The philosopher Epicurus claimed that "skilful pilots gain their reputation in storms and tempests." This is a pretty good template for RPG experience systems: you endure terrible things and you get better at the things you used to succeed.
Some ancient history
D&D originally bunched a whole load of applied skills together as a 'character class' and, when people found these templates too narrow and prescriptive, offered variant classes and sub-classes with different proficiencies. You're a thief who likes killing people: welcome, assassin! A druid who likes nature spirits: greetings, druid! Non-weapon proficiencies (NWP) started appearing in 1985, with the Unearthed Arcana expansion that made a lot of Dragon Magazine material canonical. NWP became a major feature of AD&D's 2nd edition in 1989. However, NWP always sat awkwardly with AD&D's class system. They're really different approaches to doing the same thing and they get in each other's way.
Meanwhile, D&D's glamorous cousin Runequest (1978) went a different way. Runequest abandoned character classes (well, almost: Shamans and Rune Lords inserted themselves) and defined PCs entirely by their skills. The system, which acquired a life of its own as Basic Roleplaying (1980) and undergirds Call of Cthulhu (1981), shames D&D with its simplicity. All skills (from swinging a sword or parrying a blow to tracking trolls or leaping chasms) are values on a 0-100 scale and you test them by rolling d%, looking to roll equal to or under your skill. Succeed and you get an 'experience check' against that skill. At the end of the session or adventure, roll d% for each checked skill and if you roll higher then the skill increases.
The point about rolling higher is important. Starting PCs have low skills and fail most of their rolls but if they succeed then they are very likely to improve: if your Sneak skill is 10% you will fail 9 times out of 10, but if you succeed you check the skill and you only need to roll higher than 10 on d% for it to increase. Conversely, experienced characters succeed often but find it hard to improve: with Sneak 90% you rarely fail to be stealthy but you need to roll 91-00 to increase the skill any further.
Almost all later RPGs took a position somewhere between these poles. Rolemaster (1980) offered classes AND skills, with the skills multiplying with every expansion. Later games often offered character classes as mere templates, enabling players to invest in a coherent and thematic set of 'class skills' and perhaps penalising out-of-class skill choices by making them more expensive to acquire or improve or else privileging in-class skills by having them advance faster. This maintained the convenient 'meta' of character classes ("I'm a fighter" and "I'm a rogue") to speed up character creation and simplify adventures while allowing players to customise their PCs. In many '90s RPGs, character classes were replaced by factional allegiances that worked in the same way. For example, Vampire: the Masquerade (1991) offered signature powers for different Clans then allowed the players to put together any permutation of skills and abilities.
How Forge does it: Basic Skills
Ron Edwards (2002) points out that 'fantasy heartbreakers' like Forge invariably claim to be "innovative" when in fact they are just reinstating alternative systems from the beginnings of the roleplaying hobby. There's nothing new under the sun, and Forge really just reinstates Runequest/Basic Roleplaying. However, even when rules aren't original, they can still be elegant. Forge takes familiar materials but puts them together well.
Forge PCs have a number of skill slots equal to the sum of their Intellect+Insight - 15 on average. Basic Skills can be bought which confer unvarying advantages, as opposed to Percentage Skills which confer a chance of success with the possibility of failure. They are more like abilities than skills. If you know Binding you can use binding kits to treat wounds; if you know Horsemanship you can attack at a penalty while mounted. The Exceptional Characteristic Basic Skills let you add +1.0 to a characteristic; Exceptional Intellect and Exceptional Insight cost 2 slots because they recalculate the number of skill slots you have.
There are some oddities here. History is a Basic Skill which means the Referee will give you any information you need about the history of an area, no roll needed. Similarly Hunting gives you a flat 50% chance of foraging food for the next 2-5 days in exchange for 6 hours of hunting and reducing traveling rates by a quarter. Most games would make these Percentage Skills, with the possibility of failure but also the option to improve them.
These Skills reflect Forge's assumptions. It's a game of going down dungeons and killing things, not making long wilderness journeys or researching historical mysteries. Activities outside of the dungeoncrawling paradigm are marginalised, expressed as "yeah you did it" abilities that move the plot along. Why should a failed History roll mean you never hear about the dungeon? Why should a failed Hunting roll mean you struggle to reach the dungeon?
