3 Oct 2008

Humakti on the Marsh Edge : Intro

Dogs in the Vineyard, Glorantha style

We started playing my DitV variant last week, which I originally ran at Tentacles Fumble 2008.

When I started reading about DitV, I imagined Humakti PCs fitting with the play style so I was quite keen to give it a go. Humakti have a strong honour code and an interestingly stark outlook on life, but their values are rarely challenged in RuneQuest. Besides, death magic wielding teenagers with family issues is just too tempting to ignore.

I didn't want a thinly disguised Utah setting, so rather than make an exact Dogs parallel I chose an area where Humakt is very prominent (near Delecti's Marsh) and where a number of taboos and superstitions would develop over death. And, rather than a list of religious strictures I have laid down some flavoursome local customs to help highlight how the people think, and some religious restrictions, which could be seen as unworldly or overly pious by outsiders or non-cultists.

I have maintained the idea of being sent away for training. In this case a military training and initiation camp, which gives us plenty of options for accomplishment conflicts. I also wanted to really focus in on the community level, so the game is set in the characters' home village, and plays on the fact that the characters have been away and will not be sure if it's the village that has changed or their own mindset. A year having taboos and injunctions force fed to young minds is bound to confuse and change perspectives.

Death Magic replaces Gunfire, and conveniently Humakti would consider wielding a sword death magic. Cult Runes replaces Coat, The Unquiet Dead replaces Demons and Necromancy replaces Sorcery. This is not to say that the whole area is crawling with necromancers so much as in a Humakti world view necromancy would include any magic or practice that deliberately contravenes their black and white attitude to death (at least in this game which I acknowledge has an extreme interpretation).

I will post a story overview and also focus in on some of the key conflicts. I am recording the game for this purpose but the recordings will not be published as I would not gain permission to record if I was to do so. I do find the reflective insights that spring from being able to listen back after a few days invaluable. The nuances of what people say are often missed in the moment, including the effects of my own wording on the game. Listening back to the tricky parts and thinking 'how could I have made that better' is a great way to reflect and learn for me.

17 Sep 2008

The De-emphasis of Numbers in HeroQuest

One way of examining a game's mechanics is to focus on the numbers, specifically the dice used, their relative probabilities and what they represent in the game. HeroQuest is not easily analysed in this way, and even when it is, it confounds normal expectations. Indeed it is often accused of being broken, the D20 cited as having a flat probability curve, or the break points around 20 and 1W being strange and non-linear. Alternative dice are even suggested to fix these problems.

However, for me these issues fade into the background, and more radically I believe the numbers to mean very little within the context of the game as a whole.

To explain this let us imagine a situation within a game, and for simplicity's sake the game is structured around simple contests and makes use of a formal scene framing technique, with only a few key rolls per scene focused on areas that shape the story.


The story so far:
Our hero the prince has fought his way through the monstrous and shadowy thorn bushes surrounding the castle and has found his way through the maze like corridors to at last find himself in the bedchamber of the comatose princess.

Imagine that this story is unfamiliar to the player and that it need not progress inevitably to the conclusion that we all know from childhood.

The Scene:
A once regal bedchamber with a thick layer of settled dust everywhere and old heavy cobwebs hanging from every available object. Draped in these cobwebs like a funeral veil is an apparently dead young lady. Our hero is exhausted following some narrow successes and some setbacks.

Some HQ2 Stats:
  • Adventurous Prince 5W (Keyword)
  • Heirloom Sword 18
  • Valiant 3W
  • The Good Fairy's Prophesy 17
  • Virginal Naivety 2W

The GM is selecting resistances based on story judgement and wants the hero to face a climactic challenge in this scene but also has planned that the beauty of the princess should play a major role in this. Letting the player take the lead he asks what the Prince's first move is and the player goes straight for "I part the cobwebs from her face".

The GM sees the opportunity for a nice heavy resistance and states "the Princess's unsurpassed beauty holds you paralysed and you find yourself unable to do anything but stare at her, as if your whole quest was leading up to this moment, and there is nothing else to surpass this, and if you want to do anything else at all you must resist her beauty". He has in mind a 'Very High' resistance (Base +9) which is 3W for a game of three sessions or less.

