25 Aug 2011

HQ is a toolbox, just use the parts you want to

Two answers to this one.

1) Thank goodness it is, I can stop worrying about the rules that make HeroQuest so unreliable as a Narrativist game. It just so happens a lot of these rules are the Glorantha specific ones that some may not even recognise as part of the rules. 

2) This is again a bit of a traditional gamer perspective, places like the Forge were created to do away with this kind of vague unreliable treatment of game rules. With this kind of approach you can drift any game into the type of game you always play, which results in a group having a house style and being convinced that systems are interchangeable. Nothing wrong with this, but HQ was very clearly a different and powerful game, I have no interest in turning it back into RuneQuest with a bit of narrational colour. And, I firmly believe the tenant that system does matter.

Your Glorantha may Vary

Hell yes, but in Narrativist play this variation isn't even an important consideration. Narrativist groups are not concerned with building up situation from a solid background and rules, they generate situation from character and the here-and-now situation the characters are in.

My Glorantha isn't really in focus most of the time, it may or may not vary, it has little to say about why my Orlanthi has a feud with the Ernaldan Priestess because that feud is more informed by my character description and the GMs portrayal of the priestess than by how Ernaldan Priestesses are described in the books.

You are trying to have the positives without the negatives

More fully expressed: by de-emphasising things like cult or community obligations you are just trying to max out a character without the negatives.

This concern is an expression of the Simulationist/Narrativist divide. In Simulationist play disadvantages are mainly enforced by the GM to ensure they are brought into play as a form of balance.

In Narrativist play it is mainly the player of a character that would be driving this kind of issue. A player in a narrativist game only needs the number on the sheet and perhaps a bit of a reminder that it is there. It is about the GM and the players bringing these negatives into play as interesting elements of exploration for their own sake not a matter of enforcement or balance.

HQ2 is the best version of Greg Stafford's intention

Every version of RQ/HW/HQ has been approved as a better representation of Greg Stafford's Gloranthan fiction and or vision.

This is mainly a marketing stance. Who would buy the new game if the consensus was that it was less like Glorantha? Some things appeared to line up well and some things seemed to be a bit forced, but on the whole I think this statement is meaningless.

More than this I don't really care. World setting is part of the game and as such there will always be differences in presentation of the world in each game but the world as envisaged is not a game. It would be better if the designers could acknowledge this innate separation of the game, the setting and the inspiration for the setting.

Augments were a key part of the system from the start

For a start the text of HW wasn't quite finished, such that there was still evidence of a previous version of the game where there was a distinction between skills that could be used only for augments and those that could be used as both skills and augments. This distinction remained as a part of the magic system, based on what level you were in a cult.

Augments were presented as a part of the extended contest rules and were not very well defined, provoking a lot of discussion on-line. The on-line community very quickly drifted augments and they became more flexible, were used in simple contests and often used in pairs, with a physical and a non-physical augment often advocated. The biggest change got placed into the early supplements, the idea of automatic augments. something I believe was a very bad precedent even though it seemed like a time saver at the beginning.

It seems to me they have always been problomatic, with problems rooting back to the play test. I have never been a fan of anything being treated as augment only, and I don't like the way they can lead to prejudicing the narration of a conflict before you even roll.

I prefer augments as presented in HQ2 but not as presented in the magic system or in the Sartar Book.

Occupation and Magic Keyword character traits have always been there

Yes, and they are a really great and fully functional part of the game, but look closely. The emphasis was originally on choosing and playing a particular type of character. You didn't for instance have to select cult or culture traits that you were not interested in. Your relationship to the cult or culture wasn't seen as a limitation of effectiveness, or as a specific character driver. It was instead seen as a stat used to represent how easy it was to use that relationship to solve problems just like any other skill. Yes there were entry requirements for cult levels but it was easy to start as a devotee, so this wasn't exactly a limiting factor. Early on it was even possible to be an initiate of one cult and a devotee of another, and pantheon worship was emphasised. Things drifted very rapidly soon after because these things were apparently not correct.

HeroWars wasn't designed to be Narrativist

Well I think it was, but it wasn't expressed well in the text, and controversially I don't think Robin Laws fully understands Narrativism, some of his comments on the subject seem plain wrong.

But, even if it was an accident of design, HW was rapidly picked up as a poster child for Narrativist style roleplaying. This wasn't some kind of co-incidence or because of some misunderstanding of the Narrativist crowd, it was because lots of elements of the mechanics actively support this style of play. The Fortune-in-the-middle system; the use of Hero-points in contests; the bidding system in Extended Contests; the grabby and situation heavy 100 word character generation; the universal conflict system, specifically the equality of relationships and character traits to more standard skills; all aid and support a Narrativist agenda.

My Own Devil's Advocate

This is an inherently tricky exercise, but sometimes objections like my previous post don't make any sense without some kind of cross examination. So to act as my own devil's advocate I will present some arguments against my point of view in the next few posts, they are possibly Straw Men, but I hope they help me make my point more clearly

HeroQuest 2 - Off the path again!

I have been putting a lot of thought into HQ2 in the last couple of years, but I haven't played it anywhere near as much. Partly for health reasons and partly due to becoming very disillusioned with it as a game.

The Reason for this disillusionment is partly the published material. There has been a stubborn pattern in HW/HQ, which naturally leaves my preferred style of play in the minority.

It first happened with HW, the style of play advocated in the rule book had a clear focus on using the conflict systems provided. It was all about Conflict Resolution and story logic. It promised a style of play that wasn't hindered by the complex world of Glorantha, but instead used its inherent narrative potential as a springboard for your own games.

