Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Third Time's the Charm

HeroQuest has had a bit of a rocky history. The name goes back to 1979 when it was first mentioned as an upcoming product in the original RuneQuest rules. That product never came out, and ten years later the name was taken by Milton Bradley for the board game they published in cooperation with Games Workshop. Another decade passed and a set of RPG rules was created that the designers finally felt was worthy of the HeroQuest name. Unfortunately, Hasbro still held the rights to the name having bought out Milton Bradley, so they called it Hero Wars instead. Finally, when the second edition came out a few years later, Hasbro had let the rights to the name lapse, so it was snatched up and the first HeroQuest RPG was published (although it was actually the second edition of the game).

HeroQuest and I have also had a rocky history. I have never read the Hero Wars book, although I do own some of the supplements for it. I have read the second edition. I read it about five years ago, before I had any experience with narrative style RPGs. I read the whole book, but really didn't "get" the system. The only reason it didn't get sold off prior to my marriage was because of the information in it about Glorantha.

In brief, Glorantha is a fantasy world that is distinctly different from most other such worlds in gaming. It is a world where magic is commonplace and where mythology accurately portrays the world around you. It's a setting that I've always had an interest in, and is the reason I became interested in HeroQuest in the first place.

Two years ago I decided to give the book a second look. Largely this was because I was starting to become more acquainted with narrative style games and remembered enough of what I'd read to recognize that HeroQuest fell into this category. Before starting in for a second read, I checked online for any errata that was out there, and I discovered that a new edition of HeroQuest had just come out. I decided not to re-read the second edition and ordered a copy of the third edition instead.

Once I had a copy of the third edition I started reading it, but only got a few pages in before giving up. This new third edition was still something I didn't quite "get" and the fact that the rules had been stripped out of the Gloranthan setting and made into a generic rules set meant that I had less interest in it.

Finally, about a month ago I decided to give the book one more try. This time I made it all the way through, and have come out rather impressed by the game. I attribute my success in making my way through the book to my better understanding of narrative games in general, specifically Fate and Burning Wheel, and to my increased familiarity with the author's "voice."

The author is Robin D. Laws, and my increased familiarity with him is due to a combination of following him on Twitter and reading Hamlet's Hit Points. There were only a few points in HeroQuest where being familiar with his voice was really helpful, but it did make it easier to get through those concepts. I wish I could give some specific examples of this, but I didn't think to take notes at the time, and can't find the specific points now.

As for Hamlet's Hit Points, you can definitely see some of the concepts from that book in the chapter on Playing Stories. He uses some different terminology, but the concepts are the same.

Mechanically, characters in HeroQuest consist solely of abilities that are defined by the player and GM. There are no fixed attributes or skill lists in the game. This was one of the concepts I used to have difficulty with, but having played Fate I now recognize them as being similar to aspects from that game. The main differences in HeroQuest are that characters consist solely of these player defined abilities, and they are given numerical ratings.

Each ability is assigned a rating from 1 to 20, but 20 is not the highest level an ability can have. Instead, when you raise an ability to 21 it wraps around and becomes a level 1 ability with one level of Mastery (the game uses a special character to show levels of Mastery, but I can't duplicate that shorthand with the character sets I have available in this blog).

Every roll in the game is an opposed roll. The GM sets a difficulty from 1 to 20 (possibly with levels of Mastery), then the player rolls against his ability while the GM rolls against the difficulty. Equal to or under the number being rolled against is a success, over it is a failure, a natural 1 is a critical success, and a natural 20 is a fumble. The two results are compared against each other which results in a range from complete victory (critical vs. fumble) to complete defeat (fumble vs. critical). Ties are resolved with the lowest roll winning a marginal victory.

Two things can alter this result, levels of Mastery and Hero Points. If one side of a contest has a greater level of Mastery than the other, then that side can shift his result a number of times equal to the difference in his levels of mastery. So if that side rolled a failure, but has one more mastery level than the other side, then they can shift the result to a success. Hero Points work the same way, with each point spent shifting the result one level. In both cases, if one side is already at critical success, then they can use additional shifts to lower the result of the opposing side.

Unfortunately, Hero Points are the one system that I really dislike in HeroQuest. The reason I dislike them is that they use one of my most hated game mechanics: combining experience points with some other form of expendable resource. I despise this mechanic, and could write a separate piece as to why (something I thought I'd already done, but as I can't find it in the archives here, I will probably write one shortly). For now I'll simply say that I don't find it to be an interesting choice as to whether or not to use experience for temporary gain within play or to hold on to it to improve the character permanently later.

I dislike this mechanic so much, that it would normally be a deal breaker for me as to whether or not I'd be willing to play a particular game that includes it, but I'm liking the rest of the system enough that I still want to run it anyway.

That's all there is to the basics of the game. The rest of the rules help clarify edge cases and special circumstances. The book finishes with a chapter on applying all of this to a game set in Glorantha, but is aimed towards those already familiar with the setting. It appears to be more of a stopgap measure until they can get further books published (there are a couple out now, but I have not yet read them).

One of the most interesting aspects of the game is character creation. Since a character consists solely of abilities, it is possible to just create a character by listing the abilities you want and then assigning points to them, but that's not the only way you can do it. The most interesting way of doing it is to write a description of your character that fills 100 words or less.

For example, if I were to create a character for a Star Wars game using HeroQuest, I might write the following:

Han Solo is a smuggler who made the Kessel run in twelve parsecs. He is always accompanied by his co-pilot, Chewbacca. He is an excellent pilot of their ship, the Millenium Falcon, which he keeps flying by jury-rigging repairs. He claims to be in it for the money, but he also has a heart of gold. He tends to shoot first when threatened, and is a crack shot with his Blastech-44. He’s also an Imperial Academy graduate, and a competent starship gunner. He owes money to Jabba the Hutt. He tends to dress like a scruffy-looking nerf herder.

Out of this I can get the following abilities:
made the Kessel run in twelve parsecs
Chewbacca (a sidekick)
Millenium Falcon (tech)
in it for the money
heart of gold
shoot first when threatened
crack shot
Blastech-44 (tech)
Imperial Academy graduate
starship gunner
Jabba the Hutt (enemy)
scruffy-looking nerf herder

Some of these abilities are obvious, like pilot or crack shot, but others may require some defining on the part of the player or GM, either before or during play.

Next I assign a value of 17 to one ability, 13 to the rest, and then assign 20 more points wherever I want to.

One of the great things about this system is that it's hard to think of a fictional character that I couldn't recreate using it, which also means that it's hard to think of a fictional genre that can't be run with a little creativity.

The simplicity of the system might make long term campaigns problematical, but certainly for short runs or one shots this should work pretty well. I'm looking forward to giving it a try.

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