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.

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The Arcane Top 50 – Where Are They Now?

Arcane, a short-lived British tabletop gaming magazine from Future Publishing which ran from December 1995 to June 1997, is a name to conjure by for many gamers of around my age. I came to the hobby after White Dwarf had become a Games Workshop in-house advertising platform, and just as Dragon was on the verge of dropping its coverage of non-TSR RPGs altogether; that meant I got a brief taster of TSR having a broader scope of coverage, and missed out on the golden age of White Dwarf altogether.

With other RPG-focused gaming magazines available in the UK only available on a decidedly variable basis (whatever did happen to ol’ Valkyrie?), the arrival of Arcane was immensely welcome. Sure, even by this early stage the Internet was already becoming an incomparable source of both homebrewed material and cutting-edge RPG news, but much of that was in the form of Usenet and forum discussions of variable quality or ASCII text files. To get something which was informative, read well, and looked nice, print media was still just about where it was at.

Truth be told, taking a look back at Arcane in more recent years I’m less impressed than I was at the time. It took largely the same approach to its own subject matter (primarily RPGs, with some secondary consideration to CCGs – because they were so hot at the time they really couldn’t be ignored – and perhaps a light sniff of board game content) that Future’s videogame magazines took to theirs, particularly the lighter-hearted PC Gamer/Amiga Power side of things rather than the likes of, say, Edge. That meant it focused more on brief news snippets, reviews, and fairly entry-level articles on subjects than it did on offering much in the way of in-depth treatment of matters.

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Are We Not Doing “Cloning” Any More?

The retro-clone craze seems to have died down a little recently, which most new OSR games emerging focusing more on providing a novel twist or different focus to the games they emulate rather than providing a more loyal transcription. This is probably at least in part due to most editions of D&D now having a decent corresponding retro-clone, since games with an SRD as expansive as the D&D 3E one are ripe for cloning due to the extensive safe harbour the OGL offers for borrowing text. Whilst game mechanics in the abstract aren’t protected by intellectual property laws, having to rewrite stuff to the extent necessary to avoid a copyright infringement lawsuit is the main barrier to cloning a game which wasn’t released under the OGL. Still, that hasn’t stopped people trying.

The James Bond 007 RPG by Victory Games was a classic of its time, and is believed to be one of the first RPGs (possibly the first) with a hero points mechanic. Unfortunately, it was a licensed RPG, and just like Ghostbusters (the other major 1980s licensed RPG which showcases a bunch of game design innovations) once the licence inevitably died it was shunted out of print.

Classified is Expeditious Retreat’s attempt to do the gaming scene a favour by retro-cloning the James Bond 007 system. It has a distinctly no-frills presentation; whilst it isn’t devoid of examples or detailed explanations, they aren’t exactly thick on the ground either, and the layout is rudimentary but functional. (It isn’t quite “straight into MS Word in Times New Roman, single column, clip art images added here and there as appropriate”, but it’s getting there.) That said, they do make sure important rules which intersect with other rules are repeated where said other rules come up and generally have a good understanding of the fact that reduncancy is not necessarily a bad thing in designing a rulebook if it is done in a way which helps participants find material quickly.

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