Saturday, 17 September 2011

RPG: Retro Clones, Interpretations

While I was writing my Return to RPGs series of posts I kept thinking about my old D&D gaming sessions through rose tinted memory filters. I have been looking for something to fill in the D&D shaped hole in my mind.

The D&D I originally played was the Basic game 1983 Revision red Box edition and it's following rule books (expert, companion etc). These books I now know tend to be referred to as Dungeons and Dragons BECMI as edited by Frank Mentzer. This was evidently a follow up to the Dungeon and Dragons B/X rule books by Tom Moldvay and David Cook.

Way back then I did have a look at 2 Edtion AD&D but felt there were too many tables and too much fluff :) Trying 4th Edtion AD&D was a bit of a shock. It is a fun game but I have missed far too many generations of the game to work out quite what has happened. I still spend time trying to work out my THAC0#. I saw mention of the huge change between 4th Edtion and 3.5 so had a look at Pathfinder.

Pathfinder is really nice. I like it a lot. But it still has far too many bells and whistles.

For me the best and purest system was the Mentzer D&D with the rules system from the Gazetteers.

Turned out on the wonderful world of the internet I was not the only person to have this itch to scratch. There was a whole world of stuff!

It turns out game rules can not be copyrighted:
Copyright does not protect the idea for a game, its name or title, or the method or methods for playing it. Nor does copyright protect any idea, system, method, device, or trademark material involved in developing, merchandising, or playing a game. Once a game has been made public, nothing in the copyright law prevents others from developing another game based on similar principles. Copyright protects only the particular manner of an author’s expression in literary, artistic, or musical form.

At least in the U.S. I believe it is similar in Europe. This means  some enterprising people with far too much wonderful time on their hands have recreated or reinterpreted old gaming systems. They are known by the collective title of retro clones. All seem to be very careful about avoiding naming the system they are inspired by and only concentrating on no longer commercially exploited versions. A few minutes of Googling will find much more complete lists than the one that follows. Most of the retro clones have made slight or significant tweaks to the core rules, often these are the more popular house rules that people used or additions from published supplements. Sometimes ideas from later versions are backported.

Best of all most of these games are free to download with print versions on offer from Print on Demand stores.

Here is my rough list of what I found and liked the look of..

Dungeons & Dragons B/X

 Labyrinth Lord

[caption id="attachment_710" align="aligncenter" width="250" caption="Labyrinth Lord Cover"]Labyrinth Lord Cover[/caption]

The Labyrinth Lord fantasy role-playing game allows you to experience the game play of the retro-editions of the world’s most popular fantasy role-playing game! The Labyrinth Lord core rules emulate the rules and game play experience of the 1981 edition of the world’s most popular fantasy role-playing game. The 1981 version reorganized and clarified the rules from the very first version of the game released in 1974, so it is the best version to pick up and play with little prep time.

In retro clone world world's most popular fantasy role-playing game means Dungeons and Dragons, or some version thereof, the 1981 Edition is the Moldvay/ Cook version. The version before the one I started with.

As far as I can see the core rules are a fairly exact recreation of the original rules. The level progression is different from the box sets I used, most things top out at about level 20; whereas in the BECMI version level 36 was the top.

Labyrinth Lord's main competitor in the B/X arena is:

Basic Fantasy RPG

[caption id="attachment_711" align="aligncenter" width="408" caption="Basic Fantasy RPG"]Basic Fantasy RPG[/caption]

 The Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Game is a rules-light game system based loosely on the d20 SRD v3.5, heavily rewritten with inspiration from early RPG game systems. It is suitable for those who are fans of "old-school" game mechanics. Basic Fantasy RPG is simple enough for children in perhaps second or third grade to play, yet still has enough depth for adults as well.

The two systems are thoroughly compared here: Labyrinth Lord vs. Basic Fantasy at The Dwarf and the Basilisk. Go read it. Read it now.

These two systems, especially LL, seemed to dominate most of the retro clone discussion. Labyrinth Lord in particular looked close enough to what I was looking for. Then I found something.

Something wonderful!

Dungeons & Dragon: BECMI

Dark Dungeons

[caption id="attachment_712" align="aligncenter" width="590" caption="Dark Dungeons Cover"]Dark Dungeons Cover[/caption]

Dark Dungeons is such a retro-clone. The terminology used in this game is taken from the SRD via the terms of the OGL, and the game mechanics of the game very closely match the game mechanics of a specific out-of-print version of the world’s most popular role-playing game. However, to avoid issues with trademark and copyright laws, that game is not mentioned by name within either this site or the game book and no specific compatibility or endorsement with it or with any other existing role-playing game is claimed.

The game that is not be be mentioned in the final (not quite) version of the BECMI set the glorious Rules Cyclopedia.

[caption id="attachment_713" align="aligncenter" width="213" caption="Rules Cyclopedia Cover"]Rules Cyclopedia Cover[/caption]

The RC, as it is known, was something I dreamed of owning but never quite got round to. At the time I owned all the box sets and most of the Gazetteers.

Dark Dungeons is a fairly close copy to the RC. The RC used to be fairly cheap on eBay, this is no longer the case. Prices often seem to be about the £50 mark. Dark Dungeons can be downloaded for free or purchased from a pod store for much less. The PDF weighs in at 344 pages, most of them filled with densely packed text. The original book only comes in at 305 pages.


This post barely scratches the surface of the retro clone world. Many of which have fairly fanatical followings. Further posts will cover some clones of other systems as well as peeking at some of the many free & cheap RPG systems trying to recapture the feel of the old systems for a modern audience.

So far I am leaning towards Labyrinth Lord but have yet to print out Dark Dungeons and have a proper look.


Links (Retro clone comparison chart, not accurate about what the clones are cloning) (About retro clones) (UK Copyright) (D&D BECMI Set)



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