Opinions on the Obscure, Off-Beat, and Outdated
ATTACK OF THE RETRO-CLONES OR THE OLD-SCHOOL GAMING RENNAISSANCE Hello, and welcome to the column! Your buddy, Oddcube, here with another ground-breaking, earth-shattering article designed to widen your horizons and heighten your peripheral awareness! Wow! That opening line is WAY too good, I'll never be able to meet the expectations a line like that evokes! Oh well, I'll give it the ol' college try! (A neat trick, cuz, you know, I never went to college.) To aid myself in this epic endeavor I shall passionately pontificate on a certain subject only recently discovered, but instantly endeared to me. What subject is that, you may very well ask, and I must reply: didn't ya read the title above? Yes, friends, I'm sure it’s a Giant-Sized Shock to learn that I am (or at least was) a gamer geek! I'm an RPG-kind-of-guy. It was perfect stuff, like the good ol' "Let's Pretend", but with some actual rules to avoid the "I killed you!"/"Nuh-uh, you missed!" argument. But RPGs…uh, everyone does know that stand for "Role-Playing Games" right? Well, I guess they do now. Anyway, RPG's were great. You got to write up a storyline, draw out maps and other visual aids, and act out characters that the players interact with. Just perfect for the frustrated writer/artist/actor like me! Being a youth of limited funds and even more limited access to hobby stores and other places that might specialize in RPGs; I had to choose something "Big" enough to find in the bookstores in the local mall. So, I ended up getting involved with Dungeons and Dragons. My sister actually deserves the credit and the blame, I guess, as she had the boxed set of the basic game. But, by the time I started picking out gaming stuff; the basic game had been revised and expanded into what is now called the "BECMI" boxed sets. BECMI stands for "Basic, Expert, Companion, Master, Immortal", the names of the individual sets. Eventually the "Basic" game was abandoned by TSR, and they only concentrated on the "Advanced" game. They also took the "Official" Basic game setting, the "Known World" and re-invented it into "Mystara" the Official Second Edition Advanced game setting (it didn't last too long as the Official setting, though, before Forgotten Realms was re-instated).
Well, Mystara was the setting I'd been interested in, and so I gravitated over to the Advanced game, which offered more races and character classes, more spells and monsters, and more superfluous rules that you could use or not. But that was always the good thing about home-brewed pen & paper RPGs: you only used the rules you wanted to use, and even make up some of your own. No matter what RPG you play, you pretty much have to do that to reflect the tastes of the gaming group. See, the easiest way to play is a simple "Hack-n-Slash" game where you basically just kill everything. Me, I tried to have an actual storyline going on, and I tried to encourage actual play-acting (it IS a role-playing game, after all), but I don't remember a whole lot of that going on in the game sessions I participated in. Now, there's one initial problem with RPG's that I've noticed. Namely, it's the life span. There is a LOT of role-playing games out there! Many of them are shortlived and now out-of-print (although many of them can be found online, if ya know where to look). Others have been updated, revised, rewritten, and re-invented to retain its readership, therefore being rescued from that Ragnarok. Dungeons and Dragons is perhaps the most famous (or infamous) of these, but not the only one. I understand the sci-fi game Traveler has been revised once or twice. And GURPS is still around, although whether that's due to some revision or just the constant supply of supporting products, I'm not sure. And Runequest, too, is still alive and kickin'. This re-inventing of the older, classic games is fine. But this causes a different sort of problem for the longtime gamer. Quite simply, some of these newer editions bare very little resemblance to the original game, or the even the earlier editions. Now, I'm not saying the new editions are worse, and I'm not saying they're better. But they ARE undeniably different. And again, it depends on how you play your game… From what I've found in forums posting across various gaming sites, the new Fourth Edition of D&D is basically a war game. It stresses combat over roleplaying. I understand that the skills and feats from Third Edition are gone completely. Not sure if that's good or bad. We tried to use Third Edition rules once, and some players did some really lame-o role-playing but made all their skills rolls, accomplishing things they otherwise would not have. But Fourth Edition, I've heard, is like a MMORPG converted to tabletop gaming. It's like they turned World of Warcraft into D&D. This is just stupid. First off, there was already a World of Warcraft tabletop RPG, why not just play that? Anyway, it's basically agreed that it just ain't the same game! Oh well, I can't say much about it, cuz I haven't looked at it personally. My gaming group got annoyed with Third Edition, and we went on a gaming hiatus, then we sorta drifted apart. About half the group moved out of state (I was one of them). We probably should have just stuck with the older version of the game… Well, it turns out that I'm not the only person who thinks that about the game. In the past few years, some dedicated fans have begun a movement that is referred to as the Old-School Gaming Renaissance. What the heck is that? Well, I'll tell ya. Back in…uh…2000 I think it was, when Wizards of the Coast released the Third Edition of D&D they released the Open Gaming License. This allowed ANYBODY to make games and gaming supplements that were compatible with Dungeons and Dragons. Ok, there was one small "catch": you had to give credit to any other publisher whose supplements you might reference in the creation of your product.
