Monday, April 4, 2011

Rebooting Your Head

An observation on the popularity of retro-clone rulebooks, which I think hasn't been mentioned before.

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.


  1. My guess as to why rules outsell modules is simple. Everyone at the table would like to have a rulebook handy, but only one person really needs to own the module. I don't think it boils down to anything other than that.

    Having said that, I have never been one to collect adventure modules. I do like campaign settings though. I guess I am a do-it-yourself kind of guy, and have shied away from pre-canned adventures.

  2. I read every set of rules I can get my hands on, looking for that excellent fresh new bit I can add to my homebrew rules set. It's just something I enjoy for it's own sake.

    I enjoy reading adventures too, but nowhere near as much as I enjoy sitting there and flipping through a rules set.

  3. I think you've really hit on something here Matt. Especially those looking to play AD&D1 or BX availability on eBay at reasonable prices cuts the availability argument in many ways (although I think it's very valid).

  4. I agree that you're onto something. Just engaging in a little first-person research (sacrilege, I know!), I had basically shelved all of my older editions of the game once I converted to Pathfinder and only took them out once in a while to read "for fun."

    Once I started following Grognardia and hearing about this whole "OSR" movement about a year ago or so, I downloaded the free PDFs of the "big 3" (yours, L&L, and OSRIC) and discovered that I wasn't reading them just "for fun" any more, but I was reading the rules and thinking about how to run a campaign with them. Eventually I started up an OSRIC/1E game in addition to my Pathfinder game, and the players love it. It's something I never would have considered doing had the rules not been re-stated and reorganized in a new format.


  5. I think you're right in that rulebooks offer a sea of possibilities. Modules limit the possibilities by locations, events and/or story.

    Funnily enough, the plans for the DCC rpg have rebooted my head towards d20 games!

  6. Funnily enough, the plans for the DCC rpg have rebooted my head towards d20 games!

    Geordie, noooooooooooooooooo!!!!!

  7. I was going to disagree with this at first, but then realized I *did* feel something like this. Because I disagree with certain small rules issues in Swords & Wizardry and Labyrinth Lord, it's sometimes hard to recall the interest and excitement I felt when I learned of the mere existence of these games, not to mention when I read their different takes on old rules. I expect to feel this again in a week or two, now that I've ordered S&W Complete.

  8. Hmm, did you just explain why the OSR happened?

    Assuming that a big part of the OSR is about feeling empowered to DIY-- to make rulings not rely on rules, to make dungeons, not rely on modules-- The retroclones are most important not as a drop-in for the original rulesets but as an example of re-invisioning them.

    The things people criticized S&W for, where you strayed from just cloning and made a change, were what got me so excited. You made me feel like houseruling was okay, and that in fact it is required in some places. Nice.

  9. From my pint of view the whole oldschool gaming and retroclone rule designing are completely unnecessary. Because there are lot of games (for example odnd) and you don't have to publish n+1 vaersion. Why don't you redesign the original dnd?

  10. Agree! I need a mental reboot constantly to keep things fresh. I own all the big retro-clones, in addition to my older versions of the game. It does in fact keep things fresh.