Wednesday, February 22, 2006

What is a 'Fantasy Heartbreaker' ?


This is the third in a series of shorter articles that will hopefully bring newer designers up to speed on the kinds of expectations I have for this blog and those who help in the Design forum on the Forge have for new games.

As if Traditional Games wasn’t a controversial enough topic, I thought I’d talk about Heartbreaker games next. ;-D In case you haven’t read it yet, please check out the Universal Disclaimer explained here in This Article.

Talking about Heartbreakers can be a very touchy subject, but I feel it is very appropriate to bring it up here at Socratic Design. I mentioned them slightly back here when I talked about how people misuse the term in a mean-spirited way. I’ll cover that slightly again here, but it’s probably good background reading for this article. For additional reading, I highly recommend reading Ron Edward’s articles Fantasy Heartbreakers and More Fantasy Heartbreakers. I’ll give him the credit of coining the terms originally, but it was never his intent that the term would become a hammer to insult and hurt fledgling designers.

The first part of my article, I’m going to split into two parts. First, what is a Heartbreaker not?
- It’s not an illegitimate design
- It’s not a game unworthy of publication
- It’s not a sign of stupidity
- It’s not a sign of uncreative designing

A natural follow-up question would then be, “Well, what are Fantasy Heartbreakers?”
- They try to fix another game
- They are sometimes a gold mine for game ideas
- They are one Entry Point to game design
- They often try to capture a “feeling” of some kind
- They tend to follow the pattern of a Traditional Game
- They are often really fun to play
- They are rarely long lived

It is that last point I’d like to talk about in more detail. By its very nature, a Heartbreaker is like another game (IE, that’s a part of its definition). Some have taken that to be an insult, but it’s not really. That’s just an observation of what a Heartbreaker is. As a result of being like another game already in print, the Heartbreaker is in competition with the game it emulates for attention (not talking about sales here). Heartbreaker or not, a fantasy RPG will immediately be compared to DnD, Runequest, Palladium, or Rolemaster. A horror game will be measured against Call of Cthullu or Vampire. Sometimes those comparisons will lead to the conclusion that the game is not like those. Such is the case with games like The Burning Wheel, The Riddle of Steel, and Sorcerer. Sometimes those comparisons lead one to see redundancy.

Redundancy is one of the most potent enemies of game design. Reasons are many. First, gamers are sometimes lazy. The effort it takes from them to learn a new system that invokes a lot of the same experiences and sensations of play isn’t worth it to them. They’ll just stick with whatever they’re playing right now. Second, some gamers are very territorial. They see any game that is similar to their pet game as a threat. Any challenge to their view of the way games ought to be they take as a personal attack. See just about any Palladium thread on RPGnet. Third, creativity and originality are qualities of any kind of writing that are held in high regard. Something that’s new and unique tends to be something that draws interest. “Newness” appeals to a certain type of gamer who finds pleasure in trying something completely different from all his other play experiences.

Unfortunately, a Heartbreaker game appeals to none of these groups. Those stuck in a rut or protecting their rut won’t be willing to try something new. Those who only try something new won’t see enough reason to go for a Heartbreaker. Therefore, before a Heartbreaker even gets released, there is already a hostile environment waiting to receive it, bash it, and reject it. Before long, a designer will get discouraged and the updates to his website will falter and soon the game will pass into the annals of John H. Kim’s RPG history file.

But emulation of another game is only one aspect of a Heartbreaker and by itself, really doesn’t a Heartbreaker make. There is a second, more vital ingredient that will tag a game a Heartbreaker. So where does the real Heartbreak come from? It comes not so much in the design, but in the publication.

All too frequently (see the examples in Ron’s essay and in my own life), the Heartbreakers that make it past the design phase into publication are done so at a high cost to the designer(s). They look into printing (traditional or POD), compare prices, and find the best cost per book ratio they can. Unfortunately, that is usually in the hundreds or thousands of copies which is often way beyond their ability to sell. They’ll say, “Wow! Loot at the deal we’ll get if we order 2,000 books!” Those books will end up just sitting in a storage facility somewhere collecting dust as the reality of things sets in.

