me to have a PDF of the rules on my iPad. It allows me to have a copy on all of my computers. It allows me to search the rules!

    LL doesn’t have the “split into two volumes” issue that B/X does.

    I love B/X D&D. I honor the people who created and contributed to it. I treasure my copies.

    (Now I treasure my Lulu hardcopy of LL too!)

    B/X, however, is only an expression of a game, and LL is, for me, a more practical expression of the same game. (I’d say “near enough”, but the fuzziness of interpretation and house rules is wide enough that I don’t need to.)

    That is the role of retro-clones for me.

    I still reference my OOP library. I still use OOP supplements. So I wouldn’t call it only replacement, though. Call it both supplement and replacement.

  31. So, just as a point of argument, let's say that WotC were to make a PDF or some other electronic version of 1981 B/X available as a free or inexpensive download.

    Free? I might very well switch back. It could depend upon the quality of the PDF and the details of the licensing.

    Inexpensive? Maybe. Probably not.

    Now that LL is here, it has to “compete” against it. Plus, MF, OEC, and AEC give LL some features that B/X lacks. As much as anyone might say that LL was unnecessary, a situation was created in which Dan felt LL was needed enough that he took the time to create it. When that happened, B/X lost some value, if only just a tiny bit.

  32. If WotC were to rerelease their D&D PDFs, I'd buy them up like a shot. Seriously. However, I would still use them to support Labyrinth Lord (my current retro-clone of choice).

  33. In the UK, OSRIC is far cheaper than 1e AD&D.

    OSRIC in paperback costs around £10.50 + p&p from Lulu.

    I've been trying to get a 1e demon-idol PHB off PHB to replace my falling-apart Wizard-cover reprint. I'd have to bid over £15, + p&p. Add similar for MM + DMG. And OSRIC has a bunch of monsters from the later manuals, as well as the PC-class bit being much better written for reference in play.

  34. I guess you can add me to the "S&W has too many rules changes/additions" chorus. I'd love to see a new stab at the game where the author decides to look more to Labyrinth Lord and OSRIC for examples of proper faithfulness to the source material and to leave his own "improvements" in his house rules binder where they belong.

    I'm not worried about anything "replacing" classic Gygaxian-era TSR D&D. That game (collectively, in all its iterations) is a masterpiece.

    Clones are just a way to distibute classic D&D rules for free in an aesthetically-pleasing form and to encourage the publishing of new classic D&D support materials. I don't see them as their own games at all.

  35. S&W WB is one of my all time favorite games. I like ascending AC and having one saving throw. A lot. However, as to its ultimate role- I don't care.
    It does what I need it to do, which is provide a simple platform on which I can build (and easily share) my own stuff. I've recently read through a portion of one of the LBBs and I can't say that I'm interested in using them at the table. White Box did something that I wouldn't have thought possible: it brought me back to classic D&D (or within spitting distance, anyway): and that's pretty awesome.

  36. "If a game tries to be anything other than a completely faithful reproduction of an out of print game, then it is not a retroclone. "

    Think of it as a retro-cousin. Shared genetics, but not identical.

  37. "Think of it as a retro-cousin. Shared genetics, but not identical."

    And that's great. I'd just like to see as-slavishly-accurate-as-the-law-allows "clone" versions of every classic D&D rules set on the market first, before their cousins start proliferating.

    I'd like to see the community as a whole insure that faithful reproductions of the legacy rules are available free to all before we start worrying about propagating our own individual house rules. It's just a matter of priorities.

  38. As you might imagine, I have strong feelings on the subject.

    I feel the clones should exist to allow work compatible with out of print editions of D&D, to the extent that such are allowed under the OGL.

    I think such compatible works serve a role in keeping older games fresh and interesting.

  39. RPGObjects_chuck: Since you're not using your real name, and your blogger profile is hidden, I have no idea who you are, or why you might have strong feelings on this or any other subject.

  40. Joe, Chuck is my real name, and if you do a search for RPGObjects, a company I worked for from 2002 until around 2009, you might have an idea why I feel strongly about this.

    I've authored around 100 RPG books in PDF, about 20 in print, all under the OGL.

  41. *cough* Original Edition Characters*cough* ;-)

    I keep saying this to people, but, for some reason, they don't seem to be listening. Seriously, OEC is, at this time, the closest thing to a LBB clone out there and I can't tell you how useful it's been to me in my Dwimmermount campaign.

  42. I'd just like to see as-slavishly-accurate-as-the-law-allows "clone" versions of every classic D&D rules set on the market first, before their cousins start proliferating.

    Me too. LBB OD&D is admittedly difficult to clone, because it's so idiosyncratic, but I think it can be done and I think it's worth doing. It's definitely a project I've often considered, but I simply lack the time to take it up right now.

  43. Having started gaming under Original D&D, I'm struck by how offended people get by various minor variations or changes introduced by the retro-clones. I don't recall anybody playing Original D&D exactly as it was written, and practically everybody I knew "back in the day" made their own rules modifications to suit the game they wanted to play. At this stage of things, I think the variety of retro-clones is actually something of an advantage - it ensures that gamers have choices about what to play.

    I rather suspect there are similar debates going on about how much Pathfinder varies from the original 3.5 Ed. rulebooks (with about as much actual effect).

  44. "I don't recall anybody playing Original D&D exactly as it was written, and practically everybody I knew "back in the day" made their own rules modifications to suit the game they wanted to play."

    Of course they did. Why wouldn't they? They all started from the same place, however: The TSR rulebooks. My thesis is simply that that "place" is worth preserving as it was.