In 2002 game designer and theorist Ron Edwards published an article titled Fantasy Heartbreakers. The crux of the article was more or less this:
Boy, there sure are a lot of games that "try to do D&D better" and while they may have an innovative element or two (or think they do due to the designer's lack of experience in the field) they (A) are more labor-of-love than a serious game and (B) don't significantly improve on D&D, overall, in a meaningless fashion. This breaks my heart.He lists a lot of games you (likely) have never heard of (Hahlmabrea, Pelicar, Darkurthe, etc.). To be fair to Ron he does suggest you play one or more of these--if only to check it out and think critically about it--and part of (or maybe all of?) his broken heart he ascribes to pity for the author(s) for producing games that will fail in the marketplace.
Fair enough, I guess.
On the other hand, as with all things RPG-theory, a huge amount of bullshit both accrued around the stated idea (i.e. people using the term X-Heart-breaker* to apply to any game they think is derivative and don't like--while claiming their dismissal is sorta 'scientifically based in theory') and, potentially, lurked behind it, unsaid (example: these games support a traditional mode of play Ron doesn't think much of. Ron's advice to play them is in an anthropological go-amongst-the-natives-and-see-their-simple-ways type of engagement. The player is expected to have a jarring time trying to play these gems).
I'm not too fond of the presentation here--largely because of the anthropological stance the articles and Ron's RPG-theory in general takes (a lot of so-called RPG-theory is used to say "we roleplay--they/you roll-play--but in fancier language).
On The Other Hand: JAGS Fantasy Heartbreaker!
I've been reading, and enjoying, Jacob Poss's FATEsy Heartbreaker series of posts. He's taking FATE and doing "everything he hates with it"--making a fiddly, complicated, fantasy game with lots of off-shoot rules and definitely sort of 'referencing' D&D as its 'source material' rather than, say, Tolkien or whatever.
Would his game qualify as one of Ron's Fantasy Heartbreakers? Ron's second article lists these requirements:
- the imaginative content is "fantasy" using gaming, specifically D&D, as the inspirational text;
- the publishing context is independently produced as a labor of love, essentially competing directly with D&D in the marketplace;
- the rules design recapitulates either D&D or innovations made immediately after D&D, i.e. early 1980s.
So, no. It isn't actually published. It doesn't 'reform D&D's rules' (it uses FATE, an entirely different system), and while I'm not sure it claims homage to D&D, the lampshading of the Heartbreaker theme means it's clearly not just ripping it off.
We've talked about doing a JAGS Fantasy Heartbreaker (and I wonder if we could get away with using that actual name without people thinking we were crazy. Probably not. We'd discussed having iconography of "broken hearts" throughout the illustrations ... )
What Would It Look Like?
The point of making a JAGS Fantasy Heartbreak (JFH) would be to mine the gonzo weirdness that was D&D--along with some of specific flavor of playing D&D (classes, levels, etc.), while still keeping some of the JAGS advantages (such as how combat works or having a skill system or whatever). In other words, it would be to try to "do D&D better."
As we'd, you know, actually publish it we could hit #1 and #2--but hitting #3 would take some work.
I also wouldn't quite be interested in copying D&D exactly--the point of making the book wouldn't be as a theory exercise--but rather playing something that gave me a similar feel while still keeping a lot of the stuff I otherwise like (this could be its own article, really).
Here are some things I'd want to try to do:
Classes -- Especially Weird Ones
I loved The Dragon (magazine's) NPC classes. You'd get an article that was clearly supposed to be a playable class but was listed as NPC only because, hey, Gygax didn't approve of it. I'd like to have something like "starting classes" and have them expand to other classes of stranger natures. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay does this well.
Maybe there could be rolls to see if certain "prestige classes" were available to a given character (even if, in the end, they were all balanced).
Leveling is an interesting pacing mechanic. You have these specific, step-wise, demarcation points where the nature of the game can change a lot or a little. Leveling up can be fun. It can drive play all by itself (your motivation is totally meta). We have played with our leveling mechanic in the 2-year-long Have-Not game and it was a riot.
