In 2002 an ‘essay’ came out that brought the term ‘fantasy heartbreaker’ into popular use.
The author, Ron Edwards, was one of the founders of the Forge and a proponent of the GNS ‘theory’ of role-playing. Zak Smith wrote a long takedown of it last year. But I’m not going to write about gamists or narrativists or simulationists (Note: this post of mine has generated controversy, the footnotes include several clarifications and additional details. If you plan to comment, you should read them).
No, I’m going to write about my personal experience with that popular fantasy heartbreaker ‘essay.’
It has, without a doubt, been one of the most destructive and negative things I’ve read in my career as an artist, writer, and game designer.
At heart, the seed of that phrase is planted in a mulch of 3,800 rambling words where the author deploys “poor me” rhetorical maneouvers to brutally take down games inspired by Dungeons & Dragons.
The author wrings their hands in mock sympathy for the fantasy game designer, “Why, oh, why do you hurt poor me so with your incompetence? With your ignorance?”
The author is in “agony,” but they sympathize. The author is in the designers’ favor, “in a kind of grief-stricken way.” The author is “pained” by these games and their innovations induce “migraine.” The author “forgives” a great deal. The author is “astounded and fascinated” that there are great ideas buried in these games, but which were misunderstood by the designers. This “frustrates” the author.
Further it just “kills” the author that the designers of these fantasy games were so naive about the nature of the RPG market. It “breaks their heart” that these games were doomed.
Finally, the author warns back-handedly not to dismiss these games as “sucky” (though that is precisely what the author has done, over and over) and invites other indie role-players to get their hearts broken while looking for the nuggets of good ideas, practicing comparative criticism, and thinking historically.
After this kind of take down, why should any smart, critical, thoughtful player want to play such a game? Who would want to have their heart broken?
Teach Me That I Am Wrong
Today, I think this ‘essay’ is garbage. Prejudice and punching-down dressed up as thoughtful critique.
But when I came across it, I was one of very few role-players in my country. I often had to reinvent a lot of content simply because it was not available or prohibitively expensive. For a long time, our whole gaming group shared a single set of polyhedral dice because there was nowhere we could buy a second set!
Dungeons and Dragons was a weird, exotic thing. Being a D&D player was rare. Being a DM? Incredibly lonely. I wanted to make my games better, run my games better, and learn to write better games.
I guess the Forge had good ‘SEO’ in modern parlance, because ‘The Internet Home for Independent Role-Playing Games’ was very easy to find at a time when I was still translating the whole game of D&D from English to Slovenian on the fly as I ran it.
Lonely and thirsty, I came across the Forge experts and their wisdom. And their wisdom shocked me.
I was doing everything wrong. The games I liked, D&D and its variants, they were bad, wrong, not fun. Well, the author used fancy words (except for “sucky”), but they expressed the same thing.
So what did I, an insecure DM, a strange creature playing an odd game in a small province, do?
I nodded my head and thought to myself, oh, this wise one must have the right of it.
I put aside the adventures I was writing. I hung up settings and modules, dungeons, castles in the sky, dragons, and more. I still played D&D, but I thought to myself: this is just a pastime. It’s valueless. It’s not cutting edge, but at least I can have a bit of fun with it.
For six or seven years I put aside any thought of creating my own rpg content.
After all, I liked fantasy, but it had all been done.
I didn’t want to appear like a fool, working on ‘heartbreakers.’ What kind of idiot would do that?
Some Kind of Imbecile
Do you remember what a hit the Lord of the Rings trilogy was? It was obviously such a hit, that nobody ever made another fantasy movie.
I mean, why would anybody compete with that? Right?
After all, imagine creating a trilogy … a hexalogy … about a group of young wizards who grow in power, take down a dark magus with a funny name, and meet a menagerie of fantastical creatures. Nobody would watch that, except to mine it for nuggets of good ideas, criticize it, and shake their head in woe at the lack of innovation.
Or, imagine making a TV series that was basically a rehash of Lord of the Rings with more knights and dragons, and fewer elves and high ideals. Can you imagine that kind of tripe ever getting even a second season, much less a third or fourth?
Why would anyone ever think that people might like the same kind of story, delivered with the same kind of genre conventions?
Or look at the novel.
After H.P. Lovecraft, the horror genre is basically done. I doubt anybody would believe that something as ridiculous as a book about a haunted hotel watching over some remote Colorado mountains would ever amount to anything, even less that a director would turn it into an iconic movie, right?
Wow, I could pile the sarcasm onto the fantasy heartbreaker ‘essay’ for pages and pages.
Not only is it petty and mean (it is).
