Prior to 1985, I played several other RPGs than AD&D 1st, Traveller, Call of Cthulu, Gamma World, as well as having familiarity with other systems like Runequest 2nd Edition.
But my break with AD&D didn't come until my second year of college with the release of Fantasy Hero in the fall of 1985. My first year of college saw two campaigns of AD&D, one of which was a Dragonlance campaign that turned me off from trying to run an Adventure Path for several decades. I also ran a third AD&D campaign back home during college break).
During that first year I tried Champions for the first time. The game was a revelation. A relatively simple design, from my point of view anyway, allowed for a infinite combination of traits that simulated well just about anything. It appeal to my wargame sensibility by making it clear what effect the combination had in the game.
While I like superheroes, I still own much of my original tattered collection of comic books, I liked the fantasy genre more. So when I heard of the imminent release of Fantasy Hero, I put in a special order at my FLGS in Indiana and eagerly awaited its arrival. And when it came I was not disappointed.
Like all Hero System game, Fantasy Hero is point based. The Hero system defines several base and derived attributes.Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Body, Intelligence, Ego, Presence, Comeliness are the base attributes. Physical Defense, Energy Defense, Speed, Recovery, Endurance, and Stun are the derived attributes. Points could be spent on both base and derived characteristics. Since Fantasy Hero focused on normal individuals there was a maximum for each characteristic beyond which the cost per point was doubled.
Beyond that you can buy skills which are based a formula of 9+(Attribute/5). You bought the base for a certain amount (3 pts for Climbing), and get +1 per an additional small amount (Climbing was 2 pts per +1). Some skills, like Weapon Familiarity were a fixed amount (3 per weapon type).
You could take Disadvantages. Disadvantages reflected the physical, mental, or social background of the character. As they limit the character in someway they granted points that reduced the total character cost. Perks and other positive traits wouldn't debut for the Hero System until later editions. Also some of the disadvantages actually granted benefits like a Friend and Reputation. They are counted as disadvantage because they are a source of complications for the character.
Fantasy Hero characters typically start with 75 points.
This section is what sets Fantasy Hero apart from other RPGs of the time. It adapts the design of the Champions power system into a system for creating magic spells. It is literally a do it yourself magic system. For example a character could buy the ability to cast a 5d6 blast for 50 points. Without any advantages or limitation it is a energy blast defined for roleplaying purpose as a stream of fire. The base effect requires an attack roll, has a range of 250 hexes with -1 per 3 hex range modifier and takes 5 Endurance to cast.
If I wanted a spell similar to traditional D&D style fireball I could make as follows
Explosive Fireball (5d6) Range Mod -1/3", Max Range 250", Obvious Gestures and Incantation, Concentrate while casting (0 DCV), 15 End*
*FH characters can easily start between 30 to 50 Endurance.
Some of the other effects are Clairaudience, Cloak, Create, Dazzle, Haste, Heal, Silence, Telepathy.
The system is not only used for spells but for magical abilities as well.
Magic Items can be created but the character making them has to permanently spend character points in order to make them. For example a healing salve (3d6) cost 9 points to make. The difference between a spell and a magic item is that magic items have the Independence limitation a +1 bonus.
Combat works by subtracting the target's Defensive Combat Value from the the attacker's Offensive Combat Value adding the result to 9. For example Roghan with an OCV of 9 swing his sword at Venger with a DCV 10. 9-10 is -1 add 9 which means Roghan need a 8 or less to hit.
If the attacker hits he rolls damage and either physical defense or energy defense is subtracted from the result. Like other Hero System games there are two different ways of dealing damage. Killing attacks and Normal Attacks. The damage rolled for Normal Attacks is applied to Stun. For each 6 rolled you do 2 body, for 5,4,3, and 2 you do 1 body, and for each 1 no body is detail. Defense and armor subtract separately from Body and Stun damage. For Killing Attacks the number rolled is the amount of BODY damage. You roll 1d6-1 and multiply that by the body damage to find the amount of STUN damage.