That reality being an indie publisher would absolutely kill to sell 1,000 copies of a book a year, let alone 2,000. That reality being distributors are impossible to deal with, pay little and pay late. That reality being there just aren’t ravenous RPG fans out there dying for the yet another fantasy/sci-fi/superhero/vampire game.

The real Heartbreak is that these good designers end up sinking a ton of money into a project they dearly love and put a lot of honest work into only to find out they bought into a lie. That lie being game stores want their product, distributors serve their customers not their own bottom line, and everyone can have the same success John Wick did with Orkworld.

It is far better to start with a small print run of like 200 books rather than one ten times that size. Or even better, IMHO, is to start by selling the game on pdf through places like RPGNow and DriveThru RPG. See what the initial reaction there is to the game and then use that money to help fund hard copies and point out areas that need revision.

So, should we avoid designing Heartbreakers? In a way I’d say yeah. I know the temptation is there. I feel it all the time. If it’s your first game and you don’t plan on spending much if any money on it, then hey it’s totally cool. Count me in to give you feedback on your design. But my own sincerest advice is to direct your creative energies in another direction. Go for something more original and new. Then come back later and examine a Heartbreaker type design.

It’s possible that someone reading this believes I’m a cynic. That I believe only certain kinds of games deserve to be published and RPGs that don’t follow my prescription are doomed to failure. Nothing could be further from the truth. I will defend every person’s right to publish whatever game their want. I have walked in the Heartbreaker’s shoes, and I have great empathy for them.

My purpose, in this article, is to warn my fellow designers about the pittraps of making a Heartbreaker. It’s a hard, hard road to walk. And I wouldn’t want anyone to have to live with the sort of guilt I’ve had to deal with.




David Chunn said...

My wife has a saying. Paraphrased: "The first novel you write will in large part mimic the novels that amazed you when you were a kid, probably during junior high. You've got to get it out of your system before moving on."

Looking at her first novel and mine, I'd have to agree. In fact, I'd say that my second novel is an answer to a mode that jazzed me during high school. Only the third novel begins to break out.

I think it's true in game design as well. It's a normal process many people need to go through to break through that initial mode that inspired them. There's nothing wrong with it as long as they understand what it is and don't overcommit themselves which is always a danger in self-publishing.

Troy_Costisick said...


That's a very appropriate insight, David. And I can see a direct corrolation there. The main thing I want to stress, as you did, is to not sink your life savings into producing your first RPG especially one that mimics or tries to fix an RPG already in print. Learn the process first, then make a more informed decision.



jhkim said...

Can you give some examples? Your definition of Heartbreaker seems broader than Ron's. He has a three-point definition along with 12 examples. (It's summed up on the Theory Topics Wiki "Fantasy Heartbreaker entry.)

I think there's room for incremental designs which "fix" other designs. If you read the author's description, Tunnels & Trolls was Ken St. Andre's attempt to "fix" D&D. More recently, Iron Heroes is a popular take-off from D&D3. (Neither appeal to me, but they've been well received elsewhere.)

I think the main thing is not to ruin your livelihood making a risky print run. But I think trying to refine and improve can be a good approach, especially if you're trying to refine a game which hasn't been done to death.

Troy_Costisick said...


Can you give some examples?

-Come to GenCon this year. You'll see plenty.

I think the main thing is not to ruin your livelihood making a risky print run.

-That's the main thing I hope everyone takes away from this article.

But I think trying to refine and improve can be a good approach, especially if you're trying to refine a game which hasn't been done to death.

-Good examples: The Shadows of Yesterday and Dogs in the Vineyard. All kinds of designers, including myself, are mining these for ideas. Not a thing wrong with it either. So long, that is, they don't sink their life savings into it :)