Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The term "Retro-Clone" keeps evolving

Dave recently talked a bit about the term retro-clone on his blog. I've started to notice something else interesting going on lately. It seems like people are now extending the term to include things like Palladium Fantasy, Rolemaster, Tunnels and Trolls, and other early fantasy games from the 80s. There are two interesting parts to this. One is that the term seems to be losing the temporal element it originally had, to include things that are "retro" by virtue of actually being old, not newly "created" to be retro. The second is that the "clone" element, even though it already had become blurred from it's original intent, is now seeming to encompass fantasy heartbreakers in general regardless of game system. Or in other words, any early fantasy RPG also that was created as a reaction to early D&D. There also seems to be an element of shift so that anything claiming to capture an "old-school feel" regardless of system (tweaked d20, or something pretty different), is being called a retro-clone.

Has anyone else noticed this? Where do you think this is going?


J. Random said...

I think this is because people are using the word 'retro-' in two different senses. A couple of examples -

T&T is a throwback to earlier times, and so is retro- in the same way a Rubik's Cube is. It's a clone of D&D, so therefore it's a retro-clone.

LL is a callback to earlier times, and so is retro- in the same way the Silver Diner restaurant chain is. It's also a clone of D&D, so therefore it's a retro-clone.

Both senses are correct (I read LanguageLog, I'm no prescriptivist!), they're just looking at the term from different perspectives.

Arkhein said...

The way things are going, the term 'retro-clone' will refer to anything from washing machines and potatos, to acerbic acid. When will the madness stop???? :)

From what I can tell, there are still only two 'real' ones. But perhaps that definition is pointless now.

- Ark

Billiam Babble said...

I'm definitely guilty of mixing up "retro-clone" with "old school feel" and throw in "vintage" when talking about many games.

"Retro-clone" does always make me think of heavily modified d20-SRD, namely D&D-clones -I think I'm fairly safe there.
But in my head I'm starting to merge a few post-apolyptic games together as being the "old-school feel of Gamma World", but I'm easily duped by cover-art, without looking too closely at the dice system.
For me it's about the +1s to attacks, or 2 in 6 chances feel "retro"/"old-school", as opposed to 3/3.5/4ed descriptions of special feats, tasks (which are really just like old-school spells...). Sorry, I'm probably one of the worst offenders semiotically speaking.
I was flipping through the AD&D DMG the other night and was reminded that we rarely felt free to make rules up on the fly, which seems to be a pevading myth of "old-school" games. AD&D, if taken seriously, is very daunting and exacting. I crawl back to Tunnels and Trolls and the Basic Set for simplicity, at look out of the corner of my eye at MERP (ahem, RoleMaster "lite").

Word Usage in my world:
I already own vintage games, recently I've bought a few "retro-clones" which definitely have an "old-school feel". :D

Is it upsetting to gamers that slightly more recent games get added to the list of "old school?
The purist OD&D-ers always make me giggle a little - it's like the hobby was over by 1976 - anything later is seen as a hideous commercial fad. Perhaps for some, the Blackmoor supplement was a step too far.

I hardly play at the moment, but I've always loved comparing systems and settings.

Thanks for getting me thinking.

Dan of Earth said...

@J. Random: When you mention T&T that is one of the things I mean. In what way do you consider it a clone of D&D?

Dan of Earth said...

@Billiam babel: i think it is upsetting to some people, or at least annoying, when some games claim to be old-school. But for me personally when I talk about old-school almost 90% of the time I'm only talking about it in the context of D&D. If we broaden it to other genres and systems I would probably define it differently.

J. Random said...

Not sure what you're asking. Is Tunnels and Trolls a clone of DnD?

Yes, and rather unambiguously so. From Wikipedia - "...it was written by Ken St. Andre to be a more accessible alternative to Dungeons and Dragons". Is it an exact copy? No, and neither are any of the other clones of DnD.

You could also make the same argument for EoPT and a couple of others. Traveller, from roughly the same era, is NOT a retro-clone of DnD, but it is retro- in the sense that it's rules-lite, deadly, consequence heavy and geared towards sandbox style play, which to my mind, encapsulate what the retro- prefix means

It's probably best to consider the term retro-clone an essentially contested concept like the word 'art' - it's impossible to define in exact terms what 'art' is, and most people will disagree with at least some other conception of the word, but they all share some basic internal concepts, just not all of the possible ones that the term 'art' can encompass.

captcha: allyons - Allyons bases are belong to us, pardner.

Anonymous said...

This is the final descent of the term into complete meaninglessness.

To call Tunnels & Trolls a retro-clone is tantamount to calling a '67 Camaro a retro-(Mustang)clone. It's not retro - it is of the time in question. It's not a clone - it's a similar, but different, automobile. Yes, it was built in response to the Mustang, but it is not a clone of the Mustang.

It's only a matter of time before anything that isn't holy scripture D&D is dismissively referred to as a retro-clone. In fact, let's go ahead and declare that 1st edition AD&D is just a retro-clone of OD&D and get it over with.

Seriously, I loved the term retro-clone originally, but it has lost damn near all real meaning at this point.

Labyrinth Lord and OSRIC are the only two "true" retro-clones that I know of. Swords & Wizardry is like a retro-clone, but in its modifications to the core systems, it loses its actual clone nature (though it's still plenty retro).

