Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Friday, 30 December 2011

Quest for a Story

The traditional generic or multi-genre RPG is an attempt to provide an all-encompassing set of rules and mechanics that allow a GM to create and run, and the players to play, a roleplaying scenario or campaign in a setting of their choice. It can be set in any time, any place, and any genre, and the rules will often reflect this. This is either by trying to cover every detail or by trying to cover everything in broad swathes; the former approach often threatening to overwhelm the game in those details, whilst the latter can lose flavour as the details are glossed over. HeroQuest is a generic RPG with a difference. Published by Moon Design Publications, its approach is anything other than traditional, for it does not approach roleplaying in any genre mechanically, but instead approaches it narratively. At its heart is not the question,”Can I roleplay in this genre or setting?” Rather it is, “Can I tell a story through roleplay in this genre or setting?”

Designed by Robin D. Laws, HeroQuest originally appeared as Hero Wars and then HeroQuest, each in their own way strongly tied to the Glorantha of the RuneQuest setting. Indeed, this version of HeroQuest continues this association by including a “genre pack” for Glorantha – a genre pack being an information kit for the players about the setting or world that they will be gaming in – as an example. For the most part, this version of HeroQuest is divorced from Glorantha to give a generic set of rules, or as the rules state explicitly, a set of tools to tell a story.

HeroQuest’s primary means of approaching storytelling is changing how everything is defined. Although numbers do play a part of this definition, they only come after the important aspects of a character, a thing, or other part of the world is described in words. Just about anything can be described in this way and not necessarily in absolute terms, as in HeroQuest a player is encouraged to be more imaginative in terms of what his hero can do. So instead of “Fight with Sword,” a hero might have “Flashing Blade” or “My surroundings are my weapon.” During the game, the player is free to use the abilities however he wants if his GM accepts that his suggested use is applicable. So instead of the player saying, “I hit him with my sword,” he might instead say, “I try to impress Lady Beatrice by defeating Captain Raymond with a display of swordsmanship that humiliates him rather than hurts him, using my Flashing Blade ability.”

Also important here is the fact that the player explicitly states what he wants to achieve before his character attempts the action. This can be as simple as climbing up a rock face, as lengthy of setting out to woo the governor’s daughter, or as complex as “banging the bodyguards’ heads together before drawing their guns and emptying each weapon into their gangland boss.” All can be settled with a roll of the dice that quickly help both GM and player determine the outcome and move on. Relatively slight steps up in terms of complexity enables both GM and player to determine the degree of failure or success in Simple Contests and then Extended Contests, the latter actually a series of Simple Contests.

Once a player has set his objective, he decides upon the ability he will use and the GM will choose what will resist it. Both player and GM will each roll a twenty-sided die and compare the results to their respective abilities, results of 20 being a fumble and 1 being a critical success. For example, Gordon is playing “Delaware” Miller, archaeological adventurer, who is chasing his rival, the Belgian treasure hunter, Bernard Monami, and got aboard his lorry. Next he wants to reach around to the cab, pull open Monami’s door, and sock it to the Belgian across his smug jaw. “Delaware” is using his ability of “Determined Action” 3W – actually an ability rating of 23, but each point above 20 represents a level of Mastery – whilst the GM, Stef, decides that Bernard’s ability of “Escape the Clutches…” 1W is suited to the situation.

Both Gordon and Stef roll the dice. “Delaware” Miller gets a result of 5 and Stef a result of 11. Both rolled Successes, but although neither rolled a 1, “Delaware” Miller rolled lower than his rival and thus achieved a marginal victory. With this result, the GM could say that although has managed to swing into the cab, he did not land his wanted blow on Monami. Such a result is not good enough for “Delaware” and so Gordon brings into play the levels of Mastery that “Delaware” has in “Determined Action” 3W. Since Bernard also has a level of Mastery in “Escape the Clutches…” it cancels a level of Mastery that “Delaware” Miller has in “Determined Action,” reducing it to “Determined Action” 2W.

With the first level of Mastery, Gordon raises his result from a Success to a Critical Success, but with the second, he lowers Bernard’s Success to a Failure. With that result, the GM agrees that “Delaware” Miller has achieved his aim and narrates that into the story. Similarly, a character can use Hero Points to alter contest results in the same fashion.

If this was an Extended Contest, then this might just have been the first exchange, the aim for both “Delaware” and Bernard being to take control of the lorry and drive off with the artefact. In this case, Successes and more would gain each participant Resolution Points, the exchanges continuing until one side had acquired five or more and won the Extended Contest. As a general rule, the more interesting a contest is and the greater its importance as part of the story or scenario, the more the need for the more complex contests.