The Player decides this is the ideal time to go for The Good Fairy's Prophesy 17 and states that he is driven to action by the prophesy which has been described as "a prince will one day liberate a forgotten princess from within the dark thorny forest, lift the 100 year curse and they will wed".

This is probably the ideal skill selection in terms of the story and is an assertion that the prophesy applies to his character at this crucial moment, which is interpreted as a specific bonus so gains +3 to the skill taking it to 20 v 3W. The Player rolls 15 and the GM rolls 8 gaining a marginal defeat.

The GM narrates this as "You contemplate the prophesy whilst held by the princess's beauty and you find yourself lost in a fantasy of your future together which like a waking dream seems real to you, as if you have passed this point and moved on. It is only when a spider crosses your face halfway through spinning a new web between you and the princess do you realise that you are still trapped in her beauty and that your fantasy was but a naive dream of what could have been if you had had the courage to act".


This example is designed to highlight the subtle forces that work to make the numbers part of an abstract game in HeroQuest. At first glance it is a straightforward examination of the basic mechanics of HQ as expressed in skill numbers, resistances and modifiers, but there are many places where the story elements and subjective judgement start to de-emphasise these.

There is the GMs initial vision of the story arc, and the current position within that trajectory, in this case he has sought to make some of the earlier scenes difficult and physical to make any victory sought feel hard earned. He has an arc for the player in mind, possibly playing on the virginity and inexperience of the character by drawing out the overtones of loss of female innocence that lie in the sleeping beauty story. He has the power to frame the scene to present a suitable situation for a particular resistance level and specifically draw out the attitudes of the player via the character to the situation.

The player has the ability to choose skills that best reflect his character, which in turn will have an impact on skills rolled on and modifiers gained, in this case he is emphasising the alignment of his fate with that of the prophesy and so emphasising in the story that he is seeking either an ending that gets the girl or perhaps an ending that shows how he is naive to believe he is the one. He can tip the results in his favour via use of Hero-Points. With his choice of skill he is also negotiating with the GM over skill applicability and modifiers and to some extent resistances and future story trajectory.

The GM is then casting the narration to direct the narrative arc towards another challenge or situation which while paying heed to the result subtly re-interprets the failure to suit his plans and tie into the planned themes and the character's issues.

The numbers are at the heart of it all, and by far the easiest part to discuss and explain, but the subjective aspects that surround these are using the numbers in far less direct ways and de-emphasising them at every turn.

6 Aug 2008

Resistances Revisited

The preview edition of HQ2 has hit my desk, and the first thing I am interested to see, is how resistances are handled in this new rule set.

And, there are some definite improvements. Mainly, in the form of advice on how to set resistances, with a table and tools to help gauge what the resistance should be. I am delighted to see that much of the advice is focused on setting the resistance based on the flow of the story, where levels are decided primarily in relation to how successful the players have been in their last two conflicts.

There is guidance on how one should set the resistance first and then find story reasons why the resistance is at this level, so one could imagine a challenge with a clan champion which would normally be a high resistance but situated in the story after a sting of losses. In this case a low resistance would be selected and perhaps a secret weakness is revealed to the player by a surprise ally making it far easier to win the fight.

Another positive move is the advice that factors that cannot be changed by the players should be rolled into the resistance and not used as modifiers. This again allows otherwise complex sets of situational factors to be folded into the overall story and kept away from the mechanics. So if our champions challenge is on a cold and foggy morning this can be used as colour without the temptation to start adding modifiers for visibility or cold to both sides in a relatively pointless exercise. And indeed we have advice on folding away all of those weapons and armour modifiers as well unless there is good reason to bring them in.

Such guidance certainly steers the new HQ Narrator away from the habits of constant high resistances as challenge and instead moves towards high resistance when appropriate to the story, so I for one am delighted.

12 Apr 2008

The Tyranny of Resistances as Challenge in HeroQuest

In HeroQuest Simple Contests, the GM selects the resistance to the PC’s actions, and will often do so based on challenge. The thinking as I understand it is thus:

  • HeroQuest focuses on story.
  • In stories, stakes rise as obstacles increase.
  • Story satisfaction comes from the struggle to overcome these obstacles.
  • High resistances equate to high obstacles so overcoming them will be satisfying.