Norman Harman said...

I know there's value in definitions (and discussions) and etc. But it's topics like this that make me say (hopefully without offending anyone too much...)

Just play the damn thing and don't worry what it's called!

Anonymous said...

@Norman What, and miss all the fun of a nit-picky internet geek slap fight? :)

J. Random said...


I think you'll find that the meaninglessness of the term retro-clone for you stems almost completely from an overly strict connotation attached to the prefix retro-.

Bellbottoms, whether made in 1972 or 2010, when worn in 2011 are most assuredly retro- are they not?

Why, specifically, does not exactly the same pattern apply to T&T? Is not T&T a retro- style game? Of course it is! Play it in 1976, and it's as modern as can be. Play it in 2011 and it's retro-.

Is it a clone? Again, nobody would claim that referencing Polly the Sheep is the same thing as referencing Polly's genetic mother, the two are not the same, yet one is a clone of the other.

T&T is retro-, and it's a clone of D&D. Looked at from another perspective, OSRIC is retro-, and it's a clone of DnD. In neither case is the copy exact, and in each case both games can properly lay title to the moniker retro-. T&T can lay claim to it because it is old, OSRIC can lay claim to it because it emulates old. One's a throwback, the other's a callback. Two different reasons, both perfectly acceptable.

The new connotations of the word retro-clone do not in any way conflict with the old connotations of the word, why would a word lose meaning by adding definitions? Look up the word 'set' in the OED - you'll find 460+ denotations. Has the word 'set' lost all meaning? No. Why would the phrase retro-clone then do so? By what mechanism does this happen?

Anonymous said...

@J. Random - Given your broad approach to the word "retro" I'm hard-pressed to argue. Though I would say that the concept of "retro" as it was applied to the construct "retro-clone" meant something quite specific, which was not inclusive of "anything old." Still, your point is taken.

I disagree wholeheartedly, though, that T&T is a "clone" of D&D. It is similar, yes. It shares some genetic material, yes. But "clone" in the concept of "retro-clone" did (and, to me, should continue to) mean "a restatement of the rules as closely as legally possible to how they were written originally." T&T, though possessing some similar traits, is definitely not a re-presentation of the rules of D&D. It has similar stats and it has classes. That's about where the mechanical/rules similarities end. The combat is entirely different. The approach to spellcasting is entirely different. It's not really all that similar a game, in the end, mechanically.

I'm not touching on the concepts of game-play (go down in hole, kill things, take stuff) because that's not the point of the term as it was originally coined. And if we're going to expand the term that broadly, then things that aren't even remotely similar mechanically (TFT, RuneQuest, et. al.) are going to have to be considered clones, too. Put differently, if someone released a boardgame where the goal was to acquire property and amass money, but the rules bore little-to-no resemblance to Monopoly, would we call it a Monopoly clone?

Of course the term "retro-clone" can acquire any number of meanings. All words can and do. But the more meanings it acquires, the less useful it is as an identifier for a particular subset of games. If you were to say "retro-clone" to me (outside of this discussion) I would *never* think you meant Tunnels & Trolls (and not just out of willfulness on my part). To me, T&T simply isn't a retro-clone. It's retro (by your broad usage of the term), I'll grant. But it ain't no clone. Cousin? Maybe. Child, perhaps. Copy? Not at all.

And with that, I'll leave you to your meaning and me to mine. I just don't think I'll bother using the term retro-clone anymore, because for me it has, indeed, lost its meaning.

Malcadon said...

I use the term "retro-clone" for an emulation of an older game, with regards to both rules and aesthetics. If its an emulation of one of the older D&D offshoots/Fantasy Heartbreakers, then I would still call it a "retro-clone", as long as they maintain the rules and general aesthetics of the original game.

If its an older game, with cleaned-up art, then I called it a "reboot". When someone adds rules (like adding skills and feats to OD&D) to make it more modern, I call it a "revised" rule-set. If its full of one's own house rules (like LotFP RPG), I call it a "personal heartbreaker" or "kit-bash clone". If its a newer system, with old-school art (like Dungeon Crawl Classics or much of Necromancer Games books), then I call it a "retro-styled" game. If its a new game passing itself off as an older game (Mazes & Minotaurs, Encounter Critical), then I call it "faux-retro" (yes, its mixing languages, but it rolls off the tongue).

I personally like these "personal heartbreaker" books, as its like the games they are based on has been democratized, and folks are free to revise, and republish them IN THEIR OWN VISION! As controversial as LotFP: Grindhouse Edition is, Raggi did it his way, and did not give a damn about what others think. That takes a lot of balls! In a way, it almost feels like it bordering an art form into itself. I like them, as they show ones personal taste in rules, art, and layout, in RPG form.

ADD Grognard said...

This is why I have dropped most references that are in common usage and simply use
'Old School Style'. It just seems better suited to cover the expanse of games. It covers the original old school, the clone and clone variations and the completely new games that have a style reminiscent of the old school.

J. Random said...

@strangestones - No worries m8, I think our difference is that you're objecting to the broadening of the term, where I don't particularly have a problem with such things. Words and phrases gain meanings all the time; it's not a controllable process, and I'm not aware of any successful attempts to do so.