Tuesday, 19 August 2014

My Fantasy Heartbreak

Hello World,

Fantasy Heartbreaker. A term you may or may not have heard in tabletop RPG design. This term often refers to a system in which the author draws heavy influence from an already established RPG, most notably dungeons & dragons or Pathfinder. While as a concept it isn't necessarily bad, it is often loathed by the designer community as a whole. This is because designers see a nugget of innovation and new ideas at the center of these systems, but they are hidden behind walls of unnecessary or inappropriate rules. These additional layers convolute the game and draw focus away from what the game does really well. Designers and gamers see the great potential that the system had, but through poor execution and lack of diverse playtesting the game comes off as a cheap knock off.  This is why it is referred to as a heartbreaker, because it breaks the hearts of those who read it.

You may be thinking to yourself that if these rules and mechanics only hinder the game, why would any designer put them in their game to begin with? Well the answer is simple, because the design hasn’t played enough. They have this preconceived notion that in order for an RPG to be an RPG its needs all the standard things we see in games like DnD. Weapon and armor tables, fall damage, lists of traps and monsters, levels, attack and damage bonuses, ect. When in actuality a game requires none of these to be a game. If you’re making a game that tries to capture the tension and intensity of a courtroom, then a system in which you roll 1d20+skill may not be the best way to go. In this courtroom system it may be better to make the major modifiers the actual arguments and evidence that the players bring forward. Or possibly have no rolls at all, as players debate their case, have the GM keep track of the jury’s stance. Every time a compelling piece of evidence comes up, have 1 jury member sway in favor of the players. I could go on all day like this, but rather than bore you with this fictional court room system I will get to my point. There is no one way to make a game work.  There are many different ways to tackle the same problem in any design scenario. I encourage designers to go out there and play, read and learn as many systems as they can get their hands on. The larger the breadth of knowledge you have and the more resources you have to draw from. The better off your game will be.

Another type of Fantasy heartbreak, comes from one of the biggest traps new game designers fall into. Improving an already existing game. A lot of people who try their hand at game design start with the lofty goal of trying to improve upon their favorite system. I am sure you have seen this type of system before with promises of “Pathfinder with a more diverse and flexible magic system” or “D&D without being bogged down with all the number crunching”. At their heart these designs may have good ideas, but by being grounded in an already existing system it doesn't play at its best and feels like a Frankenstein of mechanics. If the designer instead chose to grow their system around its core concept the system could have been designed to deliver that experience in the best possible way.

Truth be told this is a subject that is very personal to me as I am currently struggling with it for my own system. I have a core concept which I think is very interesting and novel, but because of my inexperience I am unable to find the best way to execute it. Rather than going further and releasing a system that I am unhappy with, I have decided to take a good hard look at what I have and understand how every mechanic helps deliver the game that I want people to play. By taking this step back and looking at how to best deliver on my core aesthetic I was able to cut away rules which were only in the game because I had seen them in other systems. This has caused me to cut a chunk of the mechanics from my game. Now missing some key components I look to play, read as many systems as possible. Hunting for that spark of inspiration that will make me think about my problems from a different perspective.

Edit: Troy Costisick wrote a great article on what to do if you game is becoming a Fantasy Heart Breaker. If you are interested you can find that article HERE

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Thanks for reading.

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