A Retro Idea of Retro

I’ve previously discussed insights we can get from Arcane magazine’s Top 50 RPGs feature, but there’s one other feature from the magazine which I think has aged particularly interestingly. Rather than being presented in a single article, though, it unfolded over the span of the magazine’s existence.

This was the monthly Retro feature, each instalment of which offered a one-page retrospective of an old game, by and large (with a very few exceptions) one which was well out of print by the time. This is interesting to look back on now because when Arcane was being published the hobby was some 21-23 years old; this year it’s 46. In other words, more time has now passed since Arcane magazine ended than passed between the emergence of D&D and the appearance of Arcane. It’s interesting, then, to look back and see what games were considered to be old-timey classics from that perspective, and how things have developed since.


OK, so first off here’s an issue-by-issue rundown of what games were covered in the Retro feature over Arcane‘s run.

  1. None – the feature started in Issue 2.
  2. Maelstrom
  3. Judge Dredd
  4. Ghostbusters
  5. Starships and Spacemen
  6. Bushido
  7. Golden Heroes
  8. DragonQuest
  9. James Bond 007
  10. Paranoia
  11. Dragon Warriors
  12. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles & Other Strangeness
  13. The Price of Freedom
  14. Aftermath
  15. Star Trek (FASA)
  16. Living Steel
  17. RuneQuest
  18. Warlock
  19. WFRP
  20. 2300 AD

It’s worth noting that Warlock was not an RPG – it’s an old Games Workshop card game. Though Arcane‘s contributors clearly wanted to focus on roleplaying, they also produced a trickle of coverage of other tabletop games, especially CCGs since they were such a huge deal at the time. Let’s set Warlock aside and look at the RPGs on the list.

Now, one thing I notice is that whilst most of these games fit squarely into the “out of print” category, others exist there more tenuously. 2300 AD‘s inclusion came hot on the heels of the shuttering of GDW, though since no new products had been put out for it since 1990 I guess that’s fair enough – on the other hand, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles RPG was still just about current (in that Palladium hadn’t sold off the licence and I bet they could find you a copy in the warehouse if they checked). Even cheekier is the inclusion of WFRP, which yes was about a decade in the saddle by this point, but was still very much on sale thanks to Hogshead keeping it in print.

Perhaps the cheekiest inclusion here is Paranoia – West End Games was still very much alive when the feature was produced, was selling the infamously poorly-received 5th Edition (see my Kickstopper article on the Paranoia Kickstarter for details on that), and was planning the production of a 3rd Edition (because even they realised that 5th Edition was a bad idea and it would be best to pretend it didn’t happen). It was still very much a current game. To be extra cheeky, the image they used for the game on the retrospective – and, for that matter, the Top 50 article – was for the 2nd edition! I can only assume it was a passive-aggressive way of expressing distaste for 5th Edition without annoying West End Games so much they’d pull advertising money or something.

Another thing to note is that many, but not all, of these games ended up on the Top 50 RPGs list. (One wonders whether some of them ended up there in part because of the Retro feature reminding people of their existence!) There’s a healthy number of exceptions, though – MaelstromStarships and SpacemenDragonQuestThe Price of Freedom, the FASA version of Star Trek, and Living Steel. The inclusion of the latter, which I recall being generally poorly-regarded at the time, reflects the fact that the column tended to be written by fans of the games in question – even when those fans’ perspectives were not necessarily widely shared.

Actually, I have to stop to call out a particularly ridiculous argument raised in the Retro article on Living Steel. It makes the astonishing argument that, because the Living Steel system was so absurdly overcomplex, this encourages the referee and the players to ignore it and just focus on roleplaying. In essence, this is an argument that RPG systems should be horrible to interact with, because the point is to dissuade people from engaging with the system. This is obvious bullshit, but it’s reflective of where the “System doesn’t matter” attitude prevalent in the 1990s ended up taking us.

Anyway, rant aside, let’s see which of those RPGs ended up getting a new edition since being profiled in Retro:

  • Maelstrom
  • Starships and Spacemen
  • Paranoia
  • Dragon Warriors
  • RuneQuest
  • WFRP

By and large these are those you’d expect. RuneQuestWFRP, and Paranoia are legitimately significant names in the field; Dragon Warriors and Maelstrom may not be globally significant RPGs but are well-remembered in the UK. The surprising one is Starships and Spacemen, a cheeky Star Trek ripoff using a thinly reskinned D&D system from the 1970s which Goblinoid Games ended up reprinting and putting out a new edition of.

There’s also a number of games on the list where we haven’t had an official new edition of the game, but the system’s been cloned.

