Asymmetric Gaming: Musings on HeroQuest 2nd edition (part 2)
Over 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?
The 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.
In 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…!