Sunday, March 20, 2011

High Hopes and Broken Hearts

No, the title of this post isn't the name of a new romance-themed RPG...

James Raggi is nearing completion of a new edition of his awesome old-school game, and he recently posted a blog entry titled "I Want You to Make LotFP Weird Fantasy Role-Playing Your Regular Game." He acknowledges that one doesn't see that level of self-promotion in our (D.I.Y., often anti-corporate) hobby all that often, and I admit to raising an eyebrow when I first saw the title. But his products are very high-quality, and this post has generated lots of feedback about how he can improve his product. If anyone deserves to have a product shoot to the top of popular consciousness, it's Raggi.

However, this post isn't really about Raggi or LotFP. It's about a light bulb that went off above my head when I read that blog entry. My thought: "Oh, maybe this is what people who use the term 'fantasy heartbreaker' think we all want to have happen with our DIY games!"

For those who may not have heard this term before, "fantasy heartbreaker" was coined by Ron Edwards in this article (see also sequels on that web page) as a term for fan-produced games that:
  1. The authors (may) harbor dreams of hitting it big, selling millions of copies, and becoming the Next Big Thing in the hobby.
  2. There isn't all that much innovation in the game, which often is just a set of house rules for D&D or another major-market game. It may have one or two interesting new ideas in it, but it may not highlight or make the most of these ideas.
Edwards called these games "teeth-grindingly frustrating," and often "doomed from the start." Now, those words were written almost a decade ago, and there may have been a lot of evolution over at the Forge that I'm not aware of... but I still see the term used a lot.

To put it bluntly, I think it's time to declare the end of the era of the fantasy heartbreaker. This is a term whose time is past!  :-)  The internet is shattering old definitions of business success, information scarcity, and what "amateurs" can do at such a fast pace (see the work of Clay Shirky, for example) that I think that such a designation makes no sense any more.

Specifically, I think that the fraction of game (or book, or music) creators who are doing it for commercial success is shrinking rapidly. That model may have been the default in the 1990s, but it's not now. In my own case, the Homebrew '82 system has grown out of my own desire to create the system that I'd most like to run myself. Here's the current draft of the relevant paragraph from the introduction to the rulebook:
Many introductions to old-school RPGs often discuss why the creator decided to create yet another new way to enjoy our classic hobby. Some people have problems with specific rules and feel the need to tweak or “fix” them. Some people want to create commercial products and make money, and others want to provide open-source platforms so that others can create the next generation of gaming material. My own reason for creating this game is simply that I found the process immensely enjoyable! It has given me a chance to revisit something that meant a lot to me when I was younger, and it also satisfied a desire to play around with rules systems and assemble them into something new. I have tried to rethink many aspects of traditional RPG rules, but I’m sure that I’ve ended up “reinventing the wheel” in many, many areas. Anyway, if only one person reading this finds something even minimally inspiring or useful, then it has been worth it.
Of course, as I said above about LotFP, there's nothing wrong with jumping into the for-profit publishing field. Matt Finch did a recent series of posts on the "commercialization" of the OSR that summarizes many important issues that would-be sellers should think about. I just think it's a different world than that of the 1990s-era "heartbreaker," and our terminology should reflect that.

In remittance for the above opinionated blah blah, here's some Joesky tax -- A draft of the melee weapon table for Homebrew '82:
Not incredibly innovative, true, but I like that just about every weapon does a unique range of damage.  The weight categories (from extra light [XL] to extra heavy [XH]) are connected to limitations based on both strength and class.

1 comment:

  1. Good post, and true. I also think that the era of the 'Heartbreaker' is over. Your reasons for this are that a) we publish for other fans and friends, not to 'change the world', and b) that the innovations (if any) in our games is explicitly the result of personal preference, not an attempt to be original for the sake of the medium. I would also like to mention something Edwards himself brings up in the article, that the 'patch rules' of many of these games proceed from an attempt to 'fix' certain aspects of the game without proceeding from base principles. I think that the OSR is actually characterized by an enthusiastic desire to grasp those basic principles of our favorite games and explore their possibilities, rather than the kind of random attempts to fix things we don't like about a game without realizing why they are there or what we really want from our gaming experience. Thanks!