Still waiting

You know what I would like to see? A fantasy role-playing game. In thirty-odd years of gaming, I still haven’t seen one.

That’s rubbish, says you, There’s loads of fantasy rpgs – the various editions of D&D, Pathfinder, Warhammer Fantasy, Castles & Crusades, Runequest, and Rolemaster to name just a few. You’re a fool Grey, you say, and start to walk away shaking your head.

Ah, but each of those aren’t role-playing games about fantasy as a whole. They each carve their niche into the fantasy genre and create their own sub-genre where fantasy works according to the rules and assumptions of the system. Pathfinder, for example, is a role-playing for playing in the world of Golarion (or your own world which operates in broadly Golarion-like ways). Pathfinder is arguably a subset of the D&D “family” – it’s a sub-genre of a sub-genre of fantasy.

No, what I want is a game that can encompass all of fantasy in a single system. I want magic to work in any way seen in fantasy books, movies or games. I want Will and The Word, Rune Casting, Dragon Shouts and any other type of Magic found in fiction. Give me a system which allows me to create any character I choose, and let them grow in perceptible and meaningful ways that go beyond mere increasing bonuses to dice rolls.

Surely D&D already does this, you reply.

Well, no. Says I. You can, for example, use D&D to play a campaign set in Middle Earth, but it’s not a great fit. The further you roam from staple D&D territory the more work you have to do customizing Classes, creating new Feats, Monsters, Prestige Classes, Backgrounds and the like. Eventually (and quite quickly) you get to the point where you have spent as much time adapting D&D as you would have spent creating a whole new rules system from scratch.

Imagine how much work it would take to use D&D to play in the world of Game of Thrones, for example. Or Skyrim. (incidentally, I would kill for an official pen-and-paper Skyrim RPG). You can use D&D (or Pathfinder, or whatever) for any setting, fantasy or otherwise, but not out of the box. A key feature of D&D Next is that you can create and use modules to add and enhance the system in whatever direction you want. In theory D&D Next could become the true fantasy role-playing game which encompasses all that fantasy has to offer, given sufficient bookcase (or hard disk) space.

Ironically the closest you get to my vision of a true fantasy role-playing game is not “fantasy” (actually, subset of fantasy) role-playing games at all, but with generic or freeform sytems. Engines such as GURPS or Mutants & Masterminds (a role-playing game creation engine cunningly masquerading as a superhero rpg) provide all the tools you need to create your own vision of fantasy. They are capable of scaling from the lowest of low fantasy to the highest of high, and handle pretty much any warped or twisted magic system, monster or concept you throw at them. Again, it would take work, but you’re building with tools the systems already provide, rather than creating everything from scratch. That’s a key difference.

Which leads us to more freeform systems where hard statblocks and rules detail takes a backseat to just playing the game. Mythic would provide a satisfying play experience in any setting with little or no prep, so long as you’re willing to improvise and go in whatever crazy direction the game takes you (and it will).

Then there’s RISUS. It is rightly called The Anything RPG, and that easily includes All of Fantasy And Beyond.  It’s still not the true Fantasy RPG I would love to see, but it is the system I would reach for over D&D, Pathfinder or any other “fantasy” rpg if I wanted to game outside their respective sub-niches.

Maybe, just maybe, in another thirty years………


20 Comments on “Still waiting”

    1. Yeah. Both Savage Worlds and FATE fall into the same bucket as GURPS ad M&M – excellent generic systems that allow you to build your own game by providing a solid core and excellent tools.

  1. I’d strip the serial numbers and setting from “Mage: the Ascension” (or “Mage: the Sorceror’s Crusade”…but certainly not “Mage: the Awakening”) and plug it into a suitable fantasy setting, then pull in some of the races from “Changeling: the Dreaming” if you really wanted Elves and Dwarves in your fantasy.

    But that’s just me.

  2. I suspect “fantasy as a whole” is so big that any attempt to tackle it results in a generic system. Tends to happen with super-hero systems too (M&M, Hero, Tri-Stat). So GURPS & Fantasy HERO are in fact the kind of game you’re waiting to see ;)

    The other contender is a very different beast, which takes a much more “freeform” approach. It supports the idea that PCs will travel among thousands of different worlds, but absolutely limits itself to fantasy (no guns or sci-fi crossovers allowed, although people have hacked the system to support such). So maybe the game you wanted is Everway.

