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Designing your own Heartbreaker

Started by Jack Spencer Jr, January 18, 2003, 12:34:00 PM

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Jack Spencer Jr

The challenge of designing one's own Heartbreaker intrigues me. I've put a little thought toward it and here it is.

First of all, it's tough to consciously make a Heartbreaker. It's hard to force youself to stay within the box, you see. It's doubly hard to know where to inject the "good" parts that is part of what makes a Heartbreaker a Heartbreaker. The only way to do it really is to be honest about it. You need to think of the assumptions of what an RPG is, must be then build from there.

You may have noticed I have been saying just Heartbreakers and not Fantasy Heartbreakers. This is to allow for the various types of Heartbreakers that are no-doubt out there but we have really been paying attention. At least I haven't.

I can see this as a self-discovery exercise. Kind of like being asked to draw a picture by the therapist and you draw a pile of bloody skulls on fire and you look at the picture and wonder, what the hell is wrong with me I'm drawn bloody skulls on fire.

By making a Heartbreaker, an honest one, honest for yourself, you can see what assumptions you still retain or key upon and you can see where you need innovation by where you put in in your heartbreaker.

So who's up for it? I suggest not making a contest out of this. It's not Iron Chef but learning about yourself here.

Ron Edwards

Hi there,

I enthusiastically endorse this exercise. Not that that really ought to mean anything, but it strikes me as a great thing. Credit where it's due: Mike Holmes was the first to suggest it.



Of course /what/ really is a Heartbreaker? I mean if D&D itself were from the now generation, rather than being first would it be a Heartbreaker?

What makes Riddle of Steel /not/ a heartbreaker? What makes Arrowflight /not a Heartbreaker/?

What specifically makes one game a Heartbreaker that covers fantasy, but another game covering the same genre not one?

Ben Morgan

Just a quick question:

Could a fantasy game with:

1. A setting laid out EXACTLY as you described in Heartbreakers, Part II
2. A magic system that was somewhat the bastard love-child of Ars Magica and Palladium Fantasy Roleplaying (similar "professions" to Palladium, but magical skills instead of spell lists), all designed to fit with:
3. Basic game mechanics lifted directly from Cyberpunk 2020 (with modified Lifepath tables and no guns)

possibly be considered a Heartbreaker?

What started as an attempt to "fix" Palladium (I realized even then the futility of trying to fix something as obviously "broken" as D&D) ended up spiralling out of control. Eventually, I had to stop calling it Palladium and instead opted to call it Legend Fantasy Roleplaying, for want of a better name.

Funny thing: in actual play, the game was kinda fun, though this may be because it only lasted two sessions, during which there was almost no use of the actual mechanics at all.
-----[Ben Morgan]-----[]-----
"I cast a spell! I wanna cast... Magic... Missile!"  -- Galstaff, Sorcerer of Light


From what I've gathered so far, a Fantasy Heartbreaker consists of 2 parts.  The first part is that "Fantasy" is constrained to mean D&D style Fantasy and mechanical concepts that are based on the premises of D&D style Fantasy.  Note: mechanical concepts does not mean slavishly copying the exact mechanic but rather refers to mechanics that accomplish the same general thing.

The premises of D&D Style Fantasy as I see it are these.

1) The individual player characters form some sort of troop or party for mutual benefit whose primary goal is to seek adventure.  Often this is outside the framework of general society, but when the characters are given actual roles in society the roles are usually just excuses to adventure.

2) The individual characters will typically have specialized roles to fulfill within the party.  Whether these are functional roles like D&D's "close combat guy", "range combat guy", "sneaky guy", "healer guy", "magic guy" or takes some other form the key to effective party formation is primarily achieving an appropriate mix of specialties.

3) These individual characters must improve dramatically over time.  Character improvement is a staple of most RPGs but in these it is extreme.  Characters usually start incredibly weak and wind up (if they survive) amazingly powerful.  This seeking of power may be a test to see if the player is good enough to get his character to survive and thus earn the privilige of being mighty, but many of these games actually instruct the GM to "play fair" and avoid killing off characters too often.  Such instructions turn the "leveling up" (however that is presented mechanically) from being a purely Gamist construct to being what I consider Exploration of System, where the purpose for leveling up is simply the experience of leveling up itself.

