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.