Moving Away From Retro-Clones

The recent announcement that Goodman Games’s Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG is now available for pre-order (see also here and here) has led me (and a few others, it seems) to ruminate on the future of retro-clones and the OSR in general.

Let me state at the outset that I think DCC sounds like a really neat game, and I’m personally very much looking forward to owning a copy. In fact, if it wasn’t for my own ADD game, I might consider it a candidate for a standard go-to game myself.

It does make me believe, however, that the era of the retro-clones has pretty much run its course. By this I do not mean that people will stop playing games like OSRIC, Labyrinth Lord, LotFP RPG, or Swords & Wizardry. Far from it. But I mean that we are much less likely to see any new retro-clones (aka simluacrum games), for the simple reason that all the likely candidates have pretty much been done already. While the 2E fans are finally represented by Myth and Magic and For Gold & Glory, it seems that these are going to be closing the door on true simulacra. I’m in agreement with the camp that says that there probably isn’t any need for yet-another-retelling of the 0E rules.

Instead, I think you’re going to see a flourishing of “concept games” like DCC, Dragons at Dawn, Mazes and MinotaursAstonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea, and my own Adventures Dark and Deep.

That is, games which don’t just take the old rules and re-state them and/or reorganize them, but which either take the underlying concepts and take them in a new direction (DCC, M&M, AS&SoH) or attempt recreations of versions of the game which were either lost to the sands of time (DaD) or which never actually existed but could have (ADD, the Holmes Treasury, AD&D 3rd Edition, etc.). In the latter category, I think potential exists for something like the long-lost “Kalibruhn” supplement to see print, and there are doubtless others that afficinados of particular editions and related games have been pining for for years. 

In the former category, the options are much more open of course, and there’s where I fully expect to see the next big burst of creativity and activity. These are games which take the spirit of the original and run with it in new directions. We’ve already started to see it in the games mentioned above, plus games like Stars Without Number. I’m very much looking forward to this “next era” of the OSR, which I think will bring us a lot of material both solid and imaginative. The one thing I lament is that it will most likely not be as easily cross-compatible as the various simulacra are, but if I can have a surfeit of new games with the old school aesthetic, that’s a price I’m willing to pay.

UPDATE: See? I thought there were 2E clones out there! Changed the text to include them.

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

23 thoughts on “Moving Away From Retro-Clones

  1. As much as I've enjoyed the 'retro-clone' movement I think you may be right. I don't think we need any more versions of the same ol' game. It's been done and now it's time to evolve the process.

    I agree that the new 'spin-offs' that you mentioned will be coming to add new color and depth to whats already there.

    But another rule-set, I think we've had our fill.

  2. I fully agree. I was involved a bit with OSRIC as it developed (I did quite a bit of the art and participated a very little in the design discussions). I think that the Retro-clones have met their intended purpose and opened an avenue to publish new material for old games. I think now that has been done, it is time to play with what is under the hood of the OSR games and really push forward in interesting new directions. I'm actually doing my own rules system tweaks. I think this is going to be an even more fun and interesting time for the OSR.

  3. I'm in total agreement with this post. Also I think 2011 is a return to more subsystems within games to make them stand out – like SWN's factions. Not necessarily more complex, but less one-type-of-roll-does-all.

  4. I always hate echoing with a ditto, but I do agree.

    I just finished reading through the new S&W Complete rules and while I found them to be both well-presented and attractive, I couldn't help but ask "why does this exist as a separate rules system?" It's a question I find myself asking quite a bit when encountering new iterations of more-or-less faithful retro-clones.

    I grok–and support–the original mission. I play a baseline LL myself. But I think your most people involved with the classic play side of this hobby are far more interested in either: (a) subsystems, rules variants and supplements that can be house-ruled into existing platforms/campaigns or (b) complete systems that go far enough in a new direction to make you stretch play in some way.

