7 Jul 2009

Reflections on my HeroQuest Journey

The HeroQuest Core Rules (HQ2) were officially released on 1 July, early reviews are hitting the net, and I find myself reflecting on a decade of playing with this game in its various forms. This is partly due to realising it was ten years ago when I first encountered a playtest version of HeroWars (HW).

My Roleplaying is radically different now, due in no small part to this game. I would love to be able to say that as soon as I took up that first proto-character sheet, instantly the scales fell from my eyes. But instead it was a long painful process that took years of background reading and trying out other games. And, in my weekly game, as a group we are not quite at the end of the road.

Is there anything inherently difficult about HeroQuest? I note that this question has already been asked and answered in the fan community with a huge NO, with only a few dissenting voices, but my truthful answer is, I don’t know. I can only look back at my experiences and cannot read the document with truly fresh eyes.

The new book, the draft version of which I have had for around ten months, takes huge strides towards being a game that achieves its now more clearly stated aims:

“Although there’s no right or wrong way to play the game, a certain story based logic does underlie the entire system.”

And much of the advice and rules streamlining is steering play specifically towards this aim. For example, we have a clear move away from stats for monsters or equipment, instead guidance is given as to how to describe such things depending on genre, and examples include textual descriptions like the flying speed of a griffin with no attempt to represent the creature in game mechanical terms.

If you read carefully between the lines in HW and HQ1 you can just glean a way of playing the game that relies purely on the Narrator selecting an appropriate resistance, instead of having pre-prepared stats. This is not to say that those games were meant to be played this way, indeed there are examples and advice directly contrary to this, but many of us noticed the potential and our games adapted accordingly.

Playing this way, with resistances left up to the Narrator, is a liberating and interesting idea, that on the flipside has many pitfalls and potential problems. Because earlier versions of the game did not espouse this method, the guidance and advice was lacking. Instead we had to find our own way through along the path less travelled and seek advice from those who had been this way before. For me this advice was mainly centred on the Forge HQ Forums before it was ceremonially removed from that place for dabbling with third party publishing!

Of course, taking the road less travelled is inherently more difficult, the majority of the community was walking down another path. A path that more clearly followed the examples in HQ1. For me the first point of diversion was when the HW line included Anaxil’s Roster. Suddenly we had a book that attempted to construct the creatures, monsters and inhuman races into PC like game mechanics. Somewhere along the way I took a few steps in another direction. I started to have doubts about what attribute stats like strength and size actually meant in this game, and by the time HQ1 was published, complete with a Creatures section ported from Anaxil’s Roster, I realised that I was off of the map.

It was around this time I had stumbled into the Forge forums and my early views on this issue can still be seen, still frustrated by how my version of the game seemed to be different to everyone around me, and how the new rules were making things worse! It was up to my group to find our way along this divergent path, and we slowly and surely did, with many of the wider HQ community also finding their own ways off of the main path espoused by the published rules.

The new rule book has thrown the rules onto a new path, and now a whole other group of players are bound to be startled. That new path heads towards those less travelled paths that so many of us had started to explore, and it is easier for us to step right back on the main path again and see where it takes us. But for those who had followed the examples and played by the established book, this new direction is going to seem weird or just plain wrong.

The new rules do a very good job of explaining the principles of the game, and how it is supposed to work. It has some minor elements that in my opinion will still create cognitive dissonance in groups using this game as a route map into uncharted territory. In other words, the game still has pitfalls all of its own, and I expect to occasionally fall into some, but at least it is leading in a direction that I want to go now.

Is the new HeroQuest Narrativist?

Is the new HeroQuest Narrativist?

Of course the simple and most correct answer to this question is no. Narrativism, as situated within The Big Model is about the agenda of a group around the table for a particular game, not about the rules chosen or the techniques used.

Does HQ2 support Narrativism?

Yes, in so far as there is a clearly stated aim to focus on story. This in itself can cloud the issue, as story is a value laden term, but yes, there are specific mechanics that support narrativist play in HQ2.

What about the game supports Narrativism?

Primarily, the fortune in the middle mechanic allows for a player based decision on the outcome of the conflict, and as such whether you succeed or fail is heavily weighted towards how important the conflict is to the player.
How this aids narrativism is by allowing the players to make decisions on consequential outcomes, but of course it is still dependent on the Narrator to allow this to happen. Note that this mechanic has always been present since HW.

Fortune in the Middle, what is that?

Fortune refers to the randomising dice mechanic. The Middle part is related to where the randomising factor occurs in relation to the resolution of the conflict.
In HQ2 the player and the narrator will agree on a conflict, then the player will decide on a goal and the narrator will decide on the opposing goal of the opposition. The conflict is then resolved by a mechanic that allows the player to influence the outcome in his favour if he wishes to spend his limited Hero Point currency. Sometimes the dice will dictate the outcome, but usually the outcome can be swayed by Hero Points. The key here is that finalising what actually happened, how the conflict was resolved, is ascertained by this Hero Point expenditure mechanic. You get to make decisions about relative success or failure after the randomiser.