Ron Edwards finds this truncated perspective laughable, pointing out that, for heartbreaker RPGs, dungeon adventuring is "not only the model, but the only model for these games' design - to the extent of defining the very act of role-playing." But the thing is, I don't mind about that. If I'm going to play a dungeoncrawl game, I want a dungeoncrawl system. Forge's laser-like focus on creating characters for dungeoneering is only a flaw if you believe this RPG ought to have loftier ambitions. But why should it?
Movin' on up: Percentage Skills
With Percentage Skills, we're on familiar territory. The skill's score is your chance of using it successfully on d% and, once used successful and checked, you try to roll above the skill to improve it with experience.
Forge has a few contributions of its own. In Basic Roleplaying and similar systems, everyone gets access to every skill, many of which start with lowly scores (e.g. Stealth 10%, Disguise 01%) to which skill points are added. In Forge, if you don't select a Percentage Skill then you simply cannot do it at all and the ones you select have a starting value set by the sum of two characteristics (e.g. Blind Fighting is Dexterity+Awareness), which is a modest figure (average 15%).
This makes for simplicity at the risk of absurdity. What, I didn't select Climbing so I can't even try to climb the castle wall? Without Hiding I cannot even try to hide myself from that patrol - I have to just stand there, out in the open?
In the context of '90s and early C21st RPGs, this is maddening stuff. In the context of Old School Revival RPGs, it's less of a problem. OSR emphasises Referee judgement over rules and skills. Let the Climbers roll their skill (baseline Dexterityx2%) and give everyone else a lesser chance (baseline Dexterity%) as you see fit. Forge also lacks a system for scaling skill success against difficulty level: what about smooth walls and observant guards? The Referee is invited to raise or lower skill chances based on the situation. For OSR Referees, this is plain sailing.
In Basic Roleplaying you check a skill for improvement the first time you succeed at it, but in Forge you check it every time you succeed at it. You could end up with a LOT of checks , especially in a skill like Leadership that a PC might use at the start of every combat encounter or Open Locks that might be used dozens of times.
This partly gets round one perennial problem in percentage skill systems: the Lockpickers' Queue. This is a phenomenon where, faced with a locked door or chest, the party members with the worst lockpicking skills try to open it first, with the expert lockpickers stepping in only when everyone else fails. Why? Because the poor lockpickers might succeed by fluke and, if they do, they get to check their skill and are very likely to improve it; the experts are almost guaranteed to succeed and don't need the skill check so badly: they're likely to fail to improve. It's a clunky insertion of meta-knowledge into roleplaying behaviour. In Forge, you can check a skill multiple times, so the expert has an interest in using his skill successfully because, with enough checks, he should manage to raise it a little.
Some of the Percentage Skills raise problems.
Tactics is a skill you may use every round in combat to boost your DV2 against flank attacks. Since there's no penalty for using it, PCs will use it every round. Does that entitle you to dozens, maybe hundreds of checks? Not quite. You only get a check when the skill is used significantly, when there's "something to gain from it" (p20). The rulebook doesn't clarify but presumably to gain a check in Tactics you have to boost your DV2 on a turn when you suffer an attack against your DV2. I'm not sure whether it should be an attack that misses as well. Either way, you're rolling this every round but only checking it when you get attacked - grr-r, book-keeping...
Better, I think, to treat Tactics like Leadership: it's a roll you make at the start of combat, if it succeeds it gets a check and the benefit lasts for the entirety of the encounter.
Missile Evasion lets you add your Awareness bonus (if you have one) to your DV2. This is another fiddly skill and, in any event, the rule that missiles attack DV2 ought to be scrapped. What should Missile Evasion do instead? The rule as-written means that, when you get shot at, you can try to hike your DV by a couple of points. One option is to make it function just like Giant-Fighting: possession of the Skill adds +1 to your DV against these attacks and a successful roll adds +5! Another option is to make Missile Evasion a Leveled Skill that benefits your DV1 against missile attacks you can see coming.
Then there's Jeweler: why is this even a Percentage Skill at all? If History is a Basic Skill ('You're a historian: you know the history') then why is Jeweler something you have to make a skill test to do, instead of just automatically identifying gems ('It's a big diamond, probably worth 500gp')?
