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Asymmetric Gaming: Musings on HeroQuest 2nd edition (part 2)

December 13, 2011

HeroQuest 2nd edition rulesOver the past few months I’ve been reading, playing, and thinking a lot about the 2nd edition of the HeroQuest roleplaying game, published by Moon Design. Several weeks ago I posted about my first impressions of the game; today I wanted to talk a bit further about the radically asymmetrical nature of the HeroQuest 2nd edition rules.

In most roleplaying games, you play your character using the same rules as the “opposition” – the bad guys and monsters you encounter in play. Perhaps you have a few advantages – more flexibility, greater power – but fundamentally there’s a symmetrical relationship between the rules which define what you can do, and what the bad guys can do. It’s an assumption from roleplaying’s early days in the world of miniatures gaming, and one which is so widely held it’s rarely even acknowledged.

HeroQuest 2 is a storytelling roleplaying game. The thing you’re opposing (or at least interacting with) in a HeroQuest 2 game isn’t so much an array of opponents, but rather the story itself. When your character fights the dragon, rescues the prince or princess from the evil sorcerer, or destroys the space station in your tiny starfighter, in HeroQuest none of those opponents are defined using the “stat blocks” you’d find in other games. Rather, the difficulty of achieving those individual goals (fight the dragon, rescue the prince, destroy the space station) is defined. Moreover, that difficulty isn’t defined by how objectively hard each of those goals might be to achieve (starfighter against space station? no chance!), but instead by how difficult it should be in terms of the story. If the story, by its genre, dramatic structure, or structural necessity, suggests that a hero with a stray arrow should, right now, have a decent chance to kill the dragon which has terrorised the land for decades, then that’s what the difficulty of that task will be, regardless of how formidable the dragon might “objectively” be.

Now, like many RPG game masters, I’ve often enjoyed meticulously detailing the foes my players would face. Creating that dragon in gorgeous technicolor, with its strengths, weaknesses, and powers defined in pretty much the exact same terms as the player characters – in universal, objective, “game reality” terms, it has X hit points, does Y damage, and has a Z probability of turning the PCs into puree.

It’s initially a great shock not to be able to do that in HeroQuest 2. How the hell am I meant to differentiate between one bad guy and another without statistics? How can I even describe what the bad guy does, says, or thinks, without an exhaustive list of his skills, attributes, and powers, all carefully laid out in game mechanics terms, ready to be compared like-for-like with the PCs?

Sartar: Kingdom of Heroes sourcebookThe answer is quite subtle. You still describe your bad guy – certainly in as much detail as you need to be comfortable with. If it’s some mystical bad guy in a black environment suit with uncanny powers who once fell into a volcano, then you can probably improvise most of what he can do; but if it’s a Mistress Race priestess of Kyger Litor with a bevy of powers gained on Underworld heroquests, then you might want to note some pointers down – probably in some detail – to work from when riffing your descriptions.

HeroQuest 2 really helps you do this. Even for PCs, there are no fixed skill names, attributes, etc; you get to come up with those yourself when creating your character. You invent abilities like “Initiate of the Storm God”, “Lethal Magic Blade”, “Blood-curdling War Cry”, etc, to your heart’s content, and the rules provide numerical scores for these so you can utilise them in play.

You can probably see how the “bad guy” side of the equation comes together. On the one hand, the HeroQuest game system provides you with a numerical difficulty (or “resistance”) for a given thing you’re trying to do, a number which is based on the dramatic necessity of the scene you’re playing; on the other, you have a bunch of descriptive phrases defining your bad guy. It’s then simply a matter of judgement to pair them up: if the “resistance” at this point in the story is high, select one of the bad guy’s more powerful abilities; if the resistance is low, select an ability that’s not so powerful, or maybe even a weakness. Then, describe the PC’s interaction with that.

When I first got my head round that, I was floored. It’s so untraditional the whole concept takes some getting used to. Everything your PCs come up against is simply a “story resistance” in rules mechanical terms. This means all the finer points of the rules which are used to describe individuals – characters, etc – are basically used for PCs only.

Think about that for a moment. How much damage a weapon does, how you use “Hero Points”, how you take damage or heal from wounds, how you use magic to improve your abilities, etc: none of these rules apply to the opposition. In the most basic terms, it’s like describing the entire stat block of a D20 bad guy as “Demogorgon, DC45″ – except that the DC45 might vary from DC10 to DC100, depending on the requirements of the story you’re playing.

