Okay, I'd play anything once or twice and maybe more with the right group. But I'm talking about the handful of retros I would consider making my predominant play choice. I never thought such a decision was so political in some small enclaves of the old school community, but it evidently is. So let me be up front right now, as I have been in the past. I think that if we are going to really preserve the old school style of play we really have to begin embracing the clones and variants themselves instead of the actual oop originals. Yeah, I know, blashpemy. Nobody yet has really managed to quite recapture what Gary and his cohort did, though a few have come pretty close. I would love nothing more than to have those games in print once again so everyone could get their hands on them and play like back in the day. But that aint reality now. And it aint gonna be until about 2073 when the 99 year copyrights on the originals begin to expire. Since I plan on living to a ripe and healthy old age of 104 I might be around for that. But I got a few years to wait. When it happens tho' I'll have 10 glorious years of oop gaming once it hits.
No, for now I recommend people support old school games in print. And they have lots to recommend them. And here I refer to retro clones and variants available for free download from the Internet that I might consider making my game of choice. This of course knocks out any game not available for free for download on the Internet. Not that I wouldn't play commercial games. C&C, HM, DCC RPG, Secret Fire and others are great games and I would definitely consider them at the top of my list. But right now I'm talking about games you can download for free. Now most of these games also allow you to buy an actual print copy from Lulu and other sources, which is fine and preferable actually. But I'm limiting my choices here to those that would be available in some form for free from the i-net.
Let me also be clear that this is not intended to include all options. This is a very personal list, not one designed to imply I have read and carefully assessed each and every clone or variant out there. Most of these systems are ones that felt "right" to me on first glance. Others simply felt "wrong". And I stress they felt that way for me. I am not saying any system is inherently bad or good, but rather good relative to my preferences. For instance you will notice the paucity of basic and 0e derived clones. Even though my favorite clone in tone is probably Swords & Wizardry. At any rate such basic and 0e based clones and variants are not really the way I like to play. I am not fond of race as class, I like the 9 alignment system, and generally prefer the "advanced" approach to other rules in the system. My one exception to this general rule is Dark Dungeons which I describe below.
So without further ado, here they are:
Adventures Dark & Deep: I've reviewed this system before, and is likely the one closest to my preferred play style. It has almost all of the advanced rules I'm used to and a pretty consolidated advanced combat system. Good stuff this one, it feels alot like home, just a lovingly remodeled one.
Labyrinth Lord AEC+: Labyrinth Lord advanced companion has a couple of things going for it. Though it is a kind of basic take on advanced rules I really like the presentation of the game. Art, vignettes, and game prose sort of give it a cave dripping, dark, torch flickering dungeon crawl feel. I like this and it is a close second in presentation to S&W in this regard. Though Goblinoid Games touts the AEC as the way most of actually played advanced rules, this is not the case for me. I played alot more like ADD or OSRIC, but I can live with the basic tone of LL AEC largely because of presentation, company support and some really cool supplements, namely Labyrinth Lord Empires & Engines and Labyrinth Lord Mutant Futures. With the three of these games together you really have a multiverse of possibilities for gaming within a unified system. I was really hoping Starships & Spacemen and Time Lord would be based on LL rules, but I don't think they are, and they aren't free for download. However they are all under the umbrella of Goblinoid Games. I really like what GG is shaping up to be too. All of this together makes LL a good overall choice. Makes me feel a little like TSR back in the day.
Dark Dungeons: This is my one "basic" exception. Based on the Rules Cyclopedia Dark Dungeons is such a complete and expansive system that it almost begs to be played. I'm not crazy about some of the "basic" assumptions, but I could get into the scope of this game from first adventure forays to kingship, herodom, to godhood. Just seems like a kewl way to do D&D if the basic oriented rules don't get in my way.
OSRIC: OSRIC almost didn't make the list. The more I look at OSRIC the more skeletal it seems. Which is fine as far as it goes, but in my estimation clones should really aim to be a game in their own right, not a simple exposition of previous rule structures. OSRIC never really aimed to be a game in its own right, but a tool for publishers of 1e resources. And it works great as that. But OSRIC is a little to spare for me. If I wanted a 1e game I might use OSRIC, and I have before. But the reason to use a clone is because you think its better than the originals in some way. I don't think OSRIC is. Its a good framework reproduction, but for me that's about it.
Clones and variants as becoming as common as apple trees. They aren't quite growing wild, but there's a lot of them being cultivated out there. So I keep my eyes and mind open. A few other possibilities right now are Crypts & Things and Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea. I like the premise of both these games, but am not even sure if they are going to be available for free download. So I'm reserving judgment. They are kind of narrowly focused on swords and sorcery type play, and so I really prefer the more open ended fantasy style of the games mentioned above. But I like the dark tone and the connection to weird fiction. For now however, neither one makes the list.
So I've previously mentioend some commercial games that make the cut for me. Hackmaster and Castles & Crusades being the primary two. While DCC RPG and Secret Fire have me intrigued. Lots of people have mentioned Dragon Age and that seems cool, but I've never even looked at the rules. Based on the downloadable previews at the Dragon Age site I would definitely put it in the maybe list for commercial games. And now I've shared my preferred retro clones list. Picking one to make my core game is a little easier now, but still a close running decision. Truthfully though such a decision, while somewhat agonizing, is fun. It's also a blessing having so many high quality games to choose from.