Sometimes I come across an interesting little curio that strikes me as incredibly odd, whether that be strangely good, horribly bad, or weird in a way that I wonder how it was ever made in the first place. Such is the case with a little offering that’s simply titled Fantasy Wargaming (tag line, The Highest Level of All), a game that falls square in the middle of horrible and what the hell were the authors doing ever since the thing was first published. This headscratcher has been universally panned as one of the worst things to ever grace the shelves of chain bookstores back in the day, so I thought we’d dive and see if it truly deserves the reputation it carries. If you’ve ever read or tried to play this thing for yourself, let me say this right off the bat, I’m sorry if I drudge up any bad memories.
Fantasy Wargaming was first published in 1982, a time when roleplaying was first starting to become a huge fad and the products beginning to make their way into mainstream retailers. It was a collaborative effort by a group of Cambridge college students who aimed to “fix” everything they felt was wrong with D&D and other fantasy games they were playing at the time, the problem is, I don’t think they actually realized how to do anything right either. They aimed to try and bring in a more realistic style and background to what they were doing, eliminating the aspects they deemed inappropriate or too bizarre and replace them with more historically accurate equivalents, but they totally missed the mark.
The first problem is that they divided the book into seven chapters, with each of the contributing authors being responsible for researching and writing a single section. From what I’ve gathered a singled editor, Bruce Galloway, put everything together, but as you can imagine with something so fragmented there’s a glaring issue here. With a different person writing each chapter there is absolutely no flow to the book what so ever, making the prose of actually reading the thing a tedious task. One chapter might go along pretty smooth, while the next is written in a completely way that totally throws the reader off. Galloway seemed to just put it all together in a very slapdash manner, injecting a few things to try and loosely unify the material, but in the end just added to the confusion and further revealed that no one here has aclue about how to design and write an RPG.
Another thing that was totally botched was the game system itself, but what game system that actually is I have no idea, and I’ve been through this thing more than once. Apparently, the authors went with the notion to write this volume like a textbook or almost a novel, assuming that whoever bought it would read through it cover to cover and make their own notations in an effort to figure out how everything worked. Basically, what that means is they’ve sprinkled ideas about the rules, character creation, and how things function throughout the entirety of the seven chapters, with no one place to go to conveniently and easily walk a player through something as simple as rolling up a character or anything else for that matter. If you want information on something you have to hunt for it, which amounts to flipping through 222 pages of information and hoping you get lucky or run across one of your notes. Once you do manage to find the info, how the rules are written is painfully awkward as well, with most things that could be broken down in a chart explained in clunky paragraph formatting and the tables that are present suffering from abysmal lay out. I know there’s some sort of actual gaming system buried in all this somewhere, but finding it would require more excavation equipment than you would need to unearth a lost pyramid, and I ain’t got that kind of time or patience.
Okay, I would be remiss here if I didn’t at least give a mention to what passes as a magic system, because when you see a trainwreck within yet another trainwreck, you kind of have to point it out. The authors mention at one instance in the book that they felt the magic systems of the current games of their day were horribly confining, so this was their best shot at rectifying that issue, and they successfully blew off their own foot. They set about compiling a list of spell effects that a magic wielding character could combine together to work spells, with combat-oriented effects being cast quickly while the divination and summon magic took more time. It was a novel and ambitious idea but becomes a cluster very quickly, as each effect modifies another with values being added and subtracted for the casting time, number of effects being used at once, range, targets, and mana, yes, we have mana here, needed to fuel the spell. It’s an incomprehensible mess that makes other facets of this game looked polished and well researched by comparison, and an altogether head pounding experience if you’ve actually tried to figure it out, especially on the fly…I’ve actually tried.
With Fantasy Wargaming, I can appreciate what they were attempting to do with this endeavor, and that was fix the muddled nature of the original D&D rules and other systems that were available at the time. But what I don’t appreciate is the way they went about doing it, as it really feels like a group of guys got together, played some Dungeons & Dragons for a couple weekends, and then thought it was rubbish and that they could do better. They cut the fantastic elements out that made the first-generation roleplaying games so revolutionary in the first place, replacing them instead with an accurate view of what medieval society looked like. This small section of the book is actually where they did manage to start to do something right, as there are about thirty pages or so that do contain so great examples and explanations of what life was like in the middle ages. But by the end of it they still manage to bugger up their one saving grace, pointing out that if you’re character isn’t a knight or noble you’re going to be useless, and if, god forbid, you wanted to play a female, you’re relegated to nothing more than being a nun or thieving peasant wench. And where the hell’s the fun in that?
In all, I sincerely feel sorry for anyone that laid down their money for this back in 1982, especially if it was their first experience with roleplaying as this thing could turn even a Gygax away from the hobby. I found mine years ago at a small convention tucked away under a table and paid about two bucks for it, which I didn’t mind doing just for the novelty of saying I owned a copy. I’ll admit that every now and again I’ll break this book out and flip through it, if for nothing else than a simple chuckle and to remind myself how bad it is, kinda like now. If you’re looking for a playable old school game run far and fast if you ever come across this thing, but if you’re an RPG collector and want a great example of what a game should never be, then by all means pick it up. It stands as an example of a great idea that went horribly off the rails, one that you can break out in the dark and frighten your more logical thinking friends with. Seriously, break it out and read through a few pages of the magic section and how to design a spell, it’ll utterly terrify anyone who enjoys playing a wizard with its incomprehensible drivel, kind of like it’s some sort of forbidden gaming Necronomicon. BEWAAAARE! Later, gang.