Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Obscure Games: Fantasy Wargaming, Part Eight

The series began here.

It's always disheveled maidens
that dragons want, isn't it?
The final chapter of Fantasy Wargaming is the list of "monsters, magical beings, and general fauna". This chapter has been roundly criticized, and for once I agree with many of the criticisms. The monster listings lack many vital details (how much damage an Alphyn does with "tooth and claw" is never stated, for instance, nor is the damage of any other creature listed), the creatures chosen are strangely idiosyncratic to the point of near uselessness, important creatures for the period are ignored (where, for instance, is the schrat?) while obscurities are elevated in importance (the two-bodied lion? really?), etc. On the other hand, though, some of the creatures listed are evocative or at least amusing (this was the first place that I ever heard tell of the bonnacon). There's a surfeit of Celtic critters, which as I have noted previously is sort of odd given the lack of interest in the Celtic context that would make such monsters comprehensible.

One of the places I disagree most strongly with FW is in the matter of how to handle damage. Since a character in the game has "hit points" equal to his Endurance, but Endurance has other functions, we end up seeing such ridiculous things as dragons with a mere 25, in relation to a typical human with about 10 or so. I'd consider a change in which the size of a creature affects the final hit point total, rather than stringently relying on the Endurance rating.

And that's it. I could comment on each monster entry specifically, but I won't bother. Instead, I'll spend the rest of this entry discussing the game as a whole.

Obviously, I like it. Or, rather, I think that there is one of the greatest fantasy games around hiding underneath its rather rough presentation. The treatment of magic and religion was ahead of its time, and in my opinion has never been equaled. Mage: The Ascension, to choose one notable example, played with the same ideas, but clothed them in a game system that was, at best, difficult for the average Referee (or "Storyteller") to use effectively. It was one of the first roleplaying games to present mass combat rules in conjunction with the main rules (as I recall, only Chivalry & Sorcery preceded it in this, though one could make a case for D&D, if Chainmail is considered). It was arguably the first roleplaying game that took pains to lay out the reasoning behind most of the design decisions (much of the first half of the book could be seen as "designer's notes" explaining the game). It integrated fairly sophisticated personality mechanics before such now-classic games as Pendragon, and well before modern, well-received games like The Burning Wheel or The Riddle of Steel. It developed the "black box" table mechanic that would become fashionable in game design for a brief period, and which powers such classic games as Chill, James Bond 007, or, especially, Marvel Super Heroes. It is, as far as I know, the first game to treat gods and other spiritual powers as individuals with goals and personalities.

But. The game's design team was very inexperienced at writing rules, and they did not understand the value of playtest or development, and it shows. There are terrible mechanical ideas (such as the need to roll dice in order to find out on which column to roll more dice to determine success), cumbersome record-keeping (the Piety Point system being only the worst offence), inexplicable omissions (a character can learn to sing, but not to play an instrument, for example, there is no unarmed combat permitted, apparently, and as mentioned monsters and animals are not provided with a measure of appropriate damage), unnecessary sexism (while an attempt to portray women as the middle ages saw them is, perhaps, defensible, the mechanics used to do so are not - for instance, by the rules, there are fewer women born to high social status fathers, and in fact emperors can't have daughters at all! Go ahead and do the math; never mind that there are more Pisces slaves than any other sign, or that Aries nobles outnumber Scorpios*). The claim of historical accuracy has holes, as well, since there were occasional medieval Christians who studied Cabala, but the game artificially limits that study to Jews and Muslims. Weapon damage is odd in practice, as a dagger does more damage than a sword at high Physique levels. For that matter, as noted above, there are problems with the specific number of hit points allowed to various characters and creatures.

There are matters of presentation that could use fixing, as well. I've noted that the lists of factors should be listed by category rather than by factor and that major sections should be set off more noticeably. I'd, personally, revise the personality factors so that they represent virtues rather than vices ("Chastity" instead of "Lust", for instance), which would occasion only minor changes to the rules. A more clear order of play should be presented, so that the Referee has more guidance for how a roll once a day for minor complaints should function, or how to give the daily Piety Point bonus fairly.

