Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Retrospective: Fantasy Wargaming

If I had to nominate a single product for the category of "weirdest RPG I've ever owned," there's a good chance it'd be the 1982 book Fantasy Wargaming, edited by Bruce Galloway and written by a number of (presumably British) authors I've never heard of. I bought my copy back when chain book stores still sold gaming products in large quantities, by which I mean that they not only stocked many copies of most products but also sold products by companies other than TSR. I can only presume that gaming was still enough of a fad in 1982 that someone thought it'd be a good idea to offer this bizarre book for sale. Of course, I bought a copy, so I guess they were correct!

I call Fantasy Wargaming "bizarre" for a number of reasons. Firstly, there's its title. Now, I'm probably the last person who'd ever complain about a RPG that proudly proclaims its connection to the earlier hobby that spawned it. Yet, by 1982 (or even 1981, when the introduction was written), almost no one -- certainly no one inside the hobby -- used the term "fantasy wargaming" to describe Dungeons & Dragons or other RPGs. It's true that, as late as 1976, TSR still subtitled D&D products "Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns," but that usage had been discarded years before this book was published. Consequently, Fantasy Wargaming had an odd "out of time" quality to it when I first bought it, as if it'd been trapped in amber since the days when dinosaurs ruled the earth and the term "roleplaying game" had not yet entered common use. (To be fair, they do use "roleplaying game" in the text occasionally and note that it is roleplaying that distinguishes fantasy wargaming from other types of wargaming.)

Another reason I deem this volume bizarre is the disdain it exhibits not just toward existing RPGs -- that's a fine old school tradition -- but toward roleplaying generally. The authors I surmise based on comments here and there were Napoleonic wargamers at Cambridge who one day decided to give "fantasy wargaming" a whirl to see what all the fuss was about. Though they enjoyed roleplaying as "pure escapism," they nevertheless found it lacking and this book is the result of their attempt to correct the deficiencies they saw in it.

Most of those deficiencies were in the realm of "realism," something that powerfully dates this book as a product of the late Golden Age, when dueling articles on the physics of falling damage were regular contents of Dragon. Of course, the authors of Fantasy Wargaming were much more interested in social/historical realism, which is why the book is filled with broadsides against most fantasy, both literary and gaming, which fails to take into account this or that little bit of trivia about the European Middle Ages. The end result of this is a game -- assuming it is even playable, which is far from certain -- whose nitpickiness about historical minutiae puts Chivalry & Sorcery to shame.

Unlike C&S, though, there's not a lot in Fantasy Wargaming that can be profitably mined for other games. There are some interesting bits about historical arms and armor and social structures, but all of that could be found in better written and detailed scholarly books. Beyond that, perhaps the most entertaining section is the ranking and stats for the hierarchy of Hell, with a corresponding ranking of the powers of Heaven -- just in case you ever wanted to know the combat abilities of the Blessed Virgin Mary or St. Francis of Assisi. Most rules are written both suggestively and opaquely. That is, they imply much but say very little. That's probably why, as a youth, I remained convinced that Fantasy Wargaming was a playable game, even though I never actually inflicted it on my friends, as I did DragonQuest.

So why did I ever buy this book? It's hard to remember this, but, even in 1982, roleplaying was big. It was a huge, huge fad and, while the total volume of product was probably much smaller than what is released today, there was still enough of it, available through a wider variety of outlets than nowadays, that I was offered many opportunities to dabble and see what the hobby was like outside the TSR/D&D orbit. Sometimes, this brough into contact with gems like Call of Cthulhu, but, more often than not, it gave me stuff like Fantasy Wargaming. At the time, I was looking to shake up my D&D campaigns and inject a bit more "realism" into them. I quickly realized that, even if that goal were itself a worthy one, Fantasy Wargaming wasn't going to help me achieve it.

The funny thing is that I still own a copy of this book. For all its oddities -- or perhaps because of them -- I pull it off my shelf every now and again and read through it, if only to remind myself that, while its focus may have shifted over the years, the craziness of gamers has remained a glorious constant of the hobby for as long as I've been involved in it. May that never change.

