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[Let's Read] Fantasy Wargaming (seriously)

Felix

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#1
Most roleplayers have probably never heard of Fantasy Wargaming. Those who have probably think of it as the game which stats the Virgin Mary and Balder. (She's level 10 and a Virgo; he's level 12 and a Cancer, if you're curious.)

But did you know this game, written in 1981, almost has a universal task resolution system? Like Rolemaster's static maneuver table, or Marvel Super Heroes' table, you determine the difficulty, roll d100, and see whether you failed, partially succeeded, or totally rocked.

I found that out by accident. I picked this up at a (sadly now defunct) used book store several years ago. I skimmed through it, but the rules are pretty incomprehensible. (The only review I see on RPG.net gives it a one for style and substance. I don't disagree.) But one day, when I was very, very bored, I decided to try to generate a character, and do something simple like have him climb a wall. I didn't want to have him fight someone, because the combat rules seemed like they'd never make sense.

After a while of trying to decipher how things worked, I realized that all skills were resolved with that simple table. Of course, it's not labeled "Skill resolution chart."

It's called "Secret Door Identification." Want to climb a wall? Check the Secret Door Identification chart. Swim against a raging river? Secret Doors. Pick pockets? You get the idea.

That's a really neat idea for the time, but it's so poorly written that nobody would ever notice it. Especially since it's buried in the middle of a fairly unimportant looking section of the book.

Fantasy Wargaming isn't a good roleplaying game, but it's an interesting read for several reasons. I think it gives some insight into what the RPG design and groups were like in the early 1980s.

I can't recommend the system, though I don't need to get into why for several chapters. But is there anything worth taking from this game? Do we still care about GM advice on whether to allow saving throws or just instantly kill the PCs? Do we care about a recommended reading list which is pretty similar to what Gygax had?

I think Fantasy Wargaming is worth taking a look at for the same reason it's nice to visit homes from the 1700s where people demonstrate how baking was done before microwave ovens: it's an interesting look at history.

So that's why I'm doing this Let's Read.

Let's get started:
Fantasy Wargaming has a prologue and seven chapters. The last contains all the rules, monster, and deity statistics. It's the longest, and possibly least well written.

But let's start at the beginning, called:

Revelation (or "In which all is revealed.")

To me, reading the introduction invokes that feeling that "Life on Mars" is supposed to give: I was alive when this book was published, but I find it completely alien. At five pages, it's the shortest chapter, but also has the most stuff to analyze.

They start with your obligatory "what is roleplaying" section. But, as the name of the book suggests, they're coming at it from the world of wargaming.

"To begin at the beginning then, fantasy wargaming is a hobby which starting in America a few years ago and rapidly mushroomed throughout the English-speaking world, to such an extent that, today, it has virtually supplanted all previous forms of 'historical' wargaming. Barely a day can pass without some mention of it in the press; the tables and trade stands at military modelling and wargaming events are thronged with figures of warriors, wizards, naked slave girls and assorted monsters; and still the die hard wargaming 'purists' avert their faces, making the sign against the evil eye, hoping it will go away."
Do wargaming events still exist? The authors assume you're coming from there, and need the explanation that in a roleplaying game, they talk about how the little metal figures have personality.

Also if you were offended by the naked slave girl phrase, there's some more sexism. (It's worse in character creation, which is several chapters off.) They soon give examples of roles players might take: "witch, warlock, mighty warrior or pious priest, nimble-fingered thief, or brazen harlot." (I should note that the intro, and tone of the book, is fairly casual and sometimes tongue-in-cheek. The writers were clearly addressing their friends, which makes it a bit tough for an outsider to appreciate what's being said sometimes.)

They're very loose with the terminology. Fantasy wargaming, fantasy gaming, and role-playing game are used pretty interchangeably. When they describe a popular form, the dungeon crawl, they say this type of game is usually referred to as "Dungeons and Dragons."

After this intro, they explain why they're writing this. D&D has too many problems: dungeons make no sense -- the only reason that the monsters seem to be in these rooms is to attack the players. And the world of dungeon crawls is composed of oddball parties; why should a priest, a black wizard, a warrior and others go exploring together.

At this point, the authors describe how they first got involved with RPGs. They were "a circle of friends whose main interest at the time -- other than imbibing ale! -- was Napoleonic wargaming." Then, one day, they decided to give D&D a try -- by playing Tunnels and Trolls. (They regarded T&T as close enough to be considered a form of D&D. I think saying that today would start a major flamewar.)

They decided it was fun, but lacked internal consistency, so they made their own campaign and rules, and decided to publish it. They had plans for a campaign book "Leigh Cliffs," which I guess never got printed.

Heartbreaker?
Was Fantasy Wargaming the first indie game? Or perhaps an early Fantasy Heartbreaker, that tries to improve on D&D, but loses its neat features in a sea of hard to follow features. The rest of the intro has these facts:

- It was published by a non-traditional source; the publishers normally worked with non-fiction. I don't know if that lack of experience with RPGs is to blame for the spartan layout, or the fact that Photoshop, Quark Xpress and InDesign didn't exist back then. (How did people publish back then?)

- The book tries to give you a realistic setting, based on the actual Dark or Middle Ages, with the assumption magic works. They say their goal was to bring more richness and flavor "by delving back into our actual historical past."