Consequential Outcomes, explain?

In order for a game to be Narrativist, players must be able to influence how the story is being told. If decisions about story structure and pacing are informing the usage of Hero Points then there is a good chance that the game is being played with a narrativist agenda. In other words, if the outcome of the conflict has story related consequences, and that the responsibility for these outcomes is distributed amongst the group and not in the hands of the narrator, then the conflict mechanic can support a narrativist agenda.

This all sounds non-committal, can HQ2 be narrativist or not?

When you boil it down, HQ2 has loads of advice about story telling in games, but the advice is not aimed towards making the game narrativist. There is lots of advice directly compatible and even supportive of narrativism, and some that may detract or work against it. It would appear that Robin Laws does not adhere to the Big Model, so HQ2 can never be a narrativist toolkit. Indeed much of the advice, such as its approach to pacing with the Pass Fail cycle, could easily lead the well meaning group far away from a narrativist agenda if it didn’t already have this agenda firmly established.

The book clearly addresses narrative story methods, surely this is narrativist?

In some places yes, and in others no. The advice is often geared towards collaboration over the story and the narration, but I think it is important to have in mind when reading this advice that collaboration over such issues as narration can be used as a technique in any agenda.

Pass, Fail Cycle?

A chapter of HQ2 is given over to advice on story structure based on keeping track of how successful the players have been, and adjusting the current conflict’s resistance based upon a loose negative feedback loop. (A run of success leads to stiffer resistance for instance.) This system is geared towards using success and failure as a model for story structure.

Does the Pass, Fail Cycle work against Narrativism?

No, but it could have the potential to do so. A Narrator that is clearly trying to facilitate a group responsibility for story structure will possibly find that the Pass, Fail Cycle models a system very similar to their instincts. The danger may be for those Narrators who use the Pass Fail Cycle to enforce structure rather than help inform it, taking story structure out of the groups hands.

12 Jan 2009

The Necessity of Questions in Conflicts

The adoption of Conflict Resolution by many games in recent years has focused on asking questions on the nature of the conflict. For instance, 'Why are you doing that', 'What are you trying to achieve', 'What do you want to happen'.

In traditional games these questions often went unasked, and were implied in the usage of the skill chosen. Combat was mostly about a series of attacks and defences, and most other skills were defined in detail, usage and scope within the rules. It is not necessarily true that the question was not present or implied, but it was rarely dwelt upon. Indeed in some groups, questions that pulled one into the meta-game were suspect at best.

There were however mechanics that supported Conflict Resolution, an example that comes to mind would be the Resistance Table in RuneQuest, which sought to provide a percentage chance of succeeding against any value of passive resistance. A heavy object would resist passively and the character had to cross reference his skill against the resisting skill to discover the chance of lifting it. The idea that the passive resistance was acting was hard-wired into the rules.

RuneQuest also grappled with that perennial situation getting past the guard.

In RQ2(1979) which itself was but a polished version of the 1978 first edition a sneak would be accomplished by Move Quietly, which on a successful roll would surprise an opponent unless he rolled a successful Listen. Listen is described as taking precedence over Move Quietly

Here we have some elements of conflicting interests. The guard is naturally watching and listening as part of his roll, and we have two opposing rolls. Boiling it down the player will only be successful if he succeeds and the guard fails. If he fails then the guard need not roll and if the guard succeeds then a success will not be enough.

However, this was frequently house ruled to take into account the Fumble and Critical rules, which led to an actual mechanical Conflict Resolution, as both results were necessary for a description of the result. RQ3(1984) had us subtracting the stealth skills from the guards skill which did away with the need for the house rules and made the rolls more task focused again, but only by adding a distinction of active listening, which brings the interests of the opposition to the fore.

As soon as games began to allow skill names that were not chosen from a set list but made up to suit, it became far more difficult to define rules that handled such issues because you could no longer have detailed skill descriptions. And, more to the point, it became possible for misunderstandings over intent. Couple with this the prevalence of universal resolution systems and you have issues of scope and skill application to handle.

Asking questions to pin down exactly what is about to be resolved becomes necessary.