    Sure I imagine enthusiasts will buy new comers to the retro-clone market, but will they be playing them three months after that purchase? I'm skeptical.

  5. Honestly, my reaction to most of these is, "I like some of these house-rules. Don't like others. I will pillage these ideas for my own campaign."

    This makes me realize I'm probably best off publishing any of my house-rules as an almanac or compendium rather than a full game.

  6. I don't think there's much intention behind OSRIC or LL to be anything but what they are: available versions of games once not available. The rulebooks will sit there and sell on into infinity.

    And I think the "new wave" you refer to here is really just the completion of the full circle, as every game group plays its own game and eventually shares/publishes it. Other groups pick and choose pieces to add to their games, and on it goes until we're all in different basements playing different games just like Arneson and Gygax. And IMO that's just fine.

  7. I don't agree for two reasons.

    First, there will always be an appetite for straight-up old school D&D/clones of. I wish the best to the creators of these other games. I have time to play D&D and little else.

    Second, I think, now that the rule sets are widely available, the natural transition will be to the proliferation of modules and other forms of support.

    So, I don't see the retro-clones slowing down, if anything I see them speeding up.

  8. Kiltedyaksman: Did you see the part where I said "By this I do not mean that people will stop playing games like OSRIC, Labyrinth Lord, LotFP RPG, or Swords & Wizardry. Far from it. But I mean that we are much less likely to see any new retro-clones"?

    I don't understand your comment in that context.

  9. "While there will most likely be a 2E retro-clone at some point"

    At New Haven Games, coincidentally, they just launched their 'Revised Starter Kit' just yesterday, and I for one am excited to see a resurgence in some 2nd Ed love.

  10. I completely agree with this assessment – great post.

    What I would like to see (as much as I am NOT a fan of the OD&D, BD&D, AD&D or any D&D) is the OSR movement accomplish where TSR/WotC failed and apply the mechanic to other genres.

    I am working on a Sci-Fi/Space Opera Basic D&D game but where are the Wild West/Boot Hill, Superhero and Spy ones? Mutant Future was genius. Let's see more like that.

  11. The future of gaming

    I think retro cones will have a hard time drawing in newbies and converting 3tards and 4ons
    (I jest , I play with 3tards).
    The retroclones are counter-intuitive;
    descending armor class (WTF?)
    Roll high to save,
    But roll low for thief skills, find secret doors, etc..

    IMHO the future belongs to a game system with the classic feel but 3.x compatibility.
    I have elegantly streamlined my RPG (shameless plug) by eliminating feats, psionics, prestige classes, some skills, weapon proficiencies, spell bonuses and experience points.

    I have keep Red Planet compatible with
    3.X, pathfinder or OGL material
    as there is so MANY 3.x
    modules, splat books and GM
    materials available for FREE !

    I am a big man Mr. Grognard,
    send me a comment if you would like to review, read or malign my game system.

  12. "IMHO the future belongs to a game system with the classic feel but 3.x compatibility."

    Clovis, sounds like you're describing C&C. While they're doing very well, I don't see them conquering the gaming world.

    I disagree, but with a qualifier, because you're answering a question I didn't ask. I was never attempting to say that the gaming industry (or hobby) as a whole was moving in this direction. I was speaking specifically of those of us who are self-identified members of the OSR. You are speaking of gaming as a whole, and that is something I decline to comment upon at this time.

    You also seem to make the mistake of assuming that "simple=old school." It just isn't so. Games like Chivalry & Sorcery, and AD&D 1E for that matter, prove that to be a fallacy.

    Although I will say that those who find the conventions of the older games baffling (descending AC, different systems for different actions) and who can't wrap their brains around the fact that sometimes you roll high, and sometimes you roll low, fortunately have games that cater to their needs. Just as those of us who are used to those conventions, and find no trouble remembering when to roll high or low, have games that cater to our preferences.