4) The primary occupation of this party within the game is some variation on "monster bashing".  Whether the party are freebooter adventurers seeking plunder, freedom fighters opposing evil, soldiers engaged in a war against an enemy is simply different setting justificatiosn for seeking out and pitting the parties specialties against a series of challenges, usually in the form of an enemy to defeat (where the enemy could be a trap or puzzle).  Most rules of the game will focus on providing many toggles, dials, and switches for players to manipulate (such as selecting the right weapon to use) to help their characters overcome the challenge.  It is the facing of these individual challenges that are the core purpose of the parties activities.  Almost all other rules will fall into 2 categories.  a) rules that allow the GM to assess the condition of the party in so far as it will effect their ability to confront the challenges (falling damage, fatigue, encomberance, etc. are all simply ways of measuring a disadvantage the character is suffering from).  and b) rules that serve as either filler to space out challenges, or hooks to lead to challenges (tracking, various intrigue and diplomacy rules, etc).

These to me (and one could probably add a few lesser ones to the list) are what define a D&D style fantasy.  The specific mechanics really don't matter.  It doesn't matter whether character generation uses classes, or professions, or skill packages or whatever as long as the characters wind up with specific specialties (where being a generalist is also a form of specialty).  It doesn't matter whether character strength is measured in overall levels or indivdidual skill levels as long as the character's abilities increase from weany to demi-god.  It doesn't matter if the combat mechanics are wholly abstract, or strive for a wargame-like sim as long as there are plenty of choices for players to make regarding how their characters will confront the challenge.  

The Heartbreaker part comes in for me in two ways.  
1) the game never strays outside the boundaries of what defines D&D fantasy...but THINKS it does.
TROS is not a heartbreaker because it does just that.  First there is a much lower emphasis on player specialties (it is quite easy to play TROS with characters all cast on the same skill template) and lower emphasis on party play (it is also quite easy to play TROS where the PC rarely cross paths or are even enemies of each other).  In area three TROS is still fairly strongly about "leveling up" in the sense of seeking the riddle and becoming the ulimate swordsman, although the range from start to finish is not as dramatic as most D&D style games.  But primarily the difference comes in item 4.  The primary occupation of the PCs centers around their SAs.  The individual challenges they face then are not the PURPOSE of the game, but rather a way to highlight those SAs and how the character is effected by the challenge at the SA level.
Arrowflight I would say is not a Heartbreaker for a different reason, the second part of the above.  Arrowflight is very very specific about what kind of game it is and proceeds more or less with eyes wide open.  

2) One of the red flags that indicate that one may be looking at a heartbreaker are claims of "innovation" for certain concepts or mechanics where "innovation" really means "different from how D&D does it".  Many heart breakers will crow loudly about how their game is innovative because it uses skill levels instead of character levels and professions instead of classes.  Of course, OTHER games have already been doing this for decades so the mechanic isn't really innovative at all.  That the designers THINK it is can only be because their exposure to the full range of RPGs on the market is limited.  They are basing their innovations and using as a starting point and a point for comparison the single primary game they know D&D.  And compared to D&D the mechanics can certainly be different.  But as noted above the 4 primary components of D&D style gaming are stilll present.


Thought on designing a heart-breaker: Make a game that fans of the most widely played, most financially successful, most recognized RPG might enjoy playing instead.

Figure out what *you* really love about D&D style play and what *you* might like to tweak. If you don't really and deeply respect the form, I can't see any reason to try to emulate it.

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Jack Spencer Jr

Quote from: SidhainOf course /what/ really is a Heartbreaker?
What specifically makes one game a Heartbreaker that covers fantasy, but another game covering the same genre not one?
A valid question. The best way to answer it is to read the articles, of course, but I'll see about pulling out the important info as would pertain to this exercise.

Two things we can ditch right off the bat are the publishing and historical context. Neither really applies to this exercise. We aren't planning to publish nor are trying to be innovative. Also we know darn well what is innovative and what is not, right? Well, somebody does.

So that leaves the Rules aspect, which in the case of Fantasy Heartbreakers, are born out of D&D and are ment to address the percieved shortcomings to that game in that game. I guess for the purpose of this exercise it would have to focus on the rules aspect. The publishing and historical context really do not apply and the imaginative content aspect will very depending on what your Heartbreaker is. If you're to make a Vampire Heartbreaker, then talk of D&D fantasy would not be very helpful, would it?

I have a suggestion or two for those who wish to tackle this:

First of all, it has to be a game you've played a lot. I mean a real lot. It might be good if you can quote chapter and verse from it, you've played the game so much. It would probably help if you like the game. Check that, love the game. Love it to pieces. The kicker that will make it all gel is if the gild is off the lily. That there are problems with the game and you know about them and, best of all, you can fix them.