37 comments:

  1. -shaking a fist in anger-

    Ooh! You torpedoed me, James. I've been slogging my way through Fantasy Wargaming's ever-so simple rules section with an eye on posting about this weird book over on Pole and Rope. It seems you beat me to it.

    I suppose I can take some measure of relief from the fact that I can now put this book away and never again have to think about astrological signs influencing the success of my spells take affect on a bonnacon.

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  2. The funny thing is that I still own a copy of this book.

    I'd say it's worth owning just as an example of the historical record for RPGs.

    But that's only because I don't really want to admit that I've kept my copy that I've treasured since I found it in a used book store a couple decades back purely because it contains combat stats for the Virgin Mary, which somehow I continue to find ridiculous enough to keep the book on my shelf.

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  3. I bought this book a few months back and recently finished reading it. Though it makes a crappy source of ideas for D&D, I have found plenty of inspiration there for quasi-medieval fantasy games like Dragon Warriors (which I'm currently running). An odd duck, to say the least, but worth the $3 and change I paid for it.

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  4. I also picked this up when it came out, though all I remember about it from back then was that I couldn't make heads or tails out of it! Still have it, though...maybe I should pull it out and give it a flip through!

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  5. Huh. You know I never even bothered looking at the copyright date on mine...I just assumed it was from the earliest days of the hobby (circa 1978) based on the content, the format (no box!), and discussion o fiction. Plus I pillaged mine from a used book store and the cover (dust jacket!)had water damage making it look older.

    I've kept mine, too, also as a relic. I HAVE played the game (even came across some character sheets from ancient times), and it seemed really cool and interesting to me as a kid...especially the multiple XP system and the lack of a "thief" class. It falls down in combat, being still in its wargame roots.

    I still page through it every now and then as I find it "food for thought"...at least the first five chapters or so.

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  6. I wonder what the authors would say now about their product in hindsight!

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  7. I picked up a copy of this about 10 years ago at Half-Price Books for about $3.00. I still think it has value as a system-free sourcebook on medieval gaming. There's some good info in there about life in the Middle Ages. However, Cthulhu Dark Ages offers that as well, with a playable system on top. Still, as you say, James, FWG is fun to read occasionally, if only to ask yourself what the Hell these guys were thinking.

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  8. I got it when it hit the remainder tables in early eighties. I lost it when loaned to a friend about 13 years ago. Remember the evocativeness of the world it alluded to. Never actually played it but hoiked some of its 'world' concepts into my own. Still think of it occasionally. The cover pic carried a positive charge. Thanks.

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  9. Bizarrely there was a second book titled "Fantasy Wargaming" put out later in the 80s from Britain. It was also written by a fuddly historical miniaturist. Guess one bite at the apple was not enough.

    I guess if a Northumbrian saint can become a principal Greyhawk deity I shouldn't have been weirded out by the stating up of the Virgin Mary and St. Francis (out many times a day can he cast Animal Friendship again?)--but I was at the time. I'm guessing Galloway and company weren't dragged to CCD class.

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  10. Bruce Quarrie was one of the leading figures in tabletop wargames in the UK for many years. I have some of his historical books, but not this fantasy one - actually, anyone who's been wargaming in the UK long enough probably can't avoid having somethig of his on their shelves. The others I don't recognise at all.

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  11. I see this one at used bookstores every now and then and I always end up picking it up, thumbing through it and putting it back down.

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  12. I’ll always remember seeing this book everytime I went to the mall and—as usual—headed straight for the RPG section at Walden Books. It always caught my eye, but I always picked AD&D books over it.

    Then, when I moved to Austin, I saw about 100 copies of it at Half-Priced Books for $3. There was no way I could resist.

    It really captures what I wanted out of D&D as a kid. Heck, for me, this is the real “fantasy heartbreaker”. It promises me something quite unlike D&D that appealed to me more, but it doesn’t deliver.

