Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Why I might not want you to play the game I published

Someone in the comments of an earlier post asked the question about why anyone would ever play a retro-clone. This is a topic that, if you follow message boards, has been hashed to death; perhaps not so much in the blogosphere.

So I'd like to clarify some of the design objectives of OSRIC and of Swords & Wizardry. These are the only clones where I was privy to the design objectives, so I can't speak for the others, but I suspect that their design objectives are similar (although each clone faces a different context, which will be clear when I point out differences that exist even between OSRIC and Swords & Wizardry).

In terms of OSRIC, since it was the first clone ... wait, let me interject something. There is a historical progression toward OSRIC -- Hackmaster was a retro-game under a license, and then Castles & Crusades was a retro-game using the OGL. Without those steps, OSRIC would probably not have been conceived. I call OSRIC the first clone because it was the first rulebook to use the "rules aren't copyrightable" aspect of copyright law in addition to the OGL. It's a fairly fine distinction, but I do think that it's relevant for various reasons that I won't go into because it would turn this post into a dissertation.

Back to the topic. Let's start with OSRIC.
Since OSRIC was the first clone, we made an incorrect assumption. I had started the original draft with the assumption that it would be played, but as the draft progressed it became clearer and clearer that what we were creating was simply a tool for publishers to use a "shared brand name" that would indicate compatibility with 1e, and bring the publishers into the legal safe harbor offered by the OGL. As it turned out, we were wrong about that. Many people use the book at the gaming table, for various reasons that Stuart and I didn't really consider early on. Since there wasn't another example of a clone out there, we had some blind spots where we simply didn't predict certain benefits of the book.

So, the only operative design considerations with OSRIC were to stay true to the original material and to provide a legal safe harbor for publishers. Gamers didn't even enter the equation. Simply as a matter of doing the job in a workmanlike fashion, we made sure that the material was well organized. And simply from the standpoint of making it easy for publishers to get a copy, we distributed a pdf for free. Simply because they weren't our rules, we didn't charge any profit on the printed copy. But the combination of all those elements happened to create something that was used in ways we didn't foresee.

Things we didn't Foresee:

1) Because the pdf was free, and available online, people who were trying out 1e for the first time, and people who were teaching new players in an online game, often used OSRIC because it was available to download instantly and free. You didn't have to tell players to go to ebay or Amazon - just download this thing, here.

2) Because we had organized the material in a more "modern" fashion, it was more intuitive for people who had only been introduced to RPGs after 1e. Thus, as in #1, it was often used as a teaching tool. "Read this free download, and then we're going to play with the original rules, which work the same way."

3) What I call the "living game factor." Many people want the community of a game as well as just the rules. They want to play a game that is in print, that has modules and supplements coming out. This attracted several people to OSRIC not as a reference tool, not as a teaching tool, and not as a free starter kit. It attracted them to the idea of playing the OSRIC rules using the OSRIC book. This was, for OSRIC, probably the least foreseen of all the unforeseen things. I understand it in retrospect, but Stuart and I didn't predict it at all. It was a complete surprise.

This might not be so clear if you're looking at OSRIC 2.0, which was revised based on requests. But if you look at the old OSRIC 1.0, it's pretty clear: no monsters, because people would be referencing the original book. No information about hirelings or any of the finer points, because a publisher doesn't need that as a basis for writing a module. We expected maybe 50-75 unique downloads from people who wanted to publish a free or for-profit module. When the number hit 50,000 unique downloads in the first month, we realized that we had overlooked something in our predictions.

Swords & Wizardry
Moving on to Swords & Wizardry.
When I did Swords & Wizardry, I had some different design objectives than OSRIC for two reasons. First, simply the context of the cloned game: (a) the original game books are really expensive compared to 1e, (b) by this time, WotC had pulled their pdfs off the market, so there were no legal "official" electronic copies of the original books, (c) the 0e books are generally considered to be less organized or harder to follow than the 1e books, and (d) the original books had never been compiled by topic matter - the later parts of the rules were all in supplemental form. Secondly, when doing Swords & Wizardry, I had the experience of seeing how OSRIC had been used (and also the experience of seeing how Dan Proctor had handled Labyrinth Lord to meet gamer needs that we hadn't predicted with OSRIC).

