First, a confession: I don't play the Hero system. I've never played the Hero system. I don't foresee myself ever playing the Hero system. Yet, this book has one of the most prominent places in my gaming library, and would probably be in the top 5-10 gaming items I would recommend for the any new player, and in the top 3-5 for any new GM.
Why? The back half of this book is one of the best sourcebooks I've ever seen.
I've been role-playing since 1981. I've been collecting since about 1983. I have yet to see a better overall sourcebook than the one included in Fantasy Hero.
I bought the game without knowing you needed the Hero system to play (yes, I missed the big warning on the back cover) but that didn't stop me from using it over and over.
From pages 100 to 202, the book tackles, in order: creating scenarios, running scenarios, fantasy genres and their conventions, setting up campaigns, and worldbuilding. That's just the game-mastering section. The Sourcebook offers sample character archetypes, a sample campaign described in simple but sufficient detail to play, two extended scenarios, 5 mini-scenarios, and two of best sections I've ever seen on designing monsters and magic items. Oh, and the last 50 pages of the book (202-252) are one of the best collections of spell-books I've seen in years.
The section on creating scenarios leads right in to how to run them, and the brief advice is exactly what you'd want in "Everything I Need to Know About GMing I Learned in Kindergarten." Individualizing the NPCs; Cinematic fight scenes; Pacing, Climax & Rewards; Foreshadowing; and Cash Flow are all addressed in ways that beginners can easily grasp and veterans will love to be reminded of.
The genres and their conventions is outstanding, and one of the shining points in the book. It lists each of the sub-genres (High Fantasy, Swashbuckling, Hack & Slash, Dark Fantasy, etc.) along with examples of both books and movies, the main characteristics of each, and the typical conventions. For example, High Fantasy lists among its examples: Most Greek and Roman mythology... J.R.R. Tolkein... Stephen Donalson... Poul Anderson ... David Eddings... Roger Zelazny... movies like The Princess Bride, and Willow. The typical conventions are "A detailed world background; really high stakes; sympathetic (or decidedly awful) characters; a few individuals show ambiguous loyalties; an aged wizard versus and army - no contest." Think (in reverse order) Gandalf, Indigo Montoya, Torak, the One Ring, The Aeniad... you can see where this is going. While many veteran gamers will whack themselves on the head and go "duh!" this is a great introduction for the new player who is looking for more places to go to expand their fantasy experience.
There is an entertaining read about "Confessions of a Hack & Slash Junkie" before going into "Setting up a Fantasy Campaign." One of my favorite moments: subhead #1 reads "Player Input." How many times is this glossed over in favor of so many other things. More than cosmology, bodies of water, plotlines, or historical research, this is STEP ONE. And it's almost always mentioned (if at all) in passing. After this step, the rest of the usual suspects are tackled. Morality, importance of the heroes relative to the world, continuity, seriousness, religion, technology, non-humans, and the role of magic. Once all of these are worked out, there is a worksheet that allows you to piece it all together, including a physical description of the setting, scope and magic, religion, and some game-based stats that people like me just gloss right over. And then there are four examples, filled out right in front of you.
Oh, and THEN we get into worldbuilding. Geography, ecology, economics, law & order, etc.... They are briefly described, but comprehensively enough to serve as a guideline for even experienced gamers to walk through creating a world. The next 15-20 pages are dedicated to sample characters and other character archetypes (the Swashbuckler, the Knight, the Village Priest, the Scoundrel, the Monk) and good descriptions of characters that anyone could drop into a world anywhere. The sample campaign of the Western Shores is a good read. It is generic, and a bit cliched, but it includes a LOT for characters to explore and wander, and is a great jumping-off point for new players and GMs needing a setting in a hurry. The realms are not that large, and easy to drop into any world, so anyone can use them. One nice touch is that the worldbuilding worksheet (from above) is included to offer worldbuilders some reference for where this one fits into the scheme of things. There are histories, major sites described, and adventure hooks all for each land. And all easily pillaged for any other game you have.
What follows the sample campaign are several interesting scenarios, all set in the Western Shores but, again, easily adapted. The bestiary is interesting, and offers some good guidelines toward designing your own critters. The piece about designing magic items is also well-written and concise, and includes one of the rare pieces on "dealing with too many."
The spellbooks include many interesting incantations, and just using the names as inspiration you could plunder this section alone for three or four colleges of magic: "Earth Reading," Guardian Wind," "Totem Shield," "Cloud Mind," "Hypnotic Flames," "Wardrobe," "Swirling Leaves," and "Transcendent Healing" are but a few.
The very back of the book includes conversions to GURPS, RoleMaster, AD&D and 1st Ed. Fantasy Hero.
Ignore the rules, plunder the campaign information. New players will be faced with a treasure trove of ideas and veterans will enjoy a great "back to the basics" session that boils down campaigning to its roots and inspirations. Most importantly, it's fun stuff.
Style: 4 (Classy and well done)