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Subject: The Glorious Perversion of Retro-Cloning rss

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Clark Timmins
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Retro-clones... most gamers will respond with 1) enthusiasm, or 2) eyes glazed over. There's not much middle ground. But however you feel about retro-clones, they form a major portion of the hobby - especially the "hobbyist" portion of the hobby - and not only are they here to stay, they seem to be gaining traction.

Retro-clone is a term of art. It's generally considered the same thing as OSR, or "old school renaissance" gaming - grognards often distinguish these two terms, but I'll not run down that rabbit hole. Wikipedia's definition is as good as any other - "restatements of Dungeons & Dragons rule editions no longer supported by Wizards of the Coast". That includes pretty much everything published originally by TSR. While the vast majority of retro-clones retain the high fantasy genre, not all of them do. It's easy to find sci-fi, old west, or other popular genres implemented as retro-clones.

One major point worth noting - retro-clones are fully legal and "legit" games. They are usually released under the Open Game License, which yields certain explicit permissions, and they also depend on copyright law implementation that basically states you can copyright a specific rule's wording, but not the concept of a rule in general. So if you re-write a game from start to finish, it can implement all of the rules of some other game without being copyright infringing. There's a long and insightful consideration of this concept right here in river city: MythBusting: Game Design and Copyright, Trademarks, and Patents (US Law).

It's possible - possible, frustrating, and perhaps fruitless - to divide up retro-clones into several primary groups.

Original or zero-edition or 0e retro-clones are, naturally, derived mostly from the little booklets in the white or woodgrain box. These games traditionally emphasize simplicity and rapid play over "realism" (whatever that is). They aren't usually over-concerned with rules cohesiveness and you don't often find a "one rule to rule them all" implementation. You do find an emphasis on style and dungeon-raiding fun.

Basic retro-clones are derived from Basic Dungeons & Dragons. Of which there are numerous "real" versions, from Holmes Basic through the Rules Cyclopedia and several better-known varieties between. All of these implementations were published by TSR and every single one of them has been retro-cloned by somebody. These games traditionally emphasize a cohesive approach to the rules, with standardization and logical approach emphasized at least as much as style of play. They attempt to remain fairly simple but offer a huge range of gaming experience, from "1st level" through "immortal" style play.

And AD&D or "1e" retro-clones which are derived from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons - usually 1st Edition but 2nd Edition is popular, too. These games traditionally emphasize "realism" at the expense of simplicity and have a lot of rules to cover a lot of situations.

Now that I've said you can usually drop a specific retro-clone into one of these groups, I'll note that the three base groups themselves are hugely overlapping and derivative and retro-clone creators usually don't feel much compunction (nor should they) about mixing and matching to advantage.

There are a couple primary goals when creating retro-clones. Some games specifically are designed to re-create the original as closely as possible without being simple copies. The concept here is to preserve the original game and make it widely (and legally) available to experience. These products usually present better organization, better art, and various other "value added" benefits over the original, while remaining true to concept. The other big camp seeks to retain the nostalgia and simplicity of "our shared youth" experience but improve on it by tinkering. There are a lot of very cool improvements available.

Retro-clones are a lot like word processors. Everybody's got one and everybody thinks theirs is the best. Everybody will tell you they use the best option, but it's really rare to find somebody willing to switch. Remember that old ad campaign (before cigarettes became the apocalypse)? Currently I'm much enamored of Pits & Perils. But what does it really have going for it that none of the others have? Well. I like the presentation a whole lot. And I like the attitude of the rules as written. It's a great game. But even as an enthusiast, it's pretty difficult to substantially differentiate it from a bunch of other similar games. Well... it's my favorite. Your mileage may vary.

A final perversity of retro-cloning involves a sort of meta-retro approach to gaming. Labyrinth Lord in general and Swords & Wizardry in particular are two of the most-popular retro clones out there. They need little introduction, really. Lab Lord is a "kinky" implementation with gonzo features, etc. S&W is a major "mainline" implementation from an established vendor. Both have extensive support. And both have been widely used as, oddly, the basis for additional retro-clones. So you've got a retro-clone being in turn itself retro-cloned. Is that "meta-retro" or "retro-retro" or something else? Hmm. I'm sure that we'll eventually see some of these "second generation" meta-retro-retro-clones serve as the basis for another round of retro-cloning. At some point we must assume the apple will have fallen far enough from the tree that "cloning" will be a bad choice of terms, even when the designers are trying to preserve the look and feel of their original.

I'm also pretty sure we'll eventually see 3rd Ed. d20 re-writes referred to as retro-clones, followed in a few years by 4th Ed. retros. To my way of thinking, however, there haven't been enough decades between now and then for these games to be retro. They're still being sold in shops, after all!
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Abraham Gray
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Excellent article. I was pretty sour on playing D&D until I discovered the world of retro-clones for myself. I credit retro clones and their enthusiasts for helping me to like D&D again.
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Andrés Santiago Pérez-Bergquist
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ctimmins wrote:
I'm also pretty sure we'll eventually see 3rd Ed. d20 re-writes referred to as retro-clones, followed in a few years by 4th Ed. retros.

By any measure of consistency, Pathfinder Roleplaying Game (1st Edition) is a 3.X retro-clone. It just happened to come out before 3.X's body had finished cooling. (And I have a project that started as a 4E retro-clone, but has since diverged substantially; I suspect many others do, too.)
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Clark Timmins
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So stop your cheap comment, 'cause we know what we feel...
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Santiago wrote:
Yeah, agreed. Our RPGGeek site definition of retroclone excludes 3 & 4 ed and non-TSR games from the term. I don't think there's any strong logic for this, other than the wikipedia definition. For example, something like FASERIP is totally, obviously, completely a retroclone. Just not a D&D one.

Probably we should have a general forum discussion about how best to organize the retroclone situation in the database.
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Internet rage goon
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I think there is some variation in the usage of this term within the community. Personally, I reserve "retro-clone" for a rule system that intentionally recreates an older game with minimal changes other than in presentation. So, Old School Reference and Index Compilation (OSRIC) would be a good example.

There are lots of other games that build from the base rules from older games, but they drift the system or hack it apart to modernize. Often they want to recreate the feel of older games but with more elegant rules. The Black Hack (1st & 2nd Ed.) is a good example. I wouldn't use retro-clone for this larger class because they aren't cloning anything, they are simply inspired by it. I would put Pathfinder in this same category, because it makes more changes than are obvious at first. There's no need for a true 3.5 retro-clone because the rules are free already.

In fact, see our description of Clark's favorite Pits & Perils for an example of the difference in usage...
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Thanks Clark, that was really well said.
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