    1. I had forgotten about Fantasy Hero! I love HERO system, and especially Fantasy Hero 4th Edition, but getting players to actually look beyond the character generation and be willing to play it is a whole different kettle of fish, and perhaps a blogpost for another time.

  3. Have you given a look to the Burning Wheel system?

    That being said, each fantasy world has it’s own idiosyncrasies and any time you wish to play outside the fantasy assumptions of the games creators (a middle ages world being the most pervasive) you will have to customize.

  4. Champions (well, hero system but lets call it by it’s original name! If you can’t build it in Champions, it can’t be built. Give each player a pool of points and one can build Dragon Shouts, one can build an Al_Qadim genie and they are all compatable and internally balanced. Love it…it’s unfortunate that too many players (who may never have played it) see it as a Maths exercise.

    1. HERO, like GURPS and M&M, is a solid generic system that can be tailored to provide anything you choose to throw at it, and Fantasy Hero is a particularly great supplement too. As you quite rightly say, the challenge is getting gamers to play it. Shame, really.

  5. Actually, SUPERS! might work as well. Yeah, it’s geared toward superheroic playing, but the powers are generic and can be tweaked with Boosts and Complications. I haven’t looked at using it for a fantasy-based campaign, but it might do the job. Again, it is more of a generic system (d6 based).

  6. Ah, but rules systems that take the backseat have a harder time dealing with some of the systems where magic is a very complex and fiddly thing. You’ll usually want more specific rules for those.

    Each system has it’s assumptions. for example, M&M doesn’t do a good job with Vancian magic. (it’s possible, but it’s not easy)

    I think you are looking for a rainbow unicorn. The one true game that is all things to all people. I don’t think it exists.

  7. Just done a quick check in the comments, and if I’ve missed someone mentioning this one, I apologise, but what about Amber? You can create any character you want, and do anything you want, with any type of magic you can conceive of.

  8. Shadowrun comes to mind a bit, but the terrible taste of complex rules and hard to grasp quickly system comes swirling back to me. But, it does include guns, cyberpunk, magic (and psionics?), hacking computers, and swords and stuff. Could that be adapted? I wouldn’t even want to begin to try. Maybe that’s the issue there. I guess your point is, all these systems still need to be adapted some to fit what you describe. Do you think a world with EVERYTHING would be fun? Cuz I’m not using a sword if I can have a mega blaster.

  9. I’d argue that I want to see things go the other way at the moment. I don’t want a bunch of generic or quasi-generic rules. I want to see unique worlds and the rules for letting me play in that work specifically.

  10. Flexibility and assumptions are inherently in conflict. Even the idea of “class” is just a prepackaged collection of stuff that you could easily break down in any way you like. Obviously D&D is a fantasy RPG, it is just not all fantasy RPGs, because fantasy as a genre is mutable. Star Wars is fantasy to me.

    The big problem with this is that RPGs are not just character and setting creation toolboxes, they are also games that plug together in ways that can be played. For example, many spells in D&D are not ways to simulate sorcery, they are game keys to game locks (for example, ESP is a more reliable version of listen at the door from a game perspective).

    So the tradeoff is set of assumptions that you can break down if desired (like most games that have setting assumptions) or toolkit that you must build up to do anything. Different people will disagree about which tropes are important, but having tropes is important to having a shared idea about the potential world without first needing to read pages and pages of referee info dump.

    1. True20 was just a combination of a handful of the optional rules in the 3.5 version of Unearthed Arcana (Generic Classes and Injury [AKA. M&M’s Toughness Save] if you’re looking it up) along with the spell system from the Psychic’s Handbook (also written by Steve Kenson).

      Although originally used in Blue Rose (I love that setting), the True20 core had a bunch of settings including Mecha v. Kaiju and one described as “swashbuckling space opera”.

    2. @Gary,
      Shadowrun has a very specific magic system (technically three or more depending on what options you use). It’s hard to adapt to other types of magic.
      I think that if you look at all of the d20 system spinoffs and their various magic systems you could get close to what’s described. D&D has normal magic, warlockry, psionics, truename magic, shadow magic, binding, incarnum, magic rating, spell points, incantations, and recharge magic. I remember there was a different type of magic in Sovereign Stone (You needed to build up successes, which could take multiple rounds). Arcana unearthed/Arcana Evolved used a magic system with multiple versions of each spell. Green Ronin’s True Sorcery is another system. I’m sure I’m missing some great products as well.

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