It’s been a long time since I’ve played an RPG. Back in middle school we played Rifts and Star Wars, but as time progressed and people moved away I never tried to find another group to play those with. I had a friend in my church’s youth group that was obsessed with AD&D, but we never really played. Since then I have followed the forums at RPG.net and read about the new releases of Star Wars and D&D, the stagnation of Palladium Books, and discovered other RPG’s that I now wish I had known about all those years ago.
The biggest trends in the past few years have been the birth and growth of both Pathfinder and Retroclones, otherwise called the OSR (Old-School Revival) movement. Both are very different paths under the D&D umbrella, but both maintain the Gygaxian spirit of fantasy adventure.
Paizo Publishing’s Pathfinder is built upon D&D 3.5 edition, using Wizard of the Coast’s OGL license for those rules to create a foundation for their RPG. Many who were fans of D&D 3.5 have continued playing that ruleset through Pathfinder, instead of moving on to D&D 4. Paizo Publishing has also set the standard for digital distribution, selling PDF copies of every one of their titles on their website. Since Wizards of the Coast offers no PDF copies of current or past releases, many attribute Pathfinder’s success partially due to their amazing webstore. It also helps that the costs of the PDF releases are far cheaper than paper copies (most rulebooks are only $10!). I have already purchased the Core Rulebook and Gamemastery Guide, even though I don’t plan on using that ruleset. Paizo now also offers a Beginner Box, which received far better reviews than the newest Red Box from Wizards of the Coast.
The two first retroclones to come about were Basic Fantasy RPG and OSRIC. Basic Fantasy RPG focuses on the Basic/Advanced D&D ruleset from the Early 80s. It is not a “pure” retroclone as it makes some changes to armor class (Ascending AC instead of Descending) and other things (separation of Race and Class). Basic Fantasy is unique in that it is developed in an “open source” way. The original documents (in .ODF format) can be downloaded from the website, as well as additional supplements and adventures. The PDF is also free to download from the site, and the author maintains he prefers interested players do so before considering purchasing a printed copy through Lulu. I have purchased a hardcover copy from Lulu and am very happy with it. This will likely be the ruleset that I will use for my game, even as I draw on things from all the other systems.
OSRIC is as straightforward a representation of the AD&D 1E rules as is legally possible. Expanded in the second edition to include monsters and more, OSRIC has evolved from being a ruleset intended for writers/publishers to anyone who wishes to play without access to the original 1E rulebooks, or even those who simply wish to not subject their original 1E books to further damage. I have purchased a hardcover copy from Lulu as there is alot of great info in this gigantic book, even if I won’t be using the rulseset.
Lack of access to the actual (A)D&D rulebooks is a key selling point for all of the available retroclones, but especially for those that are based on the original D&D ruleset (the Little Brown Books). The most popular is Swords and Wizardry, written by the original author of OSRIC, Matthew Finch. This retroclone can be confusing to newcomers as there are 3 different editions: Whitebox (based on the original 3 rulebooks), Core (including some supplemental material) and Complete (all supplements published before TSR moved on to B/X and AD&D). The Whitebox and Core editions are available for free from the website, and printed editions are available through Lulu. The PDF and printed version of the Complete Edition are available from Frog God Games. The look and artwork are fantastic, and Matt’s writing will inspire you in countless ways.
Labyrinth Lord is similar to Basic Fantasy as it also focuses on the Basic/Advanced D&D rules. Unlike Basic Fantasy however, it maintains the original rules for armor (Descending AC) and other items. Some people like that Labyrinth Lord maintains these unique quirks and believe it maintains the D&D “feel”, while others would rather take the improvements offered by Basic Fantasy. I personally prefer those improvements, but there’s no doubt that Labyrinth Lord is dripping with more flavor than a ribeye steak; in fact, I believe out of all the retroclones it has the most by far (and I have to put OSRIC as having the least). The writing, artwork and overall look of Labyrinth Lord will leave you raring to go dungeon-delving, no doubt about it.
Castles and Crusades is not a true retroclone; like Basic Fantasy it has presented improvements. The difference is that C&C has overhauled the whole thing to use their Siege Engine. I have looked at this game and think it’s a great improvement, but it doesn’t quite click for me. However coming from a small dedicated company C&C is a great game with some amazing artwork, all done by one man (Peter Bradley).
So which ruleset to go with? In the end you can’t go wrong, as you’ll still be playing D&D, and all of its progenitors (Gygax, Arneson, Holmes, Cook and Marsh) will be smiling down upon you. Some of these games have major differences, while other items may be similar if not exact. Also, in the true spirit of RPGs and D&D in particular you should change any rules you don’t like, and if needed mix-and-match from other games. Personally I will start with Basic Fantasy, and bolt on a few more races, classes and options as needed. I can’t wait to start playing again after being gone for so long, and I hope you’ll give one or more of these games a try!