For several years I have been very interested in playing OSR systems, both those that bring new things and the so-called retro-clones of previous editions. It is the latter that most appeal to me, and I have a list of systems that I want to try.
Reasons to play a Retro clone, instead of an older version of D&D
On the one hand, I have the original books of several previous editions, on the other hand, nowadays it is very easy to get a Print on Demand version of any core book from any previous edition of Dungeons & Dragons, with the exception of the original edition.
However, almost all retro-clones have different features that make them interesting, even for players who own the original books. This is a list of reasons I can think of why you might want to try one of these retro-clones.
- Better writing. All retro-clones are at least a bit more friendly to new players. The language used is easier to understand, more like modern board games, or at least just better written. So if I want to invite new players who may have only played 5th edition, it’s much easier to do so by giving them a copy of a retro-clone instead of the original books.
- More compact. Many of them have the content of several books in one book. Especially the retro-clones of the white box. All of his rules fit easily into a small book, because the originals were exaggeratedly small.
- Better graphic design. Even the simplest retro-cons are often better designed than many of the original rulebooks, with a few exceptions.
- Rules interpretation. Each of them contains different things, from how to order the chapters and sections, to how to interpret the original rules. This part of the interpretation of the rules appeals to me a lot.
The 5 OSR Retro-clones that I want to play the most
After reading through a lot of OSR systems, these are the five systems I want to try. A brief explanation and a list of pros and cons, from the perspective of my type of game.
5. For Gold & Glory
Even though this is a retro-clone of AD&D 2nd Edition, my favorite edition of the game, it’s not the one I want to play the most right now, simply because it doesn’t add as much to the game as other retro-cons. Maybe it’s because it’s one of the editions I’ve played the most, but the rules in the original books are pretty well understood, well organized, and relatively easy to get to. The PoD versions of DrivethruRPG are flawless. I’d prefer them to be hardcover, but they’re still some of the best PoD books I’ve ever bought. Also, AD&D 2nd Edition is from a time when books already had better graphic design and it is the edition with the best art style of all (in my opinion).
However For Gold & Glory has a few little but important advantages over the original rulebooks:
- More compact. It has everything you need in 380 pages, and that includes its indexes, character sheets, etc.
- The spell list. The spells appear in alphabetical order. Also, spells like Animate Dead and Charm Person don’t appear twice just because they can be used by both Clerics and Wizards.
- Team tables. This one is very important. I still remember how much time we wasted looking for the price of armor and trying to understand what armor class each one had. In this book the tables are much clearer.
I am of the opinion that if you put together the three white box booklets with the OD&D supplements you get something more like AD&D than the Basic edition written by Holmes. But I also think I’m in the minority who believes that. And maybe that’s what makes me biased against the basic edition. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not a great game. Especially in the latest versions, the Rules Cyclopedia is amazing.
I’ve always wanted to try the Holmes edition even once, but the original manual is a bit hard to reference. It is written aimed at people who are learning to play, so it is not so practical for someone more experienced.
That’s why I think Blueholme is fantastic.
- Graphic design. It’s much better than the original, without looking modern. The text font is easier to read. The art retains the old school style.
- Up to level 20. Originally the Holmes edition allowed you to play up to level 3, and then required you to switch to AD&D to continue your adventures. Honestly, I don’t think that ever made sense, and I suppose that’s why in the following editions of Basic they added more levels (maybe too many levels). But Blueholme includes rules for playing from level 1 to level 20, like most other editions.
- Better tables. To start, there are small tables that show the modifiers of the ability scores, instead of a list that is difficult to reference. The class tables are also clearer and more extended at level 20.
- Races and classes. Races are separate from classes, but here they are called species (many years before WotC did!).
- Lots of content for the DM. Most of this book is content for the GM to create adventures in various environments, monsters, treasures, instructions on how to design adventures, campaigns, villains, etc.
It is perhaps the best option for someone who wants to play by Holmes’ rules today.
One of the first, or maybe the first published retro-clone. OSRIC emulates the AD&D 1st edition rules with better graphic design and better ordered rules.
