The Meaning of Heartbreaker

Ever since Dungeons and Dragons was first released, there have been designers who thought they could do better. Some of them were right, and right fairly quickly; Ken St. Andre, Greg Stafford, and Marc Miller are all luminaries of the hobby who made their mark before the 70s ended. Many others, though, were not. After all, game design is like many creative pursuits, and while some have the talent and skill to pull it off, others…don’t.

As the hobby developed, someone came up with a name for the less inspired clones of D&D and its ilk: the fantasy heartbreaker. There are a couple of etymologies for this phrase. The first refers to the heart of the designer. In the 70s, 80s, and 90s, if you wanted to put out a game, you really had no choice other than to get it printed. Not only was there no PDF or print on demand, there was a much smaller ‘small press’ industry, and fewer printers who would take on a run of a few hundred books. No, these designers usually, if they wanted their book in print, had to order a run of at least a couple thousand. The heartbreak, then, is having a pallet of game books, unsold, in your garage or basement, serving only as a reminder of the massive bill they produced.

The second etymology refers to the heart of the critic, and due to the common use of the longer phrase ‘fantasy heartbreaker’ I believe this one is more accurate. A fantasy heartbreaker specifically is a clone of D&D, hence the genre modifier. What makes it a heartbreaker is, to put it bluntly, wasted potential. The motivation of a designer who writes a heartbreaker is to make a better version of the game they’ve been playing; generally they have somewhere between one and half a dozen interesting and often very good ideas about how to make a game they’d rather play. What they don’t have is the understanding of how to integrate those ideas into a coherent ruleset. The result, both then and now, is a game with several good ideas shoe-horned into rules which are basically D&D without any understanding of what changes were needed to make their ideas work. A critic sees the good ideas, then sees the rest of the game, and then their heart breaks.

Heartbreakers were for a time the largest source of bad games in print, aside from maybe highly cynical licensed game rush jobs. This isn’t really the case anymore, for the same reason that the first etymology of heartbreaker no longer holds true even if it used to. It is easier than ever to make and distribute a game, bad games included. In fact, there’s a fair argument that most of the games distributed on zero-upfront platforms like DriveThruRPG and itch.io are bad. A lot of them definitely are; if I find that a large chunk of games on Kickstarter are bad then the platforms which require even less effort are almost certainly worse. And that’s not in itself a bad thing, more art means more bad art, and if that’s the price we have to pay for more of the good things then I’m OK with it. That said, it does mean that the heartbreaker is no longer a cross-cutting phenomenon.

Heartbreakers absolutely still exist, and that’s why it’s important to maintain the definition of the word: a clone or rewrite of a game with some good ideas but not enough to elevate it beyond its source material. The real problem with heartbreakers is that they’re no longer the bottom shelf dreck that stays unsold. When I’ve seen heartbreakers in the wild in the 2020s, they tend to have campaigned successfully on Kickstarter, land with a thud when they’re released to wider distribution, and then disappear. This means that, unlike the fantasy heartbreakers of yore, people are paying money for games that in the end aren’t very good.

When I’ve read heartbreakers recently, they tend to exhibit a surface-level understanding of the games they’re emulating, one which probably translates pretty well to the surface-level text of a Kickstarter campaign. The mechanics work, insofar as you can figure out how to use them, but they’re rarely inspiring. One recurring example is an attempt to redesign a multiple outcome roll mechanic like the one used in Powered by the Apocalypse. Quest, though it is overall much better than a heartbreaker, is an example of a game that does this, and it too shows that its designer perhaps doesn’t understand why Powered by the Apocalypse games have three outcomes and not more.

Adding ‘more’ has been a common sin of the heartbreaker forever, to the point where it’s clear that conciseness in design is, if not a lost art, at least not well understood. To be fair, I cannot claim that mainstream RPG design demonstrates conciseness at a consistent level, but most mainstream games are designed well enough at least that trying to add more to their frameworks essentially always makes the game worse. A well-designed game has a goal which it achieves; if your goal is to play anything then you’re designing GURPS but that requires other sacrifices along the way in order to work.

