“Fantasy Heartbreaker” is a term coined by game theorist Ron Edwards back in 2002. It is, in his words, a fantasy roleplaying game that is “truly impressive in terms of the drive, commitment, and personal joy that’s evident in both their existence and in their details – yet they are also teeth-grindingly frustrating, in that, like their counterparts from the late 70s, they represent but a single creative step from their source: old-style D&D.” All of the games he goes on to describe, across two separate articles, crashed and burned. They were doomed from the start, he asserts, and that’s what breaks his heart.
Foragers Guild Fantasy Roleplaying doesn’t meet Edwards’ criteria for a fantasy heartbreaker, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t coming from the same place as those doomed games. It is a passion project that is my own take on what fantasy roleplaying could be. The blueprint is D&D for a number of reasons, the least of which is that 800 pound gorilla of a game has (teeth-grindingly, frustratingly) created expectations about what a fantasy roleplaying game ought to be.
Defining the Fantasy Heartbreaker
Edwards attributes the failure of fantasy heartbreakers to four factors:
(1) Critical perspective of the intervening history of game design
Objectively, I know that the fact I’ve been playing tabletop games since 1978 does not automatically bestow me with magical powers as a game designer. Time served is not talent, nor does it necessarily grant one insight or wisdom. I have, however, played a lot of different games over the years. I have been in long-running campaigns, which I define as lasting over a year, with at least 7 systems that are not D&D. Nor were all of them fantasy.
This, I think, addresses Edwards’ point. People who had only played D&D were trying to design “the next D&D”. For me it feels like I’ve come full circle. After playing and designing games that aren’t D&D, I’m trying to recreate it from memory. I want to capture what I loved, while fixing the things that I found (cough) teeth-grindingly frustrating.
(2) Knowledge of actual fantasy instead of gaming-fantasy
One of the advantages of being old is to have lived before certain things became bad habits. As a kid I mostly read science fiction, but I had read some fantasy prior to discovering D&D. Most of my binge-reading did occur concurrent with taking up gaming, but only part of it was focused on reading through Appendix N. I’ll also say that Dragonlance, the setting and the novels, came out at about the point my attention was shifting to other games. I think my “actual fantasy” influences, then, are purer than gaming-fantasy.
That said, I am all in with creating a gaming-fantasy style game. I’m not making any bones about it. There are other influences, like Indiana Jones movies, Disney’s Atlantis, and Brust’s Dragaera among others, but filtered through the lens of gaming-fantasy. This is where I’d cop to writing a fantasy heartbreakers, not because I lack the knowledge, but choose to be selective about using it.
(3) Originality of concepts in mechanics
When I introduce new people to roleplaying, I use systems that are simple and accessible. Fiasco is my current go-to, because people start getting creative immediately. They start interpreting the random factors and collaborating on relationships immediately. The other game I fall back on is Primetime Adventures, because most people grasp the structures and tropes of episodic television. They also groove on creating something from scratch. Mechanics are secondary, and can be introduced as needed during play.
The problem I ran into was that new players were always looking for “the funny dice”. Fiasco uses great heaping piles of d6’s. Primetime Adventures uses playing cards. Where are the polyhedrals, like in D&D? This question also comes from people who specifically didn’t want to play D&D, for various reasons both logical and irrational.
That’s why Lighthouse System is d20-based. It’s why the risk system uses other polyhedral dice instead of some other form of tokens. Sometimes the dice feel like they were shoehorned in, but it works, and perception of what a game “has to” have is the reason they’re there.
Which, I think, would still meet Edwards’ criteria of originality in concepts of mechanics. If nothing else, I’m using the polyhedral dice in a way that’s a bit different from standard d20 mechanics. It’s more of an homage to classic “roll, add, hit a target” trope.
(4) Business acumen
I know that I march to the beat of a different drummer in terms of my business model. A lot of people don’t get it. When I decided that I wanted to pursue a full-time career as a writer, though, I didn’t got back to school for an MFA. I got a business degree with an emphasis in entrepreneurship. Even though I’m a one-person operation, and no one has ever heard of me, I’ve managed to pay the bills doing nothing but this over over 3 years. That could be a whole other series of articles, but I drop it in here because Edwards recognized that a most self-publishers don’t know what to do beyond writing a game and getting it printed. Given the number of spectacular failures I’ve seen come out of Kickstarter campaigns, I’m not sure much has changed.
Am I Writing a Fantasy Heartbreaker?
I don’t think so. The people that created the games Edwards called out probably didn’t think that their babies were, either. I have no expectations that I’m writing the next big thing, though, of that I’m going to turn the heads of die-hard D&D players. There’s an article on my personal blog about why, as a creator, you’d make something for a market that already has a clear winner. I’m happy to create it because I want to, and for the people that might enjoy my take on the standard tropes.