A Bad Turn of Words: Fantasy Heartbreaker

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

one of the first drawings I uploaded to the OSR G+ back in 2013.

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?

Pointyhelmet: a kind of hero you have seen many times.

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?

Nonsense, right?

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?

“Here’s Johnny!”

That ‘essay’ is really just too on the nose. It has to be satire, 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.

After all, in the last year I wrote the Ultraviolet Grasslands and Witchburner, and am writing several other games.

Some people tell me they are pretty good.

Kill the Fantasy Heartbreaker

just end it already.

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.

Fantasy. Heartbreaker

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.

22 replies on “A Bad Turn of Words: Fantasy Heartbreaker”

I’d never thought about that essay the way you describe it. Never bothered reading it more than once either.

I guess the idea of the heartbreaker resonated with me because I saw a great example of one when I was working for a publisher. These guys came to us with a game that had a very interesting D&D like setting, but a ruleset clearly inspired by AD&D 1. It was 2000 or 2001 and there was a lot of demand for d20 OGL products, but I couldn’t convince them to let go of their rules. So we passed.
Later, they got someone else to publish the book as a kind of vanity project.
Of course, the game never found an audience and over the next five years, I kept seeing this book in the bargain bins of shops. That was heartbreaking to see what could have been a successful line gather dust forever.

Yes! I had a very similar experience reading the posts of an author who was heavily influenced by that essay. Luckily I found another guy who’s rambling against this line of thought was so angry yet helpful that I didn’t struggle for long with that destructive views. Instead I D&D’ed harder than ever (hadn’t played D&D regularly before) and even started my own … clone. 🙂

I’m glad you’re doing your thing and I really dig your style!

I can relate, because I have been there in the 1990s. Not specifically the Forge, but that decade’s brand of “this is real roleplaying, and that is why you stop enjoying the things you like”. This kind of common wisdom, which was all around us in gaming magazines and RPG clubs, was persuasive and fairly readily accepted as gospel. In the end, it was partially responsible for me quitting gaming (TSR’s bad AD&D junk helped) – I followed the advice, dutifully stopped having fun, and eventually dutifully gave up on RPGs. Fortunately, a few years later I discovered I have been had – and by the time the Forge came along, I knew that was nonsense, too.

Which brings me to the Forge. It is not a novel idea, but it bears reiterating that the Forge essays are basically pseudoscience. They try to appear academic, and are mostly written in a bad academic style, sadly commonly found even in respected journals – the kind which obscures meaning instead of clarifying it and making it as accessible as possible. It is easy to nod along, particularly if you are predisposed to agree with the author, and want a fancy text to underpin your opinions. However, it is ultimately an appeal to (a fairly shaky) authority, and mostly relies on sophistry, obfuscation, and cherry-picked evidence to make its point. Which is not honest scientific inquiry.

In any case, as you write, the essay has been proven wrong since – fortunately, I don’t see it too often anymore. Of course, its ideas live on in other texts, since there are always a lot of people who don’t like fantasy RPGs, amateurs, or either.

I think there needs to be a term for that kind of thing, but detached from the Forge-y attitude that sees it as mediocre money thrown after bad. For a long time the official D&D rules were a fudgepile of wargame mechanics and bolted-on hacks, and the urge to make combat more eventful or characters more distinct is a natural one that was expressed in the early days of roleplaying through Arduin and the like. Maybe ID&D for Improved or Idiosyncratic D&D?

Excellent. I have no time to say much more. You’re amazing though, Luka. Your work is super duper terrific. And some of the hacks of D&D are the best sets of mechanics I’ve come across in ages. Whitehack, Macchiato Monsters, et c. Great stuff. Not to mention 5E which, while in some ways boring to me because of some assumptions and mechanics, is a solid and very smart set of rules. Meanwhile, stuff like Dungeon World is, to me, not worthwhile, more of an exercise than a game.

Can’t deny your read on the tone of the original essay; it’s condescending and conceited as all hell.

