Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Best Game We Never Played...

In 1982, D&D ruled the role-playing world, and gamers were absolutely hungry for more.  So when Jame's Galloway's The Highest Level of All Fantasy Wargaming was released, many of us eagerly picked up this nice (and most worthwhile) book...

A hardcover release, this was well-produced and very nicely illustrated in the chapter headings and on a few pages throughout; just enough to set the mood, but leaving enough to the reader's imagination, which we heartily approve of!

But unlike other "rulebooks", there was quite a bit of space dedicated to the philosophy of the game and how the rules came to exist, which was also interesting.  Indeed, the first chapters covered the author's personal inspirations and offered some good fantasy to check out (although I despise Gor). 

This book is still available, so we'll drop the past tense here, although we aren't sure who might actually be playing it and remain doubtful on this count.  Even so, it's worth picking up for its extensive content and the quality of the ideas presented, and not just for the essays on fantasy.      

Galloway very quickly goes on to recommend the actual medieval 
period as a good place to set a campaign, and the following chapters expound greatly upon this premise.  At its best, this works as a survey of medieval life and serves as a quick reference for anyone wishing to adventure within this period... 

(1) The switch from paganism to Christianity (or any equivalent situation in a fantasy world) and its impact on magic and religion is covered in detail.  The book offers a solid cosmology that consolidates everything around the concept of "mana".

(2) How medieval society was really set up, and how guilds, in particular, really operated.  This is several books on the subject consolidated into a single easy reference.

(3) Astrology, and how it totally dominated medieval thought, and how medieval men and women figured into the cosmos.

In short, the book is a quick, but concise, overview of the real medieval world, not only as it was, but as people thought it to be, which is the very essence of historical fantasy!  

As for the rules themselves, well, not so much.  It's not that they're so bad.  There's some really good stuff to be found in its pages, although mainly when applied to better systems.  But the mechanics presented suffer on several counts and are far too complex and poorly explained to be practical...

(1) Character creation is limiting.  Female characters suffer penalties, ostensibly, to reflect medieval misogyny, that only serve to put off potential players (and pretty badly).

Yes, they actually advise against playing female characters, which gives new meaning to the term "sausage party", and we can only wonder why this was thought so important. 

(2) Player agency is very severely limited (a clear nod to its historical war-gaming roots).  And by way of example, players must defer to the character with the highest Social Standing score, transforming everyone else into mere spectators!

Yes, historical war-games imposed certain restrictions on unit behavior and tactics to reflect historical reality.  But the author here doesn't seem to understand how (and why) role-playing games differ and why people are attracted to them to begin with.

The real value of this book is as
reference material, but that's enough!

(3) The rules, in general, are clunky and use lengthy math to execute (a definite foul from our point of view, although we freely admit that this is a personal call).  Who wants to jump through hoops to execute gameplay?  Zodiac signs weigh heavily here, and we like the idea and have used it ourselves, but prefer that this modifies play in a simpler and more intuitive way.

But there's cool stuff to like too...

(1) Rules for astrology and how the stars rule everything in the medieval universe.  The reference value, alone, makes it worth picking it up, and the fact that this extends into enchantment and general spell casting makes it all the better.

(2) Decent rules for piety and the fate of a character's eternal soul at death; Heaven, Hell, or Valhalla!

(3) The introduction of an actual medieval mindset applied to everything from combat to magic, etc.  Readers are quickly divested of the notion that magic is a purely neutral energy without real consequences.  How many clerics cheerily adventure alongside known sorcerers who conjure up demons to work their magic?

The Highest Level of All Fantasy Wargaming is still available at Amazon, and we recommend getting it.  Just don't expect a playable system even after extensive modification.  On the other hand, do look forward to an interesting peek at the designer's inspirations and advice on how to make your own campaigns look and feel more genuinely medieval, even in an incredible world of your own making!


  1. Considering that you posted articles about "Adventures in fantasy" RPG and now another one about this old forgotten gem, i can say that yours is currently my favourite blog ;) Keep up the good work.

  2. Good Stuff! There is a lengthy discussion about Fantasy wargaming here:

    Stormcrow made a terrific reference for the rules here:

    Lastly Mike Monaco has a whole bunch of interesting stuff, including a fascinating discussion with one of the authors on his 'blog:

  3. Very interesting and informative. So basically regard the book as an idea mine, it seems.