Now, here's the interesting thing hidden in the legal mumbo-jumbo: game rules are NOT copyright-able! BUT the "artistic presentation" of them IS! Which means that you can use the game rules, and just word them differently. The game rules were released on an official System Reference Document which allowed many "artistic presentations". With me so far? Good! Here's how it is: Anybody could make a gaming supplement compatible with the D&D game AFTER the OGL came out. But the earlier versions of the game were NOT covered by it. So, the Old-School folks come in, check out the System Reference Document and essentially re-write the older editions of the rules! Why? So that you CAN make NEW supplements for the OLD editions of the game. But instead of saying "Compatible with First Edition D&D" you would say "Compatible with…" the Retro-Clone game that corresponds with First Edition. See, it's all legal crap and how to get around it. Oh yeah! See, that's why they are called "Retro-Clones". They are Clones of the Retro versions of the game, get it? Sometimes they are also called Simulacrum Games, or just Old-School Games. Some of them are not literal clones, though. The creators have tweaked and modified some of the rules. Others have revised the rules so much that their Retro-Clone is arguably better than the original product! Most of these Retro-Clones are based on older versions of Dungeons and Dragons, but not all of them are. But we'll talk about the D&D Clones, first. I guess it would be best to start at the beginning, but I'm not sure which of these Clones came first, so I'll follow the original game and talk about the Clones matching its various incarnations. So, first there was the Original Dungeons and Dragons game. This is now referred to as 0E. Microlite 74 attempts to capture the feel of 0E in 3 different downloads ranging from 5 to 20 pages. This is the barest of bare bones needed to play. A company called Mythmere Games has created Swords & Wizardry with a 118 page download detailing many rules, accentuated by some nifty old-school art that really reminds me of those older edition books! Then, Elf Lair Games makes Spellcraft & Swordplay. My understanding is that the combat system is based on the original rules that were designed for miniatures gaming instead of what became the "standard" rules. Also, a French version of the 0E games is out there and available. It's called Epees & Sorcellerie. I haven't looked at it, cuz I don't read French and wouldn't know what I was looking at anyway. Then there was the Basic game. First there were a Basic and an Expert boxed set, but these rules were expanded for higher level gaming with the Companion, Masters, and Immortal boxed sets. These are now known at B/X or BECMI, respectively. First off there's the Basic Fantasy Role Playing Game. These rules are a very good match, though some rules are changed from the original incarnation. The most obvious is the separation of character races and character classes, which was not the set-up in the Basic game. Also, a company called Goblinoid Games has created Labyrinth Lord, which was revised and edited so well it may just be a better presentation of the original rules. Let's see, next is the First Edition Advanced game. This is cloned by OSRIC, the Old-School Reference & Index Compilation. This has taken those three bulky books and taken the most important stuff, compacting all the essential rules and lots of
optional rules into 402 pages. That may sound like a lot, but I think the 1st Edition DM's Guide was longer than that by itself! This includes all the rules the players need AND a nice selection of monsters! There are no direct clones of Second Edition, at least not that I'm aware of. But there are some other games out there that are considered Retro-Clones. Like Castles & Crusaders by Troll Lord Games. They say they've taken all the "good parts" of the previous editions and dropped the rest. Some people say this game is what 3rd Edition should have been. Back in the mid-80s, TSR came up with several games that used a colorcoded chart to help determine the outcomes of certain actions. One of these was a Conan RPG, written by Dave "Zeb" Cook. The game spoken of with great affection on some forum boards, and is considered by some to be underappreciated. They say it was compact, fast-moving, easy, and fun. In an attempt to recapture it, ZeFRS was created. It stands for "Zeb's Fantasy Role-playing System". Another TSR game that relied heavily on that color-coded chart was the Marvel Superheroes RPGs. This has been re-invented by the Four Color System, or 4C System by Seraphim Guard. Hmm, what else can I tell ya about…oh yeah! Some games did not center its gaming system around the 20-sided die. Some of them instead used the 10-sided, or percentile dice. These games include Runequest and Call of Cthulu. Again, these older games are not covered in the OGL. But Goblinoid Games has recreated these systems with the Generic Old-school Role-playing Engine, or just GORE for short. Oh, and speaking of Goblinoid Games… Some folks out there might recall a post-apocalyptic sci-fi game called Gamma World. Well, the Goblinoid Games folks didn't really make a Retro-Clone