It has always somewhat surprised me how well retro-clone rules sell. A set of rules will outsell a module by at least three to one. That might seem obvious -- after all, won't some people who buy the rules choose not to buy some modules? -- until you remember that the modules are universally compatible with the real underlying editions, so they should be selling to plenty of people who don't use the cloned rules.
So ... why are rules themselves so popular? It doesn't seem to make sense.
There are several reasons I've already thought of and mentioned in various places: there's an attraction to a "living game," which is very strong for some people. Also, easy access; S&W is for an underlying ruleset that's not generally available without mondo cash, and the other major clones also have significant availability benefits compared to their games (e.g., you can tell new players to download a free version of AD&D or Moldvay Basic by directing them to OSRIC or Labyrinth Lord respectively).
But there's another benefit I hadn't really thought of until I spotted a post on the Necromancer Games forums, which made a light bulb go off in my head. Apologies if this seems like a plug for Swords & Wizardry -- I am sure similar things have been said about other clones. In fact, if I didn't think this was a general reaction to clones, I wouldn't bother mentioning it. The quote is about the Swords & Wizardry Complete Rulebook.
Here is the quote that made the light bulb go off:
I second all of this. [meaning an earlier quote] I don't even play S&W (though I do remember my 1e days fondly), but as I flipped through my copy my eyes began to bug out a little bit at just the sheer coolness and possibility of what I was seeing.... (Tammeraut)I have seen quotes like this many times, about many clones, but (stupid me) I didn't understand what's actually being said. The key word from this quote is "possibility."
I suddenly realized that part of the appeal of the clone games is that they give you a new look at the game -- the layout is different, the art is different, the text is different. Moreover, since you know that you already enjoy the underlying game for these rules, these books let you focus a lot more on the excitement rather than reading for evaluation. This might sound obvious, but from my perspective after writing, editing, checking art, looking at layout, etc., I don't see the final product with the same "oomph" as someone who sees the finished product all at once.
There's a sense of newness with these things that, for several people, has duplicated the feeling of reading the underlying game for the first time. It might only be an illusion, but sometimes illusions can pack a real wallop. Starting to play D&D is an experience in reading a book. The tactile experience of turning pages, the smell of paper, the fact that your fingers aren't on a keyboard. The original books are some of the coolest books ever, as we all know, whatever little peeves we might have with the details. But over time, I think something has happened for some of us, which is that familiarity can dull the sense of novelty and excitement. In our particular community, that effect has almost by definition been far less than it was for people who moved from edition to edition as the editions were published. In other words, many of the people in this blog's audience are precisely the people for whom this observation has the least meaning, and yet based on many posts I think it's a valid observation about a fairly large number of people both inside and outside the "traditional" grognard community.
Reading the rules of a retro-clone can simulate the newness of the game simply because it has a different appearance, font, layout, selection of illustrations, and perhaps the different words evoke some new ideas, as well. It's a completely psychological effect having nothing to do with the actual gaming, but it's clearly a pretty powerful whammy.
Why would that be? I can think of a few reasons, not least the simple fact that reading the traditional rules anew in a new book can return you, at least temporarily, to the feeling of discovery. That's a cool feeling, and the books are good for a couple of hours of it. On a longer term basis, I think it can lead to something else, which brings us to the title of this post.
Rebooting your head.
By this, I mean that if you've just had the experience -- and clearly some do and some don't -- of feeling a rush of excitement similar to the first reading of the old books, then there's the potential for something else. Which is to actually begin approaching the game without the baggage of your original approach taken years ago. That feeling of newness can extend beyond the mere reading of the book and become, essentially a reboot of your gaming mind.
One example, for me, is Dave Arneson's Blackmoor (the campaign, not the OD&D supplement). For years and years I had put that book on the shelf. "Lots of stuff that the real rules supercede." Even as an older gamer, when "officialness" carried far less power than when I was younger, that mental downgrading of Blackmoor remained. However, after restating the original rules, all of a sudden Blackmoor seemed to reawaken as well. This is great stuff, I realized. I might not use it, but on the other hand, I might.
That's an interesting result, that because of doing things with retro-clones, the mental effect of that newness would ripple outward toward some of the original books as well. You begin to see things, even the original materials, with new eyes.
I didn't realize that so many of those posts were describing, to greater or lesser degree, a reboot of someone's perceptions on gaming. Not a rejection of the original rules by any means, but seeing what those original rules offer, with refreshed eyes. Whether the reader continues to actually use the retro-clone rules or put them down after reading and went back to the original books with a shiny new outlook doesn't matter. The sense of wonder is still re-booted either way.