This simple fact is probably one of the biggest hurdles for traditional RPGers learning how to play HeroQuest 2: it certainly was for me. Trad RPGs have a tendency to portray conflicts in rigid, binary terms: one individual versus another (or a group of ‘em), where you have to come up against that individual and prevail. And that man-vs-man conflict gets the lion’s share of the game mechanics; other tasks – picking someone’s pocket, debating someone about the best tactic to use, trying to win the love of the Leopard Empress – are either simply talked through without any mechanics (the ur-traditional approach), or perhaps subjected to some simple mechanics, but which almost never approach that of the man-vs-man combat mechanics in sophistication.

In HeroQuest, you’re freed from that binary. Anything can be a contest, and that massively changes how your games play out. In a recent session, my PCs had to rescue an unconscious shaman about to be sacrificed by a bunch of werewolves on the night of the full moon. The traditional approach would be a military confrontation: go in there, battle, get the shaman, get out. Damage would be given and taken, and likely the foes would be slain.

Sartar Companion supplementIn our HeroQuest game, the “combat” part was just one of many facets of the encounter, rather than its main focus. There were magical distractions, attempts to lure away guardian wolves, war cries intimidating the lesser werewolves, and the occasional clash of arms, until one of the PCs raised a magical wind to fling himself across the battlefield to the unconscious shaman, grab hold of him, then use another wind to blast them both far away to safety.

In the end: mission accomplished. How many foes dead? Some, it didn’t really matter: the close detail of wounds and hit points was less important than the overall description of the scene and its outcome. With many games, that decree of narrative freedom is unimaginable; in fact, in most it would require a heckuva lot of arbitrary judgement calls and arm-waving. In HeroQuest 2, the outcomes of the contests you play through are strictly controlled in rules terms; you have leeway on how you describe the outcomes, but the objective level of victory you achieve is very precisely defined by the rules. Your character can die, but it won’t be at the GM’s whim: the rules will clearly indicate when and how that happens.

In my early experiments with HeroQuest – back in the days of HeroWars, over a decade ago – my biggest problem was trying to shoehorn this increasingly revolutionary ruleset into the traditional tropes and encounter structures mandated by more traditional RPGs. Where were the hit points? How much damage does my armour absorb? How much gold can I carry?

Twelve years on, the HeroQuest 2nd edition rules have pretty much freed themselves from their traditional legacy, to provide untrammelled access to a new way of running roleplaying games. The temptation to try and “fix” the HeroQuest 2 rules so they play more like traditional RPGs is immense: it’s only with great self-discipline I’ve been restricting myself to only playing the Rules-As-Written – and trying to learn the hidden lessons which lie therein.

So far – I think – I’m managing. At least till my next revelation…! :-)

17 Comments leave one →
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  5. August 28, 2012 5:15 pm

    Thanks for posting this article on the game. I’ve bought HQ2 recently and am still trying to grok it myself. The article and its comments have helped show me I’m on the right track, though I’m still a bit unsure about the use or interest of some mechanics such as Extended Contests (the in-book example makes it look boring as hell).

  6. December 14, 2011 10:34 am

    Yeah, who is to say how hard it is to talk your way past the guards? The guards can be really anal about it or they can be happy and drunk. You can use the pass/fail -cycle to frame the scene.

    How about that big troll that’s way more bad-ass in combat? You could fiddle with the terrain or describe the scene in a way that makes it easier to try non-combat things. Lets say the the troll is cooking something in a big pot. The PCs could approach him with friendly banter and offer some spices or additional ingredients to the stew. They could just as well try to sneak past him. If on the other hand they want to bash his head in, you can still ignore the pass/fail -cycle and set the difficulty high.

    We all know that the PCs can stray from the path that you thought that they were going to take. Well, the pass/fail -cycle can help you there too! Trying to scale the walls instead of talking their way past the guards? No problem, if you haven’t established how formidable they are, you can base the scene on the pass/fail -cycle.

    There are couple things going on here: 1) You can mostly frame or re-frame encounters, situations or scenes based on the pass/fail -cycle. 2) You should base the difficulty on the credibility of the way the PCs are trying to solve the situation. I should say that you should also take into account how boring or exiting the results would be.

