A fantasy heartbreaker is a tabletop roleplaying book that did not live up to its potential. The term, as coined by Ron Edwards, is not meant to be derogatory. It’s simply a way of assessing a few common flaws that designers fall prey to. Edwards’ essay was written in 2002, and times have clearly changed. Yet I still see a lot of these same issues popping up. As a matter of creative honesty, I had to ask myself: is the Hippogryph System a fantasy heartbreaker?
Disclaimer: This post contains DriveThruRPG and Amazon affiliate links.
The Four Elements of a Fantasy Heartbreaker?
In his essay Edwards has four criteria for a fantasy heartbreaker:
- critical perspective of the intervening history of game design,
- knowledge of actual fantasy instead of gaming-fantasy,
- originality of concepts in mechanics, and
- business acumen.
You can read his original essay for information on how he devised these criteria, and his rationale behind them. As I go through each point below, I will explain why I find these points to be relevant two decades later. I’ll also provide an explanation of how I’m applying them.
Critical Perspective of the Intervening History of Game Design
Edwards was writing primarily about fantasy games that were one step removed from Dungeons & Dragons. The heartbreakers he cites were largely designed by people who had only played D&D. They were unaware of other systems and innovations. Many of the mechanics they came up with independently mirrored things that already been done, and often done better, in other systems.
The Hippogryph System is inspired by two disparate sets of mechanics: the D20 system and Fate. That alone indicates that yes, I am aware of things other than D&D. I am borrowing many of the tropes of D&D to leverage their familiarity. Fate does a number of things in a way that I like, that fit with my vision. It’s not a simple matter of converting one thing over into the other. I’m building a moderately original system from part cannibalized from other systems.
To do that, I’ve looked at many other systems that have done similar things. Green Ronin’s Mutants & Masterminds and True20, for example. They took the bones of D20 and turned them into unique, distinct systems. I’ve studied other systems that were clearly inspired by bits and pieces of other games. Tabletop roleplaying is remix culture. I think I have the sort of critical perspective Edwards was writing about.
Knowledge of Actual Genre Instead of Gaming-Genre
For Edwards, this meant creating systems and setting inspired by Dungeons & Dragons rather than fantasy fiction. It was obvious, in the examples he cited, that most heartbreakers work the way D&D interprets them to work. There’s very little homage to an specific fantasy novels or series. If there are such nods, they tend to shoehorn the fiction’s ideas into a D&D-style paradigm.
This one is difficult. Hippogryph does have “classes” and spells and such. Again, my target audience is people who are familiar with these tropes. At the same time, the system is far more generic. You can build a character from scratch, in a fashion similar to fate. If you want to play a rogue or a wizard, the templates are there. It’s not so much that I’m bringing a knowledge of actual genre to the design, but creating things in a way they you can interpret whatever elements you’d like to bring to the table.
There’s also the fact that the storytelling elements are a bit more open to interpretation. That also allows you to bring actual genre knowledge to the table. A hit from a sword will do X damage, but there are also narrative complications, as in Fate. How you choose to interpret those should differ from setting to setting. What’s appropriate in a world inspired by LeGuin’s Earthsea won’t work in a campaign based on Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard series.
I think this category passes the sniff test.
Originality of Concepts in Mechanics
Edwards was remarking on the straight-across copying of D&D, with one or two tweaks made. In the Hippogryph System, you roll a d20 and apply modifiers the same way you do in pretty much all editions of D&D. You compare the total to something akin to the Ladder in Fate (which was lifted from Fudge). I’m not making bold claims to originality here.
But that’s not the point of the design. It’s meant to feel comfortable and familiar. The object is to create something fun, yet utilitarian. If you want to play a “traditional” elf ranger a la D&D, but want more of story game experience, Hippogryph does that. If you want to create a character from scratch without the limitations of classes and picklists of abilities but need a more structured play experience, Hippogryph does that, too. The originality of concept is in the philosophy of the mechanics.
At the time Edwards wrote this essay, self-publishing was vastly different. RPGNow was only a year or so old, and had no print-on-demand option. DriveThruRPG was still a couple of years off. There was no Kickstarter or Itch. I don’t think Amazon had any sort of print-on-demand function yet, and if they did it wasn’t easy to navigate. You needed to find a printer, finance a full print run, and have a place to store all of the copies. It was an investment. On top of creating a physical product, you needed to somehow market and sell the things.
My bona fides are that I’m currently in my fifth year of doing this full time. This is my day job. At the moment I have over 150 bestsellers on DriveThruRPG and a 4.6 (out of 5) publisher rating. I opted to go back and get a business degree rather than an MFA, and graduated summa cum laude. There are always new things to learn and plenty that I could do better, but on a base level I’m confident that I know what I’m doing.
Is the Hippogryph System a Fantasy Heartbreaker?
Let’s split this one down the middle. I have a critical perspective of design and business acumen. Genre’s not a factor, and while it defaults to familiar D&D tropes you can easily ignore than and create things based on your own genre knowledge and influences. The mechanics aren’t meant to be boldly original, but that’s intentional and not based on a lack of perspective or creativity.
So I’m going to say no. It’s not a fantasy heartbreaker. I know what it is, and it accomplishes what I need it to. I knew the problem I was solving for when I started, and it does exactly that. Even if it might feel like a heartbreaker on the surface, if you go a little bit deeper you will see how this system shines.
About the Hippogryph System
Hippogryph is a d20-based, story-driven tabletop fantasy roleplaying system. It is the collision of the D20 System and Fate RPG, but like the legendary creature it is more than the sum of its parts. This isn’t off-brand D&D with Fate aspects stapled on, nor is it a collection of feats, spells, and class abilities translated into Fate terms. Hippogryph is a unique system that blends established legacy fundamentals with flexible, DIY story game ideals. Info Page ¦ DriveThruRPG ¦ Our Shop
About Dancing Lights Press
Dancing Lights Press is a lo-fi publisher of tabletop roleplaying systems and system-agnostic creative aids, including the best selling Building series, the DoubleZero action thriller system, and Hippogryph, a fantasy story game system with traditional roots. Our products embrace a minimalist aesthetic in design and presentation because roleplaying is an activity, not a collection of expensive rulebooks.
- We currently have over 150 bestselling titles at DriveThruRPG!
- Major product lines are available as bundles for 20% off!
- Our most popular titles are system agnostic and work with any system or setting!