11 Jan 2009

Why Scope and Stakes cloud Conflict Resolution

My reason for posting these ideas on Conflict Resolution is that many definitions of the term seem to focus on the scope and or stakes of the conflict, see for instance Vincent Baker:
In conflict resolution, what's at stake is why you're doing the task. "I crack the safe!" "Why?" "Hopefully to get the dirt on the supervillain!" What's at stake is: do you get the dirt on the supervillain?

or this Glossary:
A Forge term for a resolution mechanic which depends on the abstract higher-level conflict, rather than on the component tasks within that conflict.

as opposed to the The Forge Glossary (which still clouds the issue by contrasting 'components'):
A Technique in which the mechanisms of play focus on conflicts of interest, rather than on the component tasks within that conflict.

or the far more succinct definition by Tim Kleinert:
Conflict Resolution is when the dice decide whether a character/player's interest is realized, most often in contrast with another character/player's opposing interest.

In my opinion the key is in assigning opposing interests. Where confusion has arisen is in ideas of scope and stakes, seeing conflict resolution as deciding on the outcome of the overall conflict as opposed to the individual tasks in the conflict, and using the question 'why' to decide on the scope and stakes, in the process de-emphasising the clash of interests.

Where this becomes most apparent is in games like our two earlier examples Dogs in the Vineyard and HeroQuest. Both attempt to define the contest using conflict resolution and then allow the contest to be broken down into individual actions.

I would argue, just because these games focus on the individual actions, this does not mean that they move towards task resolution. The conflicts are still defined in a context of conflicting interests, and outcomes of individual rolls are interpreted within the overall conflict.

Both of these games can confuse players more used to task resolution, because component actions can easily be misinterpreted as tasks. If you fall into this trap in HeroQuest, you find yourself playing a game of point scoring which feels like a sub-game removed from the conflict at hand, and in Dogs, you end up playing a competitive dice game which becomes a battle over the stakes, instead of a conflict over the importance of the stakes to the characters or players.

10 Jan 2009

Conflict Resolution and Agendas

I will discuss the javelin example again in order to illustrate Conflict Resolution as I have defined it in my previous post.

There is no other character involved, so there is no inherent conflict. I think there are three possible options, an external conflict (with the elements or the world), an internal conflict (with himself), or an internalised external contest (with his non-present father).

The Forge Glossary suggests that the world should be seen as having interests even if abstracted, so the external conflict could be the breeze attempting to push the javelin away or the target itself appearing small distant and un-hittable.

An internal conflict needs to contain a conflict of interest, part of the character must either have an interest in failure (he wants to miss because he is uncomfortable with the symbolic patricide), or contain a potential for failure that can be abstracted as an interest(he has never managed to hit this target before and so his own doubt seeks to cause him to miss).

The non-present character option is a kind of internal conflict asserted upon the character by external forces. So we might have our character remembering his fathers scolding dialogue which serves to make him miss. We could use his fathers disapproval skills here even though he is not actively using it here and now.

In any of these cases it is necessary for the opposing agenda to actively oppose the character during the mechanical resolution so that we can decide on the outcome. So in HeroQuest we would have the resistance be the opposing interest in order to have two dice to compare, and in Dogs in the Vineyard we would use the Demonic Influence as the opposing dice pool.

9 Jan 2009

Deemphasising the ‘Why’ of Conflict Resolution

I have been concerned for some months about the categories of Conflict and Task Resolution.

The problem is in how the ideas have been explained. It is common to break them down into Task = What and Conflict = Why, which I don't believe is a correct interpretation.

It is probably better to define them thus:

Task resolution is concerned with the individual action that a character is performing and deciding whether that action is successful.

Conflict resolution is concerned with a character's interests in opposition to, or at least interacting with other interests, leading to a description of the resulting outworking of that clash.

This is not a new definition and is broadly in line with the Forge glossary which emphasises “conflicts of interest”.

The idea that the difference is in the 'what' and 'why' seems to be born from the concept of agenda taking a central role in the latter, but an over emphasis of this as the key difference leads to all kinds of confusion. The key difference is in how the GM defines the opposition.

Lets think of a really simple example, target practice with a javelin.

Task resolution simply requires the player to roll his javelin skill to determine if he is successful. He could have a reason and it could be emphasised heavily in the narration but that reason does not inform anything at the mechanical level.

Conflict resolution needs an opponent, we could abstract an opponent as the physics of the universe having a conflicting agenda that reflects the difficulty of the shot, or we could take the current context of the action to determine the opponent.

They may appear similar take this example that appears to fall between the two:

Player: I throw my javelin at the target.
GM: OK, but why are you even doing this now?
Player: To let out my frustration with my father!
GM: OK, so you visualise the target as your father and throw your javelin, make the roll.
Player: I get a critical!
GM: The javelin sails straight at the centre of the target and impales itself deeply with a satisfying thud, and you have to put all of your strength into pulling it out again leaving you exhausted but relived of frustration.

I would argue that this is task resolution. Yes we have a why, and yes we even have an idea of the opposing force, but there is no actual mechanical opposition, we only resolved the task at the mechanical level. I think this kind of example illuminates a current confusion inherent in the What/Why definitions and the current state of Task/Conflict theroy.