Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Retroclones: How The Original White Box Got It Right

I've become a big fan of old-school gaming.

I started playing D&D back in the late 70's, and followed the game as it progressed through its various incarnations.

When the original AD&D manuals came out, I quickly abandoned the old D&D to play the new and improved version. In fact, I scorned the later B, X, DA, and other "basic" Dungeons and Dragons material, thinking them suited only for those whose tastes were not yet refined enough to graduate to the better (advanced) rules. I followed D&D through 2nd Edition, where I began to lose interest, D&D 3.0 and 3.5, where it just became too complicated, and into 4E, for which I had high hopes ...

Having now returned to the old-school style of gaming, making use of the retro-clones appeals to me, for several reasons. First, I sold my original D&D boxed set, so the actual rules from the original set is largely unavailable to me (I do still have a copy of Greyhawk, though it's usefulness is limited due to the absence of the original three little brown books). Second, the editors of the retro-clones have done an admirable job of clarifying the original rules. Third, the retro-clone rules are available in pdf form, so it is fairly easy to obtain copies.

Of the retro-clones, my preference leans towards Labyrinth Lord and Swords & Wizardry. White box and OSRIC are appealing, although I prefer to use OSRIC as a resource rather than a rule-set, and White Box, while tempting, just feels a little too light (I quite enjoy the optional rules sidebars in that retro-clone however). I have heard some love for Spellcraft & Swordplay, but have not yet investigated that rule-set.

The one thing that the original White Box has over the retro-clones is the separation of materials into players' and gamemasters' books. From a publishing point of view, I suppose it makes sense to include the entire rule-set into one book. However, from a gaming point of view, particularly when trying to introduce new players to the original D&D, I would much prefer to have separate players' manuals and gamemasters' manuals.

It may just be me, but I still think part of the enjoyment of role-playing games is that the players do not to have perfect knowledge of the rules of the universe, nor about the monsters and treasures that are to found as they explore their game environment. I know one can split the Labyrinth Lord and Swords & Wizardry pdfs fairly easily, to create a players document, but if the editors intend to publish paper versions, I would love to see those published as separate players' and gamemasters' booklets.


Anonymous said...

I agree that it is a good thing to have a rulebook that is 100% safe for the players to have.

I have recently completed a personal edit of the Swords & Wizardry White Box rules. It is 44 pages, booklet-sized. It has no DM secrets in it at all.

Instead of using traditional D&D monsters, I'll use James Raggi's Random Esoteric Creature Generator. And instead of using traditional magic items, I'll just make them up.

Aaron E. Steele said...

Brilliant, especially if you have players who have played before.

I have several new players, who have no idea about the traditional D&D monsters and treasures, so my issue is a little different. I want to make sure they have all the necessary player rules, not overwhelm them with environmental rules, and maintain the newness and mysteriousness of the fantasy world for as long as possible.

I'd be interested to hear what you did with the S&W White Box rules.

Anonymous said...

My 44-page rulebook is basically 12 pages covering characters and how to create them, 26 pages of spells, and 4 pages covering movement, combat, experience, etc.

Here's a PDF of the rules:

You can see the cover here:

Aaron E. Steele said...

Very nice! Clear and succinct.

I've got 5 new players at a game tomorrow night (running Tomb of Sigyfel), I may just print several copies of this ruleset and give them to the players, along with a 4x6 character card.

Thanks for the suggestion!

Tim Sweet said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
banter said...


I'm enjoying your blog.

I was looking for a casual group to sit in on in NW calgary. I haven't played since early 90's and mostly AD&D at that. Any chance of an open seat?

Aaron E. Steele said...

Funny you should ask. P_Armstrong over at Ode to Black Dougal was suggesting organizing an old school campaign, which would be a lot of fun. I'm not sure where he is in the city, but why don't we see what he thinks.

I'm currently running a newbie game, using old-school rules, you may find the game-play a little primitive. A more seasoned group might be the ticket for both of us.

banter said...

Sounds good, but even a simple campaign would be welcome... to get the juices flowing.

I am completely geared out anyway with only a set of dice and some leads to my name. I sold my books and modules years ago at sentry box. There is a slight chance I could find an old character sheet arround, but I would probably like to develop a new one. Being 15 yrs older, having kids and a career have changed my perspective...

Aaron E. Steele said...

My next game probably wont be til Oct 24, if you can wait til then...

I will post something before the end of the month, on the whats and whens.

Yes, kids, mortgage and job have changed what I want out of D&D. Now i'm just looking for a fun night, which is why old-school is so appealing, I dont have time to waste on tricking out my character or spending hours on an elaborate campaign. Sandbox and tropes all the way.