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.