What Are Retroclones Good For?

Dungeon Raiders coverA few weeks ago, I released Dungeon Raiders, a retroclone fusion of Original D&D and 1st Edition D&D, an attempt to re-capture the flavor of classic Dungeons & Dragons. There are at least a dozen of these already. So why am I making another one?

I saw the number of retroclones, and wondered: Why were they made? Let’s assume that at least a few of these systems’ developers knew that other retroclones exist. Is there something about writing a retroclone that’s inherently useful to a system designer?

I built Dungeon Raiders with the belief that building a retroclone is a useful exercise. Turns out, I was right.

The following series of blog posts will pull apart early D&D limb by limb, poke it, label it, then assemble a new organism that is hopefully simpler, cleaner, and easier to understand than its original. In this article, I’ll cover my overall approach.

I’m starting with the Original D&D rule book, 1973’s Men and Magic, and the Basic Rulebook of 1981.

If you love classic D&D, and wince at the idea of its dissection, please understand that I do this for the sake of analysis, and I mean no disrespect for its earlier incarnations. Early D&D evolved from wargaming, and required a nearly unimaginable mental leap from the world of armies and tactical strength. Of course its rules are complex; have you seen a game of Warhammer?

In any event, I’m avoiding a central question: If I’m going to assemble a “simpler, cleaner, and easier” system, how do I define “clean?” And how far can I simplify?

I want to maintain the spirit of classic D&D play, while making the rules consistent and simpler. So, I must maintain the “feel” of classic D&D.

What did classic D&D feel like? We have two ways of finding out: Shared Fantasy and The Rythlondar Chronicles. Gary Alan Fine wrote the book Shared Fantasy after playing in a number of D&D and Tékumel games in the early 1980’s. The Rythlondar Chronicles consist of 80 hand-typed pages recording a D&D campaign played in 1976. Imagine that!

I’ve read both of the above works, and I’ve noticed five big elements that stand out about classic D&D gaming:

Highly specialized classes. Early D&D had only a few classes (especially by modern standards), and each was dramatically different than the others. Fighters were awesomely powerful in combat, but about all they could do was fight. Magic users were weak (in every sense) early, but grew extremely powerful as they reached higher levels.

Dungeons. Those early games were almost invariably played inside large, dusty complexes that were filled with mazes, traps, monsters, and treasure.

Tough Monsters. Each of those dungeons was filled with gruesome and dangerous beasts. While the DM was expected to provide level-appropriate monsters, every encounter included the chance of player-character death.

Moreover, monster battles could be small or large depending on the “number appearing” die roll. If a map lists a room containing griffons, you may encounter 2 griffons, or you may encounter 16. Roll the dice to find out.

Lots of Dice Types. Both D&D and Tékumel used all the classic polyhedrals: d4s, d6s, d8s, d10s, d12s, d20s, and d100s. (Okay, maybe Tékumel avoided one or two.) There seems to be something central to the game about the need for that special equipment.

Strange simulationism. Perhaps this is unfair, but early D&D spent a lot of ink on sub-systems like encumbrance, loyalty scores, and charts of different saving throws against dragon’s breath versus death rays versus wands at various levels. And yet, all weapons did 1d6 damage.

So, I’ll include all of these things to varying degrees. I’m least interested in perpetuating strange simulationism, partly because that’s directly at odds with my goal of a simple, consistent system. I’ll have to make some hard decisions. But then, that’s game design, isn’t it?

Stay tuned for more.

6 thoughts on “What Are Retroclones Good For?

Add yours

  1. One other element that I think is missing from the list is what I call the “funkiness” of classic D&D. Appendix H: Tricks in the 1e DMG sums this element up perfectly and this element could be found in abundance in early modules.

    The “funkiness” being those strange rooms, items, etc. known as “tricks” that could lower or raise an ability score, change your class, change your alignment and even change your sex! And, these are only a very few of the possible outcomes of a trick back in the day.

    Imagine today as a DM in a newer edition telling a player that the mysterious totem they just touched has transformed them from a human male fighter into a human female fighter!



  2. Good point, Crose! That’s an element I didn’t address, and I didn’t include in Dungeon Raiders, as it would have gotten int he way of my simplification goal. But yeah, old D&D was definitely funky!


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