Monday, October 17, 2011

Enough with the retro-clones already

In the beginning, I thought it was a great idea: use the OGL/SRD to create some clones of various out-of-print editions of D&D. We got Labyrinth Lord, OSRIC and Swords & Wizardry out of it, and all of them do something valuable while remaining reasonably priced (i.e. free). On the heels of success come other games like Swords & Wizardry Complete, Dark Dungeons, Lamentations of the Flame Princess and others. Prices begin to increase. Still, the clones keep coming, along with oodles of crappy adventures. Some of the stuff is really good, worth buying (Stonehell Dungeon). But let's face it: these are just house rules in published format. There's certainly nothing wrong with that, but quite frankly, I could give a fuck. There are only so many times I can see someone else's take on barbarians or monks or fireballs. It's really all the same shit Gygax et al cranked out in 1974, revised for modern sensibilities. By that I mean rewritten to remove all the substance, all the style, contained within those old tomes. I realize the clones have to differ from D&D due to legal reasons, but reading some of this stuff you'd think these guys invented roleplaying games. Some of the best games ever produced were essentially D&D house rules, but they never pretended to be written in a vacuum. Chivalry & Sorcery for instance explicitly states that it was written with the intention of getting out of the dungeon and engaging in long-term play, something D&D was ill-equipped to handle. C&S never acts like D&D didn't exist; it references it continuously and offers suggestions on how to improve. Runequest does a lot of things differently, including spell points and skills, but character generation is still 3D6 for a bunch of attributes that line up with the common six. Essentially the entire history of roleplaying game design is people taking D&D, modularizing it, dropping the portions they disliked and adding new stuff. GURPS doesn't look much like D&D, but if you look at its lineage (Melee/Wizard->Fantasy Trip->GURPS) it's easy to see how it came into being. Alternative tactical combat system for D&D becomes a fantasy rpg which is further developed into a pure skills-based system. But all these games have their own style, their own way of doing things, and the better ones introduced innovative ways to accomplish goals within the game.

This is exactly why I'm getting sick of the clones: it's like they're not even trying. Labyrinth Lord is my favorite version of D&D because it's essentially just a cleaned up version of B/X. It doesn't pretend to be anything else. Reading through Swords & Wizardry Complete...fuck. Was this game really necessary? Thanks for making me pay $20 to read your crappy house rules, I appreciate it. I'm not even sure what these guys are doing anymore. Are you trying to recreate a copy of D&D so you can play it, make it available to everyone who can't get an OOP copy? Or are you attempting to pass off yet another shoddy interpretation of D&D as a legitimate artistic endeavor? If it's the first one, we have enough good, free games that do this just fine. If it's the second one, why not innovate? If you give me a game with six stats and hit points and THAC0 and dwarves and elves and thieves, hey, guess what, it's just another fucking copy of D&D. Why not expend your effort on stupid adventures no one will ever use instead? In case you're wondering, this product is what spurned my rant. I honestly haven't read it, and it could be well written, but $5 for yet another necromancer class? Hell, I wrote one up in around 20 minutes and put it up on this very blog. Should I have charged people a dollar to read it? Yeah, I get it, you came up with a bunch of new spells and XP charts. Wow. Lemme guess: some of those spells are variations on Animate Dead, right? I'm seriously not trying to be disparaging here, but Jesus Christ, that sort of shit is what's being produced and SOLD now? I'm not about to spend five bucks on something like this. Ever. Any DM worth his salt can simply take a Magic-User, give him the Turn Undead ability and call it a day. Seriously, what value is being added to the hobby by this sort of crap?

I mentioned Stonehell Dunegon: hey, a product that is actually useful. Sometimes it's cool to have a bigass dungeon someone else worked on at your disposal. Even some of the not-so-great adventures I've seen provide good ideas to a lazy DM. But further rules-variations can suck a dick. If you want to write up some rules, make them unique and innovative or put the PDF on your blog for free. There's absolutely zero reason to pay anyone for D&D rules variants when Holmes Basic can be distilled into literally two pages.


  1. Damn. There goes my plan to get rich by producing a Holmes-Paranoia mashup called the Blue Clearance Book. It was even gonna have a necromancer class.

