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.