Building Blocks of the Second Wave Retroclones

Matt Finch asked for “a laundry list of various things of note that have happened in the OOP fantasy RPG gaming scene”, and I realized that I hadn’t posted here about my notable entry to that list:

In the OSR it’s steamship time for takes on the Arnesonian progression from dungeon to stronghold, and the economic framework developed in the Adventurer Conqueror King System looks like it might be the go-to building block for this among second-wave retroclones, just as LotFP is for encumbrance. ckutalik’s Domain Game was developed in parallel, but he decided that “because the unified economic system inside ACKS is a really inspired piece of work,” he will publish the now-titled Hill Cantons: Borderlands under the ACKS compatibility license.

Unpacking this a little:

  • ‘Steamship time’ is Charles Fort’s for the way lots of people all seem to independently start working on the same stuff at the same time. Like many Fortean phenomena, I think it’s not so mystical. The OSR is old enough now that campaigns started to try out its ideas, like my White Sandbox and Alex’s Auran Empire, have now progressed to the point where they’re starting to need to deal with stronghold building rules and the like. And it’s not surprising that we’re all interested in doing that with our name-level characters since that’s clearly promised by the original D&D texts.
  •  ‘Economic framework’ you can read more about at the Autarch blog; it’s important so that the progression from dungeon to stronghold is organic and internally consistent. Even if Arneson knew the answer to questions like “why do the knights in castles expect that parties passing within two hexes of their castle will be able to pay 100-600 gold pieces if their fighting men don’t want to joust’, it wouldn’t help me when questions come up in play like “so if the knights in question are hill giants carrying 1,000 to 8,000 gp on their persons, why is there so much lucrative traffic on this wilderness river for them to shake down that much?” because that figure comes from AD&D. Since the Arnesonian and Gygaxian assumptions don’t always match, and B/E/C/M are all at odds with one another (let’s not even touch I), having someone sort it all out under one cover is a good answer to “why let us do any more of your imagining for you?”
  •   ‘Second-wave’ retroclones is a name I made up for those systems that a) are built on the work of the original wave, which used the OGL and reverse-engineered the d20 SRD to make it possible to publish stuff that emulated older editions and b) are now focused on supporting a specific style of play rather than a particular edition. I will repeat this term until it sticks.
  • The Domain Game was a really exciting project to handle lots of the same stuff ACKS does. We saw that he was looking for players for a PbP exploration of these ideas at a point when Autarch had already started down the same path, and I was so busy doing so that I regretfully decided not to join the game. I meant to reach out to ckutalik but to my shame kept forgetting until the spectre of two competing approaches already darkened his door.
  • Hill Cantons: Borderlands is the product that will result from the Domain Game, and because I am as excited about it as it’s possible to be, the fact that it will be compatible with ACKS cannot make me any more excited. “Compatible” here should be read as “this work is intended to be part of the same conversation as this other work”, the way that say Moldvay and Mentzer are compatible because they use the same toolbox to do takes on the same pre-existing ideas, but are different because they emphasize the things each presenter thought most important/had the best ideas how to handle.  In this case the difference is even more marked, because ACKS is designed as a complete system and HC:B is modular and designed for cherry-picking.
  • Compatibility licenses are an important way for the second-wavers to announce their unity as part of a new movement as well as their continuity with the old. In a comment to the annoucement of Lamentations of the Flame Princess’s compatibility license, I wrote:

 Creating a compatibility license has worked spectacularly to transform Adventurer Conqueror King and Hill Cantons: Borderlands from potential competitors over the same “domain game” turf into collaborators, each focusing on the part of this where we have the most unique vision and sharing the best ideas in areas which we agree. We would have wanted to try to do this anyway, but having the compatibility license + the open gaming license made it like duh, of course a declaration that these games work well together is the way to go.

In the post where I coined ‘second-wave retroclone’ (that sounds fancy, no?) I asked for help thinking of more second wavers. Having gotten some feedback on this, I now seek to predict which piece each of them is going to contribute to future waves built on our legacy:

  • Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Encumbrance.
  • DCC RPG: Some tool for glorious swinginess, of which it has too many and I am too close to see which will get picked up. Spell charts rock but, like class powers in 4E, are system-specific and creating them requires an amount of design that most folks will want to get paid to do.
  • ACKS: Economic framework, which is kind of a cop-out because it subsumes a lot of stuff but whatever, it’s all good.
  • Astonishing Sorcerers & Swordsmen of Hyborea: rules that inform the setting, and setting that informs the rules.