It may be harder to make a Heartbreaker other than a Fanatsy Heartbreaker. Part of what makes it work is that D&D was incoherent and the Heartbreakers make it coherent. Vampire, I'm given to understand, is fairly coherent. A Vampire heartbreaker is likely to be not much more than a patch rule or two to fix a percieved minor flaw. I mean, Vampire could use a tweak. D&D needed to be rebuilt from the ground up, right?

Anyway, there are my thoughts on it.

John Kim

It seems to me that by definition, the readers of this forum can't make a Heartbreaker per se.  

As I read it, what saddened Ron was his impression that the writers simply didn't even know of the existance of ways of role-playing other than the D&D model of adventuring (mainly in dungeons) to gain experience and become more powerful.  

Something designed by a Forge member would be something which is deliberately aimed at this goal -- like Robin Law's Rune RPG.  This might be an "old-style" RPG, but there is nothing heartbreaking about it.
- John

Shreyas Sampat

I think that in that interpretation, "a game created by a player with limited knowledge, etc., etc.", you're right.  We can't create that kind of Heartbreaker.  But we can create a different kind of Heartbreaker, the kind that's a reaction to a game, "correcting the flaws" we see in it while recognizably retaining its "signature"; what Fang would call its Genre Expectations.

And I think this is the important kind of Heartbreaker, no less.  It's the reaction that makes them valuable, not the ignorance of other styles that is among the earmarks of "classical" Heartbreakers.

Clinton R. Nixon

Quote from: John KimIt seems to me that by definition, the readers of this forum can't make a Heartbreaker per se.  
Something designed by a Forge member would be something which is deliberately aimed at this goal -- like Robin Law's Rune RPG.  This might be an "old-style" RPG, but there is nothing heartbreaking about it.

My efforts to create my own Heartbreaker today have echoed John's sentiments. While a sufficiently D&D background was easy to make*, I found myself crafting a system that completely departed from the old, using things like dice pools as resources to draw on, a mechanic called Secrets (that looked an awful lot like D&D3 Feats), and one-roll hit and damage in combat. While the game looks like fun so far - it's something I think both the average Muncie, Indiana 15-year-old and I could play together - it's definitely not naive when it comes to RPG design.

Both Paul Czege and I have shown our own Heartbreakers, created when we didn't know any better, in this forum. Pulling those up from the past and examining them is a good exercise. Creating new ones, though, as fun as it is (like Ron, I've started a notebook for this game), is harder than it would appear.


* In case you're wondering, here's the standard races and classes.

Human - of course
Vulfen - wolf-men, supreme warriors and outdoorsmen
Ratlings - sneaky little 4-foot-tall-rat-people, not evil, but generally not trusted
Elves - of course! I went a step further and declared that Elves aren't just good at magic - they are magic. Immortal, but non-reproducing and bound in stasis, they manifest themselves in our world only through the power of magic.
Dwarves - Stolen from my other Heartbreaker, the Nutcracker Prince, they're the male-only offspring of the female-only Elementals. They come in several varieties.
Goblins - little, sneaky, curious, magic-loving green people. Bizarre experimentation has resulted in a process that can change a goblin into a much larger, nastier, stupidier one called an ur-goblin, or even a dreaded bugbear or troll. While goblins aren't inherently evil, evil people round them up because they're weak and malleable.

I grew up on Rolemaster, so I took a "anyone can learn anything" approach. The main classes are Fighter, Wizard, Priest, Outlaw, Woodsman, Socialite, Craftsman, and Artist, but new classes can be created by assigning difficulty ranks to learning the skill sets. Skill sets are grouping that go with each class: for example, a Fighter might have:
Fighting - A
Arcane - C
Holy - C
Illegal - B
Outdoor - B
Social - C
Craft - B
Artist - C

Fighting skills would be the easiest for him to learn, and Craft, Outdoor, and Illegal skills would be twice as hard, with Arcane, Holy, Social, and Artist skills being twice as hard again.
Clinton R. Nixon
CRN Games

Shreyas Sampat


I, too, have been trying to write a Heartbreaker tonight.  So much harder than it looks.  Wow.  I found myself wanting to use dice-pools and explicit metagame mechanics, and heavily Colorful mechanics that are completely ...out of season?

A quick preview of mine:

Character have five basic stats, Feel / Taste / Smell / Hear / View (I chose those rather inelegant words so that they all have a different first letter; it makes for better abbreviation.)

