More Fantasy Heartbreakers
by Ron Edwards
Copyright January 2003, Adept Press
One purpose of this essay is to clarify just what a Fantasy Heartbreaker is, based on some confusions that arose from my previous essay of that title. In order to judge a game a Heartbreaker, three things should be considered: publishing context, rules design, and imaginative content. All three matter, but I think the last one is most important.
A Fantasy Heartbreaker's basic, imaginative content is "fantasy" using gaming, specifically D&D, as the inspirational text. What's D&D Fantasy? Well, it's about seting up a character starting-point with a strong random component as well as a strong strategy component, having encounters, surviving them (or not), and improving. What characters do is travel, team up, bicker a bit, walk a tightrope between cooperating and exploiting one another, suss out threats (risk assessment is a big deal), and fight with unavoidable or especially rewarding ones. Some giveaway details: gotta have elves and dwarves, gotta have underground complexes, gotta have teams of adventurers, gotta have array of tactical possibilites for combat (armor/weapons), gotta have similar array of spells, gotta ramp up the range and scope of both arrays with "experience," and gotta have a chock-full smorgasbord of threats.
(I want to emphasize that terms like "Tolkien fantasy," "traditional fantasy," and "high fantasy" are often used to refer to D&D fantasy, all of which I think are highly inaccurate and obfuscating.)
Its publishing context is a bit more tricky. The way I see it, anyway, is that a Fantasy Heartbreaker deliberately recapitulates the origin of D&D as a game: a few guys, a good idea, a labor of love, and book on the shelves, with the hope that gamers will like it. "Gary did it, and so can we." In that sense, we're talking about indie-indie-indie, in Forge terms. One element of this context is that most of these publishers are pretty naive about the three-tier distribution system, which (on the positive side) means they are more interested in establishing the game as part of ongoing hobby culture rather than simply making a quick buck through hyping to distributors. The other interesting ramification is that D20 material cannot, by definition, be a Fantasy Heartbreaker - D20 per se and D&D3E in particular aren't recapitulating the original TSR publishing model at all.
Also, a historical factor is at work. Considering early innovations as such when they *were* innovations, Arms Law, Spell Law, and Claw Law were not Heartbreaker material, and neither was Melee/Wizard, or early Tunnels & Trolls. However, today, a game published as an "original fantasy role-playing game" which resembled one of these would probably be one. Part of the definition includes ignorance of the existing diversity of game design.
Rules are also an issue, but it's grayer than one might think. Some people have been confused about "house rules from D&D play" as a defining feature. As a general observation, yes, a Fantasy Heartbreaker very often has D&D-imitative or assumption-based rules, but the degree of "house rule" can be very extreme, and some Heartbreakers do have home-grown, ground-up systems. Therefore the game's rules don't necessarily have to be derived directly from D&D. However, when they're not, they mainly recapitulate immediately-post-D&D developments as self-perceived innovations. Quite a few resemble early RuneQuest, early Rolemaster or MERPS, and one or another feature of AD&D2, most likely through parallelism and probably more rarely through imitation.
Some recent fantasy-adventure games that I do not consider Fantasy Heartbreakers include Arrowflight, The Riddle of Steel, Chain of Being, and Donjon.
The latest round
I ran across three games in the last few months that would have gone straight into the pool with the other games I listed in my first essay. I hope everyone understands that the following material isn't a set of reviews, but reviews, but merely textual comparisons. I can't speak to these games' actual playability, coherence, or other features except by inference.
They have all the basic game design components as any Heartbreaker: randomly generated attributes, lots of derived attributes, and a very heavy race emphasis. Most of the space of the book is devoted to character creation options, especially if you include spell lists in that category, and the rest being mainly lists of stuff to find, buy, or fight, and setting history. They all have fairly standard magic systems, unlike most of the games described in the previous essay.
I'll lay out some of their differences and unique qualities (remember, all Fantasy Heartbreakers have at least one good, possibly brilliant feature) and muse a bit more.
