Friday, October 30, 2009

The Tools of HeroQuest 2e

The Tools of HeroQuest 2e

HeroQuest presents itself as a toolkit for storytelling games. I think that's more accurate here than most other games that make that claim. The mechanics are pretty consistent, but the rules also present a number of options about how to make changes. Strikingly, those changes don't feel like a rejiggering of the game. They feel like another path the rules developer could have gone in and kept the same pattern. I want to lay out the basics of HQ as I understand them, trying to see what tools I have available to me (while staying close to the system) in porting over Legend of the Five Rings.

Characters in HeroQuest have three mechanical parts, plus the player's own self-definition of the character. Those are Abilities, Flaws and Hero Points.

Abilities are, to paraphrase the rules, anything you use to solve a problem. I'm going to come back that, but abilities form 90+% of your character. Flaws are essentially inverted abilities, they follow the same pattern and can serve as a force of resistance in a contest or the GM may handle them as a penalty assessed to particular actions. Hero Points serve two functions- they are drama points which can be spent in play for a bump up in results and they are always your experience points. Notably, they're really the only system in the game that has a different mechanic.

I want to focus in on the idea of Abilities as they're going to be the bread and butter of the game.

Abilities cover just about everything that I talked about earlier as mechanical aspects of a game: characteristics, skills, advantages, powers, and even equipment. All of them are handled the same way.

Each ability has a rating. Rolling that number or below on a d20 is a success. Rolling a 1 is a critical success. Rolling above the ability's rating is a failure; rolling a 20 is a critical failure. If two things are contesting and get the same level of victory, then the person with the lower roll has the edge. There are a couple of notable consequences to this-- we have a smooth curve of probability distribution, rather than a bell curve. That means each point of an ability increases the chance of success by the same amount. It also means a roll-under approach, with some odd effects. The rules suggest that one could have the higher number rolled as having a success in a tied contest. While that does give some greater leeway to higher skills, it also requires reversing one's mental calculation about what's a good result. Fading Suns used that and I recall the players and myself not liking the break it caused.

There are a couple of complications to this question of ability ratings. If a rating hits 21, it converts over to a 1 with a mastery, which I'll use the @ sign to represent throughout. A mastery allows a player to bump his results up by one level, so a failure can be moved to a success or a success can be moved to a critical success. Masteries cancel each other out-- so two people with abilities at 5@ and 10@ will be rolling at 5 and 10 respectively, without any bumps. This means that the abilities have important break points at 21, 41, 61 and so on. As well, the experience system allows players to bring up abilities which have straggled when they raise a skill to a mastery-- this means there can be some point calculation and efficiency there- another break point.

Character Creation
Abilities are generally discrete units, but there's an option for something called 'keywords'. A keyword represents a group of related abilities joined under a common element. So, for example, Warrior Mage (like a class) would have several abilities under it. The rating of the keyword is used for all of them and players can also specialize in some of the things under a keyword. So, if a character has the cultural background keyword, Aoniaen at 15, they might have Identify Magic +1, Spooky Lore +2, and Magocratic Etiquette at +0. The game suggests that you can work with abilities exclusively, keywords exclusively or easily mix the two. Keyword buy ups have a slightly different cost in Hero Points to raise. I'll want to keep that in mind when we hit L5R.

HQ presents three versions of character creation. You can write out a descriptive story about your character and then mark elements in the description which will serve as abilities. For example if you say that your character “...handles his fast car like a race driver,” you could take “Fast Car” or “Race Driver” as abilities. You can also go the route of just putting together a list of abilities, with a main ability plus ten others. The other option is to pick abilities as you go along. In any case, you get a main ability at a high number, a set of abilities at an equal lower number, plus some HeroPoints to spend to raise those abilities. Depending on the game, you may also get some cultural or background keywords or the like.

The system presents three (and a half) kinds of contests or methods of resolution. The first is automatic success-- where the character winds by virtue of the situation or their skills. I'm going to liken this to the negotiated resolution I talked about before. The rules do make explicit that some times people like to roll or have a chance to show off their skills, even in circumstances where the GM knows that failure's not a dramatically appropriate result. The game suggests fake rolling a contest in those cases-- which is a refreshing admission.

Framing and Scale
I need to make a point here in terms of framing the contests, both simple and extended. There are no scales in this game. No rules for distance, for movement, for time, for any of the classic units that typically mechanize the situation. Instead, a contest represents an abstract measure of the time necessary for the story. How far away is something-- either your right there or you'll have to take an action to get there- again driven by the narrative.

Simple Contests
A simple contest involves the player(s) rolling a die against the GM rolling a die. For example, a mountainside might be considered to have “Hard to Climb 10”. Again the book suggests these resistances should be dramatically appropriate-- not that you have to calculate the resistance of everything in the world in a solid way. The players have to frame their contest-- naming what they want to have happen and how they're going about doing that. (So not too far off from a matrix argument).

There are couple of notes about resolution that have to be kept in mind as well. If you're going to use a Hero Point to bump a result up, you need to describe how you're taxing yourself, finding a new path or pushing your strengths. Also, the game specifies no repeat attempts. A contest is about your putting all of your effort into overcoming something- if you want to try again, you need to use another ability or find some kind of special circumstance which might permit it.

In a contest between two rolls, you end up with five degrees of success. A tie means no change or else that both sides suffer or gain from the consequences. Marginal Success, the victor gets what they want but the loser doesn't suffer effects beyond the loss. Minor success, a clear victory and the loser suffers some short-term penalties. Major success, the victor gains benefits beyond the contest and the loser suffers penalties beyond the contest of longer duration. Complete success, which grants big bonuses and big penalties to the winner and loser respectively.

I should say a word about modifiers here as well. Generally the GM can assign modifiers to a player's skill to represent circumstances or they can simply up the resistance. The latter's a better approach as it doesn't obviously penalize the player. A player can also can modifiers from various sources-- augments, assists and so on which I'll talk about later. They can also add description (ala stunting) or describe a connection to something else to try to gain a modifier. Most of these are either a +3 or +6 to the player's effective ability. If a modifier pushes a player's ability up over twenty, then they gain the appropriate mastery. The same thing happens in the other direction.

One of the most common sources of modifiers, often lingering ones comes from winning or losing contests. These are states of adversity and can hit on literal or metaphorical areas. Obviously in combat, loss may mean injury. But in a social contest, it may mean loss of reputation or friends. Contests between nations may damage resources or economies. There are various levels to this-- applying a penalty until time or effort has been expended to repair the state-- duration and degree dependent on the level of loss. Worse states may require the player to test to see if they can even use an ability or even act. Of course, characters can also be dying from their injuries-- again both literal and metaphorical. Destruction of one's social reputation may require the person to retreat off into the woods, never to be seen again. Or in something like L5R, may require seppuku to rid themselves of that shame.

On the reverse side, winning a contest may providing lingering benefits in the form of bonuses to the appropriate ability. The player may also make an argument for the bonus to apply to a different ability or circumstance. Benefits last until a contest is lost on the ability or the story moves forward significantly.

Multiple Contestants

I should also note that simple contests can be resolved in group form, with each player rolling against a separate roll by the GM. Each side tracks points from the margins of victory. It may be that the members are participating against one another or trying together to accomplish some task.

I'm about 1700 words in and I haven't gotten to Extended Contests, the heart of the game in some ways. I'm going to stop here and continue on with Sunday's post. Obviously tomorrow is Halloween, so I'll be skipping posting for that most wonderful day of the year.

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