As in any RPG, in HeroQuest the loser in a Contest takes damage. It is usually expressed as levels of Impairment, and depending upon the nature of the Contest, this Impairment can be physical, mental, and social. Impairment can also affect a character’s relationships, whether that is romantic, business, political, criminal, and so on. Further, Impairment can have an effect on not just the relationship that a character has with his Community, but with the Community itself. HeroQuest goes into some detail about the creation and running of Communities, the creation process usually being conducted by the players collectively. Primarily, a Community is a resource that the characters can add to and draw upon, but it has a life of its own and if the characters use its resources badly, the characters can fall out of favour and have to find their way back into its good graces.

So far, so good. HeroQuest is clearly geared towards both imaginative play and players, and this continues with character generation. Three methods of character generation are given: Prose, List, and “As you go,” each one being easier than the former. Under the Prose method, a player writes a hundred word statement and underlines his character’s abilities and keywords; under the List method, the player chooses his character’s keywords and abilities; and with “As you go,” the player adds keywords as play progresses.

Of his character’s starting Abilities, a player choses one as his best and assigns it a score of 17, with the rest being set at 13. A player can then divide further 20 points between these abilities. It is possible to raise an ability’s rating above 20. In doing so, for each point above 20, the ability gains a level of mastery, represented by a notation using an orthogonal “W.” In fact, this symbol is the Mastery Rune from Glorantha. So if a player gave his character the ability Flashing Blade 23, he would actually have Flashing Blade 3W.

Our sample character is my current one from the Legends of the Five Rings campaign I am playing in, called The Silken Knot. To give you some comparison, I include his Legends of the Five Rings stats for comparison.

Yasuki Kiosho, Crab Courtier
Air: 3 (Awareness 3, Reflexes 3), Earth: 3 (Stamina 3, Willpower 3)
Fire: 2 (Intelligence, Agility), Water: 3 (Strength 3, Perception 3), Void: 2
Honour: 2.3, Status: 0.8, Glory: 1.0, Infamy 1.0 (Mantis), Insight: 157
School/Rank: Crab Courtier, Rank 2
Advantages: Clear Thinker (3), Forbidden Lore: (Cult of Ruhmal) (5), Inner Gift: Empathy (7), Language: (Rhuumal) (1), Seven Fortunes’ Blessing: Daikoku’s Blessing (4) Disadvantages: Black Sheep: Crab Clan (3), Black Sheep: Mantis Clan (3), Hostage (3), Lechery (3), Lost Love (3), Pyrophobia (1)
Skills: Art: Painting 1, Athletics 1, Calligraphy 1 (Crab Cipher), Commerce 3 (Appraisal), Courtier 3 (Manipulation), Defense 3, Etiquette 2, Intimidation 2 (Control), Investigation 1, Jiujitsu 1, Knives 1 (Kukri), Lore: Ivory Kingdoms 1, Lore: Mantis Clan 1, Lore: Cult of Ruhmal 1, Lore: Underworld 1, Sailing 1, Sincerity 2 (Deceit), Temptation 1 (Seduction)

As part of the campaign set up, it was necessary to create a background that in part explained his current situation. Some of this is implied in the character’s advantages and disadvantages, but to make it more explicit and to get his keywords and abilities for HeroQuest, I describe him in exactly one hundred words. As part of the process I underline the important aspects of him, thusly:

Yasuki Kiosho, Crab Clan courtier, is a mannered, but wily, sharp tongued and perceptive merchant. A Mantis Clan hostage, he sailed to the Ivory Kingdoms, there learning to use the flexible steel sword, the Urumi, and the Kukri knife to defend himself, and of the evil Cult of Ruhmal, a new threat to Rokugan. Back home, his lechery almost dishonoured him and Sayomi, his host, Yoritomo Chikao’s daughter, resulting in his being cast out. Now he works the underworld as a smuggler and hunts for the cult to redeem himself. Sometimes controlling, he can easily lie or spot a lie.

From this I derive his abilities and assign the points as described above. His key ability is “perceptive merchant,” which is set at 23 or 3W. The remaining fourteen points are distributed to reflect what the player feels to be important about Kiosho.

