Saturday 31 August 2013

By the Numbers: the Relative Popularity of DnD Retro Clones

One of the recurring topics in my work as a Software Developer is how to measure usage of your product.  The main problem is that the information that you are dealing with is incomplete.  This results in the secondary problem oh how to interpret the imperfect measures we do have.  A simple example of this is counting downloads, which don't necessarily correlate to the number of users, nor does it give you an indication of how much they use.

So I'd like to ask the same question about DnD Retro Clones.

Which retro-closes are being actively used by the most people to play games?

So how could we attempt to estimate this?

Game Sales/Downloads

This is a pretty easy metric to count.  The problem is that downloads, and even sales, don't necessarily mean that the product was used--often times users download a rule-set or adventure just to skim it for ideas.  Also, even if a user downloads a product and uses it, you don't know if they used it for a single session or for years.

There is also the problem of comparing download numbers for a free game vs. one that costs money. The user is will be less careful not to lose the free game and thus more likely to download it multiple times(I've probably downloaded Labyrinth Lord half a dozen times on different computers).

You might be able to overcome this to some degree with a survey.  Send users a survey periodically, asking them what products they are currently using.  The results could be used to translate the download numbers into a number of active users.  Of course, there may be some bias.  For instance, gamers who used a product might be more likely to respond to the survey than those who didn't.


You could come up with a number of different types of survey to determine the relative popularity of different games.  You could send emails.  You could survey people at gaming conventions.  The problem is distributing it evenly among the gaming population.  Are players of certain systems more likely to answer email surveys?  Are they more likely to attend conventions?  So there may still be a bias, which could easily be seen by comparing the results of different surveys.

Google + Community Membership

Well, all these methods require a good deal of effort.  An easier option is to compare membership in Google + communities.  There are two problems with this:

  • Membership doesn't mean you are actually playing with that system
  • There may be a bias, that active users on Google+ may be more likely to use a certain system
On the other hand, membership may still correlate to actual usage.  And since OSR is a very Online movement, I'm going to assume(perhaps incorrectly) that the system-Google+ bias is small.

So here are the numbers:

  1. Swords &Wizardry 826
  2. DCCRPG 776
  3. Lamentations of the Flame Princess 498
  4. Basic Fantasy 387
  5. Labyrinth Lord 382
  6. Adventurer Conquerer King 347
  7. Castles & Crusades 303
  8. OSRIC 110

Well, I knew Swords & Wizardry was popular, but I didn't realize just how popular.  I guess it's the most faithful system to ODnD, so I assume that's why it tops the list.

DCC RPG is next on the list.  I know it's quite popular, though the rulebook is more of a Hair-Metal-Love-Ballad to DnD than a rules codex.  I love the careers, ascending AC, and the simplified saving throws, as well as the art and general vibe of the book.  They also just keep putting out great adventures.  That said, the magic system and various other mechanics are overly complex for my tastes.

LotFP is up there.  I assume that's due to their heavy internet marketing and the amazing adventures they keep putting out(and perhaps their desperate attempts to show how contravertial and edgy they are).  As far as the rule-set itself, I have to confess my relative ignorance.  Is there anything particularly novel there?  Don't get me wrong, they seem to put most of their emphasis on the adventure content, rather than the rules, which suits my tastes just fine.

Labyrinth Lord is still my personal favourite, being free, simple, and a little more streamlined than S&W, in my opinion.  I was a bit sad to see it so low on the list, though still with a decent following.

Basic Fantasy, Adventurer Conquerer King, and Castles and Crusades have sort of been off my radar.  I remember hearing of them, but I've never downloaded them and don't really know much about them.

I have a soft-spot in my heart for OSRIC, so I was sad to see it at the end of this list.  AD&D was the version of the game I first used.  Plus I ran a very successful Play By Post game with the system a few years back.  That said, my tasted have shifted to simpler versions of the game, and I see I'm not alone.


  1. It's also easy to use conventions as a metric. I've used Gencon 2012 and 2013 to measure change in the OSR:

    1. Because a conference is limited to a particular geographic area, the results might be biased to games popular in that region.

      Also, there's the question of sponsorship bias. I see Paizo, the publisher of Pathfinder, is first on their list of sponsors. Can any conference participant run a game?

  2. ACKS's community is at 347.

    I'm surprised by OSRIC as well; I wonder if there's perhaps just a lot of split from various other 1E/AD&D communities? I'd expect a general "Edition" split would put 1E on top, and I know everytime I want to check something from 1E I go to OSRIC.

    1. OSRIC fans I think more than any other clone identify with the original game - even people who play using it at the table are more likely to say they are using 1e.

  3. I wanted to find a retro-clone to run with my nephew, who is 10. I took one look at OSRIC and ran the other way as fast as I could. Just because things were in 1e does not make them good.

  4. What about Basic Fantasy with 387 G+ followers?

    1. Great!
      I use OSRIC mainly as a reference for encounter tables and such, as Basic Fantasy is a litte rules-lighter and fits my group (all beginners) better.

    2. Actually, I'm thinking I should limit the scope of my questions to clones based on 2e and earlier. Basic Fantasy is based on 3.5?

    3. It's based on the 3.5 OGL and reduced to B/X, if I'm not mistaken, but with ascending AC.

    4. Gotcha. Wish I'd known that when I put the survey together(results to be posted tomorrow). Oh well, this has been a educational experience for me, at least.

  5. I'm dubious about the accuracy of the results, partly for the reasons you've given Billy.

    As an example of how things aren't always what they seem, surveys on forums and blogs regularly put LL as the favourite game of respondents, and yet this is often not reflected in the comments section of those same surveys, suggesting that many who have chosen the game aren't all that vocal or actively involved in the online aspects of our hobby as those who prefer some of the other games listed above.

    The OSRIC result doesn't surprise me however as the home of the game is a prickly and elitist forum, and those behind OSRIC have actively chosen NOT to promote the game. This of course isn't a reflection of the game's merits.

    1. Agreed--take with a big grain of salt. Hopefully I'll publish the survey soon and we can compare, though the survey has it's own problems...

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    1. I would consider ACKS, LotFP and especially DCC to be there own systems and not retro-clones. ACKS and LotFP are based on Basic D&D but bring a lot more to the table. I do not have much experience with ACKS but from what I understand it focuses extensively on the end game when you are ruling a kingdom(trade, war, politics etc..). LotFP(I DM this system with my group) is pretty unique in that there is no monster book and you have to(or I should say are encouraged to) make the creatures up as you go along and to keep these encounters mysterious and to a minimum(bringin in the fear factor of "What the hell are we up against?"). Also, magic is a two way street; all magic items are all essentially cursed(although sometimes beneficial). Another interesting tidbit, at 1st level you can if the dice roll bad, end the world with the "Summoning" spell. Brings in a totally new way of play, I liken it to Cthulhu with a chance of survival(even if you read that old dusty tome). DCC is definitely it's own game, and lends to over the top Gonzo play a la Thundarr the Barbarian and Heavy Metal(the movie), seems like a less serious and more fun loving game to me. It's a from 0 to hero game, after all you start off as lowly peasants exploring dungeons and those that do not die horrible deaths become mighty even at 1st level. They all have a place in the OSR as do the retro-clones.

    2. Hi Michael,

      I hear your point(although DCC does have a very retro mandate, despite it's various inventions). Maybe I need to come-up with a different term. "Classic DnD-Based Game Systems" seems a little wordy...

  7. DCC brings a lot to the mechanics table as it is based out of 3.x/D20 and not basic D&D, the same can be said for Castles & Crusades. I consider these as modern games with an Old-school feel.