Friday, October 9, 2009

RPGs I Like: HeroQuest, Second Edition

RPG Items I Like: HeroQuest, Second Edition

I should get a number of biases and experiences out of the way before this review. I've been a fan of Glorantha for years and I bought the earlier versions of this game: both as Hero Wars (1st edition) and HeroQuest (1st Edition). I'm knowledgeable about Glorantha and competent with rpgs, but I found both versions impenetrable and off-putting. Every time I read them I came away with a different sense of how the game worked. Weirdly my interpretation of some of those concepts would end up subconsciously reworked into our house homebrew system (Action Cards). But as a game itself I didn't like the earlier versions. And I say that as a self-confessed Robin Laws fanboy and a person who enjoys reading novel game mechanics and narrative approaches. Those experiences colored my thinking going into reading this.

I have to note two other things: first, this is a reading review. I think I'm a good judge of games and how they'll play at the table (notwithstanding my experience with The Dying Earth rpg). My plan is to write this review based on the reading and then try to get a group together for at least a one-shot. I'll report back after that. I think seeing if my reactions stay the same should be a useful exercise. I should also note that Issaries offered pdf copies of the game to reviewers. So this review is based on a copy given free of charge from them.

HeroQuest 2e is a generic engine for running narrative-centered games, primarily written by Robin Laws. You ought to know going in that HQ2 structures itself in nearly all senses around the way stories are presented. It builds from literary forms and conceits. Laws makes a forthright case for considering the needs of the story as shaping the rules and the play. That can be a turn-off for some players, a point he addresses in the GM section-

The narrative style gets a bad rap among some players, who assume that it means an overbearing Narrator will impose on them a pre-determined story, the outcome of which their characters are powerless to alter. These assumptions usually spring from their past bad experiences with uncollaborative Narrators. Address these expectations by allowing the player’s choices to lead your narrative. You might start the game with at least one possible interesting storyline in mind, but should always be willing to abandon it if the players seize the reins and take it in an unexpected direction. Your goal is to move the story toward any thrilling outcome, not a particular endpoint you’ve already envisioned.

For only a 130 pages, the book packs in a lot of ideas, material and more importantly tools for building the kind of campaign you want. The introduction begins by setting up the core idea that HQ2 will be starting from: in dealing with challenges and conflicts, the difficulty depends on the story. Or as Laws states it for the GM- "Pick a resistance, then justify it." He compares standard games to calculate the difficulty of an action you analyze the physical factors, determine range, figure wind speed, and come to a target number (or whatever works in the system). I quote here again because I think it really sets out the logic of the game:

In HeroQuest, you start not with the physical details, but with the proposed action’s position in the storyline. You consider a range of narrative factors, from how entertaining it would be for him to succeed, how much failure would slow the pacing of the current sequence, and how long it has been since Joey last scored a thrilling victory. If, after this, you need further reference points, you draw inspiration more from martial arts movies than the physics of real-life jumps from bridges onto moving hovercrafts. Having decided how difficult the task ought to be dramatically, you then supply the physical details as color, to justify your choice and lend it verisimilitude- the illusion of authenticity that makes us accept fictional incidents as credible on their own terms. If you want Joey to have a high chance of success, you describe the distance between bridge and vehicle as impressive (so it feels exciting if he makes it) but not insurmountable (so it seems believable if he makes it.)

What Laws does here, as he's done elsewhere is make explicit some of the things which GMs often already do, but usually hide. I've seen some criticism of another Laws' design in Gumshoe to the effect it fixes a problem that GMs have already been fixing on the fly. I think the difference here is that laws' openly acknowledges those factors and those things we often hide from our players. He brings them out into the open and builds them into the system.

Character Creation
Players can easily create characters, with the rules providing several different approaches to it. Any character is defined by the abilities he possesses-- there are no stats or other factors (like wounds or willpower). Abilities can be anything-- and options are provided for the GM to set them more or less loosely. For example some might want players to be able to invest and build up sub-abilities, called keywords here. There's no universal ability list, just examples. Some abilities may function as flaws if they drive your character to make bad choices.

Depending on what the GM wants the player might write out a block of text describing their character. The GM and player can then choose and mark abilities from that description (like Sensitive Soul, Throngs of Fans, Piercing Gaze, or Plucky Assistant). Alternately, the player may make a list up of abilities or even come up with abilities as on the fly. In any case the player then assigns ratings to these abilities and the process is done. Later sections of the rules do provide and extend these ideas beyond these basics-- giving example cultural keywords, discussion of how items are handled as abilities, magic and other powers and so on. The books splits the difference well here-- as your reading you don't feel like there's a chunk missing from the discussion. The implication is that all of those systems will be parallel to those the book sets up first. And honestly with that logic in place you have a fairly strong sense of how those mechanics will work.

