Retro-clones: The Real Issue

Exorcising my OSR demons

Not terribly long ago, I contemplated using the OGL to create Chimera RPG as a Basic/Expert (B/X) add-on via the Labyrinth Lord (LL) retro-clone. Having publicly chastised the OSR movement in general, and retro-clones in particular, I came rather full-circle and honestly tried to assess (1) the source of my disdain for retro-clones, and (2) whether I was stubbornly overlooking real value, all for the sake of principle. To inform my decision, I went as far as to purchase a copy of LL.

Yet the notion of recasting Chimera as an OSR title remained just that—a notion. Labyrinth Lord left me rolling my eyes, loyal readers reminded me of what I had set out to achieve, and Chimera Basic ended up standing on its own. Q.E.D.

I thought I was content to leave it at that. Actually, I tried very hard not to speak of it again. The matter was settled and it's really not that important anyway. Plus, my stance is known, and I figured it wouldn't take much more ranting for people to designate me as the OSR equivalent of the cranky old man yelling at the kids to get their damn retro-clones off his lawn.

But—funny story—when I read that the flood of orders for S&W Complete broke the Frog God Games servers, I found myself getting head-shakingly annoyed all over again. And when—innocently enough—the retro-clone discussion peeked out from behind the barricade on the ODDGuild Yahoo! Group, the dumb fish that I am couldn't resist a nibble on the same, damn baited hook.

Where My Head's At

Let me first clarify: I have no problem with the OSR, as a playing style, a "movement," or a nostalgic approach to RPGs. Instead, I reserve my disdain for the retro-clones.

It's an important distinction. Whereas the OSR is a popular push by a segment of RPG fans to get back to what attracted them to RPGs in the first place, retro-clones are simply RPG systems that mimic—with few alterations—the rules, mechanics, and player options of an earlier, now out-of-print game. The latter is a product of the former, in that the pursuit of "old-school" style and methods of play have prompted the replication of the original games that are no longer available.

In my view, you can have the OSR without the retro-clones, but you can't have the retro-clones without the OSR. In fact, I submit the following: A player who keeps his original out-of-print games on his bookshelf is a de facto "member" of the OSR. Corollary: Being fortunate enough to retain their original games, such players have little to no need for retro-clones.

Weeping Indian

Crying over LL

From the perspective of gamer, this is an exciting time for old-schoolers like myself. The OSR, through its associated retro-clones, has given rise to a number of new supplements, fanzines, blogs, classes, monsters, spells, settings, and campaign starters. And because these are largely built on the same foundation, they're highly portable—what works for B/X will work for LL, S&W, 0e, etc. But while the OSR has always been around, albeit in variously isolated cadres of gamers who've been enjoying the hobby since before the early '80s, the retro-clones are, paradoxically, new. It's only the accessibility of the retro-clones (and the Internets) that have galvanised OSR practitioners into a larger, more collective body.

I'm theorising here, but let's assume (for the remainder of this post, at least), that it's an accurate assessment. On the plus side, this means the retro-clones are responsible for inspiring a massive shot in the RPG industry's arm. What's even better is that the arm in question belongs to the players as a whole—not TSR, nor WotC, nor Hasbro. In other words, Big Dice is largely out of the driver's seat. On the downside, well, let's just say that I'm weeping for the hobby like an American Indian over a littered highway.

The Problem Part

From the perspective of game author, retro-clones are a burr in my ass, and I shared that sentiment at the ODDGuild Yahoo Group:

...as a game author and independent RPG publisher, I'm disappointed and annoyed. I admitted as much during the last retro-clone debate on this list. After working hard to create and promote an innovative rules-lite RPG of my own, it's hard to get behind slavish reproductions of what's already been done. There's an "Emperor's New Clothes" aspect of the retro-clones that makes it very hard for me to support...I'm looking at retro-clones much more critically because they represent competition, and—to be completely frank—I'd be embarrassed to publish and sell what amounts to a re-write of someone else's work, despite the fact that the OGL says it's OK.

