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Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Retrogaming and retroclones

I have been sadly disappointed by the trend that seems to become the norm in newer indy games. Most designers seem to think that they have to do games which result in game sessions that read like a movie instead of just giving the settings and rules for the players to live their own adventures. You could say it is narrativism taking all the place in the game

To sum up what I find unappealing in those games:
-heavily scripted narration, railroading the players
-loads of meaningless rules or fluff
-loss of immersion to narrativism and the loss of personnal story to narrativium (that should only exist in novels and on Discworld).

Let me explain:

Narrativist games try to have adventures that play like a movie or a book. You can find the result more appealing from an external point of view: the players have seen themselves in the same situations they liked in a movie/book and the result was what could have been expected in this kind of medium.

But they have been cheated.

Because to have that result, the game's designer, the gamemaster and the players themselves have done what an author has to do: cheat with chances, hazards and events.

In a movie/book the results of actions, the happenstances are always those that make the story more interesting. That's quite easy: the author has complete control on all the elements of the story. And, moreover, he has to do it, because a good story is what he wants to write.

In a RPG, if you are trying to have the best story possible, you have to channel the game in what is the best direction for the best resulting story. A kind of narrativist railroading.
And if the author of a novel has to railroad his work (he has to choose a path), a gamemaster shouldn't.

Yes, maybe the resulting story looks better from an outside point of view. Maybe even to the players.
But they have "seen" a story, even if they participated. They have not been living it, in the sense that the alternate world they have been living in was heavily loaded in their favor (or in favor of the "best" result).

To have a gaming experience that is a kind of alternate reality, an alien place where the players live another life, what you need are rules that adjudicate the results of player's actions within the constraints of the game world.

And most importantly, you need rules that keep the players stuck in the point of view of their characters. The players must be able to decide all that their characters could decide, but they are not to be co-scenarists, with metagaming choices about their worlds.
Except, of course, if you try to simulate a group of Hollywood scenarists writing a story, which is probably what narrativist games are about.

The players should be able to play their character, all of their character, but only their character.

That kind of experience was what older games provided by default.
That's why, I think, there is an appeal to those games that goes far beyond the nostalgia. They let you live in an alternate world, with stories that don't always turn out right, that don't always have the good guys trashing the villains, they don't give you the formatted result of a movie or comic, but the chaotic result of living an alternate life in a different world. More challenging, surely, but more rewarding also.

Of course, you can prefer to be a spectator in better polished and more stereotypical stories, that's a perfectly valid choice. But it is not mine.

The good news are that older games that play that way (alternate lives as opposed to storytelling) are easily available (alongside recent games keeping that philosophy).

Those games are old, but some are still available. Because they have been simply re-released on the net (generally as a pdf) or because they are still available even if they are decades old or, finally because they have been retrocloned.

I won't speak here about retroclones from the most famous RPG (now, which one could that be?), because they are already discussed in a lot of places. And, as I almost never played D&D, either then or now, I am not very qualified to comment on old editions, new editions or old editions made new again.

So, what I am speaking about is not retrocloning, but mostly retrogaming.

In a way, retrogaming is what I am already doing by GMing Flashing Blades, a swashbuckler's 1983 rpg that is still available as a PDF on RPGNow.

Mercenaries, Spies & Private Eyes: IMHO, the best contemporary RPG ever to be released. I have played it for years and I could get back to it if struck by inspiration. It is the modern (and more down to earth) version of Tunnels & Trolls, which, being fully compatible, I have frequently used as an archaic sourcebook for MSPE but which is in itself a wonderful fantasy rpg.

Flashing Blades: a really good swashbuckling game that really gives you the impression to live in the period and to fight with rapiers. Probably too much influence from "En Garde" rules for the social careers system and some historical simplification. But nothing really important.

ZeFRS: the retroclone of Conan game from TSR, without the hyborean stuff that was copyright. Once reviewed in White Dwarf as "D&D as it should have been from the first...". Really good, fast and fun sword and sorcery game. You can have it free from the link above or buy it cheaply from Lulu, but I would recommend the Legend of Steel version, available on RPGnow and with a very evocative game setting.

Star Frontiers: the TSR space Opera game. It has all that is needed to play stories across the galaxy in the style of Traveller's adventures. It is available for free on the net, in a cleaned format and with the copyright holders approval. All the supplements and original adventures are also available and some new stuff as well.

Dragon Warriors: again IMHO, the best classical fantasy RPG (I mean with elves, dwarves,...) but with a more dark tone and muuuucchhhh more credibility and coherence than the usual D&D stuff. It has been re-printed and reformatted (the five original books have been incorporated into one tome). And all the supplements and adventures have been re-published.
"From the cold" particulary contains probably a mix of the best stuff that was published, for any game, in White Dwarf magazine. It is a tribute to Dave Morris that I realised only recently that all those RPG gems that I thought made by lot of different peoples (because they did bear various authors names) were all mostly made by him.

