RPGs that time forgot... Fantasy Wargaming

Fantasy Wargaming
Tag Line: The Highest Level of All
Makers: Stein and Day (1981); compiled and edited by one Bruce Galloway, if that is his real name

What is it?
In the running for worst RPG ever made, the ineptly named Fantasy Wargaming is a medieval fantasy role-playing game that prides itself on a level of logic and consistency unavailable in previous books. Uh-huh.

Neat Stuff
-Well, I can't really fault the research on medieval society. I know I've used the book as a reference for historical social classes, for example. It's always good to know that a "pimp" is higher up than a "whore".
-There's a discussion on important fantasy novels (which admits that Lord of the Rings can be hard going, hehe). I wish more generic RPGs took the time to do this, giving you not only avenues of research, but also opening up what (in this case) "fantasy" can be. Of course, it throws it all away by making the rules useful for only one world view.

Bad Stuff
-The rules are incomprehensible. The System of astrological Corresponencies used throughout is ridiculously complex. You'd really have to be an astrologer to really make sense of it.
-In the Sword & Sorcery vein, the rules are also too detailed. Do we really need a mathematical formula to figure out who the party leader is? Well, here it is:
Throw in rules for questioning the leader's decisions, challenges, etc. and you've gotten rid of the pesky trouble of actually ROLE-PLAYING YOUR CHARACTER! Combat and magic are likewise obsessively detailed.
-Bad taste? Sure. Especially if you're sensitive to religious issues. Catholic rituals are reffered to as spells with Mass and Confession costing Mana and giving in-game bonuses, there are rules for becoming a Saint, you can go in for Devil worshipping instead, and comparative ranking of Ethereal hierarchies places the Virgin Mary equal to Beelzebub! Strangely enough, the only religion discussed in detail is Norse mythology.
-But let me add another bullet point to cover even more bad taste decisions: Homosexuality as a "flaw", but Bisexuality as a "quality"; a monster race called "Black Men"; and a discussion on "ethnic mages", i.e. the Jewish Sorcerer (Jewish also a "flaw", by the way). I can't go on.

"Elephants copulated backwards, pelicans fed their young by digging chunks out of their own breasts, beavers eluded pursuit by biting off their own testicles..." I wouldn't make sentences like that one up, people.

How I've used it
Sadly, this was my very first RPG, and we played it for a couple years. Sorta. This was 9th grade (scary to think the book was in print at least 4 years) and I had an interest in role-playing, but didn't live in a town where they sold any gaming material yet. My understanding was patchy at best. All I owned at that point was Grimtooth's Traps, the original Monster Manual and the original Deities & Demigods. I was also in the Science-Fiction Book Club and so ordered a couple books on role-playing. One was Dicing With Dragons which served as my primer, I think, and the other was Fantasy Wargaming, which served, well, as my first game. Or really, as a template to my first homebrew. We used the character sheet and did our best to make sense of attributes like Piety and Selfishness. We used the "bogey table", upon which more than one Bisexual was rolled, let me tell ya. We used "Mana" to cast spells, working from a list of hundreds of spells mentioned in my only two AD&D books (without working descriptions, just what it sounded like it did). I know we didn't use the combat system, but not what we actually did. It was all improvised and stuck together with duct tape. We played for a long time, everyone had 3 characters, they were all unbalanced in the extreme (one guy had Powerword Kill at level 2, it took exactly the same amount of XP to get from one level to the next no matter where you were, and they all ended up as canonized Demi-Gods with full levels in three classes and maxed stats - some of this as indicated by the rules). Fun though, and that's what matters, right?

In conclusion
It's F.A.T.A.L. without the anal rape. It can be amusing to skim through as an example of how NOT to design an RPG. The System of Correspondencies is an interesting attempt at injecting medieval color, but it's totally inefficient at doing so. In a weird way, it's a sort of ancestor to Ars Magica.


H said…
Wow. As someone who started playing D&D back when the rules consisted only of 3 slim paperbacks, I thought I knew all of the different games from the dawning days of RPGs. Never heard of this one though.
Siskoid said…
I'm not surprised. I've never seen it in a book store or game store, and it was written by Brits. I'm guessing it didn't get much distribution North America side except through Columbia House or possibly other book clubs.