The answer is another of Ron Edwards' "unquestioned assumptions": you find jewels in dungeons but you don't find historical curiosities. If we take this skill at face value it means that when PCs find jewels and fail to evaluate them, they're just 'Jewel #1' and 'Jewel #2' and have to be randomly assigned at the end of the adventure. Players get their jewels evaluated when they sell them: 'Cool, Jewel #1's worth 500gp!' or ''Drat! Jewel #2's worth 5gp!' There's a merry lottery to this, but rational players will sell the jewels en masse and split the gold they got for them, which raises the question of why it's worth evaluating jewels in the dungeon at all!
It would make sense if Jeweler was a skill at cutting and polishing gems to increase the value of jewellery (say, by 20%). Or if jewels lost 10% of their value when converted to cash unless a PC Jeweler had previously evaluated them. Otherwise, this Skill needs to be reassigned to the Basic Skills to be worth investing in.
A similar case could be made for reassigning Plant ID and Track ID to Basic Skills. If someone's got the skill, they should be able to tell peysha mold from jilda weed. The idea of having the skill but rolling badly and failing to recognise a herb that's on every PC's shopping list is absurd.
One step at a time: Leveled Skills
Leveled Skills are the smartest feature of Forge's three-legged stool and, if the game needs further development, then all the skills should probably be revised as Leveled Skills. It's just the best system the game offers. It's characteristic of fantasy heartbreakers that they don't try to present a unified mechanism, retaining instead D&D's 'diff'rent rules for diff'rent rolls' approach, but Forge comes closer than most to the d20 system D&D evolved into in 2000, just 2 years after Forge was published.
Leveled Skills start at 1st level and go up, potentially to 12th level, possibly higher. They are mostly combat skills like Melee Weapon and Missile Weapon, Melee Assassination and Missile Assassination, Backstabbing and Brawling, but they also include Magic. The level translates directly into your Attack Value (AV) and the level of spells a Mage can cast.
Leveled Skills also have a percentage score that usually starts at a characteristic multiplied by 4 or a pair of characteristics doubled (so averaging 30%). This gets checked in the same way as Percentage Skills but increases in the opposite way: you have to roll under the score on d%, so it starts difficult but gets easier and easier as the score rises. When it hits 100% you go up a level and the score drops to its base level again, minus 4%. Eventually it drops to 0% and at that point you cannot increase it any further.
This means an average character who starts with a skill at 30% will get to 8th level in the skill then be unable to advance any further. The Elvish racial benefit of adding +25% to the Magic Skill doesn't just mean the character advances faster (Joe Average Elf starts at 55%) but has a higher level limit (14th!) before the base score drops to 0% or less.
If the game were to be revised,it would be a good idea to gives each race a +25% bonus to a particular Leveled Skill, giving them a head start and extending their potential in the future.
You can probably tell, the Leveled Skills mechanic intrigues me. I like the way your starting score also contains the limits of your ultimate advancement; I like how you start improving slowly then speed up, but when you go up a level you drop to a lower starting point and have to struggle longer before advancing.
But what about the loot?
In D&D, treasure is really important. Loot equates to experience points, so the thrill of finding a sack of gold or a string of pearls is the excitement of knowing this brings you closer to your next level-up.
In skill-based RPGs like Forge, this connection is broken. You increase skills by using them, not acquiring money. But why, then, are adventurers venturing into dangerous dungeons if it's not for hidden treasure? Surely there are safer and more certain ways of increasing your skills - like military service, for example. What's their motivation?
One point needs making and that is that the de-emphasising of treasure can be a good thing. In converting a D&D adventure to Forge, I halve the treasure, maybe cut it even more. No need for chests filled with thousands of coins.
Money still has a use in Forge. Mages have to buy spell components and most of these are priced beyond the reach of starting characters. You go down into dungeons to get the money to access your full spell list. Armour and weapons are more expensive than in D&D and, unlike in D&D, they break and have to be replaced. Purchasing extra binding kits and armour repair kits makes for extra resilience down in the dungeon.
Nonetheless, adventurers quickly have more money than they know what to do with and they gain no benefit from it in terms of their powers and abilities. It's tempting to house rule tuition costs before a PC can level up a skill (say, 100gp times the square of the new skill level, so getting from 1st to 2nd level costs 400gp, from 2nd to 3rd costs 900gp, and so on).
