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.


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".


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.


Callan said...

"With his (the players) 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."

Sorry, I'm just seeing a major contradiction. The player is negotiating future story trajectory? But the GM is subtley re-interpreting the failure to do exactly the story arc he already intended?

I think you might be slipping into rather subline system use, where if you can think of a way to interpret a loss to still meet your story, that's playing the system.

It is indeed playing the system. But think of the system it is - heads, you win, tails you reinterpret and you win. Your always winning - you can pretty much be certain of it - the story is always going exactly the way you want it. In game you want the story to go your way, but in choosing a game surely you want one where it can go someone elses way sometimes? If you want the players to influence the story, you need a system where you can't be certain you'll win the right to determine the stories direction.

I'm really biting back the words 'illusionism' and 'typhoid mary' here, because at its heart I think this is correct system use on your part. When presented with a system like this, you should play this way - I fully support it. However, I wonder if your goal was to have a game where your not certain of winning/determining the story arc.

Can you tell how your going to constantly win, with the current system? It's a heads you win, tails you win system? You can play that way (if you inform the players, I'd say), and that's fine and I support that choice. But is it what you want?

Web_Weaver said...

I think you are reading a little too much into an example designed to highlight something totally different. Indeed as long as the GM and the player are both aware of each others story influences this is not a contradiction at all but instead a direct outworking of a Narrativist agenda where both player and GM mould the story TOGETHER to achieve the most satisfactory narrative through the session. If this involves colluding to win at a given juncture so be it, it might be more honest to not roll in certain places but HQ is not a pass fail system so guidance can be taken from the result. And of course through Hero Point usage the dice outcome can be directly manipulated too.

Examples are very difficult to write with every nuance correct. In this example I was aware I was talking myself into a non branching conflict but I stuck with it because it is still useful to illuminate the point of the piece, which is that so many things take precedence over or subtly effect the numbers in a conflict that they are effectively de-emphasised. In this case the choice of framing of the contest was a major influence on the consequences, above and beyond even the dice results.

This could not be construed as an example of Typhoid Mary and this would only be Illusionism if there was never any intention of a branching point throughout and the payers were not fully aware of the situation. Indeed in this example I don't go into what the story is about, so it is impossible to extract the ongoing narrative, only the incidents and overall plot.

I have noticed an over sensitivity to any tiny hint of Illusionism in the community and guess that this is because it is a raw spot from many peoples' past experiences. However Illusionism is nowhere near as prevalent as it would appear, and can only be identified by making a careful study of the power dynamics at a real table. A more likely diagnosis in most cases would be a clash of agendas.

As for my own GM style, I play with a far more open approach, so in this situation if a player objected that the consequences felt wrong then they can and usually will offer an alternative outcome. Indeed we often pass narration rights onto the looser of a contest in HQ and then negotiate from there if things don't feel right.

I would also be attempting (with the players help) to construct a narrative that was not primarily about gaining the hand of a Princess but instead played upon the internal character conflicts. That is why my example focuses on these issues, the overall success or failure in the story will be all about the internal struggle of the protagonist in this story, and here his failure highlights a tendency to fantasy and naivety which I could drive into conflict at any future point.

Anonymous said...

Web, to me your just assuring me - your not showing how you measure whether in any particular session you do or don't mould the story with the players. Your only assuring me you and the players mould the story. I can see this is your goal...that's why I posted, because you might not be meeting it.

Do you have some way of measuring whether you and the players are moulding the story? Are you running off the 'feel'? I tend to think that in terms of finding what you want, feel is very accurate - but in terms of determining if your getting what you want, the 'feel' is usually very inaccurate.

Long posts on my part, I know. But it's just a note, really, in case there is a problem. There might not be, but an earnest note couldn't hurt (usually!).

Web_Weaver said...

Well currently I am not running HQ so there is no honest or experiential answer to this.

HQ1 has proved very difficult to achieve a clear and coherent structure of play for me, for all of the reasons I have posted on before and many others. Generally I feel the game presents an 'all things to all people' promise that only serves to complicate and obscure the core system and confuse players.

I am planning to run a few weeks of HQ2 in the near future, designing the setting and genre as described in the new rules. I plan to give it a spin and see if the specific aspects in the new rules designed to clarify game style will actually work with my group. I will post any background work and play reports here as they arise which may not be for a few weeks.

As a final note on this thread, this particular post isn't really fertile ground for a discussion on play styles and agenda. It is entirely predicated on a totally artificial example with no context and represents no attempt to say either, this is how I run HQ, or this is how HQ works for me.

This is not me shying away from self analysis or reflection, it is saying that when I look at the example given here I don't see anything that reflects my actual play experiences with HQ except the overt point that numbers tend to fade into the background, and even when emphasised don't represent an essential part of play. So there is only so much that I can expand upon given such basic starting material which in itself is flawed by its artificiality.

If I have any issues that arise during my games I tend to post my self analytical stuff on the Forge Actual Play forum, so look out for any HQ2 frustrations there if and when they arise.