Sunday, June 26, 2011

Obscure Items on My Shelf Review: Martin Hackett's "Fantasy Gaming"

Author: Martin Hackett
Publisher: Sutton Press, 2007
Large Paperback, 266 Pages
No Longer in Print.

Fantasy Gaming as a Book

Fantasy Gaming is an intensely interesting read that combines fantasy role playing rules with miniatures war gaming mechanics, along with a very great beginner's guide to the hobby. There is even advice on painting miniatures and creating scenery.

A medium sized volume with a very durable cover and large print on glossy pages, the book is profusely illustrated with evocative photographs of painted miniatures and terrain. One of the best is a photograph of Hackett's model of the Battle of the Five Armies that is quite remarkable, with it's mock up of the gate of the Dwarf Kings in the Misty Mountain and the river that issues out of it and flows across the plains below with the armies standing around it. Truly awesome, as you can see:

The Armies Assemble Beneath the Misty Mountain (Click for larger View)

Here is a close up of the Five Armies, battling away.  Dwarves and Elves fight together against the vicious Wargs as goblins advance:

As you can see, Mr. Hackett is a talented model builder with a  great attention to detail.

The Rules

As for the rules themselves, I can't say much regarding the war gaming rules as I as a DM have yet to run a true "war game" on my table, other than skirmishes, and when I do, I will be using my copy of "Chainmail". Hackett's mechanics seem, upon my single reading of them, to be quite sufficient and logical if one wanted to use them and include complete Army Lists to get you started right away.

On to the fantasy role playing rules. If I were to summarize them in a nutshell I would say they are at about the complexity level of Moldvay/Cook Expert D&D Rules but with much closer attention paid to medieval social order and culture.

The rules fit a Tolkien-esque setting fused with real Dark Ages history and Hackett appears to use a setting based on feudal Europe...for example he has a village of Shrewsbury. The non human player character races are Halfling, Dwarf, and Elf. There are no character classes but rather it is skill based, with your skills being partly determined by education which is based on social order. Social status is the result of a random roll.

There are no detailed skill lists, rather simply broad headings such as Flora, Fauna, Craft, Fighting Ability, etc. One flaw of the rules is that no detailed guidelines are provided as to how players gain skills under these categories. The best I can make of it is that you attempt to do a thing in the course of the game, using the base chance that falls under the related skill heading, if you succeed you get better at it. So you would write action down under the appropriate Skill heading and keep track of it from then on.

The mechanics are percentile based only, except for weapon damage  and spell effect dice which use the other polyhedral dice.  You begin with a base percentage in a set of broad skill areas related to your natural physical and mental abilities and each time you successfully use them, you gain 1 action point. When you reach 50 A.P. in a given field, you go up 1% in your percentage chance. It is a relatively simple system.

Magic is based on a power points system with a list of some 300 spells and many of the spells, while very brief in their descriptions, are interesting variations of standard D&D spells. A very good number are specifically written as to be of use in large scale table top battles by means of the war gaming rules.

What I Don't Like About It

There is little more difference between playing a Dwarf, Elf or halfling character than there is in playing a human character, other than some adjustments to your attributes and skills. They have no listed racial abilities, such as Darksight or Infravision. It would be easy enough for a DM to house-rule these in, though.

If played precisely by the rules, Character Generation is totally random. You have no idea what you are going to be (which I suppose could be interesting but try getting players to go for it) and if you want a spell caster or thief type character, you must get lucky with the dice. Again, the DM could house-rule this part out and let you choose a spell caster, and Hackett even mentions this, but this would negate the use of the very elaborate social class tables which to me, are the most interesting part of the game.

What I Do Like About It

Aside from the rules, it is a beautiful book in it's own right and a great introduction to miniatures for people wanting to get into painting and modeling or just adding minis to their game if they've never done so.

As for the rules, the aforementioned social status tables are the most comprehensive I have ever seen and even if you did not use Hackett's percentage based system, any DM could make use of them in his campaign with any set of rules. There are a number of rolls that gradually narrow it down. It goes into detail with royal and court titles, administrative occupations, craftsmen, and religious, magical and military orders on down to, of course, serfs and criminal types.

This is another notable feature. If an Illegal type character has been determined, there is a fairly comprehensive list of interesting and felonious type skills and tricks. Aside from the usual pick pocketing and stealthy movement and hiding, there are skills like escaping bonds, throwing one's voice, disguise, conceal items on person, and feigning death. Neat stuff.

The magical orders are very interestingly detailed, and there are four such Orders: Natural (Druidic), Necromantic (Evil Wizard), Psychological (Good Wizard), and Religious (Clerical). Out of the very lengthy spell list, there are some spells which can be cast by any spell caster but a large number can be cast only by members  a certain Order. The PC is somewhat answerable to his Order to a dgeree to be determiend by the individual DM since this is not detailed and only implied. A non-spell caster can join a magical order but it is very difficult and costly and they will never be as powerful as spells casters who began the game as such.

Another great things about the rules is the exhaustive and minutely detailed equipment, weapons, and items lists, which would fit perfectly into any D&D campaign. Lists can include such things as herb types, gaming cards, mining pans, individuality clothing pieces, lodging and even equestrian gear in additon the usual weapons and armor listings. The monetary system is based on real medieval coinages such as florins, groats  pennies, shillings, Sovereigns, etc.

Another thing in the game's favor is that it is highly mutable and you could easily add material to it for customizing it to taste without seriously changing any core rules.

Finally, what I like best about Fantasy Gaming is that it is one stop shopping. You hold in your hands all the rules you will ever need for a campaign that can include ample war gaming if you so desire. The tables are neatly set up for ease of play and you are given a sample adventure (which is rather tepid in my opinion) to show how to construct a scenario. I think a beginning DM would find this set of rules rather easy to use once he digested them.


Overall Martin Hackett's "Fantasy Gaming" belongs on your shelf, if nothing else then for the good medieval source material. It would give you a lot of good ideas. I'm glad I have my two copies (one was bought for the players to consult), and they are still widely available online and very cheaply at that. I have read reviews of this game in the past where some people have disparaged the rules and Mr. Hackett and made all kinds of fun of the book, which I personally find unreasonable as they are very playable rules from a person who deeply loves the hobby and who seems to have a real desire to introduce new players. Think of it as a professionally produced "Hombrew" system. 

I have not ruled out running a game based on these rules. Four Stars!

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