Let me pause here to note that a defining characteristic of the second-wavers seems to be problems with coming up with both a good name and a good acronym. I will talk Ghul into using our compatibility license just so we can say ASSH for ACKS. I will leave a dirty-sounding way to work LotFP:WFRPG in here as an exercise to the reader.

Now onto a subgenre of second-wavers which use the retroclone framework to shoot for a type of play modeled on a different genre:

  • Stars Without Number (modern space opera): Judging from a post-game conversation with jedo and foner, and reinforced by the way they’ve brought it back to fantasy in Red Tide, this has to be the use of tags to summarize characteristics of organizations.
  • Mystery Men (superheroes): ?
  • Terminal Space (classic space opera): ?

This list is by no means exclusive, and my predictions entail no money-back guarantee.

Since this post mostly makes a blah blah sound, I will pay the Joesky tax. However this is usable only in your game if you are contemplating publishing it under the OGL and are thinking about compatibility with ACKS, or if you are playing a Papers & Paychecks campaign in which you are simulating the travails of a retroclone publisher. See below the cut if so.

Here is the current draft of our license for declaring compatibility. Note that you don’t need our permission, we don’t require review of you material, and the product identity “described above” is easy to extract from the parts you’d want: “All trademarks, registered trademarks, proper names (characters, deities, etc.), dialogue, plots, storylines, locations, characters, artworks, logos, symbols, graphic designs, and trade dress.” (Folks who do want to use the implied setting of the Auran Empire are welcome to ask permission, but it’s not covered here.) Note also that this license lets you cite which parts of our stuff you re-used in the text, which addresses the issue Jeff’s Gameblog and I mentioned.


Subject to the terms of the Open Game License, above, you may create derivative works based upon the Adventurer Conqueror King System (this document). However, the Open Game License protects the Product Identity (explained and detailed above) such that you must have permission from the copyright holder before you may use any of the listed Product Identity.

You may use certain items of the listed Product Identity under the following conditions:

1. You must comply fully with the Open Game License, version 1.0a, as described above; and

2. The work may not be obscene in nature; in general, any work containing subject matter that would qualify for an NC-17 movie rating in the United States, or an R rating due to explicit sexual content, is considered obscene for purposes of this license.

If you comply with the above conditions, you may do either or both of the following:

1. Include the text “Designed for use with the Adventurer Conqueror King System”

2. Use the “ACKS Compatible” logo, provided on the Adventurer Conqueror King System website: http://www.adventurerconquerorking.com/logo.html

The logo may be resized as needed, but must not be distorted and may not be altered other than to resize it.

3. Use the product identity elements “Autarch”, “Adventurer Conqueror King”, “Adventurer Conqueror King System”, and “ACKS” for the purposes of identifying the source of open content which is re-used from this document and discussing the relationship of the derivative work to this original, subject to the following terms:

a. Any work making use of these elements must designate these elements as product identity in accordance with section 1(e) of the Open Game License version 1.0a;

b. Any work making use of these elements must bear a notice declaring the fact that Autarch, Adventurer Conqueror King, Adventurer Conqueror King System, and ACKS are trademarks of Autarch.

If you wish to use other Product Identity from this work, you must request and receive explicit permission from the copyright holder.

In any of the above cases where the Adventurer Conqueror King Product Identity is used in your work, you must also include the Adventurer Conqueror King website address “adventurerconquerorking.com” in that work. You may place the website address adjacent to the logo and/or name, or you may include it on your title page, or place it in some other location where any reasonably observant person would expect to find it.


12 Responses to “Building Blocks of the Second Wave Retroclones”

  1. July 26, 2011 at 3:01 pm

    “Compatible” here should be read as “this work is intended to be part of the same conversation as this other work”

    I love it when a single phrase can distill the essence of a host of things running in my head. As I read through ACKS it opened up more than just a thought process about how to make the Domain Game fit around ACKS, but a whole second-wind dialogue about how to best to finish the sourcebook.

    To be perfectly honest, trying to tackle the massive range of topics that this kind of project entails was weighing me and the project down as we entered the last stretch, it was tremendous relief just to say “hey this system not only tackles a section of these questions in a way that satisfies the high-expectation goals I laid out–but does it in a more elegant fashion.”

    It allowed me to redirect energy into sections that were really exciting me and I think the end result will be stronger than if it had just played out on its own.

    I have no idea if the second-wave (and successors) will adopt a similar arc, but I hope it does surrender the notion that somehow we are all developing games in splendid, highly-individualized bubbles. Embracing cross-fertilization is not just more honest, it will improve the quality and usability of the products coming from our end of the hobby IMO.

  2. July 26, 2011 at 3:15 pm


    Out of curiousity, why did you choose to create ACKS as a new system*, vs. building the economic rules modularly upon OSRIC, or whatever clone most-strikes your fancy.