    So for example, we could take that troll over there. It has been established that the campaign is a low fantasy down in the gutters kind of game. The troll is a pretty big deal. On that basis it would not be credible that the PCs would have an easy time of putting him down. The GM framed the scene so that the troll was cooking something in a big pot, but the players want to attack him anyway instead of trying something sneaky. Although the pass/fail -cycle would call for a moderate or an easy encounter, because the PCs have messed up an encounter or two, the GM rules that the fight is difficult, but only because the PCs can surprise their opponent and have a numerical advantage. Let’s say that they beat the troll up and he escapes into the woods.

    The next conflict could then involve the PCs traveling on in the wilderness while trying to deal with nasty weather and infection from the wounds sustained in the fights they have had and it should be very hard based on the pass/fail -cycle. Dying from gangrene would not be fun and would not get the story forward. However, it is very appropriate for the chosen genre and style of the campaign, so you just need to frame the conflict to be about getting how much it will take to cross the woods. If a character would suffer a “complete defeat”, he would be “dying”. So the question would be, do the PCs turn back or push on even if it would kill one of them.

    Note that in another setting or genre, so the troll could have been a minor inconvenience if the game would have been about high fantasy heroes dealing with the fate of nations and passionate affairs. In a goofier fairy tale fantasy even talking him into getting in his own pot could have been credible.

  7. Devin permalink
    December 13, 2011 10:20 pm

    The problem I have with Heroquest and similar games is that as a player I have experienced enough that I can “feel” the world warping around my PC. In my roleplaying I look for immersion and sustainability of suspension of disbelief, and for me to do that, I need to feel as if there is a breathing living world out there for my PC to amble through, and that means I cannot feel that the world and story are enfolding me and my companions purely for the sake of “story”.

    Obviously, to some extent this has to happen in any RPG, but both 4th edition D&D and HQ have taken this to an extreme. In 4th ed, the creatures are also assymetrical, in that they do not use the same rules as PCs. Furthermore, there is the concept of minions, creatures (even large ones like ogres and giants) with 1 hit point because the DM is expected to use them when the “story” dictates that the PCs should be able to wade through hordes of foes.

    If Demogorgon’s power varies from situation to situation, then I don’t feel like I am fighting Demogorgon…I am instead fighting a cardboard prop.

    Additionally, these types of narrative games have the problem of being “too perfect”. What do I mean by that? It is the same thing I mean when the DM in D&D or RQ fudges the die rolls.

    The “perfect” RPG session is one in which the PCs face a challenge that brings them to the brink of disaster…but at the last moment they prevail. That is, essentially, what every DM strives to attain. The DM doesn’t want to TPK the party, nor want them to feel unchallenged with a cake-walk. These narrative type games are very good at bringing each session to that “perfect” level over and over again because they are mutable on the fly. The DM adjusts everything to fit the story, which is paramount.

    The problem is that EVERY session becomes “perfect”, and that gets boring really fast. I want a game where things can go horribly awry. Where a TPK is indeed a possibility. Where sometimes sessions are a cake-walk.

    This is why I prefer symmetrical games like 3.5 ed D&D and RQ. When the world works the way my PCs do, it means the world takes on more of an existence of its own and is a big place that my PC needs to make his way through on his way to glory…or death.

    • December 14, 2011 10:06 am

      Hi Devin,

      I think a lot of what you’re saying revolves around what we’re used to from our games. Traditional RPGs are just as artificial and abstract extrapolations of our perceptions of “reality” as more modern ones – it’s just that we’ve internalised this artificiality, and come to see it as somehow “natural”. The concept of hit points and attritional combat, where you gradually take hit point damage till you finally keel over, don’t reflect any objective reality; they’re a game artefact designed to make for fun play, which is great, but they’re no more valid than rules where you don’t see your life points gradually whittled away, but instead take whacking great wounds which may kill you (such as in HeroQuest). In real-world combat, people rarely die by a thousand cuts. Imagine too trying to use the D&D rules to play a game where your goal is to convince a council of the kingdom not to send your tribe into exile; would you lose your suspension of disbelief just because the rules provide no real way to emulate that?