  2. I'll personally give you five bucks if you write that.

  3. I would too. Can I play a werebear clone?

  4. heh. Welcome to the rest of the D&D market in 1979, fanzines and all. (Including the dragon, with its new class of the month). Crap, crap, crap, gem, crap. Dude, maybe two iteration of D&D houserules didn't suck -runequest, mainly, and possibly tunnels and trolls. If you think C&S was great, you obviously never tried to play it.....See, self indulgent crap clones spawning self indulgent crap houserules for sale to use in crappy advenures are the essence of what 90% of D&D was,and probably always will be. Two words: Arduin Grimore. I await eagerly the crapfest that will result when it (itself a crap clone) is crappily cloned, possibly collapsing into a black hole of unintentional ironic crap that destroys the universe.

  5. There are two sides evolving in the OSR - hobbyist and marketing. Each one of us has to make the decision which side they come down on. Marketers call hobbyists scabs because they depend on cranking out and selling content and are undercut by people doing freebies. LoFP is firmly on the marketing side - ideas have slowed to a trickle on his website and usually are soundboarding new rules for the next version of his game. No offense intended - he is merchandising and creating good content, spreading the word so to speak, so fair enough. Hobbyists like yourself and Tenkar eschew the whole money grubbing aspect of the hobby and freely distribute what you make to use in the hopes others will benefit from it. However, as PDF products with free versions have shown, you can do what you love and still deserve to rightfully get paid for it. I think the hobby benefits from both but both can have excesses, like the recent Holmes ripoff and trollish hobbyists like Dungeonsuck. Pornstar Zak is the presence who most straddles both sides, but for the rest of us we have to choose one and do our best to not let the excesses of the other side (or our own) turn us off the game which gives us so much.

  6. Inspiring read, i was going to reply here through a comment but then it evolved in a longer rant.

  7. I think every new gaming product--especially those coming out of a hobbyist culture--has to build a case for its existence.

    It's one of the angles I was thinking about in the Black Box/Designers Notes post. Many second generation rpgs did this explicitly (or at the least with a not-subtle implicitness); they built a case for their departure point from the D&D mothership. Some succeeded, many didn't--but I think it strengthened their vision and made those games better than they would be if they were just dull parasites.

    On the plus side I think there are some stirrings of "second-wave OSR" games that may be moving in that way. Whatever one thinks about DCC rpg, ACKS, Champions of Zed or to a much lesser extent Borderlands they are trying to capture the feel and ethos of old school play while experimenting with new/old mechanics and play concepts.

    The whole monetization issue is a another related problem for sure. Personally I just don't get why some on our side of the hobby think it's worth it to buy into all the problems of going commercial for so few $.

  8. There are plenty of people that experience a restlessness with so many clones and so much published stuff, or have already bypassed things and are hunting for greener pastures.

    Switch up your 'inputs'. Don't read so many blogs and go to other sources based on your non-gaming interests. Make some notes with a pen and paper - take a break from internet as media. The less fantasy, the better. Rod Serling called it 'filling the well'.

    Remember the general layout of the online Old School community contains a lot of DMs and seems to have a large percentage of collectors. Collectors like variations and experiments, and many DMs list running different games concurrently.

    As for the 'Dark & Deep piece that touched off your previous post, taking on AD&D - even to make a clone - is no small feat. I love Bloch's DMG and that it is searchable as a reference PDF.

    Beyond the boundary of the OGL and clones there's still a lot of things that can inspire and still reach into the core of Old School gaming.

    A story from the physicist Richard Feynman's life: At a point in his mathematics education, he asked a professor: 'what is all this good for'. The professor had run into this scenario before and told him to find a different field to apply his knowledge to, and so he did. The point is that, if you're feeling restless with what you're reading, then it may be time to hunt out an unmapped corner on the fringe and get to writing.

    Also, I have to add my voice in support of Chris' point - the monetization/business side of is a another ball of wax. I can't offer much on that front: I personally don't believe that selling modules and supplements can ever be a stable business model. I don't think there are enough examples of successful cases to believe in business-ifying the hobby.