The Rules for Forge are summarised on the website. This post is about how they work in practice and whether they need tweaking. The PC Races are a whole other matter and I'll consider them on a later post.
Combat: keep it simple
Combat is first up, as it should be in a good fantasy heartbreaker (see the previous post for a discussion of Ron Edwards' useful term). Forge seems to stumble onto a mechanic that's beautifully simple. All attackers have an Attack Value (AV) and all defenders have a Defence Value (DV). Both numbers are usually in single figures and might be in low negatives in the case of feeble PCs. If your AV is the same as the defender's DV, you need to roll 10+ on a d20 to hit. Each point of difference in the defender's favour increases the target by 1, in the attacker's favour lowers it by 1.
This is the sort of arithmetic a child can do in their head and it makes D&D's THAC0 convention (an innovation still 5 years away when Forge came out) looks like calculus by comparison. Yet the authors don't seem to have realised how simple they've made things and feel the need to include a D&D-style table so people can cross-reference AV and DV to find out their target number.
This is one of the "unquestioned assumptions" that Edwards finds so prolific in heartbreaker RPGs: D&D did it this way, so this is the way it must be done - consult your attack matrices!
By the way: don't forget the Leadership skill that adds +1 to AV for all allies. Someone needs to invest in this, despite its 2 skill slot cost.
Defensive Value: not thought through
DV is split into DV1 (adding your Armour Rating, your Shield Rating and your Awareness Modifier) and DV2 (just your Armour Rating); DV2 is used when enemies ambush you, attack from the flanks or the rear or use undodgeable area attacks or magical effects. Missile attacks are also supposed to target DV2.
Critic Thomas Wilburn spots a problem here straight away: "ranged weapons use the second value, which is always easier to hit than the first ... [but] it should never be easier to hit someone in a hectic combat situation with a bow and arrow ... than with a sword."
Leaving aside the contention that DV2 is always easier to hit than DV1 (if you have the Tactics skill it could actually be more difficult), Wilburn is right and the rule that "the advantage of missile attacks is that the character needs only to strike his opponent's DV2, making it easy to hit his enemy" (p45) is nonsensical. The advantage of missile attacks is that you are at a safe distance and get to attack your enemy while they are unable to attack you. Shields and dodging are perfectly effective against most missile attacks. DV1 should be used.
Once this house rule is in place another conundrum reveals itself. The rules (p45) state that only Armour contributes to DV2 and Awareness modifiers are ignored - but what about Awareness penalties? Characters with an Awareness of 4.4 or less have a -1 penalty to DV1, -2 at 3.5 and -3 at 2.8. What happens to that?
If you attack an inattentive/half-blind/day-dreaming character, it makes sense that it's easier to hit because their DV1 is so low. But if you sneak up behind them, should it suddenly get harder to hit their DV2, because their inattentiveness no longer applies? Surely, the whole point about being inattentive is that you're more vulnerable, not less, to attacks from behind?
I think we can house rule that DV2 ignores any bonus from Awareness, but it still retains any penalty.
Don't forget the Tactics skill that adds +1 to DV2 and lets you add your Awareness bonus to your DV2. Probably worth it if you have a high Awareness, especially when you think about what Backstabbing and Assassination can do (see below).
Actual Damage: big implications
Combat against armoured opponents is interesting. Most of the damage you deal is directed at the armour itself and a token amount - "actual damage" - gets through to lower the target's Hit Points. A lot of opponents will have scrappy padded armour (up to 10 Armour Points) or leather (20 AP) but combat becomes protracted when they have metal armour (50 AP for chain mail, 70 for plate armour). As the armour disintegrates,it offers less protection, so DV drops, making it easier to hit.
Actual damage is equal to the number of damage dice rolled, so a short sword (1d6 damage) deals 1 actual damage, but a spear (2d4 damage) deals 2 actual damage and a two-handed sword (3d6 damage) deals 3 actual damage. Watch out for the bite of a Manticore (5d4 damage, 5 actual).
Since a typical NPC has 15HP, a fight goes like this: you slowly chip away at their HP at first, but hit more often as their DV drops and, once the armour gives way, damage goes entirely to HP and the fight ends suddenly.
