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.