Yasuki Kiosho
The Job: mannered Crab Clan courtier 1W
Doing Stuff: perceptive merchant 3W, sailed to the Ivory Kingdoms 13, works the underworld 15, hunts for the cult 13, can easily lie or spot a lie 15, redeem himself 13
Social: Mantis Clan hostage 13, smuggler 13, lechery 13, almost dishonoured 13
Knowing Stuff: evil Cult of Ruhmal 13, Rokugan 13, Sometimes controlling 13, wily & sharp-tongued 13
Stuff I Own: flexible steel sword, the Urumi 13, Kukri knife to defend himself 15
People: Yoritomo Chikao 13 and Kisosho’s lost love daughter Sayomi 13

Despite HeroQuest’s simplicity, the rules that support that simplicity are explored in some depth. Whether this examining how modifiers work with character abilities, how healing works, or how to bring relationships into a game, the rules never really stray from helping the reader how they affect both the core Contest mechanic and the story. In fact, the author and thus HeroQuest is at its best when it discusses how the game should be played and how it should be narrated.

What HeroQuest does is make clear the differences between the story found in literature and that found in roleplaying. With a single controlling author, the story in literature rarely veers away from being a direct series of obstacles that the protagonists either overcome or fail to overcome. Whereas because the story in roleplaying has several authors, in other words, the fickle players, and because the use of dice to resolve obstacles, it can split away from the direct series of obstacles into branches of them. To counter the fickle nature, HeroQuest suggests adjusting the difficulty of the Contests according to the number that the characters have overcome so far. So the more Contests that they fail, the easier the GM needs to set the difficulty of the next Contest.

The concept that the story in roleplaying has multiple authors is continued in HeroQuest’s approach to narration. As is traditional in storytelling games – traditional in the sense that they have been around for more than a decade – HeroQuest suggests that narration should be a collaborative process involving the players as well as the GM. He is encouraged to look for opportunities to involve his players to the point of actually leaving gaps in the story so that the characters can pursue their own agendas. The advice takes a further step in suggesting that the GM be prepared to break the narration to rewind and re-interpret the outcome of a Contest if the players are unhappy with it. This is possibly narrative roleplaying at its more radical, and it is open to abuse by a domineering player. Still, as a means of re-writing the outcome of overcoming an obstacle is in keeping with the story based nature of HeroQuest.

Unfortunately, for a generic or multi-genre RPG, HeroQuest is disappointing in its treatment of actual genres. It discusses how to create the technical elements that would go into a genre pack for any setting, the ones that you would find in many roleplaying settings – occupations, creatures, cultures, magic, powers, religions, species, technologies, and so on. This is done through keywords, under which can be grouped a number of abilities. Keywords can also be used during character generation if the GM allows players to select cultures, occupations, and species. In each case, a fully worked sample is provided. Powers and magic require extra explanation for each genre pack, this explanation being organised into a framework that neatly sums the origins, limitations, and requirements of each power or type of magic. Whilst this is all technically useful, it still does not address any one particular genre.

Similarly, when it comes to the Glorantha genre pack, HeroQuest comes up short. The problem is that it focuses entirely on the magic of Glorantha and how the runes associated with that magic are interpreted along with a description of the various deities in Glorantha’s pantheons. Since many inhabitants of Glorantha understand these runes and many of them can cast magic, this is useful. Yet it does not offer any information beyond this. Which for an information kit that a genre pack is meant to be is decidedly disappointing.

The reason for the inclusion of the the Glorantha genre pack is to provide a means for players of Hero Wars and the previous edition of HeroQuest, which were both specifically tied to the Glorantha setting, to convert their games to the new edition and thus the more recent HeroQuest sourcebooks for Glorantha. Which is laudable, but it does not offer any information beyond this and that means that the last thing that anyone can do with this genre pack is start playing.

And the fact that neither the GM nor the players can get playing very quickly with a copy of HeroQuest is its main problem. For a generic or multi-genre RPG, the lack of sample genre packs that showcase how the game can do various genres seems an odd omission. Whilst HeroQuest has an abundance of examples throughout its pages, fully worked up genre packs in say the Fantasy, Horror, and Science Fiction genres would have helped cap all of those examples for the GM and given him something that he could have worked with right away.

Physically, HeroQuest is well written and in general, simply and clearly laid out. If there is a problem with the presentation it is in that some of the artwork is disappointing. Still, it is the writing that shines and that is profusely supported with innumerable and always useful examples.

At the heart of HeroQuest is the art of telling stories, an art that it supports with simple rules and mechanics that are illustrated with copious illuminating examples. In return, it asks more of both GM and players alike, not just in the act of telling a story, but also in trusting each other when the focus of the game is the narrative rather than absolute numbers. In removing those absolute numbers, HeroQuest is more flexible and more encompassing in the genres that it could tackle, and even though the genre support in this rulebook is itself weak, the rules themselves are pleasingly clear and easy to grasp. HeroQuest gives you the rules to which you only need to add your imagination to roleplay the story that you want to play.