Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Don't Call Them Clones

There are a few conversations buzzing around Google+ right now about retro-clones and other OSR games. Rather than comment on the particular issues in those conversations, however, I'd like to take a minute and discuss the misuse of the word "clone" in a gaming context.

A clone (aka retro-clone or simulacrum)  is a game that emulates the rules of another game. It's not a statement of style or aesthetics, and it's not a catch-all for any game produced under the nebulous umbrella of the OSR. A clone tries to recreate the play experience of an earlier game. The differences between the clone and the original are usually organizational, but occasionally a few clean-ups of ambiguous or outrageous rules are introduced which, while making it not a true 100% clone, leave the play of the original intact (especially how the game was actually played back in the day, in many cases) sufficiently to count for all practical purposes.

Examples of true (or fairly true) clones include Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry, and OSRIC. They don't rewrite character classes, or change the combat system all around, or replace Vancian magic with a spell-point system, or whatever. They try as closely as possible to emulate D&D or AD&D (other clones could emulate other games, of course).

This leaves us with several entire categories of games that don't fall into the definition of "clones", but for which no standard nomenclature has yet been adopted. They include:
  1. Games based on older games, but which introduce rules changes so significant as to alter the play experience to the point where it is subjectively different from the original.
  2. Games which have new mechanics but which consciously attempt to emulate the "play feel" of games from the 1970's and 80's. 
  3. Games which attempt to create games which where never published or made public in the 1970's or 80's, but whose substance can be at least partially intuited or otherwise (re)discovered through research. 
Note that I am consciously omitting things which are not stand-alone sets of game rules such as supplements, settings, and adventure modules. In the first category, I'd put games such as Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Myth & Magic, etc. In the second, we have games such as Castles & CrusadesAdventurer Conquerer King, Spellcraft & Swordplay, Barbarians of Lemuria, etc. And in the third category we have Dragons at Dawn and my own Adventures Dark and Deep

Trouble is, if they're not clones, what to call them?

This is a question I've been struggling with myself for some time. I've seen various suggestions; nostalgia games, neo-clones, etc. but nothing really clicks for me. Here's my attempt at systematizing the whole thing.
  • Retro-clones emulate older game mechanics and feel.
  • Retro-builds have an old-school feel, but either use new mechanics or alter the old mechanics to the point where cross-compatibility is difficult. There can be sub-types, but I'm not going to try to get into that level of detail here.