So I just discovered the gem that is FantasyCraft and… Wow, yeah. This is how I wanted to play D&D back during 3rd edition. It really is my dungeon, my dragon, my way with this book.
Damn. Now if only I’d owned this fifteen years ago. I think I even saw one in the wild once, but just ignored it as another d20 OGL splatbook.
Let’s take a quick look at why I think it’s still worth a read now, skipping all that boring player stuff to get right to the good bit. (I should probably point out that I love how the character classes work in the book, how magic works, how one of the races is just a dragon, that you can be a bard assassin or a druid mage because classes and archetypes are separate, sort of. Yeah, it’s fun!)
I wrote recently about the DM advice in the Dungeon Masters Guide for setting up a game and a world for it to take place in, and the genre that games happen in. FantasyCraft has a shorter list, but still managed to throw Gonzo Fantasy in as an option.
How did that get missed off the D&D 5e list? Were the writers being too proper, too high and mighty about the sanctity of D&D when everyone knows the Bard will try and seduce a sentient rock, the Rogue can’t help but steal from his friends and the Paladin tuts at all the nonsensical carry-on in every damn game under the sun?!
Then they give us a much more important option – when is the game set for the world?
The book gives up primitive, ancient, feudal, reason and industrial as options, running the gamut from stone age through bronze and medieval to renaissance and the early modern. The fact that nothing like that jumps out from the pages of D&D’s core books is remarkable.
(Though I should now note that FantasyCraft was published in 2009, so only five years before 5e but well into the era of dystopian fantasy fiction of Mistborn and the modern setting of The Dresden Files – and I’m just now remembering that CraftyGames, who made FantasyCraft released an official Mistborn RPG in 2009…)
Anyway, there’s also ideas of replacing the D&D alignment system of Law vs. Chaos, and Good vs. Evil with the completely different Air vs. Earth, Fire vs. Water combination, which… I’m not yet sold on, but it would be an interesting change!
There’s stuff in here about working as spies for nobility and caste systems and mixing technology levels, but then there’s my favourite section – campaign qualities.
Basically, using a series of different optional rules to tweak a setting that are built in as an assumption you might tweak the rules. Don’t want faith-based magic? Turn it off. Want to level faster to fly through lower levels? Turn it on. Want to make the Reputation mechanic hinge on critical hits? Turn it on. Don’t want magic at all? Turn it all off!
Even better, with the use of Action Dice, you can activate a temporary campaign quality for a really dramatic scene – and you’re told to do as much by the book.
Want a deadlier encounter? Action dice. Want a critical hit? Action Dice.
Want to emphasise the danger of a well trained or heavily armed foe, and have them always make critical hits? Yup, turn that one on for a scene.
(Action dice work both ways, and for players are a bit like the variant options in 5e for proficiency dice and hero points combined together? And they get used by PCs to turn hits into criticals.
Yeah, I want to study this a bit further but I also want to play a lot of this…)
And then there’s chunks of exposition on writing adventures, stealing adventures but filing the serial numbers off just enough, and there’s information on using cutscenes, dream sequences, flashbacks and flash-forwards, montages and parallel scenes. It’s really a great toolbox.
For stuff I want to steal and try and run with, there’s encounters based around Menace Levels. Running from I though to V, with I being trifling, II being routine and V being death defying. You can build encounters all you want and rebuild them on the fly with this system, apparently.
If you’re running a campaign for months, you can still use the same level II stat blocks for the starting adventure and the finale if you want, just describe them a bit differently.
Finally, there’s the section on running the game, and the advice in there is priceless, for any game. I’m just going to give you titles of paragraphs, so you can get the gist of what’s being said pretty evenly. I’m going to emphasise the few I think are really important.
The Impartial Champion, Fun first, Lead by example, Developing Your Style, Roleplaying vs. roll-playing, History vs. fantasy, Realism vs. plausibility, Be flexible, Working With the Players, Challenging the heroes, Making rules calls, Listen to the players, Invest in the characters, Reward failure, The firm hand, Character death, Introducing new players, Keeping Things on Track, Nudge the party, Follow their lead, Let them win, Failure is an option, So is lying, Handling Actions, Action adventure physics, Action cues, Describing action, Improvising damage, Tracking initiative, Balancing Encounters, changing the rules, Ignoring the rules, Avoiding Burnout, Interludes, Troupe play, Passing the torch, Sharing the work, Embracing your limitations.
That last bit about avoiding burnout and troupe play are great, and a communal idea of nominating subplots for campaigns seems fun too.
Basically, as I think I’ve made pretty clear already, go and give this a read just for te DM advice.
Then go back and read about playing a dragon at level 1!