Saturday, February 25, 2017

Forward Looking versus Retro Arcanum

In my post one-of-four shelf collapse Armageddon culling of pen-and-paper RPG books, I carved out a shelf for retro-clone old-school games, and now proudly display Basic Fantasy, Mutant Future, Labyrinth Lord, Starships and Spacemen, Stars Without Number, and a number of other new-school old-school classics. I am omitting other classics such as Castles and Crusades and Swords and Wizardry because I have not had the time to invest in them as I would have liked, and I want to focus on fewer games rather than spreading myself too thin.
And then I began reading about Basic Fantasy and the community ever since I last checked in with them, and I am impressed. They are like a large-community open-source project and way different than a role-playing game made for profit. They are trying to be the Linux of pen-and-paper gaming, and while the rules are more simple and retro-focused, the entire creation is surprisingly modern and forward-looking. Support and the community over there has grown, and it looks like a great, accepting, and creative place to participate - and that is a huge strength.
Compare this with Labyrinth Lord, which aims for backwards compatibility (with one style of mixed system play) and purposefully adopts some of the more difficult aspects of old-school games (descending AC and to-hit charts). In this respect, Labyrinth Lord is backwards looking, like an operating system that focuses on maintaining compatibility with DOS, older CRTs, tape drives, floppy disks, and dot-matrix printers because that is the experience fans are looking for in this game. When you go all-in with Labyrinth Lord, you want to experience the strange and arcane pain points of the older games because those are a part of the package.

It is like those kids sitting around the table in Netflix's Stranger Things playing and wanting to have to decipher the concepts of descending AC and some of those fiddly bits in order to be a part of the 'cool kids club.' The strange and backwards parts of the game are a part of the game's arcane and strange way the world works - and they are a part of the initiation process of knowing how this world works. Of course you roll to-hit off a chart! If it were too easy anyone could play this.

Basic Fantasy adopts the 3.5-style roll-high ascending AC system, and then goes towards a backwards feel from there. it is like an OS that recognizes modern developments, like USB drives and high resolution monitors, and then presents those advancements with a retro-feeling and style. It discards parts that don't make sense and goes for the simple, intuitive way things should work. Discard the strange arcane hand-gestures and let's just play something that is easy to grasp for everyone.

It is an interesting thought and comparison and I feel there are good reasons for each. Sometimes you want that complete retro-feeling and experience, complete with the strange jumps in logic and "latch key" portals of understanding that you must get through in order to enter this strange world. There are other times when you want to be more forward-looking, and you care more for simplicity of experience and the unification of methodology to appeal to players used to the more modern concepts.

In the case of Basic Fantasy, the system is not compatible with older modules, nor is it important. New adventures inspired by the old materials are out there and ready to be played. To be fair, there is a lot of new content out there for Labyrinth Lord as well, but all the old content works as well. Both are great games, but I find understanding the "why" of each helps me play them better and discuss them with others.

Myself? Leaning towards the simplicity and unified base of Basic Fantasy while still appreciating the strange and flavorful mix and arcane craftsmanship of Labyrinth Lord. If I were refereeing? Basic Fantasy wins, just because I have to explain less and the concepts are more straightforward. The game I would love to explore all the dark nooks and crannies of? Labyrinth Lord, of course, given the right group that appreciates the somewhat arcane nature of the rules and appreciates the backwards elements as a part of the retro-themed experience.
And then there there is this amazing pile of Basic Fantasy goodness (sans dice) I picked up for less than $30 on Amazon that is just waiting to be explored, and this collection is now sitting on that coveted spot on one of my three remaining book shelves.

Either way you go, there is a lot of adventure to be found, and both are great choices.