- They boast a new magic system with "no need for lengthy lists of spells such as clutter other sets of playing rules." (I wonder if this was a turn-off for players. My first two fantasy RPGs were D&D and Rolemaster. Part of the reason Rolemaster won me over was its promise of thousands of spells on dozens of lists. What was the first successful RPG with no spell list? Fantasy Hero? Mage?)

- Check out this feature.
"The playing rules are designed to cater for fantasy adventures at all levels, from those involving a mere half dozen characters to battles between the armies of entire nations. An innovation in the combat section, too is the development of an infinitly flexible man-to-figure ratio, which permits forces of any size to be pitted together in mortal combat."
I can't imagine that would be used as a selling point anymore.

The section ends with a list of the authors: Bruce Galloway, Mike Hodson-Smith, Nick Lowe, Bruce Quarrie, and Paul Sturman, and says it was written in Cambridge in 1981. Other than the cover, which mentions it was edited by Galloway, and a "thanks to" on the next page, this is the only time anybody gets credit. There is no list of playtesters, no signatures by the artwork, no credit for layout, or any other things I'm used to seeing somewhere in a roleplaying book
 

Ade65

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#2
Still got the book and read it every now and again - has some nice ideas and some nice reminders of the reality of life in the early medieval.

Plus, if I remember rightly, it also has the line (and I could be quoting slightly incorrectly) - 'besides, who the hell wants to play a hobbit!' :)

Ade
 
#3
- It was published by a non-traditional source; the publishers normally worked with non-fiction. I don't know if that lack of experience with RPGs is to blame for the spartan layout, or the fact that Photoshop, Quark Xpress and InDesign didn't exist back then. (How did people publish back then?)
Back in the day, the book was a selection of the Science Fiction Book Club, printed in a traditional novel-size form. That is how I got my copy. As a result it received tremendous distribution, which is the only reason why anyone has heard of it today. This could have been a brilliant marketing idea, achieving instant widespread product recognition ... if only there had been some kind of reasonably decent game behind it.
 

Scurrilous

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#4
I've got a copy, I desperately want to run it some day.

Incidentally, at least one of the authors has familiarity with Chivalry and Sorcery as they disparage it in the magic chapter.
 

Felix

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#5
Back in the day, the book was a selection of the Science Fiction Book Club, printed in a traditional novel-size form. That is how I got my copy. As a result it received tremendous distribution, which is the only reason why anyone has heard of it today. This could have been a brilliant marketing idea, achieving instant widespread product recognition ... if only there had been some kind of reasonably decent game behind it.
That's probably where my copy originally came from before finding its way to the used book shelf, and it explains why it didn't vanish from memory. I didn't get involved in roleplaying games until later in the 80s, but I do remember seeing a few stinkers (whose names I've completely forgotten). Pity this wasn't done with a better game. (Or that someone can't convince Oprah to choose some roleplaying book for her book club.)
 

komradebob

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#6
I remember thinking that the rules for making magic items were awfully cool, as well as the spell-casting-as-lengthy-ritual stuff with all the correspondencies working as positive and negative modifiers. IIRC, this could affect battles as well.

Remember folks born under the sign of Taurus- plan to launch your battle in the middle of a cow pen if at all possible :D
 

BASHMAN

Basic Action Games
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#7
One thing the book did an excellent job of was the price list for weapons and armor seemed realistic. Also, I liked the way that magic was done by the system, seemingly based off "real" magical arts, such as cabala and the village "wise-woman".

I wish I could find my copy (no Idea what happened to it, unfortunately) :(
 

Pandora Caitiff

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#9
I remember reading this as a young'un. I borrowed it from my local library because I wanted to make the transition from "shooting matchsticks at toy soldiers" to "proper wargaming".

Imagine my disappointment when I found out that by "wargaming", Mr Galloway meant "Roleplaying". Especially as I was already roleplaying (and GMing!) thanks to Dragon Warriors.

The other thing I remember was reading the list of random personality traits and finding "Sexual fetish (eg leather or fur)". Fetish was a new word for me and I was very confused by it so I ran to a dictionary which told me a fetish was a small carved idol used in tribal religions. I was even more baffled! :D
 

castiglione

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#10
I've actually been working my way (slowly) through a copy of this book.

It actually has TWO universal task resolution systems. One is the one described by the OP but there's another one briefly mentioned early in the book (I forget the specifics of the system, though).

I actually found the combat system interesting...in the man-to-man combat section, there's talk about how the combat is "abstract" (it's not a blow-by-blow system but it's assumed each attack represents a flurry of attacks) yet the system is a bit "complex" which raises the question of why you'd have a complex combat system if it was going to abstract combat?

What I found really interesting was the mass combat system...it's actually somewhat "chess-like" as there isn't a lot of randomness in it - casualties inflicted follow a pseudo-normal distribution and the only really random thing in it seems to be morale checks which are based on casualties incurred. I actually liked it and it's also a reminder that back when this book was written, it was pretty much assumed that PC's had higher ambitions than just raiding ruins and seeking treasure...they would eventually raise armies and become real movers and shakers in their world.

Besides the mechanics, I liked the bits describing life in the dark and middle ages as well as discussions of how monsters were perceived from the various cultures which would be significant in this game world, i.e. Saxon, German, Scandanavian, etc. (each of these cultures had different perceptions of monsters, i.e. in some cultures, their "traditional" monsters were basically large versions of regular animals that happened to be, in many cases, venomous).

I think the game would've been playable but it really needed to be organized differently or at least needed a well designed GM screen. I guess photo-copies of the relevant sections of the books, i.e. the charts, would've solved a lot of this.
 
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