Fantasy heartbreaker is a loaded term. People have had long debates over what Ron Edwards meant when he coined the term, as opposed to what the text of his essay actually said. This is in contrast to the way people have chosen to interpret the term, usually to support their own point of view on some aspect of game design. The fact that he coined it in 2002, based on what was true then, means that not all of it is exactly relevant today, even though the term keeps being used. Which is why I feel the need to define, up front, the way that I’m using the term here.
A fantasy heartbreaker is, at its point of origin, a game that’s essentially the designer’s good faith attempt to reimagine Dungeons & Dragons. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. There are a ton of games out there that do it astonishingly well. Not every “old school” game is a fantasy heartbreaker, though. Nor is every retro-clone. There’s a second component. The designer was so confident in their creation that they bet the farm publishing it. They lacked awareness of the market, of their own efficacy, of the basic principles of game design. They’re heartbreakers because they did not change the world the way the designers thought they would, even when elements of those games were fun, innovative, and inherently good.
Be a Copycat
No matter what sort of creative work you do, we all started out copying someone else’s stuff. Fact. My wife the art teacher will validate that. As kids, we start out drawing the anime and comics characters we like. Writers emulate their favorite author. Game designers house rule the mechanics they enjoy playing. Engineers take stuff apart to see how it works. That’s always been the process of human curiosity and creativity.
I don’t think Edwards was advocating against that. What I think he was saying, what I’m saying, is be aware of what you’re doing. Know the level you’re operating at. He was talking about the state of games publishing in the 90s, so I think we’re all a lot more savvy now. I don’t think that anyone publishing through the DMs Guild thinks they’re a top-tier designer, or that they’re going to be rich and famous. People running Kickstarters in 2019 have the wreckage of oh so many crowdfunding failures to show them what to avoid, in addition to all of the successes they can try to emulate.
The way you get good at anything is to practice. Copying is part of that practice. Learn how things work. Try things out. Be willing to fail — but mitigate the risk. Create new material for your favorite games. Write up house rules for your group, and share them online. Then, when you’ve got confidence that you know what you’re doing, start writing that original game.