Actual damage makes a big difference in combat. Against a metal armoured opponent, you might never remove their APs entirely, so you probably need to defeat them through actual damage alone. That means you have to hit a typical NPC 15 times in a fight, but only 7 or 8 times with a spear and only 5 times with a two-handed sword. Even if you only swing that two-handed sword every other round, the actual damage output is still better than a normal sword that you swing every round. Ghantus who get to attack every round with two-handed weapons have a hideous advantage!
Things that boost actual damage help immensely. Rolling a natural 20 is significant: the damage is applied twice, once to the armour and again as actual damage in its entirety. A single natural 20 dramatically revises the odds in a fight. Yes, the attacker's weapon is 'notched' in the process; most weapons can take 2-5 'notches' before disintegrating but those deadly spears disintegrate on the first 'notch'.
Two skills are useful here. Backstabbing is used to make attacks against a man-sized or smaller target's DV2 (so someone else needs to engage the enemy front-on) and deals +1 actual damage for every two levels of skill (i.e. +1 at 1st level, +2 at 3rd, +3 at 5th). This lends itself to a tactic whereby one PC focuses on backstabbing and makes flank attacks on enemies being engaged by other PCs. Even the +1 actual damage for low-level backstabbing is significant. Great news: successful Backstabbing gives you an experience check to your Backstabbing skill AND your Melee Weapons skill, so there's no reason not to do it if you can.
Ironically, by making backstabbing a tactic you can employ every round so long as you're in the right position rather than a one-off benefit you gain when you sneak up on someone, Forge anticipates the way D&D 4th & 5th edition would reinterpret backstabbing.
Assassination comes in two flavours, Melee and Missile. This involves imposing a -5 AV penalty on yourself (-8 AV for missiles), but gaining +1 actual damage per skill level along with a 2%/level chance of killing a man-sized or smaller opponent outright. You can attempt this every round. You cannot kill larger opponents (or those with 50+HP) or undead outright but you still get the actual damage bonus. Also, you don't get the experience check to your basic weapon skill when you assassinate.
It remains to be seen whether Assassination is a broken skill; it's certainly something that PCs would be mad to ignore: it takes up 3 skill slots, compared to 2 for Backstabbing and 1 for ordinary Weapon skills. If you don't spend 10 skill slots on Magic, you would be well-advised to spend 8 on getting Backstabbing and both types of Assassination.
I also wonder about NPCs employing Assassination. Are players happy to have their PCs killed outright on a lucky roll? Or do the designers envisage that only PCs will ever employ Assassinate? You could house rule this by declaring that victims don't die instantly but drop to 0HP and start the process of bleeding out. For most NPCs, that's the end of the road, but PCs can expect their companions to save them.
Don't forget about crossbows. It's easy to miss (p33), but crossbows inflict only 1 point of damage to armour, with the rest being actual damage.
Finally, there are spells that deal actual damage. Beast Magic has Quills (p73) and Wounding (p74), both 1st level spells. Elementalism has Fiery Touch (p102), Grom Warriors have Minor Harm (p135) and Necromancers have Pain (p148), all at 1st level. You can see the value in "pumping" these spells for extra damage, even if its just +1 (Beast Magic), +2 (Necromancy) or +3 (Elementalism). Fights against armoured opponents are dramatically curtailed when these spells are in play.
This provides a broad template for Forge combat. You cannot beat two-handed swords against armoured opponents and spears are better than swords, but carry more than one because they break when 'notched'. Use Leadership to raise everyone's AV and Tactics to improve your DV2. If you can free yourself from opponents, engage armoured enemies on the flank using Backstabbing. If you have a high AV (perhaps you are a Berserker or just have a high Dexterity), then Melee Assassination becomes a valuable alternative to conventional attacks, especially against armoured foes. An archer hanging back and employing Missile Assassination can be decisive. Mages should select an actual damage spell and re-roll it until it's reliable; consider "pumping" it to end fights against armoured opponents that would otherwise drag out.
It makes sense for the first blog to be a retrospective review of Forge Out Of Chaos. You can read about my involvement and the rules elsewhere on this site.
The Kibbe brothers (Mike, Paul and Mark) published Forge Out Of Chaos in 1998 through their own independent company, Basement Games LLC (they really do seem to have worked in their parents' basement!). The credits page thanks "games guru" Marc W Miller (of Traveller fame) for his guidance in the production phase and a professional eye does seem to have been cast over the book's presentation. It's well laid out and clear, without repetition or contradiction.