The business and economics promulgated by that essay, that there was no market for fantasy games based on D&D, turned out to be hilariously off the mark. A mere few years after the publication of that essay we saw the flowering of the OSR, Pathfinder, and the 5th Edition.
We’re living in a golden age of Dungeons and Dragons, and I nearly missed out on it because of that ‘essay.’
Part of my disgust at that hatchet job of a piece stems from my own weakness. From the way I bought into the narrative. From the way I nodded along.
At a vulnerable time, finishing university and unsure where to turn, lonely in a remote province, that rambling post was a crucial pair of cement boots that confirmed there was no point in writing the games and stories I enjoyed.
No point in adding another fantasy ‘heartbreaker’ to the world.
For at least five years after reading that essay I stopped writing and posting about role-playing games. Five years might not seem like much in the big picture.
Kill the Fantasy Heartbreaker
It’s 2019 and that ‘essay’ is still online. A short google search for ‘fantasy’ and ‘heartbreaker,’ will show it in all its glory on the first spot. Folks still reference it.
Authors still self-deprecatingly make a nervous chuckle and say how their little game is “just a fantasy heartbreaker.”
Well, it breaks my heart to see writers and designers use that term.
To surrender their creative independence, their passion, their spark, to such a small-minded, petty term.
To accept a label that is, at heart, a slur. A slur that implies they have no business acumen, no originality of concepts, no knowledge of actual fantasy, and no critical perspective on game design.
I think of all those young writers, young gamers, young artists, who love their Dungeons and Dragons, love making up new classes, inventing elaborate spell lists, drawing ridiculous dungeons, watching weird actual play videos.
I think of them deciding to write their own game.
And then of them coming across the two words.
And then stopping.
Proposed Solutions For A Softer World
I think that phrase should die in a fire.
And make more games. Any will do. Some will be excellent.
And now, the regular self-promotion—if you want more of my stories and games, the Stratometaship patreon is the easiest way to support me, or by buying my books, like the heavily illustrated What Ho, Frog Demons. Come on over, join the fun. We don’t have cookies.
Footnotes / Edited: 2019:01:11;16:06
This post has generated some controversy and some clarifications are in order. Twitter user CoalhadaTM suggested I append such a section, and I thought he had a fair point. Therefore, in no particular order.
Multiple people have informed me that the intended meaning of Ron Edward’s essay was not negative and that the term ‘fantasy heartbreaker’ was not intended to have negative connotations. I have no reason to not believe them. They generally agreed that a negative connotation was present in some secondary usages by other persons.
Multiple people have also informed me that the essay accurately addressed a specific economic situation at the time (late 90s, early 00s). I have no reason to not believe them. They generally agreed that it no longer reflects current trpg market dynamics.
Some people attacked Ron Edwards in comments on this post, or on social media after I shared this post. I removed or asked them to remove such comments. This post is explicitly not an attack on Ron Edwards the person.
This post is written as a rebuttal of one Ron Edwards’ specific text written in 2002, the authorial voice of that document, the later effects of that document, and its conclusion—from the perspective of an outsider to the USA rpg scene discovering it some years after it was written. It deals with the relationship between me (the reader) and the essay (the text).
Several people pointed out that I misunderstood the original essay or its author’s intent. I did not. Coming to the text in a different time and place, with different experiences, I understood it differently, sometimes vastly differently from the way the Ron Edwards originally intended. Other readers may have different understandings, and they may disagree with my reading. That is ok. We do not have to have a complete agreement. If you want to dive into a bit of literary theory, I recommend Roland Barthe’s essay, The Death of the Author, or the TV tropes take on it, at least.
A few people commented that my post is ‘histrionic.’ They are perfectly within their right to feel that way about my stylistic writing choices. I think they take my sarcasm, satire, and wry smile for histrionics … but then, per the previous paragraph, that is entirely within their right. I disagree, of course. 😛
Finally, I would like to add that over multiple online venues the response to this post has been 80% positive, 20% respectfully disagreeable, and in one Twitter case a troll making a false accusation and an unprovoked personal attack.
This was the first time I have experienced direct harassment like this as a result of publicly sharing a post exploring my creative process and work online. After significant consideration, it led me to create a community standards section for this site to codify how to conduct online and offline communications with WizardThiefFighter in a productive manner.
Finally, the many positive responses have made me suspect that I was not alone in being influenced by an old essay on games. That has been a salutary lesson in how texts and words and ideas persist online. As a partial solution, I would suggest adding footnotes to posts once later events change their circumstances—as I have done to this post.
I want to thank everybody who has read this essay and expressed their respectful agreement or disagreement.