of it. They used the Labyrinth Lord rules as a base to create their own game meant to recreate the "feeling and atmosphere". The end result is a wonderfully wacky game called Mutant Future. I gotta tell ya, I loved the concept of Gamma World, but never got to play it. I'm dying to try this one, and that was before I read the forums and learned of the existence of those infamous "spidergoats"! That's all the rules systems I know about, and I hope I haven't left anyone out. I am happy to report that most of these rules systems are available as FREE downloads. Also, print versions can be gotten from Lulu for most, if not all, of them for about the base price of printing. But wait, there's more! I mean, a games system is fine and dandy, but how about some games to actually play through? Well, fear not, my fine fantasy fans! Excitement awaits any ardent adventurer adroit enough to obtain any of these add-on products! OSRIC seems to have the most supplement adventures, with Labyrinth Lord coming in second. I guess that doesn't really matter. I mean, all these games systems are based off the same System Reference Document, so any supporting product should be easily compatible with the various editions. Let's see, adventures and other supplements have been created by 0One Games, Brave Halfling Productions, Expeditious Retreat Press (what a great name!), Goblinoid Games, Magique Productions Ltd, Mob United Media, Prime Requisite Games, Skirmisher Publishing, Usherwood Publishing, and Zodiac Gods Publishing. I really wanted to tell you all about a nifty sorcery & steam
gameworld called Engines and Empires from Relative Entropy Games, but it seems to be no longer available. But that's still not all! The whole Old-School Gaming thing has become its own little community, and there are even magazines that support it! Like what, you ask? Like Fight On! which seems to be its own entity, and winner of the first Lulu Author Contest! Also available are Knockspell by Mythmere Games, Scribe of Orcus by Goblinoid Games, and The Old School Gazette by Expeditious Retreat Press. All of these magazines support the old-school gaming movement, with mini-adventures and articles that can be used to supplement the various retro-clones. Now, as I've said, most of the rules systems are free, but these supplementary products are not. Which is only bad because they are competing with a multitude of fan sites, which have supplemental rules, spells, classes, and adventures for the original games. While most of these products are very good, even professional-grade stuff, the folks making them are not necessarily professionals, and sadly do not have the time to devote to creating new products. New stuff is slow to come out, but almost always worth the wait, and the nominal price. Where can you get these things? Well, if you want a print book, your best bet would be to check out Lulu.com. The rules, as I've said, are usually free and can be found on the respective home pages, sometimes at Lulu, at RPGNow.com and DriveThruRPG.com. There ARE products at Lulu that are NOT at RPGNow, and vice versa. So your best bet might be a standard web search. So, are these old-school retro-clones more fun than the newer versions of the games? Well, to be fair, not necessarily. It depends on you, the folks you play the games with, and how you play. Will these retro-clones become as popular as the original games they are based on? That's a tuffie. I certainly hope so, because I remember having loads of fun playing those older games. Anyway, I'm supposed to uphold the flimsy pretense of reviewing this subject with a highly scientific rating system, which utilizes a meticulously thought-out method devised by hours of trial-and-error that made for some lo-o-ong nights! Hey! My rating system uses a pair of D&D dice! How fitting is that? Anyway, if you're an old-school (or even a new-school) gamer geek, or even a regular reading of my riveting review column, then you already know how the percentage dice work. Double 0 means 100% and therefore totally rocks! Conversely, 01 is as low as you can go and means you should avoid the subject at all costs! So, in accordance with my totally scientific rating method I shall give my percentage dice a roll…and result in a thirty-ei…I mean, an 83!
Why not 100%? Mostly because I didn't roll it. Seriously we have, like, five versions of the same rules system. Let's see some more adventures, especially for Mutant Future! There are enough rules supplements and bonus character classes out there! Let's see some nifty game worlds!
I know, I know. The movement is still pretty young, all these things and more are on the way. I just hope there's enough of a demand to keep it going. Especially since, from what I've seen, these are some pretty cool games. And they are made by the folks that know how to make these games good: the fans! But hey! You other folks who are not gamer geeks, you don't have to take my word on it. You could always track down some of these games with free downloadable rules and check 'em out for yourself! Well folks, that's all I got for now! See ya again next month, same odd time, same cubey site! Be there and be square! -----Your Buddy, Oddcube