In a recent article I reproduced Garry’s first article about Faerie Wood, as published in 1991.
One thing that we need to remember, when we look back upon the days when Faerie Wood was taking shape is that it didn’t exist in isolation. Faerie Wood was a reaction to something. Perhaps a lot of our claims about the game were highly partisan, although not in the sense of crudely marketing our own game – remember, at the time of Garry’s first article we wouldn’t have anything to sell for something like two years – yet already in that first magazine article, Garry is setting out his stall; marking his territory. What we had there was a Faerie Wood manifesto.
And why might we have felt that the gamer community was going to need a manifesto, at that point in the early 1990s? Basically, because gaming had gone in a bad direction; wargaming and roleplaying alike. Let me use a couple of examples.
In the world of wargaming, Warhammer had been a lovely little game in its 2nd edition. It came in one bookshelf-sized box; and there was a supplementary book (just one) providing stats and army lists for every race. Included in the basic set were rules to allow players to create custom stats for any other creatures you might wish to model, and (how’s this for an example of how nice Games Workshop once were, before the greed took hold?) it even included card figures to cut out, suggesting that you glue them onto coins or washers to form the armies, if you didn’t have enough figures. Then the third edition appeared; an expensive, glossy hardback book stuffed with adverts for Games Workshop stuff… and some unpopular rules that basically existed to flog gear. Give an expensive model powerful stats and make it ‘cheap’ in terms of the points it costs in an army list… and rake in the cash. A lot of present-day online computer games are criticised for a ‘pay-to-win’ business model where the keen player must pay to acquire extra items or abilities, but Games Workshop has been doing pay-to-win for a quarter of a century.
In roleplaying, the system we cut our teeth on was Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. In a sense, it’s still the definitive roleplaying game. Unfortunately, when we were in our late teens there was a reinvention in the form of the ‘2nd Edition’, published in 1989. It was simultaneously more complex in terms of game mechanics, and more simplistic in moral terms. There was an emphasis on always playing the hero (e.g. no more half-orc PCs, and all mentions of demonology expunged) but worst of all, a profusion of books. Like Games Workshop, TSR were following a good marketing strategy: find a new, younger audience and produce a wide range of products, so there’s plenty for people to keep on buying. Under the old system, only a Dungeon Master would own multiple books; as a mere player you simply had to get yourself a Player’s Handbook and you were done. With the 2nd Edition came multiple books detailing complex skills and abilities that only a teen nerd or a ‘rules lawyer’ could love.
What had been a game requiring improvised characterisation and storytelling became one of increased game mechanics. Our lot opted out, and stayed with the previous edition, expanded via certain house rules. (Maybe I should write about ‘The Tides of War in Oerth’ sometime: a swan-song that was our last sustained effort at classic fantasy roleplaying…)
The games we knew were changing; going after the big bucks. Perhaps the player community was changing as well. It seemed that many people from the first generation of roleplayers, the ‘Old Guard’ from the late 1970s, had moved on to new things. Garry’s the best Dungeon Master I’ve ever experienced, but he’d tell you he learned his craft from somebody older. Trouble is, by the late 1980s our forbears seemed to have moved on to new things… or maybe they simply didn’t want a whole lot to do with a bunch of teen dweebs who mostly thought that slogging through one of TSR’s adventure modules was the epitomy of fantasy roleplaying. (We’ve all been in a truly bad roleplaying game at some point in our lives, right? I’ll write about that another time…)
Unfortunately, a bad roleplayer probably thinks he’s good at roleplaying, because he has levelled up his character and amassed an impressive stock of magic items. Equally, a bad game master probably thinks he’s a good game master because he’s giving bad players what they want: fights in which to get experience points and win magical items. At its worst, AD&D offers a system that rewards all the wrong behaviour. Imagine the first time your character sees an animated corpse lurching towards him… the guy who flees screaming gets no experience points, while the bad player who fails to think about what his character actually ought to feel in this situation gets an easy kill (he’s read the rulebooks and knows the stats for the undead…)
Something had to change, and the big-name publishers were no help at all. They wanted the players buying and using more and more official rules, and weren’t really in a position to encourage people towards make-believe. Furthermore, they had a strong commercial interest in giving the majority of their customers what they wanted… and if that meant lengthy, combat-centred campaigns that allowed players to become powerful lords of battle, so be it.
As I’m sure you know, many people call the kind of player who doesn’t really ‘get’ roleplaying and focuses only on their stats and die rolls a “munchkin”. It was originally a term originally used to describe younger gamers, although later it would be applied to the immature “amass power and kill everything in sight” sort of players, regardless of age.
But here’s a funny thing… faeries are the most muchkinesque creatures ever. They’re short; many of them have squeaky little voices, and they exhibit childlike innocence. Some of them live in hollow trees, for goodness sakes! But where are the munchkin players? They’re off playing a 17th level multiclassed demi-human, dripping with magic weapons and armour, and leading a sizable army of henchmen… because that’s what munchkins do.
Maybe that’s the way it ought to be: roleplaying gives you a chance to play something you’re not, so we shouldn’t act too surprised if younger players want to become all-powerful warlords, dripping with treasure. Faerie wood simply didn’t appeal to munchkins, and they stayed away. (For which, thank you.)
In creating a game that was the antithesis of the power-based gaming we saw in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Garry had found a route out of the ‘rat race’. If you’ve never played Faerie Wood, you might expect it to be some kind of AD&D/Runequest hybrid with different races and new ‘monsters’ resulting from the change of scale. This is incorrect. It’s very difficult to be a conventional sword-swinging hero if you’ve ended up with your nose turning into a twig with an apple bomb growing on it, or if you’re being chased by a giant set of bagpipes on chicken legs. It’s a game that demands not to be taken seriously – beginning with the fact that most folk don’t recognise the existence of currency, and none need to eat or drink in order to survive.
Most of all, Faerie Wood simply presents an appeal that players should be good sports, of the old-fashioned kind. There is nothing in the game rules that prevents a suitably burly character from going around the place in a full suit of armour if he really wanted to… except for ridicule. (I can imagine an endless succession of meetings in which other faeries ask, “Is there is a fancy dress competition today, or something?”) The simple fact is, though, you wouldn’t need it: just bring a good sense of humour, and quick wits.
That’s the promise of Faerie Wood, as our manifesto explains: a chicken in every pot… and a knee in every groin.