  • Ghostbusters
  • Golden Heroes
  • James Bond 007
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles & Other Strangeness

This is pretty much as you’d expect – primarily licensed properties, with Golden Heroes being the exception due to a complex situation with the rights which I’ll outline later.

Other games have not had a new edition using that system, but have had their setting adapted to a new system:

  • Judge Dredd
  • Star Trek (FASA)
  • 2300 AD

Again, we’re looking at a majority of licensed games, with 2300 AD being the exception: PDFs of the old materials are legitimately available through Far Future Enterprises, but when Mongoose got the licence instead of putting out a new edition utilising the GDW house system variant used by 2300 AD they instead made it a supplement like for their edition of Traveller.

Other games have not been cloned and have not had their settings (where one existed) adapted to new settings:

  • Bushido
  • DragonQuest
  • The Price of Freedom
  • Aftermath
  • Living Steel

Bushido and Aftermath are the two games on this list which are also in the Top 50, and again this comes down to the rights to them being snarled up in Fantasy Games Unlimited’s clutches. FGU have made them available at least through PDF in more recent years – hence them being on the “legitimately available” list below – but that’s it. It feels like a bit of a shame that nobody has done a clone of the system underpinning them both – what I’ve dubbed the Phoenix System since it was developed when Hume and Charrette were designing for Phoenix Games, prior to that publisher going under and Fantasy Games Unlimited saving the games in question. Then again, it is a rather old-fashioned and complex system so it’s possible that nobody is interested in using it for any purpose other than old-school Bushido or Aftermath – and if you have those games, you don’t need a clone.

So, on that note here’s the games still legitimately available from the list:

  • Maelstrom
  • Starships and Spacemen
  • Bushido
  • Paranoia
  • Dragon Warriors
  • Aftermath
  • RuneQuest
  • WFRP
  • 2300 AD

And here’s the list of games where a clone is presently available:

  • Ghostbusters
  • Golden Heroes
  • James Bond 007
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles & Other Strangeness

Golden Heroes is an interesting case here, since the setting was further developed by Simon Burley, one of the authors, who made it the basis for the spiritual sequel Squadron UK, but the game system to that is different and it is not intended as a retroclone of Golden Heroes, but a retroclone does exist in the form of Codename: Spandex.

Actually, it’s even more complex than that: the first edition of Squadron UK was very much Golden Heroes with the Games Workshop trademark filed off, but Burley had to pull it from sale after, in response to inquiries about whether Games Workshop would be willing to surrender the Golden Heroes trademark back to him, Games Workshop slapped Burley with a cease and desist.

This was under the bad old regime at Games Workshop in the mid-2000s, not known for much of a sense of humour about these things, but even so as an intellectual property lawyer I’m rather bemused by Games Workshop’s actions there since they clearly aren’t going to be reprinting Golden Heroes any time soon and wouldn’t, on the face of it, lose anything by surrendering the rights back to Burley.

I suspect that it comes down to contractural stuff: specifically, Burley had interpreted his contract with Games Workshop as meaning that the copyright (but not the trademark) to his work had reverted back to him (doubtless due to some sort of clause along the lines of “Burley gets the rights back if Games Workshop don’t do anything with it for X amount of time”), apparently this interpretation was disputed by Games Workshop. I would not be surprised if this were a situation where many other writers had produced material for Games Workshop under the same contractural terms, and intepreting it one way for Burley would then make it difficult to interpret it the other way for other writers – risking considerable disruption to more current Games Workshop IP if this were allowed to fly.

Either way, the upshot of this is that the 2nd edition of Squadron UK uses a different system, rephrased and remoulded out of concerns about overeager Games Workshop lawyers sending threatening letters again. So this is a curious case where the game was retrocloned, then uncloned, then cloned again by a third party after the original clone got uncloned. Weird, huh?

Either way, just over two-thirds of of the Retro roster of RPGs have their systems presently available in some form or other without resorting to the second hand market. As expected, the only two RPGs on the list where the system has been basically abandoned, but the setting has been re-used in a currently-available game are based on licensed settings:

  • Judge Dredd
  • Star Trek (FASA)

What’s truly interesting is the selection of RPGs where the system and setting have been largely abandoned – with no clone of the former and no new game taking on the latter:

  • DragonQuest
  • The Price of Freedom
  • Living Steel

Living Steel is understandable enough – again, as I recall it the system was rather poorly-received by the mid-1990s, being considered the epitome of bad game design habits of the 1980s (in particular, a tendency towards excessive complexity above and beyond anything which actually usefully enriched the gaming experience at the table), and it really doesn’t seem to have had much of a latter-day renaissance since. (Turns out that if your system is a pain to use, people won’t use it! Go figure.)

