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.

14 September 2004

Scarlet Wake - First Session Impressions

As my regular gaming group was down two and a half* players last night, we postponed the scheduled session in favour or a game of Scarlet Wake. We went with a Western Setting with a variety of characters, some pretty serious and hard-bitten and some completely absurd.

Despite the fact that only two of us had read the game, the way the rules set things up meant that it ran smoothly. We got through the first turn for each protagonist, with each of us having the initial scene to begin the hunt, a good fight with the first boss' peons (and the boss, in some cases) followed by a bind, each of which was escaped in the third scene. I look forward to when we get to play the next session, as I think it will start with a lot of action - one character gathered so much fuel being beaten up on that he's likely to blast his way through the next few fights with ease.

One thing that particularly impressed me was that all the different styles worked well. We have one story about a midget taking revenge on people who made fun of him. Needless to say, it's pretty silly and a lot of laughs. A couple of the other stories are much darker and nastier, but the change of narration by protagonist seems to mean that each story works by itself and the differing styles don't really interfere with each other. I'll be interested to see whether this breaks down a little when more than one of us goes after the same boss, but I suspect that it will work okay. After all, each of us has had some time to set up our own story and character so expectations about what is acceptable will already be there.

The lack of a single gamemaster didn't quite work. As one of the group's usual gamemasters, and the person who brought Scarlet Wake along, I found some of the group directing a lot of their narration at me, rather than the group in general. I guess that will wear off as they get to know the rules and so on.

The overall view is that we had a great time, more so than is usual for dropping a new game on people. I look forward to the next session and also the full game.

* Half a player is someone turning up really late.

09 September 2004

Scarlet Wake (playtest edition): Read-through Review

The newest and also coolest game that I've seen for a while is Scarlet Wake. Currently it's only in a public playtest release but it looks pretty close to complete and I'm really looking forward to playing it.

It is based on revenge stories, specifically those in which a very cool protagonist slays their way through a group of enemies. Kill Bill looks like the biggest influence but I think I would like to play it as a Western, in the style of The Outlaw Josey Wales or High Plains Drifter.

In any case, the game works very differently from your average rpg. Everyone has a character and everyone takes turns. There is no one gamemaster - instead everyone is basically the gamemaster of their protagonist's story. You begin with your character idea, give them a few numbers and then work through the kill list - five "bosses" who are the people you want revenge on. Each boss has a few numbers and you allocate them "peons" who defend them.

Protagonists can share bosses from their kill lists. This becomes important in play because the decision about whether to fight the boss together or try to take him out alone can make a difference.

Once all ths is sorted, play begins. Players take turns and each gets three ten-minute scenes before play passes on to the next person. Each scene must be about your protagonist's revenge story, e.g. revealing something about their past, improving their abilities or (obviously) taking on the next boss. The player gets to set up the scene and describe what's going on, and other players take on the roles of any antagonists (bosses and peons) present. The protagonist's player can instruct the antagonist players regarding what is required, to make it fit into their story. Then it plays out.

Fighting the bad guys has one of the coolest parts in the game, which made me laugh out loud to read. When your protagonist wants to fight the next boss, you gesture to tell the antagonist players how many people you wish ot fight in the next wave. You can hold up fingers (so many peons), a palms-up wave towards you (send all the peons, bring it on!), point at the boss (just the boss) or displaying your two middle fingers extended towards the group (send everyone, I'm too cool for my own good). Each wave is resolved in a roll of protagonist versus all the antagonists.

There's a lot of complex stuff about how damage is dealt and stats raised and so forth which I'd prefer to leave off discussing until I've played the game. It all looks pretty damn good as written, though.

The one thing that really stands out is the fuel/fire/kick rules. Protagonists do not take damage from fights. Instead, they gain fuel and kick. Kick is used against the protagonists by antagonists, like a currency to make things bad for the protagonist (e.g. remove their weapon, kill them, etc). Fuel sits there until the protagonist decides to "burn" it into fire, which gives them a one-off bonus in the current wave of violence. If your fuel gets too high, then the antagonists can put you into a "bind" which essentially means they can capture you and mess you up a great deal, and you have to escape and take up the killing again.

There's also a possiblity of giving your protagonist a dilemma - setting up a situation in which they have a moral conflict about taking their revenge. You then roll to overcome this - if you fail, you gain a point of Grudge (the hate stat) and if you succeed you lose a point of grudge, gain a point of Honour (the "I'm good" stat) and let them live (for now, anyway).

Those rules, and several of the other aspects, mean that Scarlet Wake is going to be quite a tactical game - you need to make good decisions about when to burn fuel and how many antagonists to take on (you want to beat them but also have them give you fuel in the process). The one failing I found with the rules is that there isn't any advice about this. The importance of these tactics is noted, but there's no advice on (for example) how many peons can a starting character handle? How should I set up my kill list so that I have enough fuel to take out each boss by burning it into fire? It may be that - as this is a playtest release - the author simply doesn't have a good enough set of rules yet, and I hope that there's something in the final release about this.

Finally, the game is competitive. Once everyone has killed all their bosses, scores are tallied up to see who was the best (i.e. coolest) in taking their revenge. There's also some talk about using old protagonists as bosses in subsequent games (e.g. "You brutally killed my father! In front of me!").

Oh, yes - the playtest pdf is one of the most professional and downright cool pieces of game layout and design that I've seen. It blows most big-company professional games out of the water.

This is well worth checking out if you are interested in new and interesting takes on the what a roleplaying game is.

06 September 2004

What the hell this is all about

This is intended as a place for me to put some thoughts about gaming. By this, I mean pen & paper roleplaying games but there'll probably end up being some posts about books or computer games every now and again as well. I'm aiming to get some practice writing for a semi-public forum and probably to put some short reviews of games that I come across.

If you stay tuned, I'll probably have some reviews up here pretty soon.