25 Aug 2011

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.

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