However, there should be more consideration of the context it was written under. Edwards was, at least in the early days of the Forge, primarily concerned with the practicalities of self-publishing. And self-publishing in 2002 was a very different challenge than it is now in 2019, or even back at the start of the OSR boom. Before POD and PDF’s, before open source layout and art tools, Self-publishing entailed much more risk. Getting your game out meant hustling for art and page-layout from whoever you could get to do it at a rate you could afford, then paying for at least a thousand copies from a printer (at rates notably higher than they are now), all with no guarantee a distributor would agree to carry it, stores would consider it worth ordering, or anyone would deem to buy it. And that was all happening in the nascent days of online communities, so there wasn’t much immediate feedback to guide one’s design or a direct channel to promote and sell it directly to the people who might appreciate it. There were a lot of young enthusiasts, with no concept of real marketing, who naively believed their enthusiasm and handful of novel ideas would be enough to secure their place as Real Game Writers in a field that was actively hostile to new ideas. Today … everything’s different.

So no, the “fantasy heartbreaker” tirade isn’t of much use in 2019. And I agree, in the modern context of resources available to a self-publisher today, it’s actively harmful. But back when it was written, it may have been the harsh blast of cold water some people needed to her to spare them a crushing disappointment.

I like to say that to write one A Hundred Years of Solitude, you must write some not so good stories first. Some people are so talented, so inspired, that could achieve that rigth on the first try. But they’re that: exceptions.

So I do think it is really important to try, to write, to produce, to show your work to the world, without minding those snobs that think they’re the gatekeepers of what is good.

I do hope that, as time goes by, we’ll see more and more people self-publishing what they love and think it’s worth. I know for sure that not everything will be excelent, but every work is a stepping stone towards what could be your own One Hundred Years of Solitude.

I hate that “essay” and that individual just as much. My story:

* I started with TRPGs sometime during 1992 or ’93. I discovered a radio show about tabletop games, RPG and board and minis. They talked about Paranoia and I really wanted to play that strange game they described.
* One year later. My mom brought some magazines she found when I was at the hospital (12 or 13 years old). The magazines talked about music, movies, tv, videogames, tabletop games, and they talked about The Lord of the Rings books and games, Star Wars games, D&D and I wanted to try those strange games.
* 1996. The internet came. I downloaded a translation of AD&D 2e in Microsoft Word with tables and all. I read it, i didn’t understand a single word. But I played the game. I didn’t know how to create characters or monsters, it was the DMG, but still I played the game with some friends. But we hated it. The game was flawed, it didn’t make sense.
*1997. One friend got Vampire the Masquerade. I read it. I ran the game for the same group. We loved it. So, this is how RPGs were supposed to be player, they were supposed to make sense. Right?
* Then I played Call of Cthulhu and all World of Darkness games.
* Then I tried D&D 3e and it made sense but it was an awful game. Hard to understand, shallow, boring.
* I played several different games but RPGs were not an important part of my life.
* The I started reading online magazines and found Lovecraft E-Zine. There there was an article about cosmic horror role-playing games, they mentioned LotFP, and I felt intrigued. I got the game. I loved the game. It made total sense. And now I’m part of the OSR and always will.
*EDIT: removed a critique of Ron Edwards in the last bullet. In my post I criticize the essay, not the person. Let’s keep it that way -LR.

Hey, Jorge – glad to hear you feel passionately.

I removed your last bullet point because, well, I felt it was an emotional thing written in the heat of the moment. I think it’s ok to hate the essay (I do), but let’s leave critique it, rather than the writer here – I am not acquainted enough with Ron Edwards’ other deeds to feel warranted in criticizing him rather than his work(s).

If you want me to reinstate your last bullet point, let me know, and I will.

Ron was writing in the early 2000s, a time before print-on-demand. Back then, if you wanted to publish your game, you were looking at a minimum print run of 1000, or more likely 2000 if you wanted to bring the cost-per-copy down to a reasonable level. And people did. And it cost them a lot of money, because when you have 2000 copies of a book you need to ship them, and warehouse them, and then ship them to anyone who wants to buy them, and distributors in the games business pay 40% of RRP and expect you to cover transport.