And this is an interesting place where the heartbreaker phenomenon cuts across a perhaps more contemporary issue in game design with the same roots. I’ve already written plenty of words about how D&D is not a generic system and after a certain point you’re just going to make a mess of things. Well, this sort of hacking comes from a similar place that most heartbreakers do, with some added problems created by Wizards of the Coast themselves when it comes to design choices of D&D. D&D, back in 1974, was narrow. It was a game about going into dungeons and getting loot from monsters and, provided you had the right Avalon Hill game to go with it, maybe also exploring wildernesses with monsters in them too. This narrowness wasn’t going to last, especially if D&D was going to enjoy a monopolistic presence over the market. As more and more people were exploring fantasy stories through D&D, the rules became less and less aligned with how people were playing; this became wildly more true after the Red Box exploded in the early 80s and RPGs were no longer and would never be again the purview of strictly wargamers.

Enter Wizards of the Coast. Basic D&D in its iterations and AD&D were fairly similar games, and while the breadth increased fairly significantly as the level cap crept up the game never tried to be anything other than a narrative wargame. In fact, this relative narrowness is one of the reasons there were so many games attacking D&D directly, both heartbreakers and the more successful sort. What Wizards of the Coast did, after acquiring TSR, was change the perception of the game. This happened in two ways. On the mechanics front, the Third Edition of D&D was changed to be a bit more broad. Some of this was in simplification, a little was in enhancement, but a lot of it was in omission. Dungeon-specific rules started to get edited out, and many of the procedural elements of the game were dramatically simplified.

On the marketing front, there was the OGL. The Open Gaming License was an utter coup from a marketing standpoint; for the cost of essentially nothing (game mechanics are not and have never been subject to US copyright or trademark law, nor can they be patented), Wizards could make a whole showy gesture about how their mechanics were so important, so vital to the hobby, that they should make them available to everyone. In fairness, this was also a needed about-face from the policies of Gary “Cease and Desist” Gygax, but it’s hard not to see the advertising potential in writing and releasing something called the “Open Gaming License”. This is also blatantly true in hindsight because of the massive number of d20-compatible games that were released. Unfortunately, most of them were bad. And the ones that weren’t bad, games like Mutants and Masterminds and Star Wars d20, understood what D&D was and incorporated that into their design.

There’s no material difference between the fantasy heartbreaker era, the d20 era, and the 5e era. Like I’ve written before, games which attempt to use the underlying assumptions of D&D in genres which don’t work with those underlying assumptions aren’t going to work well. When I reviewed Carbon 2185, I liked a lot of the material written for the game but found the expanding HP pools of D&D to be utterly incompatible with the cyberpunk genre (hell, one of the largest complaints about Cyberpunk Red compared to 2020 is the reduced lethality of combat, and Cyberpunk Red doesn’t go anywhere near expanding HP pools). Doctors and Daleks is still one of my favorite examples of the limitations of D&D, because making it work required decimating the existing rules (and props to Cubicle 7 for doing their decimation so artfully). And these are, arguably, good genre conversions in 5e. 

Heartbreakers in general are making a comeback because there are now so many more games to clone poorly. The PbtA library is filled with underdesigned genre ports and rules mish-mashes that are as bad to read as they are to play. Everybody and their mother wants to make a brooding Vampire-alike with a dice pool, but most of them don’t have the writing or layout skills to back it up. And still, to this day, people are assuming that all games have classes, and levels, and stats. Appropriately, my heart breaks.

Still! Still. More games are better. There are so many good games, and so many of them came from opening the floodgates with things like PDFs and zero-upfront distribution. And plenty of designers got their start from hacking and noodling and yes, writing heartbreakers. There’s a place for bad games, just like there’s a place for all bad art. And there’s a way to critique bad games, which is difficult to do when negativity drives more negativity just as much as it drives views. I haven’t named any bad games in this article, and when it comes to indie titles I don’t review bad games (I’ve read plenty, trust me). Modiphius, Renegade, or other big companies, when they do something that sucks I’ll write about it, they can go cry into their piles of money. But for small designers, a bad review could torpedo any hopes of them ever getting better. And that’s not fair.

I don’t talk about bad games very much, mostly for the reasons in the paragraph above. Still, when seeing heartbreakers, especially new PbtA heartbreakers and Mork Borg heartbreakers (there’s more to that game than vomiting images on a page, but I digress), it’s a nice reminder that history repeats itself. And because history is repeating itself, it’s time to remind the D&D fanbase once again that nothing about the quality or hackability of their game has actually changed. After all, every designer in this hobby, good or bad or indifferent, got their start as a nerd with a dream and a pencil. Even the designers of D&D.

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