by Bruce Galloway, a.o.
1981 Patrick Stevens Ltd, Cambridge
First edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons looked like something you could delve from an antique bookshop. Fantasy Wargaming I actually did find among the occult books in a dusty corner of a second hand book store. And that's not all that strange. The small hardcover depicts an annoyed devil materializing from a spellbook, behind a hapless wizard doing some innocent research. And inside the book there are many entries about astrological signs, religion and the use of magic. So no wonder the bookseller placed it next to silly books like “the satanic bible”.
Fantasy Wargaming is not an occult book. But the game does try to approach medieval life as it was for real, or how it could have been for real. The first ninety pages or so are actually devoted to a description of medieval life, medieval warfare, theories of magic and religion and a medieval view of creatures. There is room for favorite fantasy authors and game mastering advice too. It's a treasure trove of information and inspiration. If you want to understand medieval life without earning a degree in history, then this is one of the best books to start with.
Only after this long “introduction” the game system is described. And its an intricate system, again aimed at simulating medieval life and medieval mores. A medieval life with magic, monsters and unholy temptations that is. It's still fantasy you know.
But the system is a tiny bit complex. The astrological birth sign of your hero influences his or her abilities and demeanor, for example. And each hero has statistics for strength, intelligence and piety, but also for lust, greed and selfishness. And these latter stats you don't want to be too high if you want to avoid the numerous temptations you'll face in adventures. All heroes also have one or more “bogeys”. These are uncommon good or bad quirks, whatever the dice decide: deafness, shyness, alcoholism, keen eyesight, bisexuality (yep), clairvoyance... Sometimes playable, sometimes not.
Combat rules actually are less complex than they seem. But they are written down in a complex way. All bonusses and penalties are hidden in paragraphs of text, and not shown in a few simple tables. It's a wargame, too. There are lists of typical medieval troops and rules for whole armies engaging in battle. Superfluous? Maybe. Not if you play an army commander.
The magic system is a beauty. It is written down in an inaccessible manner though, so I wonder what the writers tried to hide. Maybe it's the part where you can gain magic powers from sacrificing animals or even humans. You can also gain power from meditation, but hey. Once you have collected your power, called mana, you can cast your spell. And here you are almost totally free. You may make up effects of conjuration, evocation, protection, command, illusion, transmutation, divination – you name it.
Of course you have to take into account the astrological controllers. Aye, there's the rub. Crossindexing the right date and time, gemstones, herbs, metals and all what for your magic effect may be a bit cumbersome. It does look a lot more like alchemy and magic in the book. But in practice a game master may be too busy to take notice of your long study of the tables.
“So, you want a rhino bone wrapped in copper dowsed in full moonlight and virgin's blood?
Er... okay.” It takes effort to make this work.
Not only your physical constitution is important for survival. Certainly if you are a member of the clergy, you also have to watch your piety. Piety is lost for sinning, and some may be gained for resisting temptation. If your piety goes below zero, you may be excommunicated by the church, or worse: visited by the devil. The idea offers intriguing options for role playing, but the system unfortunately invites even more bookkeeping. And as you do not want to play Papers & Paychecks, that is not good.
Long lists of saints, demons, devils and pagan gods are provided, together with their areas of influence and areas of disfavor. This game dares to take a Christian stand – and the opposite stand too. Maybe that is why this game was hidden between the occult books.
In practice I found the rules too inaccessible to actually play. As a group we never tried to make heroes for this game and try an adventure. None is provided, so we would have had to make one up anyway. After the bestiary section the book just ends. Maybe that's a pity, as the book offers a huge amount of beautiful innovations.
Then again, to be honest, I took quite a few from its ideas and transformed them to my own game of Dark Dungeon. Playable or not, Fantasy Wargaming presents a milestone in fantasy role playing. Few games dare to use the Christian religion this boldly. And few games dare to leave magic effects so open to player creativity.
(rules are innovative, detailed, surprising and fairly realistic, but quite inaccessible)
(the first ninety pages present a good crash course in real medieval society, and the many tables of saints and magic tickle the creative soul)
(the game is more of a suggestion how fantasy role playing could be, than a playable game in its own right)
(“realistic” medieval fantasy, human based with Christianity and social standing taking a very central place, percentile based checks but with many modifiers based on many different factors, battle rules, a free form magic system allowing great freedom for magi, extensive rules for piety and temptation)