I bring up these points in the interest of full disclosure—this is all about my role as Chimera author, nothing else. If my exposure to the retro-clones were as a player only, and I was bereft of my original B/X kit, and all the available copies of B/X had been somehow raptured off the planet so as to make them mortally unobtainable, I believe that, yes, I would probably embrace either S&W or LL as a suitable substitute.

But because I've spent a goodly amount of time devising an original rules-lite RPG, and because I spend even more time trying to promote it, retro-clones stick in my craw the way Marconi stuck in Tesla's.

Often as a result, someone will respond to this with an appeal to capitalism, stating essentially that there's nothing wrong with making a buck, that competition is the name of the game, and (though they're invariably too polite to say it) why don't I get with the free-market program? To whit:

On Mon, Dec 13, 2010 at 3:08 PM, Silvester wrote:
I to have to question, what is wrong with making a buck? Capitalism and the free market have brought us the best stuff on the face of the through supply & demand evolution. [sic]

Good question. Here's my answer:

There's nothing wrong with making a buck, per se. With respect, I don't think that's the right question, and I'd be a hypocrite if that was my beef. Instead, my issue has always been, "What's wrong with selling someone else's work as your own?" [emphasis mine]

And, please, let's not get bogged down in the "Game rules can't be copyrighted" and "The OGL lets anyone do it" arguments. I'm aware of these things, and they're true. But by definition, a retro-clone is a copy of something that came before it (Dan Proctor emphatically states that LL is not an original work). The permissive nature of the OGL is based on a loophole that's being exploited for purposes the document was never intended address. No one's breaking the letter of the law, but I think the spirit is taking a miserable beating...

Silvester agreed:

On Tue, Dec 14, 2010 at 10:27 AM, Silvester wrote:
I like your redefinition of the situation and I agree entirely!!

> The permissive nature of the OGL is based on a loophole that's being exploited
> for purposes the document was never intended address. No one's breaking the
> letter of the law, but I think the spirit is taking a miserable beating...

That whole childish concept that "it ain't illegal if you don't get caught..."
It's like only telling part of the truth and leaving out huge sections of factual details so you didn't "technically" lie - I HATE that!

Yes. Exactly that. And now that it's written out, I have achieved clarity as to why I'm so bothered by the retro-clones.

What If...

With that in mind, I felt eager to respond to Silvester's next post, in which (among other things) he wrote:

On Tue, Dec 14, 2010 at 10:50 AM, Silvester wrote:
I would prefer for WotC to have continued to publish all of the older versions of the game, even on a limited/commemorative/holiday basis - I would totally drop cash on a 25/50th anniversary boxed set of B/X and or 1e!

So how about this:

WotC did release the 25th Anniversary Collector's box right as (or just after) TSR was purchased. It contained mostly AD&D stuff, but there was also a reprint of B2 "Keep on the Borderlands" and the Holmes Basic books. I'm curious as to how this product fared—were all copies snapped up? What kind of feedback did WotC get? If they could have done it all over, would they have included reprints of the LBBs, or maybe other out-of-print material from the pre-AD&D era? If they had, would that have made it more popular?

What I'm driving at is this: WotC could very easily (and cheaply, I think) produce a limited run of, say, B/X. Straight up reprints of Moldvay Basic and Cook Expert. Maybe combine them both into a single volume. See how fast they sell. I suspect they'd go quickly.

Distribute these as OGL-friendly. This provides backward compatibility for existing retro-clones and OSR publishers. It continues to promote the creation and distribution of new material—be they modules, settings, rule expansions, monsters, spellbooks, whatever. But it also opens up the originals to players and DMs who prefer them (whether as purists, gift-giving parents, or as snobs like me) over the retro-clones.

Given Hasbro's diversity in product lines, I can't imagine supporting a version of Classic D&D would impose much overhead. They get a piece of the pie, OGL users retain their piece of the pie. Players—from newcomers to grognard fans—get to eat pie.

Final Words

So what have I missed? Will this never work? Am I over-reacting? Set me straight...

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