Monday, November 2, 2009

HeroQuest 2e: Contests and Frameworks

Here's an interesting short article about games, reflecting what I've been saying about L5R and what happened to it.

Contests in HQ Continued-- Last Day
I mentioned the simple group contests in my last post about HeroQuest and I want to say something important about those before I talk about Extended Contests. Combat's obviously one of the crucial kinds of scene in most rpgs. Now mind you I've moved away from combats every session or even every other session for most of my games-- but they form core scenes for some kinds of games (for example superhero and dungeon crawl games rely on them). HQ suggests that most conflicts will be resolved through simple group contests-- with the extended contests as serious set piece sections for a game. That's interesting in that it puts a good deal of narrative burden on the GMs and players. By that I mean, a quick combat resolution in that system will involve the group making a roll apiece, with the GM narrating the results. That's a fairly low-granularity system, relying on the GM to make the scene feel invested and engaging.

Now that's not a bad thing-- and it does bring up a couple of questions. Again, what's the point of a combat? It should be a chance to bring in risk, to defeat an obstacle in a physical manner, and to get the group to utilize or show off certain skills. Narratively, there's no difference between combat as an obstacle and any other kind. Mechanically, there's often great difference-- with large sections of the rules now in play for those kinds of contests. HQ treats things from the narrative perspective on all obstacles which shapes the mechanics. Combat's just another kind of challenge.

But importantly, even in these little challenges, like group simple combats-- take for example the group moving through a group of mook guard or driving off a raiding party-- there's risk. Failure can mean penalties applied to the players. Even if they win, some players may suffer consequences- not necessarily to physical abilities, but to the shaking of confidence or the like. But the important thing here is that if you're going to go to resolution, you open up the possibility of consequence. If something's going to be a cakewalk, then you don't go to formal tested resolution, you stick with the negotiated system.

One of the points to be made here and worth thinking about is this-- once you reduce significantly the amount of time a combat takes up-- you get a move in two different directions. On the one hand, you free up space for other forms of conflict and possibly for an emphasis on storytelling and narrative interactions. On the other hand, if you reduce the space a combat fills, you also increase the number of combats you can have in a session. There's a truism in games with lengthy combat systems (say a full party on an equal number of opponents fight) that you don't start after a certain hour of the session. For example, you'd better get to a fight in Champions with at least half the session remaining or you're going to run late.

OK, let me move on here.

Extended Contests
mechanically, an extended contest follows the same basic system as a simple contest, but the contest requires several rolls, with each side building up points towards their victory. The winner in any round scores points, with the first side to gain five points winning the contest. Probably the most common example we're going to see of an extended contest will be a set-piece fight or a duel. The rules suggest only using extended contests for pivotal scenes where the consequences can have significant effects on the long-term story. Interestingly, the system has a distinction between two kinds of results: rising action and climax. I like this-- in rising action contests, the players may suffer consequences, but they generally reduce the party's abiltiies rather than eliminating them. However at the climax, the stakes become higher, with larger and more severe results being possible.

There are a number of additional mechanics supplementing this basic system. Winner of extended contests may make a risky attempt to inflict a parting shot on their opponents to increase the consequences, but there's a chance the contest could end up reversing back on them. The mechanics of the system allow players to switch through abilities, sometimes taking an action to boost themselves or to deal with secondary circumstances in the combat. One interesting feature of the system is that consequences and penalties don't resolve and apply until a contest is over. That's a classic cinematic/dramatic device, with a character not being actually winded or noticing their wounds until they have a moment to catch their breath.

Assuming a player is free of an opponent in an extended contest, they can attempt to aid another player. This is done as a risky test, with escalating difficulty, attempting to reduce the score against the player they're helping. The escalating difficulty is both a balancing and dramatic device. Fighting multiple opponents gives a player a -3 cumulative penalty versus each opponent after the first. Each exchange still has its own resolution and score however. An interesting mechanic used for followers could also be applied to handling groups and mooks. A follower can act as a full combatant with his own contest rolls, but get knocked out when 3 points are scored against them. Optionally they can serve as a kind of wingman, reducing the multiple opponent penalty or as a resolution point soak for themselves. Finally the follower may be used to perform assist tests or unrelated actions. Finally, in extended contests, players can also go for risky gambits to close a fight early or take a more defensive stance to keep from being knocked out.

Augments and Important Notes About Abilities

I think one of the most interesting factors in the resolution of contests in the HQ system it that when two opponents face off, if one has a more specific skill they're applying to the situation they gain a bonus. The example given in the rules suggests a contest between someone with the Strong ability and another with Arm-Wrestling-- we have a case of the broadest possible versus the highly specific to the situation. There the latter would gain a +6 bonus to their test. I suspect most conflicts like this will be narrower, granting the more specific a +3 instead. One implication for this system is that GM's do have to have some things sketched out a little-- at least moreso than I do at times-- in order to play fair with these determinations.