It is hard to fault the logic of this thinking but I believe it to be false, and that basing resistances on the skill of the PC is fraught with difficulties.

Firstly there is the question of balance. HQ provides lists of sample resistances so that you can decide how difficult opponents should be, but because Hero Point expenditure is not bound by this table the issue of campaign balance soon arises. There have been any number of posts on the various HQ forums regarding these lists and how some games have moved beyond these scales. Indeed it is relatively easy for a focused player to achieve a combat ability to rival the famous heroes of the setting. This in itself may not be a problem but it can cause problems for groups who wish to maintain a lower campaign balance, as an arms race of skill v resistance emerges.

Also, there is a tendency of mediocre results. If the resistances are set to provide a struggle they encourage the player to treat matching or surpassing them as a challenge, bringing in augments and Hero Point expenditure as necessary. Indeed such skill scouring is directly analogous to the struggle at hand, the desperate search and skill selection by the player, mirroring the resulting narration and actions of the character.

My concern is that essentially this is a player driven challenge, that is not as clear a reflection of the character’s goals as it might at first seem. The player is seduced into a game of numbers which is then reflected in the narration as how much the character cares and strives towards victory. This pleases the GM who intended this level of challenge, but the actual reward for this struggle is most likely to be a Marginal or Minor result, which can leave the contest feeling unresolved or unsatisfying. Also, the actual search can become boring but necessary, with the surface trappings of story-telling representing a challenge that is only really existent in the numbers.

To put this another way, the mechanics are informing the narration. My instinct has always been for the mechanics to reflect the narrative as closely as possible, each informing the other, creating a whole greater than the sum of the parts via mutual support.

My solution is not to set resistances based on challenge, but to base them purely on story grounds. But, by this I don’t mean following the above logic of story = challenge = higher resistances, but rather by handing out some of the dramatic logic to the player. If you set lower resistances and then back these up with good story reasons then you are providing the players with in-roads into the story.

The example most commonly mentioned is when players choose the contest arena based on NPC weakness, but this need not be the only time that circumstances dictate lower resistance, sometimes the NPCs may not be as good as they might seem or have other priorities. It is even possible to disassociate the resistance from the skill of an opponent and represent it as what feels right for the story at that moment.

If the resistance is low, the player can decide if they want to match, exceed or even overwhelm the resistance, and by making this choice accessible and relatively easy, the player can push for the higher victory levels and achieve them. You still get the striving, and the relevant augments still provide colour, but only when the player wants to see the character strive.

12 Mar 2008

HeroQuest's Strengths

I have been feeling a bit guilty that my longest post about HeroQuest is essentially a negative one, and I have even noticed that some of my group appear to think I am on a downer over HeroQuest; that I have somehow written it off or let it fall down my list of favourite games.

So I am going to explain the reasons why I think HeroQuest is a great game, and why its still up there as one of my favourites.

For starters, HeroQuest was my first experience of a game that changed the way I thought about role-playing. It took a while, and my views changed incrementally, but it took me to a whole other place.

Admittedly, I had a head start, having been introduced to gaming via Runequest and very quickly immersing myself in the rich and multi-faceted background of Glorantha, with its very particular take on mythology. This led onto reading about mythology and devouring Campbell's 'The Masks of God' then skimming alternative mythological views like Levi-Strauss and some of the earlier writers heavily influenced by Fraser that were then turning up in cheap public domain print versions.

Armed with this mishmash of ideas I then started trying to understand the powerful stories of our culture. Obviously Star Wars becomes a lot clearer once you have access to the very same tool-box from which it was constructed, but even otherwise trite TV shows suddenly became fascinating and I started to understand how and how not to construct a story; or more specifically what makes stories work for me and what doesn't.

And then there was roleplaying, and boy did that activity start to loose its shine in the light of this new found appreciation for story. Stripped of the ability to pretend we were making good stories only a few games seemed to stand up to scrutiny. One was Runequest's heroquesting, the activity that characters in the world perform in emulation of their own Gods' mythological stories. These still worked, partly because they had an inherent story structure that could then be played around with and partly because its a disguised form of meta-game; you are playing your characters who are in turn playing the roles of their gods. This has a subtle but tangible effect, it allows you to play a character that has one eye towards the story.

