On October 5, 1991 Linus Torvalds released the code for a little operating system called Linux. Under the license, it allowed others to take that code, make any changes they wished and release it as their own, provided they release their source code as well.
Over ten years later Wizards of the Coast released the 3.5 SRD documents under the OGL license; it was originally intended for module/adventure writers to have easy access to the rules needed to create new encounters, etc. But instead the first-wave of retroclones used it to legally simulate early editions of D&D.
With Linus’ release of the Linux code, we saw the early debuts of a few distros, namely Debian and Slackware. A few others came along, and eventually the ball got rolling and now there are dozens if not hundreds of “different” distros (that’s quoted for a reason I’ll dive into in a moment). In the same way, the OSR first saw the release of Hackmaster and Castles and Crusades (not clones per-se), and after awhile we now have dozens of rule-sets.
With Linux, we now see distros released that are nothing more than taking an existing distro, like Ubuntu, and changing the default look and maybe some of the apps. In the OSR, there are now releases that are nothing more than a GM’s house-rules integrated into the rules. The big question for both of these is: are they really needed?
Granted, anyone has the freedom to take the Linux source or the SRD and to make their own releases. Or they can take an existing distro or game, alter it, and release that. They’re free to do this, they can market it, create a website, sell it on DriveThruRPG and/or Lulu, etc. But because we can, should we?
First let’s take a look at working in an existing distro or rule-set. Anyone is free to contribute ideas, bug fixes, rules or typo fixes, etc. Some may advertise they’re more open to this, such as Basic Fantasy RPG and Debian. However, at the end of the day it’s the decision of a small group or even a single person whether a change is made or not. In Basic Fantasy, that’s Chris Gonnerman. Now, he may say the game is open-source and is open to suggestions, but as I’ve seen on the forums many things are either immediately shot down or permanently put into the “hmm let’s think on that” category. Now, that’s not a bad thing, as I’ll get to in a sec. In the Linux realm, the usual response is either “that’s how it’s intended to work and we’re not changing it” or “submit it as a suggestion for the next release and we’ll see”.
Of course, if there wasn’t a group or person over-seeing things, the projects would turn into chaos and eventual “mush”. If Chris took in every suggestion made to him, we wouldn’t end up with anything anywhere near Basic Fantasy. Many have made suggestions of additional classes, combat options, etc. These people would be better off going to Pathfinder or 4E (for example), while others who don’t like the ascending armor class can go to Labyrinth Lord. Of course other games have made even more changes, such as Dungeon Crawl Classics.
But what happens in the OSR is what happens in Linux: when someone or a group of people dis-agree with the leaders, they simply grab the work and go off to do their own thing; they fork it. Again, the license and spirit of both the OSR and Linux allow and maybe even encourage it. But on the flip-side, if everyone went off on their own tangent, we end up with even more distros and rule-sets, with so many barely different from the others. Why have all these different rule-sets when it’s known each GM will have their own small set of house-rules anyways? And for Linux, just like Windows or OS X, each user is going to change the settings, the theme, installed and default apps, etc. Do we really need such a wide variant to pick from, rather than a few good foundations to start from?
Well, in a way that’s what we do have. While there are hundreds of distros and rule-sets, most aren’t well-known (let alone known that well at all), and the most popular will be easy to find from certain sites and word-of-mouth. I just think some projects/sites need to be a little clearer about their intentions and what will or won’t likely be changed. For example, from Swords and Wizardry I know it’s Matt’s game and rules, above all else. He’s certainly drawn ire from plenty; the single-save is loathed by some, while others don’t like the inclusion of both descending and ascending armor class (I’m among those). But it’s clear that that’s what Matt likes, and he’s sticking to it. Of course, he provides a text document of both Core and Whitebox so I’m free to change what I don’t like (that’s for my own use, the S&W license requires certain things like the 2 armor values for any released items using the S&W rules and name). Chris may encourage collaboration for Basic Fantasy, but I think he could be clearer that he has the final say. Now that he’s announced a more “advanced” version in the works, I feel he’s going to be getting A LOT more suggestions and criticism.
So what to take from all this? While there’s the ability and freedom to take previous work and make it our own, perhaps instead of releasing it as a whole new thing just simply say “Hey here’s what changes I’ve made to this existing thing to make it my own. Try it out and maybe you’ll like it. Then if enough people do perhaps we should think about doing a full new game”. For OD&D it’s far more common to see text/PDF releases of house rules, rather than numerous retroclones (aside from S&W they don’t seem to be too popular anyways…). It’s almost as common for B/X and BECMI, but there’s far more rule-sets based on or modeled after those editions of D&D. For AD&D, the rules as written are pretty much a mess (this is known but forbidden to criticize the mighty Gygax on any D&D/OSR site) so house rules are a given for this edition. There aren’t too many releases modelled after AD&D aside from OSRIC, which is criticized for it’s “soul-less prose without the Gygax flair” (even though I can actually read and follow along). For me personally, I’m teetering on the edge between numerous house-rules for various rule-sets (namely Labyrinth Lord, BFRPG and DCC) and eventually wanting to combine all of my desired traits into one “master document” that would likely turn into its own game at that point.