Of course, such presentation was still pretty basic compared to what the big companies were putting out in the '90s. Dark Sun and Planescape both wowed with their art. Many RPGs moved towards a mature, coffee-table sort of appearance. The sophisticated reticence of Vampire: the Masquerade, the endearing aesthetic of Everway and the plush pop art of In Nomine, all set Forge to shame, but we mustn't let the best become the enemy of the merely good.
The other selling point of Forge was that the system was robust. It worked and it was easy to figure out. This must seem like faint praise, but the big budget In Nomine for Steve Jackson Games looked adorable and just popped with ideas but was maddening to figure out and the system barely worked at all. Vampire swept all before it with its Storytelling ethos and angst-ridden sensibility, but the rules system was GHOD (Great Handfuls of Dice) and the combat system creaked, with super-speed Celerity dominating all encounters. AD&D 2nd edition was still wedded to a disunified system of dice rolls, an absurd Armour Class mechanic and a maddening intersection of character classes and proficiencies. Compared to all of these murky cocktails, Forge is a tall, cold, clear glass of water.
Not everyone saw it this way. Thomas Wilburn (1998) dismissed the game as a "waste of money" in a playtest review on RPG.net. Wilburn's analysis is over-hasty. For example, he complains about the pointlessness of determining characteristics with decimals when these decimal values are never used. But of course, they are used quite a lot. Several effects raise or lower characteristics by a few decimal points; Necromancers lose 0.1 from Stamina every time they create a new undead servant and 0.3 when they create powerful ones. The decimal points allow for fine effects, small benefits, gradual deterioration.
Wilburn is particularly damning of the artwork, which "ranges from comical to ludicrous" and which he complains is "similar to those found in very early TSR products ... amazingly bad." I suppose he means the Original D&D books which used tracings of Marvel Comics art with swords added in!
The art in Forge is nowhere near that shoddy.
The 'macho Sprite' on p16 is a cringe moment, but the drawbridge battle splash on p 41 is full of drama and the arrow-riddled warrior on p25 causes me no pain.
What the art does deserve credit for - and it was well ahead of its time here - is the absence of female nudity or 'chainmail hotties'. The elderly enchantress on p116 is very evocative and Dembria, the goddess of Enchantment, is curvaceous but very much a clothes-on sort of deity.
Compare and contrast Morgan Ironwolf from the 1981 Basic D&D rules. Arms like pipecleaners but nipples so mighty you can see them through her chainmail. Is this what Forge is being held up against?
Wilburn laments that "the writers took all the worst elements of AD&D (random character generation, restrictive character classes, component based magic system, unrealistic combat, and the list goes on) and didn't make any improvements." This is inaccurate: there are certainly improvements and Forge does NOT have character classes, but he spots one stand-out oddity: "it should never be easier to hit someone in a hectic combat situation with a bow and arrow ... than with a sword, whether or not they're paying attention or not." He's right, of course. Having created the distinction between DV1 (your shield and Awareness modifiers apply) and DV2 (no benefit from shield or Awareness), it's wrongheaded for the designers to declare that missile attacks target DV2. Surely shields are effective against arrows? That needs fixing.
Some of Wilburn's punches land. He complains that there's no index. This is a presentational flaw. However, I must say I find the rules so clearly laid out I rarely wish to use an index: the only exception being tracking down Spell Points (they're described under the Magic Skill, not the Power characteristic that calculates them or in the Magic chapter itself).
Curiously, Wilburn finds particular fault with the introductory text setting out Forge's mythology, wherein an absentee landlord demiurge named Enigwa (I like that name) leaves his divine children to fight over the world, creating monstrous races in the God-Wars, then returns to banish them, creating a sort of post-religious fantasy world. Wilburn thinks "mythology belongs in a background section in the main text, not at the very front where the reader has to wade through it just to get to the game" but he obviously wasn't reading many '90s RPGs: this sort of foregrounding of setting and mythology is one of the few ways - perhaps the only way - that Forge can be seen as an up-to-date '90s game.
Thomas Wilburn's review doesn't read like it was based on a particularly rigorous read-through of the rules or a generous attempt to play the game, but he singles the magic system out for praise. A more positive review followed from Willard Bowzer (1999). If Wilburn went through Forge looking for problems, Bowzer sees only the good. Bowzer calls the layout "impressive" and commends the art as "a throwback to art of earlier rpgs," which is perhaps attributing too much to design choices but certainly admits of its charm. Bowzer sees Forge as "inspired" by D&D rather than shamelessly derivative, but the truth is somewhere in between.