Players' ability ratings have a number, with a 17 being assigned to your defining ability, and 13 to everything else. You then get a pool of points to raise those values. When an ability hits 21, it shifts and the character gains a mastery. So a character with an effective 23 notes that as 3@ (where @ marks the mastery). With a 33, it would be noted as 3@2- showing two masteries.

Resolving Contests
In play characters roll a d20 against their abilities when presented with a challenge. The book stress that challenges should be reserved for dramatically important moments. In a simple challenge, the players roll and compare to the ability's value. The character's value may be modified by circumstance but those are loosely defined as either a -3 or -6 penalty. Those modification can wipe out masteries if the number drops below the threshold. If they roll their ability or below, they have a success; if they roll a 1 they have a critical success. If they roll above that number they have a failure; if they roll a 20 they have a critical failure. The GM rolls simultaneously with the player for the opposition's resistance.

Now here's where masteries and the side mechanic of Hero Points come into play. If one side has more masteries in the relevant ability than the other, they may bump up their result by one level (i.e. failure to success, success to critical success). You may also spend a hero point to bump up your results after the dice have been rolled. If a character already has a critical result, and extra masteries left over they can also bump down the opponent's result.

The GM compares the results and determines the level of victory for one side or the other (tie, marginal, minor, major, or complete) and narrates the results based on this. For a simple contest, the character simply does one round of exchanges. For more complicated actions, the GM uses an extended contest, with several exchanges and the build up of advantage to one side versus the other. This can be for a debate, a chase sequence, a military raid, or probably most commonly a combat. Two important things come out of this system- first, the players obligation to frame the goal of their contest at the start of it. The question in the drama comes from what the player wants to accomplish by the scene. The other thing is that all conflicts, of all kinds, are functionally equivalent.

This is important in that you can be "killed" or effectively removed from action on any of these fields of conflict. In a simple contest, the loser fails and also suffers a penalty to their relevant ability. Those consequences can be even more severe in an extended contest. If the contest was an economic one, the loser may expend resources or have their control shaken, for an artistic contest the loser may end up debilitated by a shattered confidence, for social contests the injuries may take the form of shame, humiliation, or even loss of community. As an interesting dramatic choice, there's no damage effects in the midst of contests, instead results are tallied and applied at the end of resolution.

Elaborating Mechanics
Most of the rules spends time elaborating these simple mechanics-- exploring the various permutations (like group simple contests, options for representing support abstractly, parting shots, disengaging). Most of these arise logically from the rules and nothing feels out of place. I like several of the mechanics presented here. For example, with a prose-based ability system, some characters will obviously end up defining their abilities broadly. That's well and good for general use, but when they come into contact with other abilities, the more broadly define one suffers a penalty. The first example given compares someone with a Strong ability versus Bar-Room Brawler ability in an arm-wrestling contest. The former suffers a -6 to their ability. But interestingly the penalty applies to the character with the broad skill definition if another player in the group has a narrower and more appropriate ability. For example the Strong character goes to arm-wrestle someone with an equally broad ability. But also in the party is another player with the Professional Arm Wrestler ability who is or isn't at the same scene. The Strong character suffers the penalty to their skill. The goal here, as with some other systems in the rules is to keep players from stealing other's thunder through the use of overly broad abilities and encourage players to develop some niche areas.

The rules stress a practicality about running games. For example, something every GM has probably used- the idea of Mock Contests- where the GM knows the results will be in the players favor but wants to give them the satisfaction of overcoming a challenge. The character development system includes a mechanic to allow players to catch up skills they've let fall to the side over play. The average difficulty of challenges rises over time as the players gain experience. Results and consequences apply differently if you're in the rising action of the story or at the climax. These all represent tools in the GM's toybox, but they're rarely stated or built into the mechanics of the system explicitly. They're tricks a rules-centered person might object to in another game system, but here that kind of player knows ahead of time that might happen and is permitted by the rules.

Ideas and Presentation
The section on devoted to "gamemastering" takes up twenty pages of the rules. Laws' lays out solid and approachable advice in the context of the system. He presents nice discussion of story structures and how consequences and failures can work into the overall arc of the game. For gamemasters familiar with the concepts, it feels confirmatory and clear. For gamemasters less familiar, I think it will be an eye-opening experience- presented in a friendly way.

I never really felt confused reading these rules, a problem I had with earlier versions. The layout's excellent and the illustrations pretty well done. Every time I thought "Gee...I'd like to see an example of that..." the book presented one. The system is pretty different from most games out their but as a whole it remains accessible.

