One of the seminal articles of the indie rpg movement is Ron Edward’s Fantasy Heartbreakers. He described a very specific type of fantasy RPG. They were games designed by people whose primary, possibly only, RPG experience. They reproduced the kind of movements away from D&D made in the late 70s/early 80s by games like Runequest and Rolemaster. However, they were trying to replicate the success of these games 15 to 20 years later.
The various retro-clones are not heartbreakers. First, few if any of them are designed without knowledge of the larger RPG scene. More importantly they are not attempts to replicate the commercial success of TSR. In fact, the retroclone movement is much closer to the indie RPG scene Edwards champions. The commercial naivety of the heartbreakers was one of Edwards’ primary source of heartbreak. That said, I believe those of us in the OSR can learn a lot from the heartbreakers and, long before I heard of the OSR (before it existed actually) I set out to answer the call at the conclusion of the article:
Let’s play them. My personal picks are Dawnfire and Forge: Out of Chaos, but yours might be different. I say, grab a Heartbreaker and play it, and write about it. Find the nuggets, practice some comparative criticism, think historically.
Get your heart broken with me.
I collected all I could. I would develop three favorites, the two Edwards found interesting and Fifth Cycle which I’d actually almost purchased when it first came out.
Forge Out of Chaos is the most enthusiastic RPG I’ve ever read. Imagine the energy of James Raggi IV infused into a March Madness fanatic who instead of basketball was into RPGs. While many games have made me want to play them this is the only one which I wanted to play with the creators.
Fifth Cycle has a quirkiness to the world that I liked. Dwarves and elves, for example, instead of being ancient races that pre-date men are one of many races created by sorcerer kings during the Third Cycle. The just begun Fifth Cycle is recapturing magic after anti-magic dark ages of the Fourth. For some reason I can’t put my finger on the whole thing struck me as what Glorantha would be had Greg Stafford played D&D and read fantasy before he created it instead of being a mythology junkie.
One would think D20 and later the OSR would have ended the Fantasy Heartbreaker. After all, now you can put out your setting and rules in a variety of formats that don’t require purchasers to adopt an entirely new framework. Yet, sites like Drivethru RPG are full of heartbreakers.
And I want to tell you the same thing nearly a decade later. Find one, on eBay or Drivethru, and take a month off your regular game. You might find you don’t go back.