      I think your “too perfect” point is very much in the hands of the GM. Things can and do go horribly wrong in HeroQuest 2; characters die, become exiled, and so on. Perhaps the biggest difference between that and games like D&D, though, is that usually in HQ2 (and games like Fate), defeat is also part of the story; losing in a physical combat, for example, may mean you’re dead, but it’s also possible to lose the battle and still be alive – defeated, driven off, demoralised, what have you, and *still the game continues*. When I first started playing HeroQuest, I was quite disgruntled that it was quite possible to win a combat, but the opposition would survive. With my D&D / miniatures wargaming head on, that didn’t make sense; from a real-world and narrative standpoint, of course, it makes a lot of sense. You can drive off your enemy and still achieve your goal – unless your goal, of course, is simply to kill things and take their stuff (of course, you can do that too… ;-) ).

      Probably a lot depends on what you expect from your game. In a more “symmetrical game”, the rules are “tactically neutral”, and whether your character lives or dies is effectively random; it actually depends on the scenario the GM creates. If the GM provides the PCs with opponents which are too tough, then you get a TPK; if the dice fall badly, you do, too. In the former case, the GM takes care to create a scenario which is very finely adjusted to the PCs’ abilities; in the latter – well, GMs often fudge rolls, as you mention.

      In other words, even in symmetrical games, you’re not coming up against an objective, neutral, world-scale: the GM is tailoring it to your characters’ abilities. It’s artificial, designed to create a good “story” (ie game session) – hence all the hullaballoo about “game balance” and “encounter design”. The only difference with HeroQuest (and with systems like FATE, to a greater or lesser extent) is that this “tailoring” is built into the game mechanics itself. There’s far less prep required to run a HeroQuest or Fate game, and the system effectively balances itself to the PCs, rather than the GM having to deliberately do so.

      However, don’t take my words to be a criticism of more symmetric games. I like playing BRP, D&D 4e (particularly Gamma World!), CoC, and so on. It’s horses for courses – depends on which flavour of game I want on a given day :-D

      Cheers!

      Sarah

      • December 14, 2011 3:21 pm

        Sarah – this is absolutely right on. There’s frankly nothing “natural” or “simulationist” about resource attrition as a way of resolving conflicts. They are merely means to generating suspense about the outcome of a particular conflict. They can be fun and exciting, but they are as much an artifice as anything in HeroQuest.

        Jeff

    • December 14, 2011 10:58 am

      HQ strives to attain credibility and a feeling of “realism” by first getting everyone on the same page on the genre, style and setting of the game. Scenes and conflicts will then be set with that in mind and the results of conflicts and die rolls will be interpreted according to those precedents.

      In a traditional game, you someone first codifies implicit genre, style and setting assumptions to a game mechanic that is often quite complicated. Then afterwards you’ll take the system and play the game. The game will only deliver the feeling of “realism” and credibility you want if your tastes happen the align with the designers of the game and if the system doesn’t spit out unintended results, because of its complexities.

      It seems to me, at least on paper, that you’ll have an easier time if you use the first method. I know I have spent countless hours trying to find the perfect system for a campaign idea and then house ruling it. ;)

  8. December 13, 2011 8:43 pm

    Hi Sarah. Golden rule of blogging. Always reply to your comments – then of course, return the favour! Love your site, by the way. Noticed on your blog that you know a friend of mine and fellow writer, Jonathan Green. Publishing is a small world.: ) Have ‘Like’d your page on Facebook in order to get notifications of your future posts. Feel free to do the same!
    Cheers
    Rob Sanders

  9. December 13, 2011 6:45 pm

    I’m a big fan of narrative games like fate, and I sort of want to take a look at this game. My concern is something along the lines of Amber Diceless. The narrator in that game simple compares two numbers (like warfare 50 vs. Warfare 25) then uses his imagination to interpret the results. “He is vasty better at swordplay than you, you feel you may not survive many blows”. With an unimaginative DM it gets awful “He wins”

    So what I’m wondering here is if this game suffers the same sort of problem. Like if you were doing a battle contest, in D&D there doesn’t need to be creative interpretation as you can see whose hitting, whose taking damage, and how tough the battle was but simply passing a combat test in this game, does it tell you more than simply “who wins?” or is that left to the players and narrator to come up with the description?

    This one of the reasons I like FATE so much. The game allows for the interjecting of description but keeps a skill set that’s very binary. So even the most uncreative player can produce aspects and roll dice while the most creative player just adds aspects everywhere. A game of Amber with an uncreative Narrator and Players is an exercise in pain.

