(This morning we have a guest post by +Richard LeBlanc , he of New Big Dragon Games and the D30 Sandbox Companion fame. I'm honored that Rich decided to post this here at The Tavern. You can read more of Rich's thoughts over at his blog - Save vs. Dragon)
Of Simulacra, Emulations, and Transmogrifiers.
If I see a crappy replicant (sic) property like a Transmogrifier on the shelf at the local dollar store, I'm the first to make fun of it for the sad knockoff that it is. So why am I okay with calling my rust monster a "corroder"? Why am I okay with calling my carrion crawler a "carrion creeper"? Or calling a beholder an "eye beast"? If I were an IBM clone person, maybe it would be easier for me to understand why I'm okay with this, as the concept of an alternately named clone is part-and-parcel of the deal. Which obviously brings me to the concept of retro-clones in general. Why don't I look at something like Swords & Wizardry and say to myself, "Hey! That's the Transmogrifiers of old-school RPG gaming?" From my point of view, what it comes down to is intention.
Matt Finch's goal (or so I believe it is safe to assume) was never to make a cheap knock-off of LBB D&D to be sold dirt cheap at the local dollar store in order to take advantage of those kids who just couldn't afford the real thing. Swords & Wizardry is obviously a labor of love (something I assume of retro-clones in general). By comparison, I don't look at a Transmogrifier and think, "Wang Wěi** must have made this product out of his deep love for the concept of the Transformers, and because one just cannot get a Transformer without having to stalk eBay and throw down a few hundred bucks even without an original box to get one, he must have lovingly made this crafted product in an attempt to share his passion with everyone else."
I currently find myself halfway through writing the monster listings for the Basic Psionics Handbook, and this thought has stayed very top-of-mind. It's amazing how many archetypal psionic monsters are not open content. In able for me to port them over to my BX psionics system, I have no choice but to rename them. Otherwise, I will infringe outrightly on the intellectual property of Wizards of the Coast as outlined in their Open Gaming License. In essence, what I am doing is creating what amounts to an alternate universe where the names are similar to those known by AD&D players, but may only be familiar to dedicated BX players (as these creatures have never made it into those editions—e.g., what point is a mind flayer in BX that has no psionics?)
In some ways, I see my duty with the Basic Psionics Handbook being two-fold. First, and most obvious, it is to try remedy BX's psionics deficit by attempting to create a psionic system as simple as it should be (be no more) for those players. But second, it is to bring a set of monsters to that edition that, while they hold a dear place in the hearts of many an AD&D player, have never had the chance to grow such roots with BX-exclusive devotees. And here's the rub... I may not use the original names for the following, well-established psionically-endowed creatures: githyanki, githzerai, mind flayer, slaad, ustilagor, and yuan ti. Instead, say, "Hello!" to the astral gish, limbo gish, mind thresher, zlod, intellect seeker, and wan-ti.
I must also state, that while I am trying to capture the spirit of these creatures, I am also trying not to just duplicate their old stats in the new format. I am trying to create (in some ways) my own interpretation of them (usually for the sake of simplification and seamless integration to this new psionic system). My goal is not to knock them off in order to "put one over" on the masses. Rather, it is to translate them into the system I have created, making them available (in most cases, for the first time) to many a BX/BECMI DM. I liken it to the translation of a book from one language to another. For example, a literal translation of something like Sun Tzu's "The Art of War" might prove more than a little clunky. (Just try pasting a few passage into any online translator and I'm sure the results will leave something to be desired.) Instead, those of us who want to read the book but do not speak Chinese (regardless of dialect) rely on folks like Ralph D. Sawyer (whom I chose for little reason other than he translated the paperback copy that I own). He takes that original text and interprets the original author's words and intentions for the audience.
When it comes to this sort of verisimilitude, am I Ralph Sawyer, or am I Wang Wěi? Am I an impassioned advocate, or am I a flagrant, self-serving huckster?
Are these types of workaround names (and the associated content) acceptable because: 1) we have learned to accept them (given the proliferation of retro-clones already bearing such simulacra, 2) we know they are a product of passion in the face of license limitations, or 3) both? Or are they unacceptable because they have more in common with the Transmogrifier—we know they're not the real thing, and will NEVER be the real thing, regardless of how much passion they have going for them?
I wonder if it's more like going to a party and drinking Pepsi, even though you're a Coke person, because the host only bought Pepsi. You'd really prefer the Coke, but you know you can't get one, so Pepsi is "acceptable" under the conditions. But with every sip of that Pepsi, you'll just be reminded that it's just not Coke.
* As a side note, the friend responsible for me having access to that 1st-generation Macintosh in 1984 is the same one that gave me my first d30 in 1981.
** I'm just going with the most common Cantonese given name and surname here.