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.

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