    I may be reading more into your “second-wave retroclone” term than you intend here, but from what I’ve read about ACKS, it appears to be a full game system as OSRIC, S&W, etc. are. So, if your focus is on the various endgame states, and economic model (and I’m sure that’s not all that ACKS is about, but that’s what you’re talking about above), I’m curious about why you chose to design a complete system, vs. adding that content to OSRIC or another already-existing clone system.


  3. July 26, 2011 at 4:33 pm

    A post I just made [at the RPG Site] touches on both of these while answering the question “why will you guys succeed where others have failed?”

    Being a retroclone helps because using the OGL, especially within the communal atmosphere of the OSR, reinforces the cross-fertilization that improves quality and usability as ckutalik says. And being a free-standing game helps avoid the legacy issues that come from trying to take a pre-existing game system that almost certainly bears the seams of being designed by diverse hands, and is likely to leak at those seams under pressure. Also for usability, at some point the tweaks to the sword prices here and the sword-maker wages there become so diffuse and apparently minor that it’s better to just say “you might want to use this as the backbone and port your other favorite stuff in rather than the other way around.” A high degree of compatibility makes this possible, although of course even first-wave retroclones couldn’t resist making some tweaks just out of the authors’ own vision of how it ought to be or would be cool if.

  4. July 26, 2011 at 4:55 pm

    I can’t obviously answer for Tavis or ACKS, but there was a point where I was working on trying to the reconcile a range of economic pieces (hireling wages, building construction, equipment prices, domain income, etc) from the various older D&D editions and started to pull out my hair. It’s not just that they are different, but that all of them felt not broken necessarily but definitely out of whack internally.

    You do end up with a simpler answer–toss them out partially or wholly and re-work them to be more playable. I ended up trying to present a ballpark wholesale change to one side, the cost of labor, as an optional system will keeping the rest fairly traditional (civilian goods get some expansion but are still pretty close to the RAW prices).

    I respect and understand why ACKS just went for it. To me it looks workable while maintaining enough of the core ideas to not be so radical that it breaks the classical feel of a game. It would need some shoe-horning into certain games

  5. July 26, 2011 at 7:19 pm

    Came across this today in Dragon 106, February 1986: “It is a growing trend among smaller game publishers to print conversions in their products for other game systems, thereby increasing sales by appealing to players of rival games, as well as other games produced by the same company.” Thought it was interesting to see how something in the same ballpark as Compatibility Licenses were thought of in such a radically different climate in those days of yore.

  6. July 26, 2011 at 9:08 pm

    Not sure I like the term Second Wave Clone. Sorta muddies the waters. Thought there were only 4 or so true clones and whole bunch of mutated spin-offs that we don’t really have a word for.

    For example, what happens when someone releases another accurate clone? (It’s inevitable and wont fit nicely into either wave.)

  7. July 26, 2011 at 10:29 pm

    I think first-wave means issei, ‘directly taken from source’ and second means nissei, ‘offspring of first-wavers.’ A retroclone that focuses on fidelity to a source will always be first-wave; someday we will have first-wave 4E retroclones.

    I agree that there are mutant spin-offs that aren’t mainly about fidelity to the source, but also don’t build on the work of the first-wavers. I don’t know what to call those.

  8. July 26, 2011 at 10:34 pm

    @Max, then it’s just a clone. A second-waver is one that isn’t a faithful reproduction of an existing OOP edition, as I understand the term.

    @Tavis, which of the older editions does ACKS most resemble? The LBBs, the Red Boxes, or something else? Also, is it too late to get on the Kickstarter bandwagon? I seem to have picked a bad time to stop reading The Mule, and missed the deadline.

  9. July 26, 2011 at 10:46 pm

    cr0m, I think being a second-waver also requires having DNA from first-wavers. ACKS is built largely on Labyrinth Lord and Basic Fantasy, so it most resembles the B/X Red Box with strong influences from OD&D and pre-D&D, some ideas and learning-from-experience from 3e and 4e, and some “while we’ve got the hood open let’s supercharge this” innovation.

    I just wrote a FAQ on the Kickstarter page saying “we met our funding goal, should I still donate?” The answer is yes, we’re now shooting for a bonus goal that we’re likely to hit – the Domains of War mass-combat supplement – and planning for a further bonus goal that will take an ambitious push. There are still six days left, and the price is like it’ll be at retail except you get the bonus goal stuff for free.

  10. July 27, 2011 at 6:40 am

    w00t! I just pledged $30!

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Past Adventures of the Mule

July 2011

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