I've seen mention of it elsewhere, like on RPG.net, even had someone defend it to my face once. Oh, and it was definitely reviewed in Rick Swan's Complete Guide to RPGs.
Jeremy Rizza said…
Sweet Lordy! I'm guessing nowadays the author has a legitimate job at "National Review."
Siskoid said…
Well, good for him. To be fair, just because he helped write a wrong-headed RPG in '81, a time when aspects of even the most popular games look wrong-headed now, doesn't mean he can't competently write something entirely different more than 25 years later :).
Anonymous said…
I remember seeing that one; can't recall if I ever saw it in person, or only in ads. Was it advertised in Dragon?

Cool cover, shame about the internals.
I used to have this book... Yeah, it was pretty strange in some ways, but it did provide some useful info for running other RPGs. I'll never forget that the chapter that discussed fantasy literature was titled "Moorcock and More..."
Michael May said…
Haha! I've still got this book somewhere. Like you, I just use it for medieval reference. Never actually tried to play it.
Michael May said…
Oh, and to jon h's question, I think it was a Science Fiction Book Club selection for a while or something. I remember seeing it in their "pick 85 books for one cent" ads for a while.
Daniel T. said…
I still have my copy! I bought it in '81 from the Waldenbook's in the mall. It sits on my shelf right beside my HarnMaster books (another British RPG I never played.)
Daniel T. said…
BTW, the part that you quoted was taken from actual medieval text on how the animals were thought to behave.
Siskoid said…
At least I've heard excellent things about HarnMaster ;)
Doug said…
Did you spend more than five minutes skimming the book before shoehorning all that ridiculous hyperbole into a semblance of an article? It's pretty clear from what you wrote that your experience of RPGs was very limited at that time, and you seemed to think (mistakenly) that you could combine it with unrelated materials from other publishers and somehow make a playable game out of it. In fact, Fantasy Wargaming was a very well thought out but poorly presented and incomplete game system that was completely self-contained (you weren't supposed to use it with elements from other games). It was not "incomprehensible", nor was it unplayable. At the time, TSR's hold on the RPG niche was monolithic, and like a small but growing portion of the RPG market, the authors had grown dissatisfied with D&D's mismatched hodgepodge of game dynamics, and attempted to create a classless system (before the term existed) that captured the flavour of 1st Edition AD&D but which was rooted in medieval history, technology and sociology. Their sins were ones of presentation and omission, not unplayability. The first half of the book is still excellent source material for anyone interested in running an historically accurate medieval RPG. The problems with the game stem from poor presentation (mistakenly duplicated tables, missing tables, presenting modifiers in paragraph form rather than as lists or tables making them difficult to search) and omission (it lacked rules for movement, encumbrance, range, etc.). There were missteps, certainly (rules for leadership which denied opportunities to roleplay), but rudimentary systems (like quirks and disadvantages, secondary skills, mass combat, etc.) were far ahead of their time, even if they weren't clearly implemented or necessarily useable without some modification. The problem with the game was that the authors relied a little too heavily on foreknowledge of the very game they were trying to step away from. It is not anywhere near as terrible as your emotional and baseless diatribe makes it out to be. Playable on its own? Well, sort of, but some modification is definitely required; most RPGs published at the time were not usable out of the box, not even D&D. It was a breath of fresh air in the days when Gygax still ruled TSR with an iron hand, and most of the open source generic games played today owe it a huge debt of gratitude.
Siskoid said…
I'm not sure who's most guilty of diatribe there, Douglas. I think I was pretty upfront about where I was coming from. "How I used it" is just a statement of my experience, not a value judgment, and the rest is what I would call a "quick and dirty" review about a product long since out of print.

I give both positive and negative, and cloak the negative in cheeky humor. For your part, you defend Fantasy Wargaming a heck of a lot, but also make my points for me. Mistakes, formulas, poor implementation, omissions... and you don't address the bad taste issues.

I'm barely harsher with it than you are with me or D&D (and I'm no D&D lover either, believe me).
Siskoid said…
Not sure open source generic games owe it that much either, to be honest. Unless FW was a LOT better known than I've been led to believe over the years.
Mad Fishmonger said…
This book was offered by a variety of sources, including mall book stores like Waldenbooks. I have two copies of Fantasy Wargaming; one each of the large and small editions. The large edition had some real printing issues, but the small edition was complete and without errors.