Each combat round is 12 seconds divided into 12 one second segments. Each character has a Speed Characteristic, typically between 3 and 5. That determines how many times within each combat round the character acts. These are called phases. There is a speed chart showing which segment the different speeds move on. During each phase each character picks a action which can include combat maneuvers. For example a character can do a Half Move and attack with a Sword.
The combat maneuvers grant different effects and bonuses and generally take a 1/2 phase to use. So a character can do a half-move and execute a maneuver. Or do two maneuvers like Attack and then Dodge. The attack allows the chance to hit with a weapon (or spell) and the Dodge grants +3 to DCV until the character's next Phase. If two characters act in the same segment they go in the order of Dexterity. If the Dexterity is the same then they act simultaneously.
The system is straight forward once you learn it. I pretty much type the above from memory. Like all Hero System games, the character sheet for Fantasy Hero includes mini cheat sheets that give all the details in a compact form while leaving room for notes and character details.
A holdover from Campaign Fantasy Hero allows the character to execute a presence attack. In short they can "stun" an enemy by their sheer awesomeness. At a minimum a successful presence attack will allow the character to act first in a phase, the maximum result is that the target is cowed and will either run away, quail in fear at a DCV 0, or fall to his knees ready to obey the character's commands.
Modifiers to the base Presence attack add or subtract additional d6s.
Experience is given out in characters points which may be spent on characteristics, spells, or skills. Experience is granted at the end of the adventure which a typical award being three. Campaigning
Typical DM Advice of the era with a lot of emphasis on creating plot and roleplaying. Sourcebook Equipment, sample Magic Items, Monsters (many fully stated), and Spells used for evil opponents. Point Packages that allow characters to spend points to be one of the traditional fantasy race; Elves, Dwarves, and Halflings are covered. Races also get different maximums for their characteristics. Like GURPS it costs points to be a different race thus most campaign tend to be dominated by humans.
Note each of the Magic Items come with the spell that can be bought to create the item.
This rust-red dagger was forged by Alcamtar the Cleaver early in his career to protect himself., should his magics fail.
1 1/2D6 Killing Blast linked to +2 Accuracy vs Enchanted Beasts End 2 Cost 21
Note in the book they give the full breakdown so you can see how it is created by the Magic rules.
Package Deals bundles skills and abilities to allow players quickly make a stereotypically fantasy archetype. Vikings, being a follower of an organization, Warrior, Rogue, Priest, Mage are all covered.
Next is a list of sample spells.
Floating green runs before the caster.
Accuracy (+2 OCV) END 4 Cost 5
Like magic items the books has a full write up so you can see how each spell is built with the magic rules.
Gives rules for converting from Runequest, and Middle Earth Roleplaying,
Finally winds up with is own version of Appendix N of fiction. Newer fiction include Stephen Brust Jhereg series which was very popular in the 80s.
Adventures include the Flaming Falcon Inn, The Hunt, and the detailed The Affair of Wizards,
Fantasy Hero made an immediate and favorable impression on myself and my group. It quickly became our main fantasy system for three years (86 to 89) and several Majestic Wilderlands campaign were run using itincluding one memorable one.
However the design still had too much of its Champion's heritage which meant that a character could be picked up in a bar fighter, thrown through a wooden wall AND a brick wall, and still survive. The freeform spells system could be abused by character turning themselves into a johnny one-spell where they learn one extremely effective spell. In my case the character developed a short range, 1- hex, teleport spell that had the area advantage that only could teleport living matter, no armor or weapon. He cast the spell on his opponents and they would be stripped off all armor and gear.
These issues were fixed for the 4th edition of Fantasy Hero but by then GURPS had became our fantasy system of choice.
To me the Old School Renaissance is not about playing a particular set of rules in a particular way, the dungeon crawl. It is about going back to the roots of our hobby and seeing what we could do differently. What avenues were not explored because of the commercial and personal interests of the game designers of the time.