Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Attack of the Clones: Retro-gaming.

A recent phenomenon that has arisen in the late-to-post 3e D&D era has been the growth of retro-gaming. This is a pehnomenon in which gamers try to recapture the feel of the early days of RPGs by playing either retro-clones of D&D or outright D&D in and of itself. Now, I'm not talking about any current version of D&D, but rather the old version of D&D, as it appeared in the mid-70's (or its relaunch in the early '80s with the Red Box Basic D&D set).

This recently came to the fore-front of my mind by a game I found called Mutant Future. This game essentially tries to capture the mood and feel of the early days of Metamorphosis Alpha and Gamma World. Of course this is not the only one. On the fantasy side there is Swords & Wizardry, OSRIC, Labyrinth Lord, Castles & Crusades, and finally Basic Fantasy RPG.

The trend with these games is to make a very basic, rules light RPG, eliminating many of the game mechanics and details that have been added over the years, primarily to the D&D ruleset. A few are modifications of 3e (such as Castles and Crusades) and others very inspirational of 1e AD&D (OSRIC). Looking at the character sheets for games like Mutant Future or Labyrinth Lord, I can almost be looking at Basic D&D character sheets, lifted from a product produced more than 25 years ago. Eliminated are elements like skills, feats, and other factors that differentiate characters, so that what your character is, is essentially based on the character class.

Another important element of retro-gaming is that it appears to be almost a grass roots movement, not being pushed (much) by the big publishers. Although games like Castles and Crusades has "official" support, contrast that with games like Labyrinth Lord which is available as a free PDF (with a print option available via Lulu). In a way, it almost seems like this movement is also moving away from the big corporate model WotC/Hasbro uses, and more to a small publisher/cottage industry model. And I can't really complain about this, since I think most hobbies are served best by a cottage industry, where competition between products is stronger, and the market more responsive to the tastes of gamers. Furthermore, on a more personal level, I think the cottage industry model is also more passionate about the games, since the developers not only have a vested interest in the success of the game (since they are often a sole proprietor, or an alliance of several individuals) but because the passion of a game made not for money but for the love of the game. This is not to say a corporate model can't succeed in putting out good product (I think 3e is still the best version of D&D ever developed), and I don't think the two are neccessarily (or always) mutually exclusive.

Far be it for me to discourage anyone from playing more RPGs, but my question with regards to this movement is: why? What is the appeal of playing a retro game (as opposed to more modern rules light games)? Is it a nostalgia thing, trying to re-capture the feel and mood of early gaming? I'm not a nostalgic person myself (nostalgia often evokes the idea of a "golden age," a meme I oppose since golden ages are often -- not) so the idea of trying to recapture the genie is not only impossible to do, but that genie is wheezing and gray now. Is it a reaction against rules-heavy D&D (such as 3e and -- yes -- 4e)?

More information about available rulesets can be found at Retro-clones.

This is definitely something that bears watching. In the meantime, though, there are a few free games I listed here, so check them out!


Sergeant Crunch said...

I don't play RPGs anymore having opted for wargaming, but I think a lot of the retro-gaming movement stems from the perceived "WoW-ification" of D&D. Not owning the 4th Ed rules I can't say one way or the other, but from what I've seen on forum I've a feeling that is at least part of the motivation for the movement.

I can kind of sympathize with them as I have many fond memories of playing that red box version.

Anonymous said...

I would not say that Castles & Crusades is exactly a "retro-clone" in the same way that the others are, because C&C has some pretty neat ideas for game mechanics. Also, the "retro-clone" folks tend to strongly criticize and deride C&C.