So, with Swords & Wizardry, I used a different set of principles.
1) As with OSRIC, create a legal safe harbor for publishers - nothing new here.
2) Unlike OSRIC, make the assumption that the book will be used at a gaming table or as the rules for a "teaching game." This was much more important for S&W because the original books were far less available and much more expensive than for 1e. This altered the writing style somewhat, and it also mandated that the book include such things as monster descriptions.
3) Unlike OSRIC, create a centralized community location, which I did by setting up a message board at This took into account the "living game factor."
4) Unlike OSRIC, create a dedicated website; again, this is to take into account the Living Game Factor.
5) Because I could predict, after OSRIC, that Swords & Wizardry would end up being used as a table game or a teaching game, and because the original books contained huge quantities of alternative rules (some of them at a very fundamental level, like sequence of combat and attack rolls), the organization of Swords & Wizardry follows a VERY different tack than in the original rules. I began with the way a "Basic Book" works - a clear little pathway of clear "default for S&W" rules, that introduce the skeleton concept. Then I tried to weave that into the real way that 0e works ... there are virtually no "official" rules to oe at all - even combat is a matter of house-ruling. Thus, S&W approaches the original game in a two-step process; an easy introductory pathway of defaults, surrounded by reminders that once you've "got it," it's time to tailor and innovate it for your group. That's what 0e is -- a framework for innovation -- but in consequence the initial simple pathway is very hard to find in the original books, even for many AD&D players, much less someone who started with 3e.

The retro-clones simply weren't designed or intended to actually compete with the original, underlying rules. We didn't even conceive of that possibility with OSRIC 1.0. And with Swords & Wizardry my main focus was to provide that one-two punch of (a) organization + pathway of clear rules for the introduction, then (b) innovation, choices, tweaking, and personalization once the basic concepts are in place. It's a gateway tool. Although being realistic about it, I knew from the example of OSRIC that many people would end up sticking with the S&W rules - and even more so than happened with OSRIC because the original books were far more expensive than the 1e books.

In other words, my main objective was to introduce the fundamental concepts of 0e, which are not intuitive to most later-generation gamers, with the expectation that those who can afford the original rulebooks should and will seek them out. When the new gamer reads them, they won't create the -- very common -- perception that they are so vague as to be unusable. Having already seen them in a more organized, compiled format, the newer gamer can assimilate the original books much more easily. It may be difficult to understand why this was a needed approach for spreading the 0e approach into the mainstream - but I can tell you that on ENworld and other mainstream sites I have seen over and over and over the following types of reactions to 0e: "It's nothing more than an incomplete version of 3e - you have to fill it in with 3e rules all the time," or, "It's so disorganized I can't see why anyone would bother playing it," or "it doesn't even contain rules for combat, it tells you to look at this 'Chainmail' book." Whether or not the grognards agree with the validity of these reactions, these are real and common objections that must be answered in order to bring 0e-type gaming back into the mainstream. They are existing memes, thought viruses, and they are the reaction of most newer gamers who read those original books.

Getting 0e type rules into the mainstream is a matter of pragmatism. It can't be done with wishful thinking that WotC will reprint 0e, and it can't be done by protesting that "anyone should be able to figure out those books." WotC won't, in the former case, and new gamers don't care to expend the effort, in the second case.

My hope is that anyone with the money to buy original books will do so, and that S&W will have served as enough of an introduction to allow a newer reader NOT to have the common negative reactions; but, instead, to assimilate and use the original books. And for those who can't afford the original books, S&W is only then intended as the end-product table-book. In this economy, that's unfortunately applicable to a lot of people.


