29 September 2004

Heroquest Review

HeroQuest is the newest game set in Greg Stafford's world Glorantha, which many of you will recognise from many games over the years, especially RuneQuest. It has a homepage at http://www.heroquest-rpg.com/. The setting is rich, detailed and weird. It is not a generic fantasy game.

HeroQuest has a great system, too. Robin Laws wrote it, so it isn't surprising that the system is great. It's built to model games in a mythic style, and scales well. The bit that I really like is that everything is integrated into one mechanic. All character abilities work the same way: strength, retainers, magic, equipment, personality, whatever. Whatever abilities are being used, the same kind of resolution works it out. In addition, good and bad effects of success and failure are integrated too - you can take 'damage' from failed contests in any area, not just in physical combat, and different kinds of damage work the same way. Lastly, there is a very nice way to model how multiple abilities can work together. The game doesn't have a set abilities list, just many suggestions, so each character can be (and, it seems after watching my group make up a hero band is) idiosyncratic and interesting.

There are two methods of task resolution, extended contests for things that are important to the story and simple contests for everything else. Simple contests are for generic encounters ("you meet a few bandits, everyone make a simple combat roll") rather than playing out in detail things that don't really matter. The other thing is that results are always worked out the same way - you get a level of success from critical failure to critical success and apply this to interpret the results of the contest. So a critical failure in a combat might be death, in a legal action you might be exiled from your community, in a seduction attempt you might be slapped and made a fool of. The lingering effects are based on this, so you can have 'wounds' that affect (say) anything that you need self-confidence for (in the seducation example).

Simple contests pit the hero's roll (d20, try to get under rating) against another roll (either your opponent or the world) and compare results to get level of success. Abilities have no upper limit, but abilities over 20 turn into abilties with mastery. So 21 is an ability of 1W (where W is the mastery rune) and 45 is 5W2. Masteries allow you to bump up your success level, so our chap with 5W2 has a hard roll - 1-5 on d20 - to succeed, but gets to bump up twice, meaning that the worst result you can get is a critical fail bumped up twice to minor defeat. Nice. Foes with mastery can bump you back down, of course, and you can spend hero points for a bump too (but these also are used for character development). The mastery mechanic is the one that is supposed to allow mythic level stuff going on without changing the rules, as people with masteries cancel each other out - running a contest between gods is the same as between peasants. Your peasant is in trouble if the god decides to stomp them, of course.

Extended contests are for stuff that's really important to the story and involve multiple rounds of bidding abstract 'advantage points' (AP), which the loser of each round will lose. When someone's out of AP, they have lost the contest and the amount they are below 0 gives you their level of failure. This system is pretty complicated to read, but looks like it might be okay once you've gone through it a few times. I'm reserving judgement on this - it looks like it could be very cool or a bit annoying, and only trying it will tell. In any case, it does appear that it will give you some cool back and forth contests sometimes, if one side loses AP then gains them back next round, which models changing fates in the contest.

I haven't run very many sessions yet but so far the game goes well. The characters tend to come out interesting and with plenty of motivation to drive their own stories. The system works smoothly andencourages creativity in how to solve problems (that is, characters using unorthodox methods - unusual abilities - to deal with things). One thing that hasn't come up is the use of extended contests - they just seem a bit complicated to throw into play when it's moving along fast. Simple contests seem to do the trick for the style of game that I run, so we haven't really felt the need to go for the more complex option.

The richness of Glorantha's background and history really helps too - I found the Heortling/Dragon Pass material has really given everyone a solid idea of the culture, the characters places in it and a good feel for how things work. This also feeds into the interesting characters.

Overall, a very good set of rules for running heroic fantasy stories and a very detailed setting with lots of cool stuff.

I'm pretty sure that the rules will easily convert to other games in a heroic style - I know I've seen plenty of discussion on The Forge about people using it for various other settings.


Anonymous said...

Svend here - how does skill advancement work? From the description, it sounds like you might get a major drop in effectiveness every time you hit a mastery level...

The Gamester At Large said...

Abilities are rated from 1 to 20 plus number of masteries. When you increase past 20 you go to a rating of 1 with an extra mastery.

This kind of seems like you get worse - you just changed from having a target number of 1 critical/2-19 success/20 fumble to 1 critical/2-19 failure/20 fumble. However, your new mastery automatically bumps up your success level so your *really* get 1 critical/2-19 success/20 normal failure.

Additionally, all rolls are resisted, and if you have more masteries than your opponent, you start reducing their success level after you've bumped yours up to a critical - this means that a roll of 1 against the new ability is better than the critical before the increase.

Anonymous said...

Hix here,

Another thing I like about Heroquest is that the time scale for resolving conflicts is so flexible. For instance, the Trojan War could be treated as a simple contest, rolled and resolved within a minute ... if that battle wasn't important to the on-going drama that everyone was interested in.

(OTOH, if you wanted to play the Battle of Helm's Deep in all its glory, you could play it as an extended contest with lots of different groups allied with each other.)

I keep hearing on the Forge that you can get through about 5 times as much story in a single session than you can with more detailed systems (like D&D or HERO) and the focus stays firmly on the characters at all times.

In my head, I think it sounds perfect for running a game of Buffy. Or even for completing 'Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil' in less than 2.5 years.


The Gamester At Large said...

Yeah, that's a good point that I completely overlooked. In play we have used the resolution that way too - still relatively small timescales, such as "you spend a day amongst the clan trying to find out any rumours about such and such". But no reason to restrict it to that. You could even use it to make a classic dungeon crawl less boring: "everyone make a roll against the dungeon". Heh.

In terms of bringing out "more story", I'm not sure about that. Certainly we've had plenty of character stuff in the games I've played - giving each character so many ratings in different areas (especially relationships and personality traits) seems to encourage people to go a little crazy. In a good way.

Yokiboy said...

What do you think of the Extended Contest rules after having more experience with the game?

Your reviews are very good btw.



The Gamester At Large said...

Hmm... extended contests.

Well, we haven't ended up using them very much, actually. They're kind of hard to get your head around and so we've mainly just stuck with the simple contest resolution system.

Which is fine. I'm not sure that the extended contest thing is really necessary. These days I'm pretty much a fan of with "one roll sorts out everything" type mechanics.