On the Origin of Species

by Solomoriah

One of the questions I seem to answer over and over again is this:  What was the original “retro-clone” game system?

For the purposes of this discussion, let me define “retroclone” in this way:  Such a game is one which reproduces the class-and-level game mechanics familiar to those of use who attended the Old School, where dungeoneering and the slaying of dragons was of paramount concern.  Retro-clones in general depend on the Open Game License originated by Wizards of the Coast to make themselves legal, or at least, to cover their author’s behinds.

Given that definition, which was first?  Well, it’s a bit of a gray area.  Before any OGL-based clone game ever appeared, Kenzer and Co. released Hackmaster.  That game definitely reproduced the classic mechanics, but it did so while being, in essence, a parody of those games.  This parody status, and other legal issues, allowed Kenzer and Co. to sell their game without fear of legal retribution.

The first “old school” game to use the OGL was undoubtedly Castles & Crusades, and it could reasonably claim the title of “first retroclone” if you accept it as a clone.  Many don’t consider it a proper clone of the classic game systems, as it includes a “unified mechanic” which replaces the various odd rules of the Old School.

About the same time the Troll Lords were designing C&C, I was creating my own game system called Project 74.  Though I did not refer to C&C at any point during my development process, I found that they and I had taken similar approaches in some details of our game systems.  But I found Project 74 ultimately unfulfilling; it just didn’t feel right.  I had thrown out too many Old School rules, and unified the game system too much.  I felt the need for a change.

That’s when I started putting together the rules that became the Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Game.  There wasn’t much to it when I released the first version back in 2006, but over the course of a few months it became playable (I ran a game at a mini-convention in Cedar Rapids, Iowa using Release 45 of the rules) and within about a year it was complete and available in print.

Around the time I was halfway done, I was contacted by Stuart Marshall, who had a similar project in mind.  His “coverage target,” i.e. the age and style of mechanics he was replicating, was different than mine (more advanced, you might say), and his game, now known as OSRIC, was closer mechanically to the original materials than I had dared to go.  Matt Finch worked with Stuart on OSRIC, and I honestly don’t know how much or which parts of the development were done by each of them.

EDIT 12/26/2013: While searching for something else entirely, I came upon a thread on the Knights and Knaves Alehouse forum where Matt “Mythmere” Finch proposed the project that became OSRIC.  The post was made March 18, 2006, the same day I announced Release 29 (labeled “2006.29”) of the Core Rules.  So that gives a bit better indication of the order the games were released in.  The thread is here: http://www.knights-n-knaves.com/phpbb3/viewtopic.php?f=11&t=1231

Not long after that, I recall hearing of Dan Proctor’s Labyrinth Lord game system.  Whereas I had solicited all the help I could get, Dan built his entire rule system all by himself.  That cannot have been easy, but I knew as soon as I read the first release version that he really had something there.  In fact, if Labyrinth Lord had existed in early 2006, there would be no Basic Fantasy RPG… I wouldn’t have needed to write it.

The last game of the “early period” that I remember hearing about was Swords & Wizardry, by Matt Finch.  His game’s “coverage target” was the very earliest RPG systems, and what I’ve seen of that game is pretty impressive.

I must admit, I don’t actually know which of the game systems that followed BFRPG was really first, though I’m pretty sure OSRIC was out before either of the other two.  Each game that came after Basic Fantasy was closer to the source material, just as BFRPG was closer to the source material than the games that came before it.

Nowadays, it seems that every second game master has his own retroclone game system… recalling the days when I was treading on untested ground seems very strange indeed.

2 thoughts on “On the Origin of Species

  1. SmootRK

    One thing that is often left out by the gaming community as a whole, is that in the beginning we were all basically playing our own little version of a common game idea. Everyone house-ruled how to do things, charts of stuff we found interesting, new monster ideas because there just was not much to work with. Doing the game your way was the order of the day back then.

    It was only later when the ideals that a game needed to work one way or another. There was the right way and wrong way to do things at that point. Doing things differently caused friction because there were those who would ‘lawyer’ about the rules.

    I think that it is nice that gaming has come around full circle going back into the hands of the masses to build their own ‘styles’ of gaming. There are plenty of game systems, basic sets of core rules, and loads of ideas that one can incorporate into their own little localized version of play. No one way is right, and it is now substantially easier to take the steam out of those ‘rules lawyers’, because everyone is again playing their own “thing” drawn from different sources.

    While I have found my home with BFRPG, I love the fact that there is so much out there to draw from.

  2. Hywaywolf

    When I returned to tabletop role playing games after 20 odd years of absence I was hit by a culture shock of what D&D had become. Whole libraries of books on creatures, classes, races, skills, etc. I just wanted to play a game not get a masters degree in gaming. I looked around trying to find pdf’s of the orignal B/X rules and there was nothing to be found. Dragonsfoot had people playing the old games, and I think Hackmaster and C&C had a following, but there was nothing for Basic that you could download. Then I found Basic Fantasy RPG. It had everything I was looking for and it wasn’t afraid to take the few things that I thought D20 had to offer. And it was free to download. I was hooked.

    I have played LL, C&C, and a few of the other retro-clones and they were just fine, but now that I can find a BFRPG, both PBP and live chat, anytime I want, I have no longer have a need to play anything else. Great job Chris and the BFRPG community.

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