Another game that still worked for me was Call of Cthulhu, mainly because sanity was another reasonably transparent meta-game mechanic, which allowed the player to tell more interesting stories about his character, even if only to himself.

Other games seemed to fall short of my expectations, and it seemed to mainly stem from a frustration that myself and other players just didn't get something, we would all talk like there was this desire for epic story and seem to go through the motions, we would even look back and recognise some moments that had worked and shine those up like old pennies, but deep down there was something not quite there for me

It really hit home whilst watching an episode of Starsky and Hutch on daytime TV and thinking that I could just lift the plot for a game. As I watched it, and singled out the key scenes that made the rather naff mystery plot work I realised that Runequest, which I honestly believed could emulate anything at the time, has absolutely none of the tools necessary to pull off even this disposable TV show plot. The reason: the show was mainly about character! Every scene in the mystery was playing straight to those character elements, be it the relationship between the detectives or their blossoming relationships with the two guest star girls that wouldn't even be there in the next show.

So I went through a disillusioned period where I would only play games occasionally, but still read all of the books. Between games I imagined a probably infeasible game of Runequest that was truly epic by maintaining focus on heroquesting.

But of course there was always the constant promise that HeroQuest would be out next year. Any 80's RQ fan knows what I mean, Greg Stafford, recognising that Runequest didn't quite manage to pull off heroquesting, had been promising for donkeys years that he would one day write a game system that could handle it properly. We all imagined this was purely a scaling issue or something to do with how magic worked in Glorantha that wasn't being modelled in RQ properly.

What I didn't foresee, was that the game system had to be capable of handling conflict in a universal manner. And when HeroWars came out (which at the time could not be called HeroQuest for legal reasons) that new concept hit me so hard that I was blind to the rest of the game for months. One of my first thoughts was: here is a game that is actually capable of emulating a Starsky and Hutch episode! Obviously I didn't rush out and locate a copy of the show, but it was a startling realisation none the less.

And for that one slightly strange reason, I think HeroWars was the best RPG product that I ever bought. It was capable of handling any conflict that I had ever seen on TV or at the cinema or had read in novels, even the serious ones without space hardware in them.

My previous negative post is about the initial period of play with this product and HeroQuest which followed it, and about my groups growing pains with the often unnoticed shift from one style of play to another. But, I am convinced that HeroQuest will serve me well in the future ,because of this key flexibility, and its ability to play at an epic scale.

I know HeroQuest can do the things I want, its just a matter of finding a group that also wants the same, or convincing my group that its worth investing some time in. At the moment I am doing the latter and some are interested and some are less so, here's to an interesting future.

11 Mar 2008

Premise Avoidance

A while back I voiced my concerns over our Spirit of the Century game at the Forge Actual Play forum.

Put succinctly, I was concerned that play consisted of too much story discussion and not enough actual exploration of the conflict at hand.

The discussion led me to consider that we were avoiding a direct addressing of premise, and that when premise was addressed it was done so with a light touch and with an expectation that pulp characters succeed.

My main concerns during play were firstly to introduce Spirit of the Century as a rule set, and to make clear what a Narrativist Agenda was. With both of these things I achieved some successes and some failures.

I succeeded in demonstrating how the Skills and Aspects work and the scope of Stunts, but didn't introduce enough Consequence to clearly demonstrate how failure works.

Related to this I was probably guilty of conspiring with the players over the story. In an attempt to clearly hand over story control I was openly working with them, but never successfully let go myself. Which meant I was't focusing on examples of premise to highlight and explore and I wasn't forcing conflicts.

But I have been reflecting since and have further thoughts over how premise is used in games.

So what is this Premise thing and what does Addressing it involve you may ask?

Lets use some simple definitions because these ideas can be a little high brow and as such loose some of their practical meaning.

Premise has a number of definitions, but for GNS theory the concept was derived from Lajos Egri and in this link he takes a whole chapter to define premise, both by example and by comparing other theories of play writing.

At it's heart the premise of a narrative is the key idea that the rest of the narrative is formed around, and attempts to resolve. Its the thing that moves the story forward and makes it worth telling. The underlying message that the writer is trying to convey. Premise places characters in a situation that involves conflict and demands a conclusion, and that journey is empowered by the writers stance on the issue.