    It honestly sounds like your game would be lost on me, though. I'm neither a fan of 3.x nor of the John Carter books. I'm probably not your target audience.

  13. @Barking Alien: For OD&D supers head over to Land of Nod and follow the development of Mystery Men, now complete with a chick fight write-up (The Invisible Woman vs. Catwoman)

  14. An excellent summary of where the OSR community is evolving. I do agree with the sentiment that the number of new direct clones of previous D&D editions will decrease or even stop. However, there are still clones yet to be created.

    Where is the retro(?) clone of 4E? I pine for a clone of "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles"? Where are my OSR versions of GURPS, WoD Vampire, TOON, etc. 🙂

    Seriously though, I could see a clone of 4E once 5E comes out in 2-3 years. To echo some of the previous comments I too am looking forward to some of OSR rulesets being applied towards original themes and game concepts. Hmmm… a Smurfs/Indiana Jones cross-over set in 1950s Brazil using the OSRIC rules… 🙂

  15. I really agree with this article's premise. In fact, I've just released Lost Empires™, a new rules-light fantasy roleplaying game available for free at which does something new with the retro-clone games now gaining popularity.

    The game mechanics of Lost Empires, while familiar to many, introduces several changes to broaden the appeal of fantasy roleplaying to new audiences.

    While the OSR is driven in part by the nostalgia of veteran gamers, we designed our system from the ground up to appeal to people new to the game, particularly young people. Lost Empires eliminates class levels, gives mages greater freedom in which powers they can access, uses dice counters to track monster hit points, and removes most tables and rules which normally would require consulting a manual.

    One notable departure from other retro-clone games is Lost Empire’s magic system.

    To get it free, visit

  16. I say bring 'em on. I want to support stuff like LotFP, Swords & Wizardry, Labyrinth Lord, etc… but I already have old D&D and AD&D1, and I'm really not keen on paying for a game I own 90-95% of the rules to, presentation or no. (That being said, I did purchase OSRIC, if only because the info is much better organized than the AD&D1 DMG.)

    Give me more stuff like Mutant Future or Xplorers. The potential for this next new movement is exciting to me, but I think my wallet is going to be badly bruised by it. 🙂

  17. I disagree with this. Sure, old-school D&D may be pretty well covered by retroclones, but the concept applies just as easily to any out-of-print system. Where's the retroclone of Boot Hill? What about Gamma World? Just because D&D has been done to death and back doesn't mean that retroclones, in general, are dead.

  18. My reading of the announcement on Goodman Games site can be summed up as "it's not a retro-clone, it uses modified d20 srd mechanics, and it plays like an early edition of the game". Sounds a lot like BFRPG to me.

    Normally I'd at least check out a new "retro game" (as opposed to retro clone game) before deciding to pass on it, but another part of the announcement, paraphrased as "this will be what the game could have been if Gary and Dave had had access to a real, robust rules engine", convinced me on the spot that this is something I won't partake of, and wont recommend to others. The insinuation there, that D&D was inherently flawed until 3rd ed./d20 saved the day, is deeply insulting, both to the memory of Gary and Dave, and to those of us who've supported D&D for 30 or 35 years.

    I'm very disappointed by that comment in the announcement, and even more surprised and disappointed by the majority of OSR type blogs that overlooked it and are giving this the publicity that really belongs to C&C and BFRPG.

  19. Let me add one thing, so I don't come off as a grudge holding Goodman Games hater; I thoroughly enjoyed the DCC line for 3.5e D&D, and have collected most of them for conversion to my AD&D2e or Classic/Basic D&D campaigns. The idea of a DCC game interested me at first, but as I explained above, the details soured me on it.

  20. That's a very interesting point, CD, albeit one I (obviously) hadn't picked up on myself.

    I'm not sure I would take it in the way you suggest; I cannot believe that Goodman would be attempting to insult OE or 1E. But I can definitely see how one could read it that way, and maybe it does speak to an unconscious bias on their part.

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