And so, my hope is that the retro-clone rules will serve as a jumping-off point, a teaching tool, a convenient way of telling people "you can download it today from right here," and an inexpensive book for when you can't afford the originals. If you prefer the community of the retro-clone circles, or if you like the energy of a published game, that's all to the good. But whether you use them for flavor, inspiration, reference, additional material, or as the table rulebooks ... the original books are really where it's at.

I will be realistic - the current prices on the 0e books have risen so high that I think S&W is going to end up being a significant part of 0e play as time goes on. It's simply a matter of scarcity. But I would infinitely prefer that Swords & Wizardry be used - ultimately - as a tool and a gateway for people to access and appreciate the original game in all its quirky, wondrous glory.

...but WotC ain't going to reprint the originals, so we have to deal with that fact as pragmatically as possible. Retro-clones are one avenue of response.


  1. I am happy to tell you that Swords & Wizardry worked exactly as you intended. I am now a proud owner of the LBBs, Supp. I and Supp. II.

    We use S&W at the table and have been happily grafting on other rules to emphasis the parts we like. Most recent was a spell research mini-game based on the Expedition to the Barrier Peak's rules for understanding alien technology.

  2. I still have all my original books but never owned the 3 LBBs (I'm always on the hunt for those, however). S&W has been our go-to rule foundation since it reared it's head. I think the Living Game Factor is important too. Even though it's the "same ol' game" there was something about introducing players (veterans and newbies) to something current and alive and accessible.

  3. This was a great post - I really liked learning about why these clones were created and how their design principals were different from the get-go.

    For myself, I use OSRIC for my 1E game I'm running mostly for the reasons that you state - because my players either never played 1E back-in-the-day, or they don't have their 1E books any more, and they're not going to re-buy them. Even though I have all of my old 1E books sitting right next to me on my shelf, when I go to my game I just take my printed copy of OSRIC because it's easier to carry (1 book versus 3) and better organized. And I also don't worry as much if I spill pizza or beer on it as I would with my older 1E books.

  4. Great post and thanks for the reflections.

    Our friend "roleplay" is just trolling for attention - that same comment has been repeated ad nauseum over a few blogs and my own over the past couple of days. His commentary at least brought out a nice post.

    I'd like to mention something here that also was, I imagine, an unintended consequence to S&W - the link that people felt to the game, especially prior to the BBP/FGG deal. Unlike OSRIC, which was worked on by a few enthusiasts, it seems that S&W attracted a lot of people who put some serious time/energy/love into it. I'm definitely one of them, but there are quite a few. I think in some strange sense, given we were putting stuff on the forums and into the books that were getting published, many did (and still do) feel like this is as much our baby as it is yours. In a sense, we all grew it together once you brought it to light. I know the FGG deal especially rubbed me the wrong way, but I still maintain that emotional tie to Core and a lesser extend WhiteBox that I don't think was intended. The retroclones allowed us to not only have the means to get back to 0e/AD&D, but also participate in growing it, in shaping it and making it into something we all could be proud of. I'm not sure that could have happened prior to the Internet, but it's definitely a real thing.

  5. This is a truly excellent post.

    Even if I'm going with Labyrinth Lord for our next game. ;-p

  6. Matt, if you want S&W to be a jumping off point into the real 0e, you're not doing a good enough job!

    Or rather, you're doing too good of a job.

    Even if you ignore the cost consideration and the living game factor, S&W Complete is simply a better game than 0e. Yes, this is in part because of S&W's superior organization and collation. But it's also because of the writing, the illustration, and – perhaps most importantly – that it doesn't assume the reader already has a mature frame of reference regarding the games, fiction, and culture that helped lead to the genesis of 0e.

    S&W gives that frame of reference to a significant degree, and keeps reminding you of that frame of reference as you consult it during play. And given that these games assume/require a steady amount of consultation during play (if only to read spell and/or monster descriptions), then S&W is implicitly a superior game.