But a role-playing game is not a play, and this provokes a key question that I believe cuts to the heart of the formation of GNS theories: what is a RPG from a story perspective. We have all read and or espoused that RPGs are part of the story telling tradition, but where do they fit in relation to the other forms.

Let us take screenplays for instance. Good examples are designed to involve the audience, and draw them into the story. They utilise characters that can either be identified with and/or are recognisable from real life. They take an emotive stance on the issues at hand, by provoking conflicts that hold the viewers opinions or preconceptions in question thereby provoking an emotional reaction. They drive the story towards its conclusion to heighten the feelings of involvement, adding a sense of urgency and escalating this emotive attention to the core issues.

In traditional games the GM decides what the key story elements are, and in this respect the GM is more like a writer, and his creation stands or falls based on how well his payers get involved with these ideas, or how adaptive he can be in changing or moulding these ideas to the players' play.

His goal is to carry the players with him on an emotive journey to the conclusion that he has possibly preconceived, or at the very least has the climactic scene pre-framed in his mind. To this end the premise in such games is a tool of the GM, one that helps him engage the players.

In Narrativist games the premise is the thing! If a Narrativist game is all about telling the story in the most satisfying manner, then the group have a responsibility to engage with premise, because that is the touchstone around which the story structure will form. The premise acts as a kind if measure for successful storytelling, because it's the premise that will allow the story to drive forward through conflict and rising tension. It becomes far more than a single tool in the GMs box, it becomes the focus of everyone.

But that doesn't answer the question 'who decides upon premise and how do we recognise it' and I believe this to be a stumbling block upon which many groups and theorists fall.

One solution is for the game itself to have a nascent premise that can be taken and formed by the group through play. My Life with Master is a good example, taking the single idea of monstrous dysfunctional relationships and allowing play to form this into a functioning premise. Dogs in the Vineyard does this too. By setting up a proto-premise for a town, stressing individual character judgement and placing the ultimate conclusion of the story clearly in the hands of the players, it literally begs the players to form and engage with an involving premise.

Such games do not guarantee a satisfying story but they place the idea of collaborating over premise front and centre thereby increasing their likelihood.

Which brings us back to Spirit of the Century. This too puts all of the tools on the table, and the advice throughout the book helps the GM both use and explain to the players how to use those tools. But, it is not as narrowly focused as MLWM and not as structured as DitV, so it is up to the group to define and engage with premise, and it is easy to use all of the tools without truly engaging with a premise. It is possible to tell stories without deep personal meaning or engaging conflict.

This is analogous to a screenplay that lacks a decent premise, but instead of this being a purely subjective thing that can be blamed on the GMs inability to grab his players attention, it is more likely that the group as a whole have not grasped their responsibility to the story.

So I look back at the Spirit of the Century game and see a number of things:

The story was satisfying in that it had a beginning a middle and an end. This is no small thing, as an exercise in collaborative story telling, at least it told a story.

The process of collaboration was enjoyable and often lead to some inspired and exited discussion, which was a new and enjoyable experience.

The willingness to really test and challenge the characters was muted. The competence of the characters and a protective sense of character concept by the players lead to a limited engagement over premise with no fundamental parts of character really being placed in conflict by either me the GM, or other players.

So what resulted was a form of collaborative story telling, where the players enjoyed the ability to mold the story around their characters, but were ultimately more concerned with how the characters performed and how pulp-like the action was, than forming a meaning to the story and engaging with that meaning to drive forward and escalate the plot.

6 Jan 2008

How HeroQuest Failed our Group

Heroquest is based solidly on a simplified and universally applied Conflict Resolution System. Outside of this is a large continuum, which starts as System and ends as Setting but doesn’t have any clear boundaries.

Heroquest in its current dominant form is also tied up with Glorantha, and until Mongoose resurrected RuneQuest it was the only system for Gloranthan gaming being actively supported by publication; with much of that community at least moved to have a go with the system, and many feeling that it was the natural move to make given this support.

The setting issue is not a trivial one; we are talking a massive and multifaceted universe of a setting, with an established community of opinion and debate. A setting that has spent most of its life being developed for RuneQuest in its varied forms, and as such has picked up many assumptions.

For example, here are some key assumptions that I think of when people talk of Gloranthan characters:

  • Characters progress from average members of the community and become powerful individuals.