That being said, the book did lose me a little in a couple of place. Some references to other sections aren't as clear as they might be. For example, the idea of community support is mentioned without reference well before the idea is actually discussed. Other things like the sidebar on Extended Contests and Healing Resistances seem placed oddly away from their relevant sections. Then there are a few small places where the writing lost me, for example:

You may improve any ability by 1 point per session, at a cost of 1 hero point. To raise an ability by 2 points at once costs 3 times the cost of raising it by 1 point. 3 points at once costs 6 times as much. To raise it by 4 points at once, which is the maximum per session increase, costs 10 times what it would to raise it by 1.

Um, does that mean it costs 3 points to raise an ability by 2, or 6 points? I'm not sure where stating the special number wouldn't have been easier.

I hesitate to mention these things as they are few and far between. Laws presents the vast majority of the material in a lucid and cogent way. I think that's vital for a core set of rules, especially one which works with a different approach from other games.

Ideas for Community Games
One of my favorite section of the rules covers the idea of players being part of a community. In such a campaign, the community acts as a resource and a backdrop. Players want it to survive and thrive. Challenges to the community have to be met over the course of the game. Various abstract stats are defined for it either by the gamemaster or the player group defining the history. In play, the PCs can try call on support from the community to aid them. However the cost comes in temporarily reducing the community's ability, perhaps significantly if the supported conflict fails. Failure can also reduce the player's ability to interact within the community, as they lose face, gain distrust or earn a bad reputation. Success can mean the growth of the community's abilities and resources over time.

I like mechanism and the structure presented. It is simple, but well defined. It also scales well, both for size and the time intervals of the campaign. I like "building" games so this has a high appeal to me. I can imagine it working at the small scale for something like a Covenant for Ars Magica or at a larger, even national, scale for something like the old TSR Birthright setting. Some years ago Steve Jackson produced GURPS Alpha Centauri which had some great material, but seemed to stay in too narrow a range. I could easily imagine a multi-generational game being done with HeroQuest. I'd also say, for want of an even more obscure reference, that the ambitious intent of something like Aria: Canticle of the Monomyth could be met with this game system.

What About Glorantha?
The book ends with a sixteen page guide to applying the new HeroQuest to Glorantha. It is pretty basic, while at the same time does cover all the bases you'd expect. I suspect by this point those people who want a Glorantha game already have one and this isn't going to sell that setting. If you are a Glorantha player you'll probably find this book a smoother set of core rules, but you won't find any world specific material you don't already have. Having read the earlier versions, both as Hero Wars (1st edition) and HeroQuest (1st Edition), I much prefer this presentation. I hope we support for this line...not a rehash of the Orlanthi Barbarians but more on the Malkioni and the Lunars (Glorantha fanboy mode off).

Overall I'm really pleased and excited by these rules-- that's refreshing. I too often find myself going "umm...yeah...I don't think so..." when I read new game systems, especially ones with radically new mechanics (for example Don't Rest Your Head). I never got that sense with HeroQuest 2e-- instead I wanted to and really hope to be able to try this out with my group and get their reaction. As I said at the beginning, once I've done that I'll try to report back on the results.

I think there's two directions to consider this in. First, can mechanisms or ideas here be brought over into other games. I could see borrowing several of these ideas for other, more narrative games. The general ideas on structuring of stories, the mechanisms for handling a community-based game, and the means of creating differences between narrow and broad skill definitions. I especially like how conflict is presented with equivalence-- that loss in realms other than the purely physical can remove opponents- having suffered extreme losses to reputation, resources or other factors, they're forced to withdraw. If you're generally looking for ideas on how to run, this book can be useful.

The other direction is how adaptable would an existing setting be to the mechanisms here. I'm pretty used to adapting published settings I like over to other game systems. Originally I ran Glorantha using Rolemaster and my Changeling: The Lost campaign uses a completely homebrew system. One potential challenge here comes from dealing with the chrome of the previous setting. At first I thought that would be difficult, but the more I think about it, the easier that becomes.

As a concrete example, I love the Legend of the Five Rings setting, but I've never cared for the system (any of the editions or the d20 version). When I ran it I first tried using Rolemaster Fantasy and then did another complete reconversion using Storyteller. There's lots of nice detail and bits in the game I like: kihos, the various clan schools, and the advantages and disadvantages. At first I thought that would be hard to replicate. With more consideration I think it would be pretty easy. Schools could be replicated through the keywords in the genre packs. A duel could be handled with an extended contest in a satisfying way, with the build up to the final stroke. Social influences have an equal footing with combat prowess, perhaps finally bringing courtier characters into parity. The idea of a community basis would ideally tie into the Rokugani sense of clan, family and daimyo fealty. You could use HeroQuest to do a number of things like that easily-- I can think of a number of games where I like the setting but not the game system (Mage: The Sorcerers Crusade and The Black Company for example). I think that I might try converting L5R as an exercise in the future.