Certainly, Fantasy Wargaming is more complex than games using that crappy D20 system which floats around now, but it wasn't designed for munchkins. It was designed for adults. My friends and I played the game for a number of years and thoroughly enjoyed it.

The game is playable as-is, though it requires one to get creative to fully flesh out a campaign. No "dungeons" are provided. There's no introductory scenario. The game master must imagine his own monsters or adapt them from other sources, unless he wants to use the very few sample creatures included in the bestiary. There were no tables for magic items or treasure, either, but a decent game master ought to be able to figure that out, too.

The spell list was rather small and serves only to demonstrate the power of the rather flexible magic system. Again, a little creativity and a few minutes of thought can produce fantastic results. Or horrific, if you screw it up.

The system of astrological correspondences, which is completely optional as stated in the text, provides an additional way to influence the results of just about any situation, but which most impact the magic system. It is not overly complex, if you just spend a little time considering the environment in which the characters are adventuring. It also helps flesh out characters by providing stat bonuses and penalties, plus some insight into possible personality traits.

Priests within the context of the game can produce "miracles," which are magical operations performed by a higher or lower power, rather than the priest. The priest's piety within his religion is exceedingly important and must be role-played. It is assumed, but not required, that most priest characters are Christian. Only the Norse religion is dealt with in detail within the text, largely because just about everyone in Europe and North America is familiar with Christianity. The tables in question do not compare Beelzebub to the Virgin Mary. It ranks them in terms of power within their own hierarchies and those two each rank number two in their respective lists. Medieval sorcerers and priests maintained many such lists.
Mad Fishmonger said…
The combat system works and is deadly, often producing truly nasty results. It emphasizes the importance of armor in medieval combat. It also produces real results, rather than just a number of "hits" taken. Looking at the table, you'll notice that certain body parts tend to be hit more often, just like in real combat. You'd better have a priest or wizard who can heal your wounds, buddy. Maiming is common, just like in Medieval combat. Scars add character and finding a healer offers additional opportunities for role-playing. If you're a fan of hard-hitting combat (or Michael Moorcock), then you should have no problems with Fantasy Wargaming's system.

Also, the game includes a mass combat system which details rules for player characters within NPC armies. It works very well. There are tables detailing many different, accurate types of historical men-at-arms, from Picts to Norman knights.

The formula for determining leadership of a party was an expediency measure. How often have we all been in groups where one or more persons wants to be "the boss," but whose ability to lead and make good decisions is non-existent? Lots of bossing and bad decisions, no real leadership. The formula in Fantasy Wargaming can be used to help mitigate that issue. It also provides some historical accuracy within the context of the game; a pimp would not typically have led a heroic expedition, but a noble would have.

As to "bad taste," everything presented is done so within the historical context of Medieval Europe. As such, being Jewish was a decided disadvantage in those societies. Homosexuality was not accepted by society. The "black men" had nothing to do with Africans; it was a race of creatures from European folklore who were black, not dark brown. Calling these things bad taste is incredibly short-sighted. The game was set in medieval Europe. It is not a game for revisionist historians, armchair or otherwise, nor apologists of the ridiculous politically-correct mindset that pervades our culture.

If you look, however, you will see that Jewish Cabalists possess some decided advantages within the magic system. Being users of magic, this more than offsets the disadvantage for being Jewish in the context of the game and having to role-play a little persecution every once in a while.

I must confess, however, that I have always been at a loss to explain why bisexuality is advantageous within the context of medieval society as presented in the game, whereas homosexuality was a disadvantage. Our philosophy was that bisexuality allowed one a fall-back plan of "apparent heterosexuality" when in social situations. Honestly, though, we never forced anyone to play a homosexual or bisexual character if that was not his desire just because he rolled it on some table. That would just be poor game mastering.
Siskoid said…
Thanks for the finely written counter argument, MF. :-)
Unknown said…
I can't believe it's December of 2020 and this comment was written nearly 11 years ago. In regards specifically to revisionist historians and PC culture I'm really surprised how relevant it is today. This was a fantastic comment to a great thread.