Feel is the physical stat.
Taste is social.
Smell has to do with nature,
and Hear with intelligence and perception.
View has to do with the magical world.

Each stat has three sub-stats, having to do with "introverted", "extroverted" or "passive" applications of the ability.

There are five core races, each associated with a stat.

Dwarves are the race of Feel.
Spice elves are the race of Taste.  They're elves in a D&D way - smaller than humans, pretty rather than majestic.
Toothkin (dog-people, catfolk, lycanthropes, anything combining human and animal features) are the race of Smell.
Humans are the race of Hear.
Finally, ivory elves are the race of View.  They are elves like Tolkien meant them, tall and beautiful like moonlight on obsidian, eternal and ethereal at once.

There are other races, mostly other elvish bloodlines that appeared in the aftermath of the War of Lily Leaves.

Mike Holmes

Lest I be thought elitist or something for having made the statement, let it be known that I personally had a system that I developed for years that my friends dubbed Holmes' Universal Roll-Playing Entertainment System (or HURPES for short). Call it a "Generic Heartbreaker" for most of it's existence. Went through more changes and additions than...Traveller.

All of which is to say that I have passed that step myself the hard way. And I can now look back on that era and learn from my mistakes. But what I'm finding is that no matter what you write, you'll be getting something from it for your next effort.

And that's the point. One of the things that you can almost palpably feel when reading a Heartbreaker is the effort that went into it. Which is what makes them so heartbreaking. Basically, no painter makes a masterpiece on his first attempt. Nor should he try to do so. Doing so is largely a waste of time. Make a bad game, and do it in short order. Get it out of the way. Then maybe the next one will be better. Or maybe the next. Had I known that this was the way to do things I would have had my first reasonable game out fifteen years ago. As opposed to last year.

Perfectionism is a motherfucker.

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The first game I wrote would it have been a Fantasy Hearbreaker?

Inspired by my reading of Operation Chaos, I wrote a Modern Day FRPG--it had 7 attributes Might Agility Mana Endurance Willpower and Speed--its task resolution was a roll against attributes (3-18 range roll under on 1d20) the premise was a world like our own where magic existed, and werecritters and all that jazz, but were secrative (unlike OC where it replaces technology) and magic was "Spells per day" coupled with /player/ required reciting the spell (they weren't meant to be "real" or anything mostly nonsense style magic akin to Illusionist/Magicians) it did have "classes" but that was it and they weren't archetypes, but rather power sources-- Two magic using type (Magicians, and Sorcerers) and 2 shapehifters (Theriomorphs and Doppelganger) and two psychic  classes, (Psion, and Psychic)

Michael S. Miller

Like Mr. Holmes, mine was a Generic Heartbreaker. It was titled, arrogantly enought, "GameMaster's Choice" It was based heavily on the Shadowrun rules and consisted of two "books," each about 20 pages. The first had nothing but mind-numbing mechanics. IIRC, to figure the monetary cost of a weapon, you had to use a formula with a ton of variables in such fun combinations of "y to the xth power"

The second had my fantasy world, which tried to turn the D&D races on their ear. Elves were lying, duplicitous slavers; Lizardmen were philosophers; and Halflings had a navy of flying magical ships that had conquered half the world. I loved writing it, but it was such a waste. All I ever ran in the world in those days were dungeon crawls. God, how I hate dungeon crawls.

Looking back on it, there was nowhere to go but up.
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M. J. Young

Quote from: four willows weepingCharacter have five basic stats, Feel / Taste / Smell / Hear / View (I chose those rather inelegant words so that they all have a different first letter; it makes for better abbreviation.)
I was going to suggest Tactile, Gustational, Olfactory, Auditory, and Visual, which are a bit less awkward, provide the same meaning, and maintain the individual letters--but then it seems that the actual meanings aren't so directly related to the function, so maybe it doesn't matter.

Quote from: He thenThey are elves like Tolkien meant them, tall and beautiful like moonlight on obsidian, eternal and ethereal at once.

If this means that Tolkien's elves were taller than men, that's a misunderstanding. Tolkien's elves are described as tall and thin, but they are so described from the perspective of hobbits. There are a couple of places (the pass of Carhadras, if I recall correctly) where it is clear that the men are taller.

My wife called me on that almost a quarter century ago; she was right. Tolkien elves are shorter than men, probably pretty close to the way they're represented in D&D, at least in size.

--M. J. Young