Another interesting idea is that players also set the benchmark of specificity in a group. If someone else has a more specific and applicable ability, even if they're not in the scene, the character takes a penalty. The point of these rules seems twofold-- to encourage players to take some specific skills and also to encourage players not to step on one another's shticks. I think that's something worthwhile to strive for, but I can also see some players bristling at this, especially those focus on autonomy over group work. The broad potential nature of these abilities also means that sometimes players will try to use one where it doesn't really fit. This is considered a stretch and nets a -6 penalty.

Sidebar: A later edit, after Sherri and I talked about a couple of points, specifically about the possible penalty for broad/narrow within the group. First, I think Laws actually frames it badly in the mechanics. Given that a person with a narrower skill has a bonus in a one-on-one contest, then if Player A is using a broad skill in a contest against something or someone, and Player B has a narrower and more applicable skill, then it shouldn't be done as a penalty to Player A, but rather as a bonus to their opposition. Penalties suck and you can keep the same balance without the potential reaction by applying the bonus elsewhere.

Second, we have to look at what that rule is trying to accomplish. On the one hand it is about making sure that players who have invested in a particular area don't have other players who've bought broadly stealing the spotlight or constantly showing them up in what they're supposed to be good at. I think that's an admirable goal for a game. On the other hand, it is also about keeping players from buying and relying on one or two broad skills as swiss-army knives to solve any situation. Again I think that's an admirable goal.

In the case of both of these admirable goals, I think the rules are written to give the GM an option they can enforce if they find either of these situations going on. In play, these kinds of things only ought to come up if a player is turf-stomping (and the player who is being stomped on doesn't like it) or continually falling back to X or Y ability (again I keep saying skill when I mean ability). I can't imagine in play consistently checking those things...only when I see a nail sticking up should I have to get the hammer out.


The game includes the concept of augments which are lingering bonuses a player gains to future ability uses. For example, success on a previous contest (as mentioned earlier) may result in an augment bonus which will affect that ability or a related one in a future contest. Other players can also try to provide an augment for a player before they go into a contest-- otherwise it is more of an assist action. To provide an augment, the player must describe how they're helping and it must be entertaining and/or novel. Repeated uses of the same kind augment don't work over time or suffer an increasing resistance- for dramatic effect. Augments resolve through a simple contest-- and notably active augments are limited to one attempt. If the augment takes, then that's what the player gets-- if it fails, no other augment attempts can be made. Again, not necessarily realistic, but definitely appropriate to a dramatic narrative. The rules also have notes on conducting plots to gain augments and for handling them without rolls.

Interestingly since equipment functions as a ability, i.e. Something you use to solve problems, it doesn't provide an augment unless you can find a description in which it will help you in a particular circumstance. So, having a Kakita Blade in L5R would be an ability which could be used in combat. But you could also figure out a story or reason why it might give you an augment for a particular contest. The assumption in the game is that items cancel one another out-- armor and weapons-- except for the ratings of the abilities associated with them. Patrons, contacts and sidekicks can all function likewise- as an abstract ability used to overcome an obstacle.

One of the few places in the system where we get some parallel or alternate mechanics comes in the form of the Community rules. I have wonder if this system hadn't originated out of Glorantha if we'd have the same thing. Communities can simply act as abilities or they can form the core of a series. In that case they have resources which can be drawn on, with some risk. A communities resources can grow over time and players can increase or decrease those resources and injure or improve their relations with the community. I can see how some of those structures might be used for a samurai building game, with the players managing a fief-- or for a magistrate game, revolving around the characters relation to the community they oversee.

Magic, Everything Else and Last Bits

OK, I'm almost done running through the parts and pieces of this system. Just a few more details to get out there-- mostly so I have in mind the options and tools for crafting a conversion of the system over to another setting. The last couple of chapters of the book focus on this-- first how to build “genre packs” and then providing a detailed example for the Glorantha setting.

The rules again come back to the idea of keywords I mentioned before-- groups of related abilities underneath one simple idea, usually a class, background or culture. Since costs for raising keyword groups are affected by the number of elements beneath them, there's a balance there. They can serve as a useful starting point for characters.

The discussion of magic mostly focuses on building the narrative and logical framework for how magic operates. Otherwise, magic generally just functions as an ability. The key point here would be how narrowly those abilities are bought-- at the level of individual spell, of general powers or something even larger. There's a few ideas about how to handle other powers as well-- for example the difference between ordinary Strength as an ability and Super-Strength lies in the narrative limits, but the GM may also want to impose caps on some ordinary abilities while allowing extraordinary ones to keep increasing. That's an interesting approach and I'd be curious to see how that would actually play out over time. Most everything else high-tech equipment, psychic powers, species traits and so on follow the same basic system. Interestingly, the Gloranthan system of magic provided has more detail-- including some things which happen as certain level limits, notes on how and when magical augments can be used and so on. But I'll come back to that later.

OK. I think I'm done with my overview. Wednesday I'll come back to talk about some ideas of how this might apply to an L5R game.