Used to be that if you didn’t like a game or where the RPG industry was headed, you’d bitch about Big Dice (usually TSR, later WotC), post a rant to rec.games.frp.dnd, and go back to playing. But it’s different now. Thanks to the OSR, the Age of Complaint is, for all productive purposes, over.
It’s like my mom used to say: Don’t complain unless you have a solution. Bitching about TSR was fun, but only because you never really had to produce results—I mean, it’s not like Lorraine Williams was going to adopt your tweaks to the thief class, and she certainly wasn’t going to pull back on 2nd Ed. splatbooks.
It's a different story now. Don’t bother bitching. Either inject a remedy via the approved OSR channel—because there’s absolutely nothing to stop you—or sit down and drink your juice.
This, it turns out, is a fundamental provision of RPG life under the OGL. Too bad that I’m the last person on the planet to realise it.
None of this was clear to me until I had a discussion on the Yaqqothl Grimoire, wherein the author posts his rationale for playing retro-clones while acquiring second-hand versions of the original games. Il Male™, the author of the Grimoire, makes a good argument, but it’s in the comment section where I found my wisdom.
The long and short of it is this: I realised that my disdain for retro-clones was misdirected.
All along, my beef with retro-clones has been that they’re entirely too derivative. By definition, retro-clones seemed, to me, little more than wordsmithed versions of original games made legal by inclusion of an OGL. I bitch at length on these points here and here, with some considered clarity here, and also with (to my chagrin) uncharacteristic crankiness here.
But my basis for such conclusions weren’t entirely fair. It consisted of Swords & Wizardry White Box (which I didn’t like, possibly because I never cottoned onto the original LBBs to begin with), the Swords & Wizardry Core (1st printing, which I also didn’t like, because it didn’t fix what I thought was “wrong” with the S&W White Box), and Labyrinth Lord (which I didn’t like because it was different from B/X in all the wrong places).
An Objective Evaluation
The discussion prompted me to download the S&W Core (4th printing). After a thorough read, it seems that, given my sources and a closed mind, my charges of gross derivation just didn't seem to apply any longer. Maybe they never did. I have to say that I'm impressed with the current version. There are innovations there, and some of the D&D warts have been healed, and the author even goes so far as to explain his rationale for ruling this or that, which I think is a nice touch because it helps clear a few things up for me.
I hadn’t given S&W a fair shake (or, at least, I hadn't kept current), because the 4th printing didn't seem nearly as derivative as the 1st. More importantly, it made me realise that it’s actually hard not to write an RPG that takes some credit from its predecessors. With some thought, this seems to be the nature of the hobby: Innovation is an iterative, evolutionary process.
Chimera is a good example. Clearly, it’s not D&D, but the concepts are there. Character generation, action resolution, gaining experience to improve one’s PC, magic, monsters, and treasure...Chimera’s innovation is in the presentation of concepts, but not the concepts themselves. I mean, Chimera combat works differently than in D&D, but whether you’re using “wound limit” or “hit points,” you’re essentially talking about the same thing: how much damage can a character take before it’s time to roll up a new character?
As I read S&W, I thought about tweaks I’d make. Could I inject Chimera-style combat? Easily. Could I make a Chimera-style class-builder for S&W, based on the Building the Perfect Class material I wrote up for B/X? No problem. I started to appreciate more and more the flexibility baked into S&W.
Which is important to me. I know of no gamer—of any system—who does not add, tweak, delete, revise, or otherwise customise the rules governing his or her game. That’s pretty much how Chimera started: my desire to codify and publish how I like to run my games (which is code for “D&D but with the parts I don’t like replaced by house rules”). I could tweak any game I wanted to play, but there’s something about Swords & Wizardry that makes it so damn easy.
Despite my previous rants, the urge to share with the community, via the community’s vernacular, is something I’ve wanted all along. Maybe it's because, after 3 years in NJ, I still don't have a regular gaming group to run Chimera games. Maybe it's because B/X will always be my "go-to" game. Maybe it's because the 4th printing of S&W got me excited about writing up a new setting in a way that I haven't felt in months.
I think the retroclone guys have done a great deal to revitalize the old school D&D community. It's fun to be interested in and write about a game that so many other people are also interested in and write about—even if their opinions are largely at odds with my own.
I'd like to explore S&W a bit more. I'm still supporting Chimera Basic, though now I'm seriously wondering if the D&D "mods" that inspired Chimera couldn't be grafted onto S&W. While Chimera downloads are encouraging, the feedback I get suggests that people are using it more for mechanical variants of some version of D&D than as a stand-alone system. Which is fine, but why not try to make it "official" with a Swords & Wizardry port? Let's see where that takes me.
What say you?
P.S. I know I owe a Joesky Tax for this, but the post is already pretty long, so I'm gonna offer this: The Bastard's Blade, which is where I put my S&W money where my OSR mouth is.