Demon's Lair, from Lasalion Games, presents a high wince-factor, both stylistically and in terms of content. It reads like a hyperactive, uncritical Arduin Grimoire, peppered with empty character quotes and attempted giggles, even including some rules for whether a character suddenly has to take a piss in the middle of combat. Character creation is diverse to the point of being scattered and bizarre, which one "super-class" which only one player per group may take, as an example of the kind of free-associative logic that seems to have underlaid this set of the rules.
As far as resolution systems are concerned, I'm not confident about the combat and spell systems, which (speaking prematurely) look wildly various to me. But maybe I'm missing the point - if a randomized and freewheeling effect is the goal, and if a certain Ninja Burger, who-knows-what-will-happen approach is taken, then maybe it works great.
The GMing section is astounding. It gets the definition of "theme" right on the first try, which is far more than I can say for some of the most well-known games and authors in the hobby. It includes extensive and applicable advice for running geographically-separated characters at the same time and for cutting scenes, and it nails the Lumpley Principle on the nose. If this section were presented as a PDF for sale, I'd buy it in a shot. It's well worth the price of the whole game.
Undiscovered, from Eilfin Publishing, is quite different - instead of a flurry of ideas all mixed together, it's a carefully-organized manual. Its GMing section is just about the most extreme oppposite of Demon's Lair's, stating the Impossible Thing Before Breakfast as clearly as it can be stated. It's also pretty sedate in its options, based mainly on elf/dwarf fantasy races, although I do like the angel race and the Dusters (weresnakes).
Unlike most Heartbreakers, Undiscovered is based on a unified system mechanic (d100), but the authors are a bit late in claiming the point-allocation method for setting beginning skill-levels as an innovation. The key element seems to be a certain amount of choice on the player's part regarding managing skill-improvement: you have "ranks" of expertise and "levels" within the ranks, and sometimes one has the choice between skipping up a rank and levelling up within a rank. It reminds me of both Earthdawn and the old High Fantasy, but neither of these games offered as much flexibility on the player's part.
Overall, the game has a certain early-RuneQuest feel in the sense of lots of personal "bzz!" magic flying around everywhere, especially based on personal worship. It also has an enjoyable Earthdawn feel in that all the characters are pretty arty with lots of stonecarving, weaving, and similar.
They also got hold of a Julie Bell painting for the cover clearly done specifically for the game; I'd like to know whatever story is behind that.
Deathstalkers, from Cutter's Guild, is simultaneously the most deconstructive and most preservative game I've ever seen, relative to the oldest-of-schools D&D play, in detail after detail. It's almost impossible to summarize them: castings, ingredients, hit points, levels, alignments, etc, are all hard-core D&D belt (Madison to Springfield) dungeon crawl. The game is the very essence of midwestern U.S. D&D style gaming and should probably be studied in detail by anyone interested in the history of the hobby - it distils out nearly every strategic element from the old-school texts and places them into prominent, character-mortality-challenging center stage.
Characters' effectiveness/vulnerability ratio is the key, and I suspect that character survival at the beginning is largely a matter of GM-largesse. It's hard to understand why one would play at the lower levels; a character's Sanity, at the very least, seems slated to drop radically.
The innovation lies in the combat system, which is best described as taking what's broken in D&D combat and making that, itself, a strategic system. Apparently successfully. Upon setting the order of attacks, they proceed from fastest to slowest, then back up the line from slowest to fastest. This sets up a tug-of-war over who gets to be on the advantageous side of a zero-sum now-or-later game, using Actions, Aggression Points, Hit Points, and potential reaction to hits as resources for timing, especially in terms of which variable is the limiting factor at what time. Play would seem to be complex in terms of resources to keep track of: in addition to the combat-specific ones, there's also Sanity, Castings, and more.
I'm pretty dubious about the origins of its setting. I'm given to understand that a series of novels or perhaps computer games already exists called "Deathstalkers," which like this game concerns big apocalyptic robots in a kind of fantasy setting, so I'm a little nervous about the IPs in question. Perhaps it's either all worked out or no big deal, so if anyone knows, tell me.
First, some observational details. The minotaur fetish is alive and well, especially as a bagful of subspecies; I'm already raised the issue of the semi-undead race in the forums (Druine, Dunnar, and Half-dead), so not much can be added there; and I'm also wondering whether dragon-people (Dawnfire, Undiscovered, Deathstalkers) might be replacing the hitherto-irreplaceable kitty-people.
