Classic Fantasy is an attempt to capture the feel of 1st and 2nd edition D&D, but using a more realistic and gritty skill-based game system. I have always enjoyed D&D much more at low levels, where every fight offers the chance of death, and where encounters with even kobolds and goblins are a challenge. Classic Fantasy offers heroic levels of play, but never forcing a campaign to outgrow the creatures that make lower level play exciting. In a way, Classic Fantasy is similar to playing a computer role playing game on “Hardcore Mode”, and it tends to feel more like one of the many fantasy novels that are based on these other game systems than the system they’re actually based on. For example, in many novels, opponents are typically dispatched with one or two solid hits, main characters may take a grueling wound to the arm that renders it useless, and an otherwise powerful fighter could be felled by being outnumbered by a small force of weaker opponents. While this is a common occurrence in novels, movies, and so on, it is seldom recreated in level-based games. However, in Classic Fantasy, it is a common challenge.
What is Classic Fantasy, and what does it bring to the table?
One of the most common statements that I hear concerning those unfamiliar with Classic Fantasy is, “If I wanted to play D&D, I would just play D&D”. This always mystifies me, as if I wanted to play D&D, I wouldn’t have written Classic Fantasy. There are already numerous retro clones of earlier editions of D&D on the market. Classic Fantasy is NOT a retro clone. Much of what makes Classic Fantasy a great system to emulate level-based games comes from its parent system “Mythras”, and while Classic Fantasy does incorporate many unique changes and additions, it does this with the excellent Mythras system as a solid foundation. In fact, Classic Fantasy is not a stand-alone game, requiring a copy of Mythras, or Mythras Imperative, to play.
Some of the differences that separate Classic Fantasy from D&D and other typical level-based games are detailed below.
D&D uses “Level” to gauge how powerful a character is, with a level 20 character being several orders of magnitude more powerful than a character of level 1. Classic Fantasy rates characters by issuing them a “Rank” between 0 and 5, with a rank 1 character roughly equal to a character of levels 1-4 in D&D, and one of rank 5 equal to a character of level 20 or even higher. However, while D&D will typically see skills increase as a function of increasing a character’s level, a Classic Fantasy character increases their rank by increasing their skills, not the other way around. To put it another way, in Classic Fantasy, your character’s skill levels will determine your rank.
The most common trope of level-based games is to allow characters to become more powerful by granting more hit points as they go up in level. This allows them to take on more powerful opponents as they become much more difficult to kill. While outwardly unrealistic, most explain this by saying that the extra hit points actually represent skill and luck, that the character is actually taking lesser wounds and would have been killed had they not been experienced enough to avoid more significant injury. That’s all well and good, but if that’s true, why does it take longer for them to heal naturally, and why does it require more powerful healing magic to cure these same injuries?
Classic Fantasy looks at damage from a completely different perspective. The hit points you have when you begin your adventuring career at rank 1, or even 0, will more than likely have not increased at all even when you attain a rank of 5. Instead, higher rank characters have higher skill levels. This includes defensive skills such as Parry and Evade. A higher rank character can take on a more powerful opponent not because he or she can take more damage than an African Bull Elephant, but because they are skilled enough to avoid being hit in the first place. Combat represents a realistic ebb and flow of the action, with opponents exchanging blows in an exciting, realistic, and cinematic way and not simply whittling away at a pile of hit points.
Classic Fantasy spell casting discards the “fire-and-forget” method in favor of a magic point reservoir. A character will memorize a set number of spells just like their D&D counterpart; however, these spells may be cast as often as desired as long as the Magic Points hold out. On a failed skill roll to cast a spell, it simply fizzles and fails to manifest, with the caster able to attempt the spell again as soon as next round. However, the caster has the option to “force the spell”. A forced spell is wiped from memory until it may once again be memorized, but its effects will manifest as desired. Therefore some spell casters may choose to memorize multiples of a particular spell just like in D&D; however this is optional, and less necessary as a caster gains higher level of skill. This captures the feel of D&D spell casting, with spell memorization and the possibility of forgetting them if cast unsuccessfully, but it leaves the choice to forget the spell up to the player, and therefore offers greater versatility.
This only scratches the surface of how Classic Fantasy differs from D&D. For more information, Mythras Imperative, a trimmed down fully playable introductory system is available as a free PDF, or as a print version for a small fee.