by Ron Edwards
Copyright March 2002, Adept Press
People who have known me for a while, and especially those who've read Sorcerer & Sword, know of my life-long devotion to fantasy - and my nearly as life-long loathing of what has happened to most of it over the past two decades. Without going into further detail regarding the background, any fantasy role-playing game is subject to dark, personal, and not especially friendly scrutiny from me. Frankly, they usually induce teeth-gnashing, cries of rage, and pages of scrawling, in very tiny letters, in a spiral-bound notebook.
So combine this with the facts that many would-be hopeful role-playing games are fantasy, or "fantasy" anyway, and that I am dedicated to the cause of creator ownership and publishing one's own vision ... and you can probably see the pickle I'm in. On the one hand, I'm in agony when faced with another elfy-dwarfy deal, and on the other, I'm saying, "Publish your dream, go, go, go."
Fortunately, it all gets better when I take a step back and think historically. I can be sympathetic this way. Imagine a role-player who learned of "fantasy" through Dungeons and Dragons. I can be a half-orc, he says. So what's an orc? Think of him having fun breaking doors, confronting the beholder, or running his fingers over the minotaur illustration in the Monster Manual. And sooner or later, he says, I'm tired of these rules or arguing about this or that. Let's do it this way. And sooner or later after that, he and his friends say, this way is way better. Wow, we wrote a game! Maybe we can publish it too, like Gary did.
In the late 70s, this wasn't unreasonable. By the early 90s, though, things were considerably different. This essay is about some 1990s games I'm calling "fantasy heartbreakers," which are 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. And unlike those other games, as such, they were doomed from the start. This essay is basically in their favor, in a kind of grief-stricken way.
Perhaps it's no big deal. Perhaps just getting into print and being on the shelves was all that their authors wanted. Perhaps I'm just a big meanie for expecting more (1) critical perspective of the intervening history of game design, (2) knowledge of actual fantasy instead of gaming-fantasy, (3) originality of concepts in mechanics, and (4) business acumen.
But then I look at the games, and I see some common features that lead me to think that their respective publications were not, after all, only about "seeing it in print." Nearly all of them include text that can described as "outreach," or a deliberate attempt not only to present but to enlighten the reader about the self-perceived innovations. Many have helpful accessories, like disks with programs for character creation or "idea cards" for players and GMs. Several had spunky websites with all sorts of memberships and services and brave mission statements, but whose update-intervals grew longer and longer. And considering when most were published, before most printers changed their policies regarding small print runs, print costs must have been enormous, in the $6000-plus category for standard paperbacks. Some of the games contain cardstock inserts, too. Vanity is vanity, sure, but we are not talking about small sums.
So what's the point of the essay? For once, my issue has nothing to do with GNS. All of these games are solidly nested in Simulationist (Setting), Gamist, or Gamist/Simulationist baskets, and most of them are quite coherent. For once, I'm talking about content, what some call "genre," and the means of generating it through the mechanics of play. So screw GNS, let's talk about something else. Cue videotape.
Fifth Cycle - 1990, Shield Laminating, by Robert Bartels
Hahlmabrea - 1991, Sutton Hoo Games, by Dan Fox.
Of Gods and Men - 1991, Non Sequitur Productions, by Jeffrey Konkol
Darkurthe: Legends - 1993, Black Dragon Press, by Matthew Yaro and Colin Murcray
Legendary Lives - 1993, Marquee Press, by Kathleen and Joe Williams
Neverworld - 1996, Foreverworld Books, by Erin Laughlin
Pelicar - 1996, Pharoah Games, by Lewis Nicolls (one of six listed authors, possibly the primary)
Forge: Out of Chaos - 1998, Basement Games Unlimited, by Mike, Paul, and Mark Kibbe
Dawnfire - 2000, Dawnfire Games/ Committed Comics, by Jason Marin
All of these are indisputably independent: the author, the imprint, the company, and the publisher are all the same person or small group of persons.
Part One: Aaarrrghh!
Let's take the most painful aspect of these games first - not one of them demonstrates a shred of critical perspective regarding role-playing techniques. The authors played Old D&D, and their decisions about their games demonstrate a perfect salad of patch rules, unquestioned assumptions, and touted "innovations" that induce migraine, all founded on this single template.
For instance, let's look at this weapons list from Dawnfire: Bill-Guisarme ... Flail, Flail (horseman's), Glaive, Guisarme, Halberd .... Lasso, Lucern Hammer ... Trident, Voulge ...