Despite not being the first place on my list of systems that I want to try, this is honestly the system that I would like to play with for sure. But I also know that it’s hard for me to find enough AD&D 1st Edition players to do it. Maybe a book with a slightly better design than the originals will help convince my friends…
OSRIC is also one of the few systems that are faithful to the first edition. Even though there are other OSR systems based on AD&D 1st Edition, most of them add and change a lot, changing the gameplay a lot. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, just that I’m talking exclusively about retro-clones in this article. Another day I will write about other types of OSR systems.
In my opinion, these are the advantages of OSRIC over the original books:
- Design. Not by a lot, but it does have better graphic design. It is easier to read and the tables are easier to review. Curiously, it still has that problem that you don’t know when one section ends and another begins, because there are titles at the bottom of the pages. There are also tables that start on one page and end on another, I don’t know why.
- Classes. The sections for each class contain everything you need to make your character, for example the spell bonuses per ability score, and the saving throws for each class.
All in one. The book is huge. However it contains everything you need to play, including the content for the GM. Instructions on how to create random dungeons, encounter tables, NPCs, etc. It also has hundreds of monsters.
If this book were a bit more organized, for example, if it had the spells in alphabetical order instead of having sections by class, it would be very close to perfect. A graphic retouching wouldn’t hurt it either, because the art, although it’s good and old school, the one in the original books is even better.
This is the newest retro-clone on this list. Perhaps that is why it is the one with the best graphic design and best ordered rules. White Box is a retro-clone of the Original D&D rules, of the so-called white box, and nothing else… or almost.
The design is wonderful and the art is cohesive, like many of OSR’s modern products. But unlike many modern OSR products, this one stays very true to the rules, with few exceptions. It includes the Thief class, but it is optional. I guess the optional tag is there just to make it feel more true to the rules. The book has 140 pages, which is much more than the three booklets in the white box combined, but it’s understandable. The content is better spaced, the text font is large and easy to read, and it has art to go along with each class, each race, etc.
These are my home-made “replicas” of the original three booklets from the White Box, but they are not even meant to be accurate.
The only thing I didn’t like about the default rules in this book is that it uses a single saving throw instead of the classic five saving throws. I love the five classic saving throws, and I don’t understand why most people hate them.
But hey, White Box uses the Saving Throw Matrix as an optional rule. It’s almost perfect, just because those tables are in the combat section, instead of the class sections.
I’m not going to make a list of things where White Box Medieval Adventure Game is better than the original White Box, because technically that’s everything. It is not a competition, it is a product based on another one made more than 40 years before, while one has the merit of being the first, I believe that White Box also has the merit of being one of the ones that best explains those same rules, and which also presents it in such a pleasing way to look at.
1.Swords & Wizardry
And finally, the game that I’ve wanted to play since the beginning and that I’m always saying that it will be what I use in my next campaign.
Swords & Wizardry is a retro-clone of OD&D. It differs from White Box Medieval Adventure Game in that it emulates not only the contents of the white box, but also the supplements.
I have read the white box booklets several times, especially in the last few years, since I have been writing adventures. I have read articles about them, watched videos about those rules, etc. I know the rules pretty well and after all that, it seems like a pretty good game to me. However, not everyone has to obsess over a few booklets just to play a game. And for that there is Swords & Wizardry.
Swords & Wizardry is a better organized book, with better explained rules, and it has all the content of several booklets in one volume. In addition, the author took the trouble to explain his reasoning for each of the changes, or his interpretation of various rules.
White Box is inspired by a version of Swords & Wizardry, and both use the attack table system while also optionally using the ascending armor class system. That doesn’t change anything about the game, except that it makes it more accessible to newer players.
It also uses a single saving throw, but has a table of saving throws by class category in the How to Play section.
For the GM it contains instructions on how to create dungeons, different types of combat (air, siege, naval), and a decent amount of monsters.
If you want to have the white box gaming experience, but complemented with the other OD&D supplements in a single document of less than 140 pages, Swords & Wizardry is the closest thing to perfection.
I made “replicas” of the supplements too, but these are even less accurate.
Of course, there are many other systems that I have never heard of, and others that for some reason I have not given a chance and that may be better. If you have any suggestions, please tell me on a comment below this post. Although I always end up going back to AD&D 2nd Edition, and in recent years to 5th edition, I’ve always liked trying new games and new role-playing systems, even once.