Implied sections of the game are missing. Since there are rules for mass combat, it should be expected to see (as we do in Chivalry & Sorcery or Pendragon, for example) guidelines for running a manor or other political unit that would give a reason for using the mass combat rules. Since there are explicit discussions of how a character can rise in the Ethereal hierarchies after death, perhaps a brief overview of Afterlife adventures would be in order, even if not all Referees and groups of players would use the ideas presented. And so on.

There are times that the authors allow their opinionated natures to shine perhaps too brightly. There are arguments both for and against these moments. When the authors say, for instance, "Fantasy Wargaming awards no experience merely for gathering money or other valuables - picking up 100 'gold pieces' and carrying them for a day and a half is not physically different to picking up and transporting two medium-sized bricks; it is what you have to do to get the money that counts!", it gives some insight into what they intend "experience points" to represent in the game. On the other hand, the constant sniping at other games gets tiresome at times.

With a thorough rewrite and revision, this could have been one of the greatest fantasy roleplaying games of all time. As it stands, it is still one of the most valuable for (actual and would-be) game designers to examine for ideas. It is important for the history of gaming, as well. Its reputation among online gamers is largely undeserved, and the game should be sought out for examination, if nothing else.

*Yes, I realize that this is only for characters created as PCs. The point is that the system by which Social Class is influenced by Star Sign, or even Aspecting, is a silly one, and the system by which one's father's Social Class is determined was, perhaps, not well thought-out. These are issues that could have been fixed in playtest and development.


  1. Jeez, I had to look up schrat, and use my C-minus German from high school to figure out what I was looking at! But yeah, reliance on heraldry for the bestiary is a little weird. Apparently the bestiary section was written by Nick Lowe, who was not a gamer so much as a literature buff (not the singer either). The incomplete stat blocks were probably supplied by Galloway. By all accounts, each chapter was assigned to one of the guys listed in the copyright notice, and Galloway edited it all together (I think he wrote the magic & religion sections, but could be wrong).

    I totally agree about the value of the design notes.

    I'm a little skeptical that a 'realistic' magic system would be very fun ... it seems the player would need to study the system of correspondences. Kind of like requiring warrior players to take a martial art. :)

    1. From experience of playing it, I think that the magic system strikes the right balance between verisimilitude and playability. Ken Hite also seems to think so, as the system was the inspiration for his similar (and more complex, as he expanded the parameters to include all 36 of the decans, rather than just the 12 zodiacal signs) method in GURPS Cabal. The system as presented is simplified enough from real-world magic that it would be more comparable to requiring warrior players to learn the names, weights, approximate damage values, and so on of their weapons.

  2. I got this game when it came out and thought the magic system was awesome! I do think this gets unfair bad reviews. I would love to see a 2nd edition so to speak. I would be worried someone would try to simplify it too much and ruin the flavor. Just as an example having all attributes provide the same bonuses for all actions in D&D has removed some of the flavor and soul from D&D (i.e. 14-15 str is +2 to hit damage, climb and everything else and 14-15 int is +2 to everything) and I would be a little worried about any approach that over simplifies the game.

    1. I don't disagree. My own attempt at writing a game inspired by FW is currently stalled because of personal issues (and a desire to concentrate on a raygun science-fantasy game drawing on material like Northwest Smith and Flash Gordon), but I do plan to get back to it.

      I've been going back and forth on the idea of either writing a retroclone of the original or a new game inspired by it. If the former, there are elements that I don't like that I'd feel obligated to keep. If the latter, I'd have more rein but would worry about disappointing fans of the original.

  3. Obviously you need to do both! Writing the retro-clone will give you an understandable and easy referenced version of the original rules, which you could then use as something to riff off of for the new game.

    1. Twice the effort for probably the same return (twice nothing is still nothing)! ;)

      I might end up doing that. Because I am apparently a masochist.

  4. I meant to say, thanks for the in depth review of FW!

    1. It was my pleasure. I was very happy to go through the game again, and in-depth.