Wednesday, February 16, 2022

On D&D Clones and their Virtues

Game time in the Deathtrap

Before I get down to my article on world building, I wanted to share quickly some thoughts I had while chatting on Twitter.

YoDanno asked if there were people who were still playing vanilla D&D from the original manuals in the OSR Twitter crowd. Aside from pointing him to a group I know playing not B/X D&D and AD&D RAW, I pointed out that a lot of retro clones were just the old rules verbatim, and he could find the groups he was looking for by searching for them. I also decided to throw in my two cents about some of the cooler retro clones out there and how they differed from the base rules.

Personally, I do play a great deal of BECMI right out of my original Dungeons & Dragons Rules Cyclopedia, although years of use have roughed the book up a bit, and I am loath to just leave it sitting around where my toddler can get at it. Sometimes I mod it with options from The Dozen Dooms.

There are days where vanilla, or a lightly hacked version of vanilla D&D are all that you need. For example, I am still playing a solo game set on Venger Satanis's The Islands of Purple-Haunted Putrescence that, apart from a custom character, class some rules specific to the islands' magical energy, and a simplified experience system, are being played straight out of the 'Cyclopedia.

Unfortunately, my solo play has gotten so complex that I have been unable to put it all down in a written format. I need to do something like a narrative podcast if I want to keep sharing my Crawling the Purple Isles.

So, if I'm still playing out of my Cyclopedia, why am I collecting retroclones? My shelf has copies of Basic Fantasy RPG 3e, Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Swords & Wizardry, Lowlife 2090, and low fantasy gaming. My Google drive includes downloaded copies of The Black Hack, The Mecha Hack, The Wasted Hack, Castles & Crusades, Old School Essentials, Labyrinth Lord, OSRIC, Stars Without Number, Star Adventurer, Machinations of the Space Princess, Dark Dungeons, For Gold and Glory, and Shadowdark.

And that doesn't even go into the Dungeons & Dragons-derived products like Index Card RPG, Dungeon Bright, Mausritter, Into the Odd, Cairn, and Knave that to take up even more gigabytes of my collection.

So, why do I bother having all of them?

Well, in part it's in service of this blog. I want to help everyone find the exact right role-playing game for them to enjoy the hobby to the best of their ability.

Partially it's because I want to support the OSR movement by encouraging people, and when I can, buying their products. Almost every one of these that I have purchased myself, instead of receiving as a gift or a review copy, was purchased using money I've earned selling my adventure modules and role-playing game supplements. I'm very much trying to create a self-sustaining hobby. This blog is a passion project into which I put a lot of energy.

But another reason is that I always aim to create a very particular kind of experience. I don't write plots. I don't have an agenda for my players when I play unless it is a very compact one-shot. But I always want to tailor the world that they are in so that they go into every session with specific expectations, and come out satisfied that they were met. Accordingly I start almost every campaign looking for ways to hack rules to build a bespoke game that best suits the setting, environment, genre, and mood of the campaign thst I'm trying to run..

Retro clones are a fantastic shortcut to building a bespoke Dungeons & Dragons experience for your players. And when a campaign ends, I find it is very satisfying to start a new one in a different world, rather than carrying on the same world. It allows me to keep the game fresh and avoid burnout. 

Each retro clone worth it salt has its own character created by a combination of its hacked mechanics and its content. For example, Lamentations of The Flame Princess is designed to take place on historical Earth in the 17th century. With firearms on the rise, and armor disappearing from warfare, some of the mechanics of the game need to change. The underlying mathematics of combat have been tweaked accordingly. Magic is meant to be something rare and mysterious, often kept hidden from the eyes of everyday people. Accordingly, spell lists of being tweaked and rearranged to be less dramatic, and include fewer spells that reveal mysteries, like Speak with Dead. Where they do exist they are often reduced in power and made higher level.

So, I thought it might be helpful to list a handful of my favorites, and what kind of experience they offer and how it differs from baseline Dungeons & Dragons.

Lamentations of The Flame Princess is designed to be weird, dark stories. The adventure modules, the presentation, and the mechanics are all built to tell stories where characters often end up dead or maimed, where grim mix of cosmic and body horror are likely, and where magic shows up it is nightmarish.

Machinations of the Space Princess is (alongside Alpha Blue) one of the best games at creating sleazy, grubby sci-fi that's it somewhere on the spectrum between Lexx, Rick and Morty, and Space Truckers.

Low Fantasy Gaming, (one of my favorites,) is built to engender high octane sword and sorcery action the like of which you would see in fantasy action flicks from the '70s and 80s, Conan and Red Sonja comics, and video games like the Witcher.

Lowlife 2090 takes the same ideas and turns them into a shadow run like cyberpunk and sorcery setting.

I might argue that Dungeon Crawl Classics has so many modifications that calling it a retroclone is tenuous, but it specializes in the weird, highly pulpy, and often funny stories along the lines of Jack Vans or Fritz Leiber.

Basic Fantasy RPG takes innovations from D&D3e and uses them to simplify a mix of basic and original Dungeons & Dragons to be as easy to learn and play for beginners as possible, well still holding on to that lethal old school play style.

Castles & Crusades includes the chivalric heroic vibes that became more pronounced in AD&D 2e, while keeping the character options and some of the grit that was bowlderized out of second edition, and adding in some useful innovations both from 3rd Edition and of the designer's own to make it smoother and faster to play.

Stars Without Number offers a crunchy and sophisticated take on science fiction best for space odysseys or tales of interstellar conflict like the David Weber Honorverse novels.

Star Adventurer, on the other hand, offers a loser, more flexible Space opera adventure what will be big on action, in the vein of mass effect, star wars, star trek, or Blake's Seven.

Shadowdark is still in production, but offers a dungeon crawling experience designed to maximize the sense of pressure and foreboding wild dungeon crawling.

The Black Hack, rather like DCC RPG, is so far removed from original Dungeons & dragons, that is a wonder that the game is still compatible with an off-the-shelf module. It is designed to offer a high energy, fast, and snerious power fantasy like the Simon Green Deathstalker novels.

Lion & Dragon does a great job of making D&,D feel like a Medieval Romance.

Mörk Borg is dark and apocalyptic fantasy how about surviving in a desperate time when the earth is being consumed by demonic forces.

Delve 2e is a fusion of Dungeons & Dragons and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay designed as desperate survival fantasy  with a twist of punk aesthetics.g

Adventurer Conqueror King emphasizes the original developmental path of D&D characters in beat ecmi evolving from being nobody's too building their own dominions and eventually ruling over hole kingdoms.

I also feel the urge to make a few honorable mentions here of games that are not retro clones, but that will be a great interest to Dungeons & Dragons fans looking to tailor make the airplane game experiences:

Knave is a light and flexible system that is lethal, but extremely fair and lends itself to building almost anything, but players must focus on solving problems in a way that avoids dice.

Index Card RPG is one of the fastest systems I have ever played it offers a Dungeons & Dragons experience in a quarter of the time, but doesn't offer a lot of granularity or complexity.

Crimson Dragon Slayer d20 is perfect for wild and chaotic play. His ideal for one shots played at a frenzied pace, extremely weird games, or pulpy power fantasies.

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