Fantasy Heartbreakers are always recognizable in terms of "voice" - if someone were to pick a random couple of paragraphs from, say, Undiscovered, Forge: Out of Chaos, Demon's Lair, and Dawnfire, I could instantly see which game it came from. I like this, actually. I think it speaks well for the hobby in comparison with the bevy of high-gloss attempts, in the mid-90s, to see who could present a game with prose that imitates Vampire the closest.
Skill systems are tremendously various across Fantasy Heartbreakers. Some of them, such as Deathstalkers', are demonstrably tack-ons. This game already has a fairly sophisticated resolution system based strictly on attributes, and the skill system is both redundant (given the well-defined character classes) and insignificant, given that characters begin skills in the under-10% range. Others, as in Fifth Cycle and Undiscovered, are the core of the game. I think the existing range recapitulates the very same set of developments seen in 1977-1984.
Now for more substantive issues.
As I mentioned in the first Heartbreakers essay, I'm generally impressed by the GNS coherence found in these games. Even when the modes are jumbled a bit, they're almost always well-articulated and the game designs often offer interesting solutions to D&D-style incoherence. Of the new games discussed in this essay, Deathstalkers and Undiscovered respectively represent textbook Gamism and Simulationism, and Demon's Lair, although essentially incoherent in System terms, includes some of the best Narrativist GMing advice I've ever seen.
My biggest criticism concerns some thematic content. I'm really starting to wonder about the god-lists and religion in general in Fantasy Heartbreakers. It's a unique phenomenon; I don't think it's possible to imagine anything less like religion in any sense. It includes a lot of highly-imitative or downright dumb names, direct correspondence with player-character options (as opposed to societies or organizations), and lots of un-fun strictures. The best of the bunch is Forge: out of Chaos, probably (as I read it) because this material was taken the least seriously and written for fun imaginative-background rather than as a personal fantasy opus.
What's odd is that most Fantasy Heartbreakers take great pride in their world-settings: maps, elaborate histories, wars, borders, economies, cataclysms, wilderness areas, and more. I'd think that religion, as such a major feature of culture, would get a bit more intellectual consideration beyond "what must a cleric avoid doing in order to get his healing spells back" or when a character gets a minor bonus.
Another issue concerns the three-plateau assumption regarding a character over time: a prolonged "weeny" stage, a brief "pretty damn good" stage, and an upwardly-spiralling "unstoppable" stage, straight out of old-school D&D. When faced with a potential threat, the first thing to do is decide whether it's out of your league, and the second thing to do, if it's in your league, is to identify its particular limiting factor relative to your own. Let's check out this issue a bit more carefully, though - I think it's central to D&D fantasy that a character must start with a very high risk of dying and very little ability to change the world around him or her, and then increase in effectiveness, scope, and ability to sustain damage, all on a positive exponential fashion.
The concept seems to be that the player must serve his or her time as a schlub, greatly risking the character's existence, in order to enjoy the increased array and benefits of the powers, ability, and effectiveness that can only be accumulated through the reward-system. An enormous amount of the draw to play a particular game seems to be based on explicitly laying out what the character might be able to do, later, if he or she lives. I want to distinguish this paradigm very sharply from the baseline "character improves through time" found in most role-playing games. This is something much, much more specific.
All three of these issues lead to my big point for the essay. The key assumption throughout all these games is that if a gaming experience is to be intelligent (and all Fantasy Heartbreakers make this claim), then the most players can be relied upon to provide is kind of the "Id" of play - strategizing, killing, and conniving throughout the session. They are the raw energy, the driving "go," and the GM's role is to say, "You just scrap, strive, and kill, and I'll show ya, with this book, how it's all a brilliant evocative fantasy."
It's not Illusionism - there's no illusion at all, just movement across the landscape and the willingness to fight as the baseline player things to do. At worst, the players are apparently slathering kill-counters using simple alignment systems to set the bar for a given group (e.g. Deathstalkers); sometimes, they are encouraged to give characters "personality" like "hates fish" or "likes fancy clothes"; and most of the time, they're just absent from the text, "Player who? Character who?" (e.g. Undiscovered). The Explorative, imaginative pleasure experienced by a player - and most importantly, communicated among players - simply doesn't factor into play at all, even in the more Simulationist Fantasy Heartbreakers, which are universally centered on Setting.