  • Characters tend to be adventurers or have a reason to be out and about in the world.

  • Characters are partly defined by the attitudes of their community.

  • Characters have a profound relationship with magic, which itself is defined by their community.

I could go on, and indeed I could define many other areas that contain assumptions, such as what constitutes a typical Gloranthan campaign, how scenarios tend to be constructed or what kind of adversity is expected.

Heroquest attempts to codify some of this into its rule set, for instance the magic section is huge. This is partly because the issue of magic in this setting is major, and partly because RuneQuest was well developed in this direction.

Also, the character creation system is assumed to create a starting character with skills that improve over time. (Interestingly, this starting level is higher than the old starting level, as the characters have at least the potential to be something other than average.)

We started playing HeroQuest (actually its precursor HeroWars) with a feeling of familiarity and continuity, recognising much of the construction as elegant ways of using this new resolution system to do the things we were used to in RuneQuest.
And, with RuneQuest informed expectations, the game seemed to hang together well, and was resilient to much initial poking around by the sceptical.

But, HeroQuest is not RuneQuest, and some of the habits that we developed playing with HeroQuest were actually RuneQuest informed habits. Extended conflict for instance was seen as similar in scope to the long fight that was often experienced at the end of RuneQuest scenarios, and Extended Conflict tactics were developed to replace the RuneQuest tactics that we were used to seeing in these scenes. And because HeroQuest is a flexible system it was easy to mould it to this end. Indeed some of the rules in the book were designed to achieve this end and were equally informed by RuneQuest.

Of course the flexibility of the Extended Conflict system is appealing, and demanded that we tried to explore other forms of conflict using it, and these in turn became equally tactical and best suited for the final scenes.

But there is a hidden pitfall at the heart of the game, and that is the Universal Resolution System itself. Symptoms of this problem were sometimes subtle and sometimes game halting. Here are a few:

  • Certain magics from the setting have decisive effects that always required specific rolls in RuneQuest. Something like Sever Spirit could be used in RuneQuest to attempt to kill a character outright. In the middle of Extended Conflict these either felt equivalent to any other action and so lost their appeal, or demanded separate resolution and so twisted the system.

  • Use of skills became a very subjective affair, as many skills can be used to achieve a single goal, and this sometimes led to unresolved discussions over whether it was acceptable to use general sounding catch all skills like “Keen Senses” or “Quick” and poetically named magic like “One Thousand Tiny Leaps” in a wide variety of situations. This in turn, informed ongoing choices during character creation and development.

  • Related to this augmentation became associated with tactics, as it is a way of increasing skill levels, but there is no easy way to define where skills can’t be used as an augment because of the same subjective nature of skills.

  • Extended Conflicts could just break down, when one or more players realised that their understanding of the ongoing conflict was either undermined by the actions of others, or was countered in unexpected ways by the GM: the subjective nature of what could be done, sometimes undermined carefully constructed tactics. These instances were worse when underlying assumptions about the conflict were revealed to be totally different.
Sure there are solutions to most if not all of these problems, but these solutions are also based heavily on the assumptions about what the game is supposed to achieve.

If you see HeroQuest as providing tools to tell stories in a flexible and ongoing manner then you are not going to be too concerned about whether a certain skill can always be used in the same way every time. Use of any skill will be naturally informed by the specifics of the situation and the requirements of the scene. But, if you are concerned with developing tactics and carving out a niche of effectiveness that gains you leverage in the setting then this consistency will be vital, and attempts to downplay it will seem obtuse at best, if not deliberately obstructive to your idea of what the game is for.

The hard and stark fact of it all is that despite the numerous assumptions from RuneQuest, both built into the HeroQuest rules and brought to the table via players, the Resolution System at the heart of HeroQuest is not suited for RuneQuest like games. At best it can be made to work that way by conscious modification and unconscious filtering. At worst, it will continually throw up situations that reveal it to be ill-suited to that task.

In my experience it has done the latter constantly and consistently over a very long period, and during that period I have found HeroQuest to be equally unsuited to demonstrating what it is good at, because the assumptions from RuneQuest have had a profound effect on the way that the game has been constructed, the way that the setting has been integrated into it, and the way that we have played it as a group.