Around that time I and [well known game designer] used to walk the trade halls at Gen Con every year, asking RPG companies we’d never seen before to tell us about their game.

“It’s got twenty different playable races and over three hundred monsters!”

No, tell us what’s exciting and new about your game.

“Our levels go up to fifty, there are nine stats and weapons do double damage on a natural 20!”

Yeah, I see what you’ve done there.

“Any class can wear plate armour in our world!”

They would describe their game in terms of how they thought it was better than AD&D. These were people who’d taken the tweaked version of AD&D–because it always was AD&D–that they and their friends loved and had played for years, that was in fact the only RPG they’d ever played, and had ploughed tens of thousands of dollars into bringing it to a market that didn’t care. I rarely saw any of these games on distributors’ sell-lists, and I almost never saw those companies come back to the next Gen Con.

And that’s what Ron was talking about: fantasy heartbreakers. Nobody’s saying you shouldn’t design a game based on D&D, play it with your friends, and learn from the experience of doing that. But if you take out a bank loan to publish it, it will break your heart.

Thank you for your comment James, and for describing the scene back then. I utterly agree, the publishing world was a very different place back then. I arrived at the essay from a very different place and time, and with the authority it assumed, it had a very negative impact on me. It seems to have had a similar chilling effect on many people.

In fact, part of the irony of that essay is that it was written and came to some prominence in rpg circles just at the time POD and .PDF sales were beginning to explode.

That said, some of the basic advice, shorn of rhetoric, is reasonable: research your market, research the economics of your market, benchmark against contemporary best-performing brands, and so forth. Also, in a different forum (Twitter), a commenter mentioned that there was a sequel to this essay – alas, sequels are rarely as popular as originals and I never read it – which excepted d20 system games.

I completely missed the development of The Forge, and have not read the essay. I first heard of the concept while listening to a comedy podcast that primarily covers old, bad role-playing games.

I got the impression that the essay was trying to encourage people to think critically before self publishing books that wouldn’t sell, and instead molder in a garage, attic, or basement, reminding the author of their failure. I experience a very similar feeling regarding myself in the job market and my college education and it is crushing. But, again, I have not read the essay.

I think you have the impression quite correct as far as the original (and general) intent of that essay goes. On the crushing feelings, you are also quite on point.

The irony of that essay was that it came out at a time just on the cusp of the flowering of the modern self-publishing / POD era. The personal tragedy (for me) was that I accepted it at face value, even though it was already outdated, as a critique of what I wanted to do.

On the topic of job markets and college educations, I would suggest that you have a lot of time to improve yourself and your prospects after college, by self-study and by applying yourself to projects, professions, and skills you are passionate about. It’s not too late, and after completing college, you’re not too old. Indeed, you are quite possibly finally free of a structured educational environment, which kept you from discovering the things you actually enjoy. Any and all different jobs and avenues you pursue can and do lead to interesting personal outcomes.

I wish you good luck and good gaming! ^_^

Thank you for the blog post. I am thankful for your creations, and while I don’t have the bandwidth to follow all that you make, I am happy to chip in for your Patreon to help you find the space and time to keep on making such varied things.

Thank you so much, Jeremy! I appreciate that very much!

I love this – and the clarifications. I had a similar experience but I won’t pile on. You have said what needed to be said.

Thank you, Ray. And thanks for noticing the clarifications ^_^

I appreciate the clarifications you’ve added to this essay. I agree that Edwards’ essay reveals a bias against wide swaths of tabletop rpgs in favor of games like those he wrote.

However, I think it’s inaccurate to call the essay “punching-down” and I suspect this term is some of what caused offense when your article was first published. ‘Punching down’ typically refers to jokes made at the expense of marginalized or oppressed groups.

Thank you for your comment, Michael.

I appreciate that “to punch down” has a specific metaphoric meaning in comedic circles, however to take offense at a metaphor applied creatively would be rather uncharitable and literal-minded. If somebody was indeed offended by that specific metaphor, my goodness, I do wish them well – and perhaps some relaxing meditation! 😉

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