    These days, though, my tastes have changed—from less historical to more pulp.

    I also think that a “historically realistic” magic system (to the extent that there can be such a thing) generally isn’t so interesting in play. Researching your target, gathering foci, cross-referencing correspondences, and performing secret rituals in the right place at the right time doesn’t exactly scream coöperative adventure. Not that it might not be quite enjoyable in specific circumstances...just not generally.

    I still find a lot of inspiration in that book, though.

    A bit of trivia: It actually came in two sizes. I have the larger A4-ish sized one, which is what I’ve seen the most, but I’ve also seen a digest/A5 sized version. As far as I know, the smaller one is exactly like the larger, just smaller.

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  13. I also own a copy, and I also keep it on the shelf for some unknown psychological reason. I enjoyed and occasionally referred to the section on villages and population density.

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  14. Ah, realism. The bane of the golden age, the bane of 3.x.

    So this is the infamous game with the states for the Virgin Mary.

    Either way all this moralizing superiority could almost put one in mind of certain others I might name in the hobby ;).

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  15. I posted a couple of small entries on this book a few weeks ago, inc. one with a scan of the page of infamous holy stats if anyone's curious - I still find the piety points system interesting.

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  16. I've had my copy of this from back in the 80's. I seem to remember getting it from the
    Science Fiction Book Club. Pretty sure I remember something about social standing or weird background random tables in it that I made my players use once.

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  17. I never found a use for it, but like the others, couldn't part with it for a long while.
    --I did pick it up again, only to get rid of it again.

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  18. I bought my copy when it was originally released as well. And I still own it. But then I am a collector of role-playing games. I haven't looked at it in years though. maybe it's time for another read.

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  19. this was, if i recall correctly, the first fantasy rpg i played after AD&D and D&D. it's not entirely unplayable, but it does require a lot of streamlining. it also requires players who are not going to play the rules too hard, as they are written in "British wargamer" mode, which is to say, with the assumption that the players will be exercising judgment.

    to me, though, it is mainly of interest for the concepts underlying the magic/religion unified system, which presented a sort of proto-Mage:TA idea that the world was strongly affected by the beliefs of humans about it, and by implication was given actual form by those beliefs.

    someone above mentioned that the magic was flavored as skulking around, secret rituals and whatnot. that's not entirely true, though. combat wizardry is very much a part of the system.

    someone else mentioned that there were no differences between the large and SFBC editions. that is mostly true, except that the large book was missing a page of weapon stats included in the SFBC edition, while the SFBC edition was missing a digit from one of the spell descriptions. yeah, like i said, i actually played the game, with a group and everything. other than those differences (plus the size difference and the cover being a dustjacket in the SFBC and a printed one in the large edition), though, the books are indeed identical in content as far as i am aware.

    another person said that there was no "thief" class, which is basically true. the fighter and thief professions are rolled together into the same experience level. in a one-off i ran sometime in the mid-'80s, i separated the two, which was simple enough to do.

    i still have my SFBC edition (but not my large edition), and i still re-read it for ideas on occasion. the first, sourcebook, half is of more use to me now, but i still look at how they put together their magic/religion unified system for ideas in my own game design sketches.

    re-reading what i've written here, i think that it's obvious that i actually like the game and find it playable (with some relatively minor tweaking), and i find it a little strange to realize that i may be currently the only person in the world who does.

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  20. Oh, wow.

    My dad bought this for me back in 1982 as a Christmas present, but I don't think I actually read it in depth for at least six years or so. It's definitely an odd duck of a book.

    I think I've still got my copy somewhere...

    The system of correspondences and astral signs pops to mind whenever I look through the rules in GURPS Cabal.

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  21. "The system of correspondences and astral signs pops to mind whenever I look through the rules in GURPS Cabal."

    not surprising. Ken Hite credits FW as the inspiration for the system of correspondencies in the bibliography of that book.