Then the Gloranthan material started to emerge. The rule books themselves contained some of this material, in fact the main part was even available online as part of the free preview. This material, focused on examples of how the game could be used with the cults in the setting and didn't seem to detract too much from the core. The cults just felt like examples of how to use the new system. Extra rules crept in for bezerkers and undead almost unnoticed.

The next material to be published was a strange hybrid, it was partly a continuation of the examples in the core books and partly a reassertion of the setting as king. This was subtle, and in many ways to be expected. Glorantha has a long publishing history and the material has gone out of print on a regular basis, such that a new Glorantha RPG was expected to reproduce this material.

The problem was the presentation of this new material was old school in disguise. It had all the trappings of a new revolutionary RPG, but it kept drifting from a game that allowed grabby situation to emerge to a game that suggested that the key to providing the situation was all about building situation from the world up using rules. For the best part of two decades RuneQuest had followed this logic. Make the world a real and vivid place and integrate the rules at this level, and slowly build up into situation.

An example of this was the new presentation of key NPCs as a funky cool looking map of relationships to followers and community. It looked good, it had lots of complex information presented in a new and easy to understand way and it emphasised the idea that everyone was part of a community and that relationships were reciprocal. 

The GM could use this to help create grabby player character focused situation, but there was a strong emphasis on situating characters within the rigid structures of cult and community obligations. This was technically a retreat back into old school ground up play. It felt right and useful for players used to RuneQuest, which was full of details of cult oblations expressed in percentages, and limits on how high a skill could progress based on such things.

It felt very wrong to me, I couldn't express it clearly, but it felt like a betrayal of the freedom presented in the core rules. The problem was that if you talked to anyone involved in the presentation of this material it became a discussion about how no man is an island, and that there was a clear social expectation that you spent 30% of your time in cult based activities. It was more about not getting something for free, and ensuring players understood their character's social situation.

It was about 'realism'. It was impossible to explain to a wider community trained in RQ that it was equally possible to have stories that acknowledged relationships and maintained a very real sense of setting without having to worry about this kind of detail. The HW character sheet had a space for relationships and an abstract number, it didn't need extra details like percentages of time working for the cult. The type of story emergent from the grabby situations implied by the character creation system and the way the rules interacted with them wasn't about this kind of detail. This game didn't rely on gritty realistic modelling of a world.

This was just the beginning of bringing in rules disguised as setting. Before long we had a massively detailed write-up of Orlanth and Ernalda, which placed a great emphasis on exactly how a person in the world interacted with the cult and what was required to enter the structure and move within it. Again this was a bid for detailed 'realism'. It was a description of how Glorantha worked, and it equally missed the point. Yet again it was setting/rules built from the ground up, yet again it provided no real enhancement to grabby situation based on character concepts.

Overall, the experience of character creation was initially a highly creative process full of situation and relationships that felt natural and grabby redolent with heroic action. But then, the process slowly became about fleshing out the interaction with a 'realistic world' slowly and effectively tying down and stifling the character concept.

By the time we got to HeroQuest we had this institutionalised into the rules. Now, character creation was all about using templates that provided this background. The creative process of character creation was still there, but the detail was sneaking in through the keywords relating to community and cults. Even these played lip-service to a dynamic style by each template containing a number of reasons to have left home, but as soon as the character started to be fleshed out in magical terms it became a process of situating the character into a social structure with requirements and obligations.

It was like writing a detective novel and making a high percentage of the story all about the tedious paperwork and the drudgery of detailed investigation and limiting legal advice, in the interest of realism.

HQ was also guilty of messing with the core mechanics as well. It changed Simple Contests, which originally were a straight forward expression of Conflict Resolution with no distractions, into a detailed exploration of the conflict through augments. After all if the character sheet has all of this rich detail, which often amounted to a page worth of skills extrapolated from multiple sources, then you may as well find a way of using them within a conflict. So now instead of a Simple Contest focusing on a goal with the skill selection being a mixture of character emphasis and colour, it became a detailed list of skills employed, often with a complex narration to justify the augment choices. This not only missed the point of Simple Contests, it started an emphasis on front loading the narration. Effectively killing the strength of the core mechanics. 

As an interesting side effect, augments became so ingrained into the mechanics there was a collective amnesia regards the HW rules. Everyone forgot that you were not allowed to augment simple contests before. Most of the community was convinced that augments made things better anyway.

For a number of political reasons some of the changes made to HQ were reversed for HQ2. Augments were effectively turned into a discrete contest, detailed lists of sub-cults and magics were de-emphasised, for all the world it looked like things were moving back in the right direction. Back towards dynamic character and situation focused play. But then the drift began again. 

At least this time I was expecting it, and I even managed to slip a few bids for freedom into the game text itself. But before we knew it there was bottom up world building baked into the game world through yet more subtle mechanics. The cult requirements again have their expression in limiting player characters, but at least this time it isn't done by forcing detail onto the character sheet. Now it is about naturally behaving like the gods through runic affinity. The added rules for runes include behaviour and personality guidelines complete with advice for imposing these by the narrator. All in the interests of 'realism' and ignoring the fact that the system encourages exploration of these issues without the need for such guidelines. 

The creeping in of bottom up world design is hardly surprising in a game designed primarily for an established world that evolved from a traditional RPG. But it is really f*%king annoying for someone like myself that continually sees the promise of the rules system. The dangling carrot of  a truly dramatic and character centric game within a wonderfully realised world, ideal for grabby situation. That carrot is just there, but there is this almost invisible 'stick and rope' of added rules and subtle world building concerns keeping the carrot out of reach unless you are prepared to forge your own path.