Among all the gushing, Bowzer recognises a couple of flaws. The character races are not well-balanced or even equally interesting. Cyclopean Ghantu will be popular with hack'n'slashers while Elves and Dwarves are very under--cooked. The monster bestiary is uninspired. Bowzer shares Wilburn's assessment that magic is the strongest component of the game, but points out that this rather contradicts the introductory flavour text, which states magic is rare. A consideration of Forge's setting will wait for another blog post; it can certainly be ignored for now.
By far the most insightful critic to consider this game is Ron Edwards' (2002) blog on 'Fantasy Heartbreakers.' Edwards defines a 'fantasy heartbreaker' as an amateur/independent RPG that is "truly impressive in terms of the drive, commitment, and personal joy that's evident" but 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." He adds that, largely due to economic realities their authors fail to appreciate, these games are "doomed from the start."
No one can criticise Forge's inclusion in this list. It is very much an attempt to "fix" D&D - or particularly, 1st edition AD&D - that shows very little awareness of other developments in roleplaying that took place in the late '80s and '90s, such as storytelling, the de-emphasising of combat, the focus on cultural and political context in place of aimless 'adventuring' and a new interest in 'dark' characters and stories.
But why exactly should a game like Forge get on the '90s bandwagon in that way? Edwards deplores the absence of 'meta' elements. He means that Forge proposes characters who are rootless adventurers without family or lineage, with no involvement in politics or morality; that the rules do not accommodate play over years and no one is developing dynasties or exploring factions or building communities. It's not Pendragon or Ars Magica or even Rifts.
Ron Edwards is quite right in his analysis, but it's only salient if you agree that such features are desirable in a decent RPG. Don't get me wrong: I like those features. I love the way The One Ring positions you in 'The Tale of Years' with a wider narrative taking place around you. I love stories that follow an epic arc and position the PCs as rulers, plotters, lovers, parents and rebels: people who are locked into their world and intimately involved with the rise and fall of its institutions.
And yet, and yet... what about good ol' dungeon-bashing?
I'll say more about this in a later blog post. Edwards concedes that, if you just want a fantasy dungeon raid, many of his 'heartbreakers' are exemplary products. He singles Forge out for particular praise for being "gleefully honest about looting and murdering as a way of life," saying that it's a game where "the very notion of doing anything that isn't treasure-seeking in a dungeon is completely foreign."
This is a bit of an overstatement, but only a bit. The Kibbes produced a World of Juravia Sourcebook (2000) to place Forge in a developed fantasy setting, but the main rulebook makes few concessions to any of that. As it stands, Forge Out Of Chaos is a dungeon-bashing RPG, for creating characters who go down dungeons, grow stronger and then go down dungeons again. This was a pretty regressive ethos back in 1998, but things were shifting even by 2002. Wizards of the Coast promoted their Open Games License in 2000 and within a few years the Old School Revival was underway: Castles & Crusades came out in 2004, Lamentations of the Flame Princess in 2009, Monsters & Magic in 2013. A whole generation re-embraced Basic D&D with shonky art. Out went the meta and in came player agency within a structured dungeon setting. Whoosh.
Could it be... that Forge was not 20 years too late, but rather 10 years too early? That would be ironic.
I've been bitten by the Old School bug myself and I want to revisit some of the classic scenarios of my youth. I think Forge is the game to to it with. Yes, I could bring out tired old AD&D again, but I find its clunky systems aggravating. I could invest in one of the lean, shiny OSR RPGs but the time investment in mastering a new game irritates me. Forge is one of the original OSR games, so it seems appropriate to give it some legs again. Let the roars of the Ghantus be heard once more in the land!
30 Minute Dungeons
Essays on Forge
I'm a teacher and a writer and I love board games and RPGs. I got into D&D back in the '70s with Eric Holmes' 'Blue Book' set and I've adopted Forge Out of Chaos to pursue my nostalgia for old school RPGs.
The shoddy PDF rulebook available at drivethrurpg is missing pp 66-67, 82-83, 86-87, 126-127, 140-141 and 162-5. You can read or download these below: