The box had a dragon on the cover, crouched over a pile of fantastic treasures. A warrior faced off against the toothy beast, with a magical glowing sword in mid-swing.
That box was of course the Dungeons and Dragons Basic Set (D&D). I can feel my inner geek dripping from my fingers as I type this, but I can honestly say the game changed my life forever.
Many people of my generation were introduced to D&D through this starter set. If you are a few years older you would have encountered similar sets of rules, just with different cover art.
This game captured my imagination in a way that the video games of the 80s didn’t. My friends and I played every day that summer, nurturing an imagination that I am thankful for to this day. I continued to play D&D all the way through high school and after. But around the year 2000 everything changed for me.
Wizards of the Coast had purchased TSR (the original publishers of D&D) and they were planning to release a new edition. When it hit the shelves I was struck immediately by the change — not just in rules, but overall aesthetic.
I’ve never been a big video game player so the over-the-top video game-inspired art was alien to me. The rules made characters more like super heroes than adventurers trying to survive in dank dungeons. Recognizing that I was no longer the target audience for D&D, I largely left the game behind in favor of other role-playing games.
That is until 2006.
I friend of mine pointed me in the direction of a game resource called OSRIC. This was a community effort to create what is essentially a “system emulator” for the advanced version of the game I was so familiar with.
This was possible because the text from D&D 3rd edition was released under an open license (the Open Game License) allowing people to create works derived from the text.
Since most of the terminology in 3rd edition, and in some cases word-for-word text, is identical to previous editions of D&D, it opened the door to retrofit the text to align more with previous editions.
I contributed to the OSRIC project and started my own publishing house, Goblinoid Games, in 2006.
It wasn’t long before I felt the pull back to that basic game from my youth. I realized there was an important niche to fill in putting those rules back into print, so I wrote Labyrinth Lord and released it in the summer of 2007.
My primary goals in writing Labyrinth Lord were threefold. The first was to make the old rules available in print for people who still preferred that style of fantasy game, as opposed to the newer editions that are essentially different games with the same brand name.
The second goal was to create a brand and free license to allow publishers (and self publishers) to create and publish their own books that are compatible with the old rules.
The third, and arguably most important goal, was to not only make Labyrinth Lord a living version of the old game, but also put it into game stores so that it can attract a whole new generation back to the game that so inspired me as a kid.
I started using the term “retro-clone” in 2007 as a way of describing games like Labyrinth Lord that emulated the rules and play styles of out of print games.
I think in the early days many people scratched their heads trying to understand the purpose of Labyrinth Lord. After all, if you want to play an old game why not just use the old books?
For a lot of people that is the best solution. For those people, Labyrinth Lord is an avenue for new modules (published game scenarios) or other game expansions that are fully compatible with the original books. You can play your old game and go to the game store or look online and find brand new material being published for it, albeit under a different brand name.
However, it is important to some people to play a game that is currently in print, and for those people Labyrinth Lord is a great option.
For example, online play has been a growing scene for busy people to continue to game, even with friends who may now live in other parts of the country (or world).
There are free versions of Labyrinth Lord available to download, so you can direct your players to those very easily rather than have them hunt down and buy used versions of the old game that are ever increasing in price (and deteriorating in condition).
For collectors, playing Labyrinth Lord is a solution for protecting their original books. I can keep my original books safely in plastic sleeves for preservation, and subject my shiny new Labyrinth Lord books to Doritos stains and Mountain Dew spills.
The market response to Labyrinth Lord was sluggish at first. In order to raise funds for my first print run for game stores I sold around 50 collector’s versions of the game to come up with the capital.
Third party publishers of material for Labyrinth Lord and similar retro-clone games were wondering whether the market would really support this style of game. A combination of events happened in 2008 that changed the old-school gaming scene.
In March we lost the creator of this hobby, Gary Gygax. Many gamers felt that loss personally, and when he died they revisited older versions of the game.
For older players it was a reminder of why they started gaming in the first place. For newer gamers it was a way of exploring the past of the hobby.
This is what brought the retro-clone games like Labyrinth Lord further into mainstream gamers’ consciousness, coupled with the release of D&D 4th edition that summer. For many, D&D 4th was an even further departure than 3rd edition was from the roots of the game, and it dramatically split the D&D fan base like never before.
Today we not only have clones of previous editions, but there is Pathfinder, essentially a clone of D&D 3rd edition. Dungeons and Dragons, as a brand name, no longer has the majority of players.
The majority are now split in playing previous versions of the game, sometimes the actual out of print rules, but in many cases playing the old rules now under a different brand name.
We are now living in a renaissance of old-school games, and with crowd funding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, it is economically viable to publish niche games with the support of the community.
I’ve been very fortunate with Labyrinth Lord‘s success, partly in being an early adopter of this publishing model, and partly because Labyrinth Lord has wide appeal to gamers who were introduced to the original basic boxed set.
Many of us who started with the basic set also incorporated the “advanced” rules into the game, and with that interest in mind I also published an Advanced Edition Companion, to make all of the additional advanced options available as an expansion.
In many ways Labyrinth Lord bridges the gap between all of the older versions of the game, providing a common frame of reference between editions, and an array of options to get just the right old-school feel you’re looking for.
If you would like more information about Labyrinth Lord, visit my website.
Labyrinth Lord, and a large number of third-party support products, are available in game stores and online via print on demand sites like Lulu.com. Labyrinth Lord has a friendly and growing forum community, which is a great resource for people looking to explore this style of game. There are also play-by-post games available for those who are interested in playing online.
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