F is for Forge Out of Chaos, Fifth Cycle, and Fantasy Heartbreakers

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.

9 thoughts on “F is for Forge Out of Chaos, Fifth Cycle, and Fantasy Heartbreakers

  1. “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.”

    This is a hobby horse of mine too. Why do people decide to make a set of core rules, when in almost all cases they'd be better off making a supplement for an existing system. In most cases their idea started as house rules for an existing system anyway, so turning it into its own system is extra effort to make it less likely to be played.

    Maybe 'game creator' has an imagined status that 'supplement creator' doesn't.

  2. “Quest of the Ancients” was one of my favorites. The author had a huge thing for Stevie Nicks, or at least her stage persona that he built and entire D&D-like game to support that character.

  3. @Tim: I'm not sure which is more disturbing, that someone wrote a game that meets that description or based on that description I really want a copy.

    @anarchist: I think it's more the nature of the creative drive. Given a very common concept is that the rules are the physics of the gameworld a lot of people won't be satisfied with anything short of their own system. I think the variance of magic systems relative to the variance of combat systems in heartbreakers is a clear sign of that.

  4. @Tim:

    That actually sounds more interesting than you'd expect a game called 'Quest of the Ancients' to be. However it also sounds like a case of 'just make a class for D&D'.

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