I think this is a serious problem for fantasy role-playing design. It's very, very hard to break out of D&D Fantasy assumptions for many people, and the first step, I think, is to generate the idea that protagonism (for any GNS mode) can mean more than energy and ego. These are fine things, of course, but it strikes me that playing with them as the sole elements provided by the players is a recipe for Social Contract breakdown. Ultimately, this is why I decided on favoring the content-based definition for the term Fantasy Heartbreaker as a whole.
An interesting proposal
Mike Holmes once suggested that "Everyone should write a Heartbreaker." What does he mean?
Notice, he says, "write," not "publish." The benefit, as far as I can tell, is as a form of personal therapy. People apparently have issues that arise from their play of D&D fantasy games, and from their grappling with broken Social Contracts and mismatched GNS stuff. A lot of the time, game design seems to be a form of coping with these issues. If I'm understanding Mike correctly, writing one's own Fantasy Heartbreaker constitutes working through a phase of development as a role-player - in some cases, it might remove the need to design games further, in favor of settling down actually to enjoy play, and in other cases, it might open the door to ground-up genuinely-innovative designs.
I'm not a good case study for this, for a variety of reasons, but let's try it anyway. Let's imagine: all right, I'm going to take D&D Fantasy as a just-plain-given, deliberately taking the naive assumption that everyone "just knows" what role-playing is, what "fantasy" is, and what this hobby is all about, given only D&D-based culture as the foundation. Also, I'll work straight from what I enjoyed about reading the text and playing the game - working toward getting them centrally into play, without questioning any assumptions of why that stuff was in there, or considering where it came from before it was in there.
I'd come up with races based on three things: adding diversity to existing groups (two sorts of humans [Aztec-like vs. Nordic/barbarian-like]), keeping elves and dwarves (because they're "fantasy"), and taking a couple of monsters that I think are cool and making them player-character options (specifically salamanders and big mean trolls, possibly half-human hybrids of trolls). Race will carry tons of content about attitudes, family structure, and so on, such that the salamanders get to be misunderstood and exotic and the half-trolls get to be unapologetic butt-kickers.
I'd come up with classes, which can mean lots of things - perhaps I'll take the "innovation" of not having formalized classes and sticking with "professions," using internal constraints like race limitations and attribute minima that result in unstated classes. Each profession has a few skills, and then each character also gets to pick some skills ad-lib. I'll keep the skill list pretty short - it's a menu for adventuring advantages, not an exhaustive list of a character's repertoire of personal skills.
And I'd probably set up some kind of metaphysical "oomph" that a character might have more or less of, along the lines of Dawnfire's Flow. Cool - we'd have randomly-based attributes, basically Strength, Toughness, Agility, Intelligence, and Perception, and use those to come up with derived stuff for combat, magic, and "other."
Let's see, for the starting attributes, I like the idea of the race setting a baseline value and then adding a small roll onto that, as in Legendary Lives, and I like the idea of the roll using multiple dice, for a strong bell curve, but covering a small spread. I know. The race sets a value of 0, 5, or 10, to start for each Attribute. You add on the result of a 4d6 roll, but before adding, you divide the result by 2 to get a value of 2-12, heavily weighted toward the middle (7), which is what you add. So, um, a salamander character's Agility starts at 10, and you roll this 4d6, getting (perhaps) an 11, divide and round to 6, so his or her Agility is 10 + 6 = 16. To colorize things up, I'd put in a randomized table for "motive," all being fun and active like Fame, Profit, Virtue, Vengeance, and that sort of thing. I'd stress that not one of them actually dictates behavior, just sets up what you're interested in increasing for the character. It'd be very lightly reinforced in the reward system.
System? No problem! It's compartmental: combat, magic, other. For combat, just think "initiative sets order, order sets who hits, hits set up taking damage, and protection deals with damage." That's classic post-wargaming logic - injecting a particular brand of Simulationism, mainly, into a primarily-Gamist context of play, which I'm afraid lends plenty of room for Social Contract disputes. Let's see ... another notion is that I want the setting to be pretty hot, environmentally, which will cut down on the heavy armor. Oh yes, armor - does it cut down on the chance to hit, or does it provide protection when you're hit? I'll also have lots and lots of neat missile weapons, to provide a slightly different feel or tension to combat.
