The Other Kind of Heartbreaker: The Games We Never Get to Play

I think most gamemasters are optimists. I know I am. I buy new games with alarming frequency, scouring DriveThruRpg, my local game stores, and Kickstarter, believing that one day I will find The One – the core ruleset that changes the hobby for me, never gets tired, inspires me, and earns the praise of my players (who suddenly show up on time each week to play with Zen intensity). I never lose hope.

Did I say optimist? Maybe I mean addict. There’s a line about addiction I’ve always loved: “It’s hard to get enough of something that almost works.” That’s me buying games.

On the other hand, a lot of players I’ve encountered are inherently conservative, they like what they like, and they would really like me to stop switching systems. Some of them don’t even bother to buy the rules – they know I am a desperate junkie, and I will do what needs to be done to get them to play. They just want to invest in their characters, see them do well, and have a good time. And that’s totally fair. But it’s not going to help me get my fix.

And so, unplayed games crowd my shelves like Tokyo commuters. There’s term in this hobby I like: Fantasy Heartbreaker. The games on my shelves? They’re the other kind of heartbreaker: the games I never get to play.

I know that I’m not alone. I know you’re out there, creating another 5e campaign, while your copy of Burning Wheel, or Dogs in the Vineyard, or Dream Askew, or Insert Niche Game Here calls out to you.

These are the games I fear I will never get to play:

Torchbearer

A game that strips dungeon crawling to its essentials and turns every delve into a deadly expedition. You will be underequipped, hungry, tired and desperate the whole time, and that sounds a lot more interesting than being a superhero. It’s a game about always being a little behind, pressing your luck, and exploring how your character reacts to extreme pressure.

Unfortunately, what sounds like high-stakes drama to me sounds like a misery simulator to everyone I tell about it. Throw in a highly abstract conflict system, and some meta mechanics, and what you’ve got is a recipe for an empty table.

Whitehack

I sing this game’s praises constantly because I believe that along with Into the Odd, it’s the most interesting rule book to come out of the OSR. A bold riff on the Whitebox rules, it subverts our ideas of class and other darlings to create a game grounded in the hobby’s origins while still embracing more modern approaches like freestyle magic, and co-created worlds.

Its physical design is minimalist and devoid of illustrations, landing somewhere between a Field Guide notebook and a classic Penguin paperback. It’s beautiful.

And it’s not available as a PDF. You can only get it print on demand. So, what we’re dealing with is an artisanal system, and like most artisanal things, the vast majority of people don’t give a shit about it.

Original Edition Dungeons & Dragons

The OG. The three little brown books are poorly organized, concepts are not fully fleshed out, there are two different combat systems. It’s also totally fucking awesome.

There are androids in the bestiary. Androids.

It’s a toolbox devoid of mod inflation, marketing, or bloat. It’s hope in a white box. Endless potential.

And it’s almost as old as I am.

Despite the devotion of its acolytes, it’s hard to sell to modern D&D players. And heaven forbid they encounter a militant grognard.

Still, there’s no game I wish I could play more.