I’ve often heard the term ‘fantasy heartbreaker’ used to describe a game. Where did this term originate and how was it used?

Matt Colville used the phrase 'fantasy heartbreaker' in his YouTube video "break Your Heart - Running the Game #71". youtu.be/nHv1EUYkqoM


2 Answers 2


Obviously the word has existed to describe a person (or thing) who broke hearts, often pejoratively, long before it was applied to RPGs.

For the specific RPG usage, it originated in this 2002 essay by game designer Ron Edwards.

This essay is about some 1990s games I'm calling "fantasy heartbreakers," which are truly impressive in terms of the drive, commitment, and personal joy that's evident in both their existence and in their details - yet they are also teeth-grindingly frustrating, in that, like their counterparts from the late 70s, they represent but a single creative step from their source: old-style D&D.

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    \$\begingroup\$ So the hearts being broken are of potential players who see the quality of the content, but can't bring themselves to play and experience it, because of the gameplay being too frustrating? \$\endgroup\$
    – Minix
    Sep 10, 2019 at 8:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ Interestingly, the wiktionary definition does not appear to ffit either Minix's understanding or the quote from howard that is still present on the page \$\endgroup\$
    – 3C273
    Sep 10, 2019 at 11:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ A better quote might be paragraph 2 under the heading “Part Three: Wow!”, since it directly explains “the central point of this essay” and why the term “heartbreaker” fits / was coined as jargon. (Edwards has also later reiterated that the joy of the “one great thing” is the core of being a heartbreaker, and why it’s not just criticism.) \$\endgroup\$ Sep 10, 2019 at 14:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ Ok so the term was coined in 2002 in reference to independent games published in the (mostly) early 90’s. A ‘fantasy heartbreaker’ could sell poorly but not every poorly selling game was a heartbreaker. The essay seems to focus on fantasy. Is it the fact that the game is too derivative of AD&D to merit players switching or is it the lack of originality that qualifies a game as a ‘heartbreaker’? It seems implied that these games were revolutionary in a single aspect but not daring enough to gain traction. \$\endgroup\$
    – Marlond
    Sep 10, 2019 at 21:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Minix The "heartbreak", as described in the essay, comes from Edwards' experience as a publisher, seeing people having sunk their fortunes — often their life savings — into producing thousands of copies of a book that was unlikely to recoup the investment, whose redeeming factor was one interesting or exciting mechanic or setting element lodged in a body that was mainly "just D&D, plus a thing or two." \$\endgroup\$
    – Jadasc
    Sep 23, 2019 at 10:40


When you have an idea for a part of an RPG, how do you get that idea in front of people? It may seem a strange question in these days when there's no barrier between 200 words about a mechanical oryx and the entire Internet, but it hasn't always been so simple. Especially if you wanted people to pay to use your idea, and thus "letter to the editor of a gaming magazine" was off the table.

Well, how did other ideas about RPGs get in front of people? Oh, look! It's Industry-Leading Fantasy RPG Dungeons & Dragons! I guess that's how it must be done. So, you'll need:

  • at least three thick core rule books, more if you actually want to play the game in a defined setting
  • a game focused around dungeon-diving, combat, and looting
  • cover art, interior art, and professional layout and printing

And so you set out to create all of these things, to package your handful of good ideas in. They don't have to turn out terrible or anything, but the most charitable way to describe them is uninspired. They're not the good idea you want to bring out to the world. They're just its packaging.

And then of course there's the matter of getting paid for this. Who do you sell all these professionally printed books to when they come out? Individual people? No, you need more reach than that; you need to sell your books to the distributors who sell them to game stores who sell them to individual people and now you're two removes from your original audience. Maybe you give up on that and just try marketing to people directly, but either way it ends at the same place:

You, at or beyond the brink of financial ruin, carting suitcases of books around gaming conventions looking for someone to buy some and pull you back, but the vast, crushing majority of people who try to engage with your product get hung up on something in the "packing material".

Doesn't it just break your heart? It broke Ron Edwards', who let it out in this essay:

The basic notion is that nearly all of [these] games have one great idea buried in them somewhere. It's perhaps the central point of this essay - that yes, these games are not "only" AD&D knockoffs and hodgepodges of house rules. They are indeed the products of actual play, love for the medium, and determined creativity. That's why they break my heart, because the nuggets are so buried and bemired within all the painful material I listed above.


It is killing, just killing, to contemplate the authors' naivete about the actual market and nature of RPGs as a business. Consider their status from the perspective of the three-tier system of marketing. As fantasy games, they were competing with TSR. As "lines," they were competing not only with TSR but also with such aggressive line-developers as White Wolf, AEG, and FASA (at the time). As lower-budget labors of love, they offer neither the coffee-table degree of glitz as single objects, nor the promise of multiple sequential objects, that the bigger companies presented.

So economics is the second reason that these games break my heart: basically, they were and are doomed. The world of the 1990s was no longer a place in which a house-rules variant of D&D can take wings in the marketplace and fly. They're dead.

Modern Usage

These days it's used to address things that share a commonality of form with the heartbreakers of old, whether or not somebody paid thousands of dollars for what, in the end, were a bunch of expensive garage ornaments.

As long as you have a few good ideas and they're surrounded by flawed or uninspired filler, you have a "heartbreaker".

  • \$\begingroup\$ Great answer except the first three rule books were very much not thick. ; ) Traveller likewise: first three books were not thick. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 24, 2019 at 2:43

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