Having a set of non-human races available would definitely fit the D&D mold. If you combine races and classes you get a pretty good 'pre-fabricated' character concept right out of the starting gate. Of course none of these races would be, actually, alien. After all, very few people I knew played D&D with 1st level Elfs with the same grandeur that the Lord of the Rings movies had (nor, for that matter, the competence).
Essentially everyone is mostly human with a few stereotypes blow out of proportion.
I think I'd have a set of races that were "standard" and then things you could do to get some "unusual races" (possibly including random rolls to see if they were available to you).
Random Roll Character Generation
JAGS is point-based character design--but as you can see in the JAGS Supers, it's possible to combine rolls and point-buy in interesting ways. I think having some random-roll / life-pathy type stuff at the start of the game to give you some "raw material" with which to start your character off and then have you make some character design decisions might be interesting..
Like rolls for choice of races? Some starting aptitudes?
We love detailed equipment tables. Random-roll Pole-arm creation chart? We're there. A dozen different kinds of torch and lantern? Might be too much: half-a-dozen is good. Two different kinds of 10' poles? Cool (is one collapsible). Equipment is interesting as part of a challenge: you have limited resources and need to take stuff that will get you through the dungeons--how do you do that?
Dungeons! Wacky Monsters!
The basic concept of the dungeon is genius. It combines a free-wheeling chaotic and dangerous environment with a sense of mystery and exploration. There's absolutely zero question about what your goal is, what your role is, or how to approach them. Done well it's a "sandbox" environment with a number of possible routes / decisions open at any time.
Wacky monsters can be absurd, exciting, and dangerous. A Gelatinous Cube makes no sense--but it's scary and cool. Rust Monster suck. Elementals are awesome.
Guidelines for using existing web-based dungeon generation tools are a must: random dungeons are great (especially "to start with"--and then the GM can customize them and add specific cool stuff).
Remember that "mini-game" in Gamma World where you rolled to figure out items? I could see something like that for magic items. I'd like to see a mini-game where you actually rolled for treasure itself (possibly where players could spend their character's Success Points to change rolls!).
When you find a horde you determine its age and you know the bad-ass rank of the monster. So you start rolling: for each 'age' the monster accrues treasure based on its kills. The treasure (especially magical treasure) has a lot of stuff about the world encoded into it.
So when you find a haul, you break out the tables and flow-chart and dice up some treasure. Maybe there could be a player-based element of gambling as well ...
I'd probably deploy the JAGS Critical Wound rules (where you can mitigate a damage effect or even actual DP-loss by choosing to roll on a "permanent damage table"--so if you took a Dying result you could roll on a table and get "Lose an Eye" and that would take the place of losing your character.
I think there are other optional rules that we might use as well (lower Initiative for wearing armor?).
One of the reward systems JAGS has is Success Points. If you could get SPs for "acting within your Alignment" that might drive some interesting play. Especially if we could come up with weird or clever alignments (maybe 'subheadings' under the major ones) that could help drive some fairly strange or funny behavior (Chaotic Annoying: Scold. You get a SP for any scene where-in you scold another PC or Named NPC for 'not doing it right.').
Who Would Play This?
Well, us, of course. The point here though isn't that "I want to play D&D--but just use some other system--" but rather that D&D did, in essence, a lot of things right. Taking those things to heart--even if we modify them somewhat in translation or change them more to our taste--is a best practice.
And one other thing: the (currently hypothetical) JAGS Fantasy Heartbreaker wouldn't be a non-serious game. Our Have-Not game had "Success Points" as floating spinning coins, bizarre nonsensical dungeons, really weird monsters, levels, classes (we could not 'equip and use' the Emperor's Sword-Guns despite being able to pick them up), and so on. There was more than a little meta-gaming going on there. But we had a serious, engaging, satisfying adventure anyway.
* JAGS has been called a GURPS Heartbreaker. It totally is--but it was a Hero Heartbreaker first, eh?