The Price of Freedom I can also understand falling by the wayside. Though its system seems to have been developed in parallel with 2nd edition Paranoia, it doesn’t seem to have caused much excitement otherwise, and the game concept has rapidly become rather dated. Plus, it was a pretty infamous commercial bomb when it first game out, so it doesn’t feel like there’s much reason for anyone to try and revisit it, especially in the near-total absence of a fan community demanding new material.

The really interesting entry on this list is DragonQuest. This was ailing wargame colossus SPI’s attempt at a fantasy RPG, and was infamously taken off the market (but for a brief blink-and-you’ll-miss-it 3rd edition in 1989) by TSR after they acquired SPI’s assets in an infamous bit of corporate backstabbing. (One suspects that the revival was purely done to keep the trademark alive; the name was eventually used for one of many intro-to-RPGs boxed sets TSR would churn out in the 1990s.)

DragonQuest is spoken of reverentially by those who were lucky enough to see the old SPI editions, and is considered a significant contribution in game design terms – among other things it was an early credit for Eric Goldberg, who would go on to be an influential figure on the design team at West End Games when they were crafting major breakthroughs like ParanoiaGhostbusters and the D6 System version of Star Wars.

However, it seems to have suffered somewhat from the troubles assailing SPI at the time. It seems to be generally agreed that SPI, whilst a major name in wargaming in the 1970s, were decidedly out of fashion by 1980, in part because they (alongside fellow wargame juggernauts Avalon Hill) were really quite slow to recognise that there was a new format of game tapping their fanbase, and which they couldn’t compete with by putting out more wargames since wargames and RPGs scratch inherently different itches.

Fans might well have been inclined to overlook DragonQuest on that basis – especially since in the same year SPI made laughing stocks of themselves by putting out, of all the goddamn things, a Dallas RPG. (Don’t get me wrong, a soap opera RPG could work if you had something like Fiasco underpinning it… but 1980-grade RPG design practices weren’t up to the job.) Of course, glowing reviews and a deal with Bantam Books to distribute a complete-in-one-book edition of the game may have helped – but not enough to stop TSR pulling a dirty trick to take SPI out of business and strip them of their assets, shutting DragonQuest in their vault so as to eliminate a potential competitor.

The production values on old DragonQuest material is truly impressive, a high water mark compared even to what TSR were doing at the time in terms of artwork and material offered and Chaosium’s offerings in terms of clarity of presentation, and the combination of that and a company with the name recognition level SPI had in the industry at the time and a distribution deal with a mainstream publisher could have added up to a credible challenge to D&D. Given the ringing injustice involved it feels like the game is ripe for retrocloning, but so far as I can tell no effort has been undertaken.

Whilst a breath of new life has blown the dust off 13 of the Retro RPGs, and games using the settings of another 2 have kept those worlds alive for RPG purposes, these last three gameshave all been left on the shelf since. Whilst the fact that they all got profiled on Retro proves that they still retained some form of interest, at the same time in most cases it seems understandable why they have not been cloned or otherwise revived in the intervening quarter century.

5 thoughts on “A Retro Idea of Retro

  1. Pingback: And Did These Games In Ancient Times Spring From Avalon Hill So Green? – Refereeing and Reflection

  2. Pingback: A Dragon Slain By TSR – Refereeing and Reflection

  3. (Sorry to leave so many comments on your posts, but you are speaking to me!)

    There is another funny thing about SPI’s DragonQuest. It aims at a more mature audience of players than D&D did. I remember the time my friend was trying to pick skills for his character and we went to ask my mother about the difference between a Troubador and a Courtesan. Both play musical instruments and provide entertainment, right? We were about eleven years old. When my mother stumbled to explain, I knew something was up, but my buddy had to decide between the two skills for his warrior. I think he picked Courtesan! We had no idea what it really was supposed to mean when the book stated that “Courtesanship is a social skill designed expressly to satisfy the needs of lonely or status conscious people,” if it didn’t simply mean “fancy entertainer.”

  4. There was in fact an early D&D heartbreaker published under the title “Warlock.” I found a copy of it in with my dad’s old Dragon magazines. Next time I visit his place I’ll look up the publisher & date.

    1. I’m aware of Warlock and to my knowledge it’s barely even a standalone RPG so much as a variant way of playing OD&D, right down to referring people to the White Box booklets at points for rules clarifications.

      It feels like it’s a more forgivable sort of heartbreaker because you really can’t rag on people for not reading around outside of the D&D design space when there isn’t anything outside of the D&D design space yet.

      It definitely wasn’t the game covered in Arcane, either way – I’ve checked the article and everything. Plus I’m 99% sure that nobody on this side of the Atlantic had even heard of Warlock until the OSR started its OD&D archaeological diggings – or if they did, they had no way of getting it, because it was a very minor small press product put out by a regional D&D scene in the US.

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