Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Dungeons and Dragons: Attack of the Retro-Clones

Yes, I'm actually posting something game related today. Hopefully those who have gotten used to all of the rhetoric will be pleasantly surprised by the change of pace.

First of all, I'd like to acknowledge where the gaming industry is at, and where I'm at in relation to it. Last August Wizards of the Coast released Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition. This new game was completely overhauled from 3rd edition, placing an emphasis on player character powers, ease of DMing, and streamlined play. While many people loved the new edition, I would argue that an equally sized group did not find it to their liking. I am one of the latter. Without going into a lengthy diatribe, I'll say that it fails for several reason: the new emphasis on powers, forced movement, and the slaughtering of numerous sacred cows that had been with the game since it was originally released in 1974. D&D has strayed far from how it was originally conceived: as an emulation of fantasy novels, such as Lord of the Rings, Conan, and others, which allowed players to enter into an imaginary world as fictional characters. This was an outgrowth from tactical strategy games. Because the 4th edition game philosophy places a greater emphasis on gamism rather than roleplaying, in my mind at least, it is much closer to a fantasy miniatures game than it is a roleplaying game, and as such, is a fairly giant leap backwards in its evolution.

As I said earlier, I'm not the only one feeling this way. Paizo Publishing chose to continue using the Open Game License (OGL) to produce a new and improved version of 3.5, called Pathfinder. I'm placing the majority of my support and design skills behind that effort, as well as the True20 game, which I feel does a superior job of handling modern and future type roleplaying games.

So that should be the end of the conversation, right? We have two fairly major commercial games from large game publishers, and as a result, I still find my talents as a game designer in demand. So what else is there to talk about? Old school revivial; specifically, the rise of the old school clones.

The first game, published under the OGL, which attempted to take a step backwards in terms of the rules and overall feel of the game was called Castles and Crusades, by Troll Lord Games. They started with the core rules of 3rd edition, which were released as open content by Wizards of the Coast, and they stripped out many of the innovations made with 3rd edition. The standard experience point advancement was tossed in favor of a class-based system, as we had with previous editions, skill checks were replaced with ability checks (a system called the SIEGE system), weapons and armor were once again dictated by class as opposed to being open, and the big game changer, feats, were eliminated entirely.

Castles and Crusades is an excellent game. Let me just get that out of the way now. I bought the PDFs a while back and I've been looking them over, and I really like how it all comes together. It retains some of the things I like about 3rd edition, such as flipping Armor Class over so it's expressed as a positive number, while at the same time embracing the simplicity and ease of play that was found in the previous editions. The easiest way to sum it up is that it's as though they took the best parts of 1E, 2E, and 3E, stripped out all of the extra stuff that doesn't make for a streamlined, easy to play game, and put it out there for the people who want a game that feels similar to original. It should also be noted that before his death earlier this year, Gary Gygax had embraced Castles and Crusades as the spiritual successor to D&D, and he finally got around to releasing his dungeon crawl masterpiece Castle Zagyg (originally Castle Greyhawk) for this system.

Perhapse that would have been the end of the conversation, but there were still those who weren't crazy about Castles and Crusades. While you could literally run any old D&D or AD&D module under Castles and Crusades with very little modification, some people didn't just want a compatible system, but wanted the actual rules from the original game.

This is where the retro-clones come in. Copyright law is a funny thing. If I write a book, it is automatically copyrighted under me, and aside from the fair use laws, which allow others to use a small portion of that book for a variety of limited purposes, someone can't come along and snag the my book's text and republish it. This can even extend out into the realm of ideas, at which point things get tricky, but one thing copyright law does not protect are game rules. In other words, the rules of a given game can be lifted entirely, as long as you use your own explanatory text, trade dress, and give it a different name. The OGL allows publishers to use most of the intellectual property from the core rules of WotC's 3rd edition D&D game. Better, the OGL cannot be revoked, and there are no provisions within the OGL preventing a person or publisher from combining the IP released by WotC with the rules lifted from other editions. This combination is what has given rise to the retro-clones, which is where individuals and (extremely) small companies are recreating the original AD&D and/or Basic D&D game.

The two retro-clones that are specifically worth mentioning are OSRIC (Old School Reference & Index Compilation) and Labyrinth Lord. OSRIC started out as a simple open source reference guide for people who wanted to develop products that were compatible with AD&D 1st edition. It originally had approximately 150 pages, and it was basic, but nice. The 2nd edition of OSRIC, which Stuart Mashall has kindly given me a preview of, is a much more ambitious project. It includes an updated set of character creation rules, but it also includes the full (as near as I can tell) list of monsters, as well as all of the material you would need as a GM to run the thing. There's more art and more material, and one thing that remains the same is the stripped down, easy to use layout, which is reminiscent of the 1st edition game.

Along with OSRIC is Labyrinth Lord. This game, which is also available as a free download, is different because it attempts to recreate the old Moldvay/Cook version of Basic D&D. As similar as it is to AD&D, it has its share of subtle differences, which lead to a slightly different game experience. It also features a layout that looks slightly more professional than OSRIC and contains a great deal more art. It is visually impressive, particularly if you happen to remember those twenty year old games on which is is based.

Labyrinth Lord as created by a small company called Goblinoid Games, and LL isn't the only retro style game they produce. They also have a d100 based system called GORE (which is beyond the scope of this blog entry) and Mutant Future. What I like about Mutant Future is that rather than try to recreate one of the editions of classic Gamma World, they instead used the basic OSRIC based sytem to create a post-apocalyptic game that was otherwise very similar to Gamma World. The result is impressive, and still extremely reminiscent of the old classic.

As I said before, my support remains fully behind Pathfinder and True20, but I have to admit that there is an appeal to these retro-clones that goes beyond nostalgia. The fact is that unlike software, old tabletop games do not become unplayable as time goes by. What was a good rules system twenty years ago remains a good rules system today. In the case of the retro-clones, they still contain all of the old sacred cows, such as percentage based thieves skills and upside-down armor class, but they are still a joy to play. It seems that the further the official game called D&D wants to denounce its roots, the more interest there is in simply playing the originals. I for one have been inspired to get a second game going, probably using the Castles and Crusades game system (though I'm also contemplating OSRIC as well) and possibly even write some material for one of them. Sure, the pay would be nonexistent, but frankly, I got into game design to have a creative outlet, not for the money, and there's something very, very cool about the classic game I grew up with. The fact that going back to that system would allow me to make use of a whole bunch of old gaming products, including somewhere around 100 issues of Dungeon, is very appealing.

Oh, and here are the links to these games:

Labyrinth Lord
Mutant Future
Castles and Crusades


Masada said...

Stick it to the man, Double D.

No harm in shoutin out what you like and don't like.

I converted to True20 myself and I don't feel to inclined to pick up another system just yet. If I did, it wouldn't be 4e either.

Ryan said...

That was actually very interesting. I started playing D&D in v3.5 and have yet to pick v4 so I'll be very interested to see if I like it or not. I tend to trend towards RP however so if you're right its not looking good.