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.

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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".

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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.