Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Clones and Heartbreakers...

So I stumbled upon a post from 2017 about so-called retro-clones.  It was interesting, insightful, and without the snooty pretensions of some.  I was doubly pleased that its author was a fan of our own Pits & Perils RPG because, I mean, c'mon; it's our game, of course we're gonna be appreciative.  May it bring them endless joy.  With so many superior options available we always appreciate it when someone chooses ours...

But one thing did stick with me.  The author referred to it as his favorite clone.

Now I love retro-clones.  They've saved many an older system from extinction and offer exciting new ways to enjoy old things.  Wrinkles are ironed out, much-needed streamlining happens, and we see just how timeless our hobby can be.  If you truly love gaming, and especially bygone systems, you owe the clones big.  Did you ever want a Second Edition of BX or BECMI D&D?  Or perhaps a surgical scrubbing of AD&D?  If you love these early iterations and want to pay it forward into modern times, thank the clones.     

But what's a literal clone and what's just heavily inspired.  Luckily, there's no fine line here and little controversy.  If a rulebook preserves mechanics from whole cloth and does so deliberately; if its stated purpose lies in doing so; and if it does this so well that it requires the Open Gaming License or (someone's version thereof) to avoid legal wrath, it's a true retro-clone and, might I add, one by design.  Retro-clone is not a pejorative in my eyes.

But is a game a retro-clone just because it has dwarves?  Elves?  Parties exploring dark dungeons in search of wealth and fame?  If it passes the legal sniff test, yeah.  But what if it employs original mechanics such that you couldn't shoehorn D&D into gameplay with the proverbial ten-foot pole?  What if the spells are completely different and operate under unique conditions?  Or combat is resolved through different means?  I think we've left retro-clones behind and entered into the realm of spiritual clones, which are honorable.

Cheeseburgers are great; and while the local specialty with double bacon might not be the first one ever grilled, it just might be your favorite, which is better by a long shot.  

Pits & Perils is one of these.  It has clerics, dwarves, spell casters, the works.  It even recreates the six ability scores, although players roll (or choose) just one exceptional ability instead of rolling 3d6 for them all.  There's no Vancian magic.  D&D scorned spell points; sorry Gary, but Pits & Perils embraces them.  Simplicity rules the roost.

Now some call spiritual clones Fantasy Heartbreakers, which I'm not wild about...     

Coined here, it's a term that's lazily thrown about, and you'll have to form your own opinion about it.  I will offer, however, that The Forge is gone while D&D (and its derivatives) are doing quite well, thank you very much.  Moreover, there's nothing about the original games that requires them to be dungeon crawls or murder hobo affairs.  They can be turned to complex themes of the sort Ron Edwards would approve of with zero mechanical changes, and anyone who doesn't get this probably doesn't understand the hobby.

The rules are just a guide.  The GM can add or change anything, and house rules will inevitably happen; perhaps deliberately, but maybe by accident as well.  Moreover, bending over backwards to be different from D&D can be just as contrived as copying it verbatim unless some higher cause is being served.  There are a thousand possible variations of a theme; and that means something for everyone if the fact is honestly disclosed. 

Maybe someone put off by OD&D would love White Box.  Or perhaps someone intimidated by Fifth Edition's complexity might prefer Pits & Perils, where they can explore a monster-infested underworld without dying in the first room of the dungeon.  Either way, it's a convert to the hobby, which is something we should all celebrate.  Retro-clones make this happen, and so does any game not afraid to offer up these time-honored concepts...

And that's why I love retro-clones.  And spiritual clones.  And fantasy heartbreakers when they're also good systems.  I'm of the crazy idea that games should be fun, and that no one's in a better position to judge this than the actual participants.  Call me old-fashioned.


  1. Good job making an important distinction.

    I never thought of P&P as a clone of anything. It is it’s own thing with a pedigree that evokes 1974.

    My game is close enough to the old games to need the OGL and be FLAILSNAILS compatible, but it’s not a clone. It draws from 0e, Holmes and Arensonian d&d with a few modern ideas.

  2. Hey how come you speak in the first person plural?

  3. I recently ran a group of adult players with Old School Essentials (bx clone). Only one had any pre 3.5 experience (2nd edition) and only I was excited by my 100% accurate clone of a system that none in the room had heard of. Oh well.

    1. It takes a while for some people to shift their perspective from the "content tourism" of later editions to the player-driven earlier editions.

    2. That’s pretty funny and probably true. Though I have no experience with it, the streams seem to support that.

      Wasn’t so much the case with this group. They just didn’t care what the system was as much as getting to the heart of play. I dropped in a couple of Pits and Perils Rules (most notably movement rates and 2d6 saves when I couldn’t be bothered to look up what the save was). They left telling me they’re play any system as long as it was fast.

  4. The term I've seen used elsewhere that I believe applies here is neoclone.

    Whereas retroclones set out to be as faithful a replica of the original as possible, neoclones use the original as a starting point and add/remove mechanics according to the vision and preferences of the person designing them.