Just rolls trippingly off the tongue, doesn't it? (For those of you who are wondering what I'm talking about, we older role-players memorized the weapons-list in the 1978 Player's Handbook through sheer concentration and fascination, such that its cadences took on a near-catechistic drone.) Same goes for armor in these games; it's like a chant: padded, leather, studded, ring, chain, banded, splinted, half-plate, field plate, full plate ...
That's a mere detail, however, compared with the other evidence that AD&D, vintage Numero Uno, provided not only the model, but the only model for these games' design - to the extent of defining the very act of role-playing. Metagame mechanics are conspicuously absent, with the exceptions noted later. In Hahlmabrea and in Fifth Cycle the status of "adventurer" is an in-game licensed social role. NeverWorld provides a painfully complex, self-help-group-like personality system which fundamentally becomes the same-old alignment system. In Forge: Out of Chaos, the very notion of doing anything that isn't treasure-seeking in a dungeon is completely foreign - its section "Breaking Open Portals" is predicated on (a) finding treasure (b) in a dungeon, with no reference to the concept that doors might exist for any other reason or play any other sort of role in an imaginary situation. The list of such things goes on and on.
Not that all the games are alike in their perspective on this act. Hahlmabrea makes a fair effort to get away from loot-and-murder role-playing, although its means to do so are questionable at best ("The council says you oughtn't and they'll kill you if you do", which to me reads, "Don't get caught"). Forge: Out of Chaos, on the other hand, is gleefully honest about looting and murdering as a way of life, or rather, role-playing. Nor are they all alike in tone. Dawnfire and Legendary Lives are zesty and kind of funny, whereas Neverworld is dreamy and pop-psychological, and Pelicar and Of Gods and Men are deadly earnest. But the acts and concerns of role-playing, for each of these games, is exactly the same.
The tender-hearted readers probably consider me to be pretty mean at this point. "But what's wrong with that?" they ask.
Consider: each of these games is alike regarding the act of role-playing itself. The point of play is being an adventurer who grows very powerful and might die at any time, and all context and judgment and outcomes are the exclusive province of this guy called the GM (or whatever), case closed. They precisely parallel what AD&D role-playing evolved into during the early 1980s. Each of these games is clearly written by a GM who would very much like all the players simply to shut up and play their characters without interfering with "what's really happening." They are Social Contract time bombs.
Finally, the last painful thing. Check out the self-perceived "innovations," like these listed on the back of Forge: Out of Chaos.
Select proficiencies such as Final Blow, Field Repair, Assassination, Mounted Combat, and Blind Fighting! [AD&D2, late 80s] No more arbitrary experience points! The more you use a skill, the better you get! [RuneQuest, c. 1977] Realistic combat mechanics! Armor that can be destroyed! [The Fantasy Trip, 1980] Two separate defensive values! [(Sigh) Champions, 1980]
The same applies to just about all the noted innovations - the spell paths in Fifth Cycle are straight out of Rolemaster, for instance, and Hahlmabrea's magic crystals are straight out of RuneQuest.
Part Two: Hmmm!
All right, now for some interesting details ... these are neither painful nor wonderful, just some other notions or features that pertain to this set of games as a historical and conceptual group.
The art represents exactly the same blend throughout each book: a few fine pieces, a few real stinkers, and the majority being frankly boring in both subject and skill (grinning goblins, elfy player-characters looking like actors in a B-movie, etc). What I do like is that many of the books sport illustrations by the game authors themselves, for which I forgive a great deal of technical lack of expertise. I just like the idea of a person writing a game and illustrating it.
But back to design. Some interesting patterns show up in terms of differences from old D&D.
Those randomized attribute systems deserve a closer look, as they are almost all incredibly baroque. With one exception, the attributes are to be rolled in order, and all of them include extensive racial modifiers as well.
It fascinates me how far some of these go, especially in combination with the bizarre math necessary to derive the secondary attributes. For instance, in Pelicar, double the Reflex score, add some points based on Reflex value (from a table), and add the profession modifier (itself multipled by character level), to derive the character's touch defense - which is what armor increases, during play. This example is typical of the complexity of derived attributes across most of these games.
Very, very few of them have much in the way of metagame mechanics. Player-called miracles come into Pelicar, similar (and randomized) Divine Power Cards play a small role in Of Gods and Men, and Dawnfire's Luck attribute qualifies, as does Hahlmabrea's secondary attribute Luck, much less significantly (it starts at about 2%). However, with one major exception (below), the kind of player-character separation inherent in metagame mechanics is not philosophically recognized in these games at all.