    Maybe this is a better way to put it:

    1e is awesome in part because of the non-rule content: Gygax's writing style, various illustrations, various layout details, the sturdiness of the books, etc. OSRIC doesn't have those things. And so there are very compelling reasons to lean back toward the actual 1e sources, despite the (modest) cost trade-off. (Strangely, although OSRIC has a pretty nice layout, there are aspects of that layout that are obviously inferior to 1e's layout. The PH does a far better job drawing the eye to headers that does the latest OSRIC.)

    The situation is inverted with 0e. S&W Complete has "everything" that 0e has (and then some!) to the point where the primary reason to consider using 0e is mostly one of research or scholarship.

    There may be some rules holes in S&W that 0e provided rules for, but that doesn't invalidate my point. You'd potentially go back to 0e to use 0e's guidelines to fill in those holes, but there's little benefit to using the actual 0e for much beyond that.

    Somebody could give me ten free copies of a re-edited 0e + supplements, and I'd still use S&W Complete instead of those. S&W's presentation and the extra included context are a considerable strength. Those traits really do make S&W a better game on its own, because those traits are things you interact with during play.

  7. So why would anyone want to play a clone again? I kid, I kid. =)

    Thanks for the info on the formation of OSRIC. I think I was on a D&D/internet hiatus at that point. You were informative, yet entertaining.

    I'm glad I bought the 0E pdfs back when they were available, but I'm kicking myself for never getting around to buying pdfs of the supplements. Oh well. (and no, I don't want people to send me illegal pdfs)

  8. Great post, Matt. Very informative. (Although I already was familiar with some of your reasons for producing OSRIC from various fora.)

    And I agree Guy Fullerton 100% regarding Swords & Wizardry.

  9. Well, S&W can't really compete with 0E, as 0E is no longer in print and is no longer a "live" product. Instead, it serves as a monument for Gary's and Dave's labor of love by keeping the spirit of their game alive. And this it does admirably well.

  10. I agree with Guy....I've always found OE off putting, for numerous reasons. S&W is flat out a better written game than OE, if for no other reason than it's benefitted from 30+ years of hindsight into the original system.
    Even though I'm an oldtimer, I'm a bit of a freak, I admit, cause I'd rather play OSRIC than 1E also (although IMO the original PHB causes a nostalgic rush like nothing else when held and flipped through)

  11. I come from the 83 D&D Basic era. I love Swords and Wizardry since it is even easier to get people to play. Love it.

  12. I love, love, love S&W Whitebox and I think it's the best way to sit down and play the basic game.

  13. One historical correction: At the time Core & White Box S&W were released, the OD&D pdfs were still available on rpgnow. WotC didn't remove the OD&D pdfs until 2009 Apr 6.

    Some corroboration here:

    (Apologies for the necromancy, but I noticed the detail while rereading this post for unrelated reasons.)

  14. Hi,

    I just purchased my hardcover copy of OSRIC (which arrived in the post from Lulu today). I`ve been playing with a free copy of the rules for a long time now (an entire campaign`s worth of time) and I absolutely LOVE it... as is. Finally owning a proper sleek, shiny hard covered copy feels soooooo good.

    I came into the hobby in 1974 with a original ODD white box copy. I stayed with this all the way through until D&D 2nd edition. To my lasting sadness, I completely missed 1st edition D&D at the time; and am delighted to be able to `play catch up` with OSRIC. For me, personally, I don't mind at all if there are changes from the original. I never SAW the original. However, OSRIC is simply THE preferred system of choice for me now. I`ve played for nearly 40 years, and it is one of the most versatile myriad of games I own. I`m strongly into retro gaming (as my own writing and websites clearly state) and OSRIC.... well its a superb system. I use it not only to play fantasy, but surprisingly it also works very well for Victorian/Pulp/Penny Dreadful type games (such as a "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" genre of play).

    Excellent system. Excellent set of rules. My preferred game of choice alongside Rugged Adventures (which is another amazing retro-ish game).

    Steve :)