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  22. I have both the smaller and larger sized books around here somewhere. Looked through it a few times, but never really did anything with it. AD&D was, and is, the game of choice for me!

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  23. Nice. I've actually got two copies of this, one in each size, which I collected from various used bookstores over the years. I've never sat down and read it in detail, just skimmed, but now I am inspired to. Unfortunately I'm pretty sure both my copies are currently packed away in storage.

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  24. I feel confident that I will never, ever sell my copy of this book (I have the original hardcover).

    This book looked like nothing else I had seen in RPGs at the time. The matte, textured finish on the hardcover, the medieval-woodcut-style art, the regular-mainstream-book-style layout, the yellow paper... I love it! Never mind that the time I tried to run it was pretty disappointing (given how much I could not understand how the rules worked).

    Honestly, I think one of the reasons I love Burning Wheel so much is that the core books look a lot like FW! :D

    I there's a lot of interesting general info about the middle ages in there, and some interesting observations about "realistic" medieval gaming.

    So, yes, quite an odd relic of bygone days, but one of ramshackle beauty.

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  25. To echo a couple of earlier comments: the discussion of magic is definitely mineable for D&D or similar games. Just the presentation of the Qabbalist as a weird, liminal figure in his community is quite evocative and food for thought.

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  26. "Honestly, I think one of the reasons I love Burning Wheel so much is that the core books look a lot like FW! :D"

    until i read that, the similarities hadn't really crossed my mind. there are some definite aesthetic parallels between them.

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  27. As for my comments about magic: In truth, I was really commenting on the parts of the magic system that I found most interesting—and other similar magic systems and my own attempts at something similar—more than the specifics in this book.

    And that’d be a topic of its own.

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  28. I agree with Robert Fisher that FW is pretty much the quintessential Fantasy Heartbreaker. You can tell that the author is utterly convinced that his house-rules-turned-ruleset is the greatest thing to ever grace RPGs. It's also pretty clear that the author's playstyle was pretty insular, and that his group never encountered, much less played, any RPGs outside of D&D. Heck, even though this was published in 1982, I'd wager that they never read any of the AD&D books; it feels much more like something that grew out of the OD&D books (and perhaps a supplement or two).

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  29. Knightsky,

    What's actually interesting is that, while the authors talk about D&D in places, they only admit to ever having played Tunnels & Trolls.

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  30. I found it in the Half Priced Book Store in Houston. Funny thing is I saw it 8 months before and it was still there. The game is kinda good but it sucks more than it is good. QUESTION: Has anyone ever tried to play it?

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  31. James,

    You're right, I had forgotten that they reference T&T at one point. Also, I suspect that they at least read through the Chivalry & Sorcery rules, since they seem to make a couple of backhanded swipes at C&S in the book.

    Mind you, for all that it's overwritten for the most part, I daresay that C&S, compared to FW, is by far the better written ruleset.

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  32. I lost my copy of this and even forgot what it was called. All I rememered about it was that it was ODD! Now I can look for a copy. Thanks for mentioning it!

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  33. One thing I'm surprised you didn't mention is the literature section's decidedly pulp fantasy orientation, being openly hostile to much of the non-pulp fantasy of the 70s such as The Riddlemaster of Hed and The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant.

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  34. Apparently the book was written some years before it was finally published. Reading it is a little like trying to derive the modern AD&D from Eldritch Wizardry. The authors were Cambridge postgrads who began goofing with this stuff in 1974. As for why you bought it, probably the same reason I did: I was looking for a way to augment my campaign, and the cover looked really cool.

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  35. Apparently the book was written some years before it was finally published. Reading it is a little like trying to derive the modern AD&D from Eldritch Wizardry. The authors were Cambridge postgrads who began goofing with this stuff in 1974. As for why you bought it, probably the same reason I did: I was looking for a way to augment my campaign, and the cover looked really cool.

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  36. I played this game back in middle school with a creative GM and he used the magic system like a wizard himself, he seemed to enjoy the formulae and the implications of the system. Was a wonderful time. thanks for the review.

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