Part Three: Wow!
And now, at last, those things which astound and fascinate me about the games ... although I have to start with the fact that few of these things seem to have been well-understood by the authors as innovations, at least not to the extent that they deserve.
The basic notion is that nearly all of the listed games have one great idea buried in them somewhere. It's perhaps the central point of this essay - that yes, these games are not "only" AD&D knockoffs and hodgepodges of house rules. They are indeed the products of actual play, love for the medium, and determined creativity. That's why they break my heart, because the nuggets are so buried and bemired within all the painful material I listed above.
Some examples include the exceptionally fun randomized "life-path" creation in Legendary Lives, which granted was first presented to role-playing by Cyberpunk, but here takes on a spritely, fun quality. I would very much like to play the cultist Draco character I produced using this method, without reservation, and I have a clear image of his highly prized, rather sporty scarf. (A Draco fire-conjurer with an ascot! I mean it, it worked.) This game also sports the "semi-diceless system," which is to say, all rolls are made by players against target numbers, which I have praised highly regarding The Whispering Vault, published some years later. I rather like the setting in Of Gods and Men, and Forge: Out of Chaos is irresistibly honest about itself; I almost feel as if I'd played with the authors just by reading the book.
Finally, I want to tell you about some magic systems, specifically that they are, in some cases, outright amazing. It's not surprising, really, given that the D&D magic system rots. [Cue large number of protests and excuses; cue counter-arguments; end.] But the neat thing is that these games do not simply recapitulate the magic-system solutions produced in the contemporaries of D&D at all, as they do with combat systems. Instead, they provide genuine innovation. Here, a tremendous number of author-power and metagame elements start to appear.
My frustration with these real and impressive innovations is this: why not center the game specifically around the actual innovation, playing to the strength as it were? Dawnfire at least does so with its Flow in setting terms, but the true power of the bullshitting system is still buried under a huge formal spell list, not to mention the overwhelming mass of D&D-based assumptions and imitations (the creature list in this game is embarassingly derivative, for instance). Of Gods and Men tries to do it with its Divine Power Cards, but they get quickly outweighed by the "traditional" magic system; the far more sophisticated system in Darkurthe: Legends is similarly presented as secondary. Speaking strictly as a practioner, if the innovations in magic system of any of the five games listed above had been dusted off and made the core of a powerful Premise (of whatever GNS category), the game would have been a triumph of role-playing power and quite possibly extremely influential.
Part Four: Business and marketing
It is killing, just killing, to contemplate the authors' naivete about the actual market and nature of RPGs as a business. Consider their status from the perspective of the three-tier system of marketing. As fantasy games, they were competing with TSR. As "lines," they were competing not only with TSR but also with such aggressive line-developers as White Wolf, AEG, and FASA (at the time). As lower-budget labors of love, they offer neither the coffee-table degree of glitz as single objects, nor the promise of multiple sequential objects, that the bigger companies presented.
So economics is the second reason that these games break my heart: basically, they were and are doomed. The world of the 1990s was no longer a place in which a house-rules variant of D&D can take wings in the marketplace and fly. They're dead. The older ones' websites are fading or absent, and the books are in the half-off boxes. I very much fear that the more recent ones will go the same way.
Why? Because they are not selling direct to end-users, they are selling to the tiers. A limited presence in stores via "slush-fund" ordering is the best they can hope for, meaning no in-store sales or even recognition of their presence. And even if they get to end-users, their aggressively retro mode of play and presentation cannot compete with those games which defined that mode of play and command the loyalty of those who value it. In terms of the tiers, these games are what define small press: imitative game design, low-budget presentation, and minimal customer interest. To the retailer of the 1990s, such a game is not re-ordered, even if it sells.
Part Five: What's it to Us? This is What
These are indie role-playing games. Their authors are part of the Forge community, in all the ways that matter. They designed their games through enjoyment of actual play, and they published them through hopes of reaching like-minded practitioners. It is not fair to dismiss the games as "sucky" - they deserve better than that, and no one is going to give them fair play and critical attention unless we do it. Sure, I expect tons of groan-moments as some permutation of an imitative system, or some overwhelming and unnecessary assumption, interferes with play. But those nuggets of innovation, on the other hand, might penetrate our minds, via play, in a way that prompts further insight.
Let's play them. My personal picks are Dawnfire and Forge: Out of Chaos, but yours might be different. I say, grab a Heartbreaker and play it, and write about it. Find the nuggets, practice some comparative criticism, think historically.
Get your heart broken with me.