Magic then becomes a secondary system of some kind, probably based on profession in terms of available spells. Its effectiveness, to my tastes, would be a function of a character's "magic" score rather than set by the spell-listing itself, which is to say, any spell may be cast "lightly" or "hard" depending on the magic-oomph put into it. I like the idea as well that difference races use different rituals for the same spells.
[I'm being a little vicious regarding combat and magic design; obviously, a number of Fantasy Heartbreakers struggle much harder to be more unified and/or coherent in their resolution systems, especially Undiscovered, Fifth Cycle, Forge: Out of Chaos, and Legendary Lives.]
Setting? No problem. Have map with evocative names, have history including two cataclysms, have off-the-cuff list of gods corresponding to one metagame-tweak apiece, have monsters, have two or three more "races" that players can't play - will travel. This is the kind of stuff I used to fill whole notebooks with instead of doing homework.
For "experience" (i.e. character improvement), weapons and armor, damage mechanics, and much more, I'm in pretty good shape - present point-value rewards for creatures killed or puzzles solved, and then set up a point-scheme to spend them. But spend them on what? Levels or no levels? I think that I'll be "innovative" again and jettison levels (be sure to put that on the back of the book and into the introduction). Therefore character improvement will be a matter of improving skills, attributes, and secondary attributes, as well as maybe changing profession for lots of points. But the word "level" has to be retained in some way. I'll have to think about that. Maybe it'll be a hit-point thing, so that certain plateaus of points earned (not spent) result in higher hit points and higher magic scores.
Is this a valuable exercise? Surprisingly, I'm enjoying myself. I'm pretty tempted to start a notebook for this game, to be titled whatever the setting ends up being called. It would mainly concern the ongoing war and interactions among the lava-living salamanders and humans, with lots of intermediate contact and societies among the two. Obviously ruins of both human habitations and salamander communities would be the dungeons.
But maybe the exercise is only valid for some people, and perhaps it's a generational issue. My own first role-playing game experience was indeed old-school D&D. In terms of us folks, yes, I think Mike's point is valid. But ... what about those role-players who were born into an entirely different set of starting assumptions? Nowadays, a lot of folks' first game was probably Vampire.
Let's also consider that a form of D&D has recently become available that is far more mechanically satisfying, if perhaps less intriguing, than the original(s), and thus less likely to instil its users with any number of frustration-issues. And as well, that if setting for its own sake is one's primary creative drive, then D20's your huckleberry.
So consider people who entered the hobby in this context, over the last ten years ... Can we expect, in the next few years, Vampire Heartbreakers? Do we already have them, in the form of Immortal and The Chosen?
What to do, what to do
Fantasy Heartbreakers are an ongoing, irrepressible feature of the hobby, arriving thick and fast. I anticipate coming upon plenty more at GenCon this year. Ultimately, although I admire their authors' pluck (and I'll defend to the death their right to publish), these games are essentially doomed, economically speaking, for the reasons I listed in my first Heartbreakers essay.
But I'd like to get a little more abstract about that. Even aside from industry and promotion considerations, I think these games are doomed through a conceptual tautology: you can't do D&D fantasy, regardless of how streamlined or "more logical" your rules are, without being directly measured by the defining feature, which is to say, D&D itself. In other words, the game design is trapped - the less like D&D it becomes in function and content, the further it moves from its goals, to "fix D&D." And the more it stays with its goals, the more D&D compares favorably with it.
It's agonizing to see and, despite my best intentions, these games are not easy to get people to play for purposes of review and promotion.
So what to do with them? If anything? I'd like to develop some kind of tracking or ongoing analysis of Fantasy Heartbreakers which permits people arriving at the Forge to get a solid, well-articulated introduction to them, as a preventative measure if possible. Suggestions toward that goal or constructive alternatives are definitely welcome.
And I haven't even begun my discussion of their science fiction equivalents based mainly on Star Frontiers and Traveller.