Swordbearer: a very good and original fantasy game from FGU. If you like FGU style, you'll like it. Less dark in tone than Dragon Warriors, you could easily adapt your usual fantasy stuff for this game.

Harnmaster: one of the best machine to visit a middle-ages/fantasy setting.

The two next games were released by Pacesetter. Along Chill first edition, they used the same four colors universal resolution table, which made them fast and fun to use.
Whilst Chill first edition has not been re-released, Star Ace and Timemaster can be found on RPGnow.

Star Ace is the space opera game, it contains all you can need to play in an universe torn between an evil empire and a republican federation (well, and an alien menace). The stories are more of the "mission" style than in Star Frontier. The adventures are available as well.

Timemaster is a time travel RPG and a very good one. There is a lot of scenarios also available. And they are very fun to play. Timemaster lets you immerse your players in ever changing situations: one game in swashbuckling Paris with the musketeers, next one in ancient Rome,.... Very good stuff.

All those games will let you experiment an alternate life from the point of view of your character. They will provide a challenge for you as a player, because your character won't be saved by story tricks or his "pre-ordained destiny" as the hero.

If you play like a moron, your character will fail like a moron. Period. IMHO, that's the way it should be.

You can prefer the cheaper ego-boosting experience of narrativism, your adventures shall have better scripts, even your failures (and they shall be few) will be philosophically meaningful.

But, down deep, you'll always know that it was staged in a railroading world of fakes.

You'll know that your character was pre-tagged as a hero by the system, even if he didn't deserved it. Even if you didn't deserved it.

And you, do you retro game? There are other older games that have been re-released, mostly in PDFs, that I didn't included because I don't know them as well, do you use them?


  1. Swordbearer was not really a FGU game, though it was written by someone who had published for FGU before.

    It was Heritage games (IIRC) and had some good ideas, like the way wealth worked if you wanted that in your game

  2. Yes, you are completely right.
    I don't have the Heritage edition and I don't know if it was different from the FGU second ed.
    The Heritage edition doesn't seem to be available anymore (though I would be interested to find it). The FGU edition is still available in print from FGU and in PDF from RPGnow.

  3. I've owned MSPE since 1983 and, unfortunately, have been able play it in only one or two sessions. The solo, The Adventure of the Jade Jaguar can be added in there somewhere, now that I think about it. Stormhaven, the GM adventure released for the game was solid as well (I GM'd the KGB scenario). Good stuff, maybe I'll get a game going on rpol one of these days. I really would like to GM a hardboiled P.I. game.

  4. I did also use Stormhaven, but mostly as bits and parts. The Adventure of the Jade Jaguar was nice, but I remember having felt a little frustrated because it was quite short (but maybe I should try again...).

    If there is something I love with MSPE, it is the capacity to take the game and play almost off the shelf. I have been on and off MSPE since its release, but it has always been one of my emergency game (I mean take a scenario from almost any other game, stat the npcs whilst reading and play immediately).
    I have tought of playing Arkham Detective Tales from Pelgrane Press as a (very) noir campaign. I have even begun to make some stuff for it. As I have always more projects than time to play, I am not sure that the campaign shall ever be played, but it is fun to work on it.

    If you get your hardboiled campaign going, let us know, it should be interesting. I have never played a game through a messageboards, though I have contemplated doing it, but mixing texts and screenshots for map movements. I should write a post about the idea.

  5. Yes, Jade Jaguar was short; I think I ran through it in about 20-25 minutes when I played it; I recall that experience with many of the T&T solos as well. They had some good ones, but most sort of left me flat.

    I'll shoot you a note if I start the P.I. game, and if you get a chance give a message board game a try (I definitely recommend rpol). They're great if you have no players or GM, and just as, if not moreso, satisfying in some cases.

  6. You can add GURPS Dungeon Fantasy to the list of "new old-school" style games.

  7. That would fit, I think, though I have not played GURPS for years. What would fit probably even more would be The Fantasy Trip, which was its predecessor and has a kind of retroclone here I have not played it, but I have fond memory of the original game.

  8. Bhoritz,

    I'm not sure if I was clear: I didn't mean GURPS per se, but instead a sub-line focused in "old-school" dungeon delving -gathering elements of D&D and many others-, which is called GURPS Dungeon Fantasy. (Of course it's not d20 based.)

    On the other hand, I agree with these comments about "narrativism"/"movieism" in role playing games.

  9. Oh! Sorry. It is a part of GURPS I didn't knew about. The idea seems quite interesting; I'll have to have a look at it.

  10. I forgot Dragon warriors in my list! Thank you.
    As for Flashing blades, i am really glad that someone is currently playing it.
    It is a very good game and almost unique in its genre