Friday, January 3, 2014

The Great 2014 Retroclone Readthrough

Over the past few years, a great many different versions of Dungeons & Dragons have been produced, several officially, but the vast majority being retroclones or house rule collections of one sort or another. The author of one of them (Grey Six) has assembled a vast and possibly even comprehensive list of variations, the scope of which underscores the creativity of the OSR community.

It also underscores the difficulty of keeping up with them all. For some time, I've had a bunch of different rulesets sitting around waiting to be read, and so I figured - hey, it's a new year, why not read the whole stack at once and do a comparison?

And so here we are. I've lined up ten different games for this little experiment, a few of which I've read before but have since been updated. In alphabetical order, they are:

Adventurer, Conqueror, King: Also known as ACKS, this game published by Autarch is one of several that I picked up during the OSR Bundle of Holding some time ago, although truth be told I'd been eyeing it for some time. The big selling point is the emphasis on the domain-building endgame, coupled with a robust economic system.

The first few pages explain this in between paragraphs of game fiction, which also gives a few clues as to the implicit setting - such classic features as Chaos and Law as allegiances as much as alignments, that sort of thing. There are also definitions for various terms and abbreviations, descriptions of dice types, and other such basics.

Ambition & Avarice: Showing how long some of these have been on the "to read" pile, I'm actually going to be looking at the beta-testing version of these rules, dated 2012. The first few pages of these rules give a very concise but clear overview of the general mechanics, including one of the best explanations of a saving throw I've yet seen. Speaking of which, the same mechanic is used for a term new to me, "Dungeon Throws" which govern the character's ability to do things like climb walls, disarm traps, and other such tasks, and "are only made when there is a single opportunity to accomplish the task". This could have interesting implications down the line.

Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea: This is one of the games I've encountered before, as those who read my recent posts on the Mushroom Kingdom may have surmised. Its primary attraction is the emphasis on a grittier, sword-and-sorcery play-style - more Howard than Tolkien, if you will - and the setting developed for it. Interestingly, it's the first game on this list to mention the possibility of miniature usage during play.

Basic Fantasy RPG: The first - but not the last - free game I'm going to be looking at, BFRPG seems to be relatively unknown for a game that's so well supported, and free to boot. The introduction is quite concise, with the only point of interest being the presentation of the dice types - rather than progressing from the d4 up, BFRPG starts with the d20 and progresses by dice most often used (the d12, of course, is last).

Dark Dungeons: Another free game, this one goes into a lot more in-depth explanations right up front, taking pains to spell out even the legal basis (OGL plus SRD) of the game, as well as the usual information about rules, dice types, etc. Dark Dungeons is particularly noteworthy in its scope, which covers not only domain-building but high-level multidimensional exploration.

Fantastic Heroes & Witchery: A recent addition to the OSR buffet, this one is currently available in a slightly less-than-convenient (it is, for example, locked into a two-page spread, though I understand there are ways around this) free PDF download, with POD and cleaned up for-sale PDF upcoming. As it stands, these rules hint at an intriguing support for multiple fantasy genres, as well as providing an expansive glossary straight off.

Heroes Against Darkness: This one seems to range a bit farther afield from the classic game often cited but never explicitly referred to in these works - the forward specifically cites "old editions, new editions [and] new editions of old editions" as influences - but overall things seem pretty standard, if a bit on the simple side - in fact, there's a certain friendliness towards newcomers implicit in the whole thing so far.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Undoubtedly the most controversial rule-set on this list, I'll be sidestepping the issue of the artwork by using the free art-free version of the rules. Even so, right away it's obvious that the text assumes familiarity with other versions of the rules - it jumps into character creation with no introduction whatsoever.

OSRIC: As I understand it, the Old School Reference and Index Compilation began life as a reference work rather than a stand-alone game. While this still comes across in a somewhat dry tone, it also inspires having several mini-indexes (for spells, monsters, and magic items) right up in the front. Like other games on this list that have multiple versions, I'm going to be using a free one, specifically the OSRIC Pocket SRD.

Swords & Wizardry Complete: This one is going to be particularly interesting - I'm familiar with the S&W rules from the Core version and from poking around the online SRD, but have never actually read the Complete version of the rules. From what I have read, though, I think that it's one of the best overall rulesets I've read up until this point . . . but will it stay that way through this whole project?

And that's it for introductions, forwards, etc. Next post I'll be getting into the really fun part - character creation! -  but until then, here's an amusing bit of trivia in the varying names the games above give for the DM:

ACKS: Game Judge
A&A: Judge
AS&SH: Referee
BFRPG: Game Master
DD: Game Master
LotFP: Referee
SAW: Referee or GM

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