    • 1Homerj permalink
      December 13, 2011 8:34 pm

      Yeah it does. Having an off day as a DM? then Heroquest makes it much, much, worse. There is little to fall back onto to give yourself a breather, the system takes none of the weight. Glorantha has felt bone dry since it lost Runequest

      • December 14, 2011 9:44 am

        Hi 1Homerj,

        Definitely HeroQuest and RuneQuest are massively different games. Personally, though, I find HeroQuest lets me bring in much more of the depth and flavour of Glorantha much more than RuneQuest ever did; things like being able to use your hatred of the Lunars to boost your ability to fight them, or use your Rune to achieve special effects which aren’t clearly delineated in fixed spells, give my games much more freedom to draw on the myth and background of the setting.

        I’m looking forwards to RuneQuest 6 – there are a lot of innovations in HeroQuest 2 (augments, freeform abilities, relationships, etc) which could be ported over to the more traditional form of RuneQuest. I play a lot of BRP myself, and use the complementary skill and passion / personality trait rules there in ways derived from the HQ rules.

        Cheers,

        Sarah

    • December 14, 2011 9:37 am

      Hi Bryce,

      I understand your point completely – but take the “Persuasion Roll” for a moment. Most RPGs deal with this in a single roll, if they subject it to a rules mechanic at all; the result is usually either “you persuade him” or “you fail to persuade him” – and if you’ve got a GM or a player who’s run out of juice for the day, then that’s about as much description as you may get. Conversely, a good game session where everyone’s firing will load that simple mechanical roll with loads of good roleplaying and description.

      HeroQuest 2 is a little like that. D&D, as an contrast, provides lots of games mechanic support for description *in combat*, but pretty much nothing anywhere else; HeroQuest provides lots of mechanical support for description *of contests*, but doesn’t try to relate them to the physical mechanics of specific actions. So, the game will give you support for describing a combat in dramatic terms, but won’t specify that here you should be specifying armour or weapon effects, for example – that stuff is up to you, as GM or player. The rules *mechanics* will say something like “You fly at your foe, trying desperately to slay him with your magical greatsword, but he easily repels your attack. Your comrades shout encouragement from the sides, and you feel buoyed on their support, redoubling your attack”; they won’t say “You strike a blow with your magical greatsword, but your foe parries the blow with his shield” (although you could choose to describe the initial description in more detail this way).

      FATE falls somewhere between the two – it provides mechanical support for describing contests where there is some element of “stress”, which works great for physical combat, debates, mental conflicts, social combat, and even cultural and mass combat. It doesn’t do quite so well when it comes to climbing a legendary mountain or hurling a spear into the heavens – although of course you can simply give each of these tasks a “stress track” and resolve them that way, which is also very neat.

      But you’re completely right – you need to narrate the results of your actions. If you want a game which provides mechanical descriptive support for the physical real-world detail of combat (or at least an acceptable simulation of such), then HeroQuest won’t do that. There is, however, a lot of tactical crunch in the existing story mechanics.

      Cheers, :)

      Sarah

  10. December 13, 2011 5:59 pm

    I’m having a hard time picturing the pass fail cycle. Is it something like “Ok you guys are going to climb the mountain, it’s moderate”, each player rolls, and you then pass or fail? Do you then describe the journey up the mountain?

    • December 13, 2011 6:19 pm

      Hi Bryce,

      The pass/fail cycle is a way of managing the difficulties of rolls you make based on dramatic requirements. Say for example that the first roll you make is a Moderate difficulty. Say you then fail at that; the difficulty of the next roll then gets easier. If you succeed easily at a roll, the difficulty of the next roll gets harder.

      In reality, the pass/fail cycle is based on the last *two* rolls you made: two successes, the next roll is harder; two failures, it gets easier; one success and one failure, it stays the same.

      The result is to give a dynamic flow to the difficulties you face based on dramatic structure.

      From the GM’s side, once you know what the difficulty is, you tailor your description to suit it. You might be facing a potentially lethal foe, but if the pass/fail cycle mandates a relatively easy roll, maybe the foe is distracted, asleep, you find a weak spot, achilles heel, or something similar.

      It sounds very cold and mechanistic when explained, but in play it’s very smooth, and gives you pointers as GM for how to describe the scene. And you can still have your NPCs detailed as lavishly (or not!) as you want – the pass/fail cycle simply indicates which facets of that NPC you emphasise at that particular moment in the story.

      Cheers!

      Sarah :)

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