Fortune & Favor

Review: HeroQuest Core Rules Second Edition

HeroQuest Second Edition, by Robin D. LawsAs a life-long devotee of RuneQuest (from RQII to MGRQI, and now RQ6), I was predisposed to love HeroQuest. As a lifelong simulationist (Rolemaster, anyone?), I was predisposed to hate HeroQuest, by game design rockstar Robin D. Laws. The only RQ I’d avoided was the previous version of HeroQuest, Hero Wars—because it wasn’t my kind of game. Fast forward a few years, and the kind of thing  I looked forward to—RuneQuest content—are a small part of HeroQuest. The things I dreaded—fuzzy, loose narrativist mechanics—turn out to be detailed and precise. When I got over my disappointment at the lack of Glorantha content and considered the rules on their own merits, I was won over to the idea of narrativist gaming. Be warned, I’m writing from that point of view—some of my review will no doubt be painfully obvious to long-time players of this type of game.

The Book Itself
HeroQuest is a slim volume with an attractive cross-genre cover illustration. It’s perfect bound, which I think is fine for a 132-page book; I prefer decent soft covers to the awful warped hard covers on some of my thinner Mongoose books, at any rate. I have two copies; one of them I’ve treated pretty badly, and the cover is starting to delaminate a bit. The other one, which is getting normal wear and tear, seems fine.

The layout and design are competent—even attractive, if simple. Rune treatments on margins and chapter heads add flavor without overwhelming the text, which is peppered with simple tables and a great many shaded text boxes. There might actually be too many text boxes in some sections. One page alone has four of them, with only a single tiny paragraph of body text. It’s also a bit confusing that sometimes boxes are for clarifications and examples, and sometimes they’re for important rules—both get the same treatment. And sometimes box order and placement is a bit off. Still, the layout is better than the average RPG’s. The two-column format and reasonable font and leading mean that the book is packed with information without being tough to read (as opposed to, say, the pretty but inscrutable Mage, the Awakening). So far, so good.

Then there’s the interior art. Some of it is OK, but some of it would probably have been rejected by 80s-era Palladium, and that’s saying something. It detracts from the book, which, even for $30, ought to be a bit more luxurious. This is one of the seminal RPGs, after all. I suppose there is a precedent for crappy RuneQuest art (yes, I’m looking at you, Avalon Hill). That said, the art definitely hurts the style score. Not to worry: Robin Laws’ excellent rules system more than makes up for it.

The System
It’s good that Laws writes in a lucid, simple, and entertaining style, because, for a rules-light system, there’s a whole lot of system here. The first 90 or so pages of the book are pretty much the mechanics and advice on how to make them work.

The basic mechanic is simple. You describe your character, and the terms you use become your abilities and flaws. A tough-as-nails bounty hunter with a cutting wit and a weakness for the ladies would get Tough as Nails, Bounty Hunter, and Cutting Wit as abilities, with Weakness for the Ladies as a flaw. (Real characters get more description—and more abilities and flaws—but you get the idea.) Abilities can be as concrete as those above, or as abstract as “Everything I Touch Turns to Crap” (a real example from the book). One last complication: Bounty Hunter might be a “keyword” ability, one that includes the sub-abilities Tracking, Work the Phones, Shake Down Junkies, and Taser. Your abilities chosen, you pick a primary ability to rate at 17; the rest get 13s. Distribute ten points among your 11 abilities, and you’re done.

Conflict resolution involves pitting one character’s relevant ability against another’s (or against a resistance number, if there’s no opponent—climbing a tree, for instance). Difficulties are modified by the GM, depending on the genre of the game world. In a gritty film-noir world, when someone’s got a gun to your head, you’re probably at his mercy. In a Jackie Chan-inspired world, you might be able to grab the gun from his hand, perhaps disassembling it in the same motion. If our bounty hunter were in a buddy-cop-movie world, he might try that old chestnut of trying to make the gun-wielding thug angry enough to make a mistake. The bounty hunter would roll against his Cutting Wit. The thug might roll against his Cool Customer. A roll on a d20 under an ability rating is a success. If both succeed, the lowest roll wins (unless the rolls are equal, in which case they tie). It’s as simple as that.

Well, not exactly.

Rolls of 1 are critical successes, and 20s are fumbles. Depending on the margin by which you beat (or lose to) the enemy, you get four possible degrees of success (or failure): marginal, minor, major, or complete—plus ties. The effects depend on the situation and the type of conflict being resolved. If you’re hurt in a combat, your injury results in negative modifiers to the appropriate sort of skills. If you suffer a bad result in a social contest, your social interaction will have a negative modifier for a length of time appropriate to the genre you’re playing in—perhaps reflecting a crisis of confidence.

Complete victory leaves the enemy dying in deadly physical combats. In quick social combats, it might destroy the enemy’s reputation, forcing him to withdraw from society. In the above example, the thug might end up unconscious on the ground, with the bounty hunter in control of his weapon. It’s up to players to pick their attacks and describe their desired outcomes; The GM narrates the actual results, based on the dice rolls.

Some readers will have noted that if abilities start at 17 and you get a bunch of points to distribute, you’ll likely have ratings above 20. What then? Basically, when you hit 21, you’ve mastered a skill, and it’s written as 1M (where M is actually a Gloranthan mastery rune, which I can’t duplicate here). Mastery yields a bump up the conflict results table. Using a 12M skill, you have one automatic success, with a 12 out of 20 chance for an additional level of success (assuming no modifiers on the task). Masteries bump you up one level each, from a minor failure to a marginal one, say, or from a major success to a complete one. Once you reach complete success, remaining masteries bump your opponent’s results down one level each. Yes, you can have multiple masteries, written 10M2, for example. This equates to two bumps and a ten out of twenty chance of an additional level of success. Finally, masteries cancel out. 12M2 versus 4M becomes 12M versus 4.

That’s the bare bones of the mechanics. The rest of the 90 or so pages of system description are spent fleshing out that skeleton.

There are Hero points, which help heroes influence conflict resolution and live up to the name. There’s a sensible system for augmenting your efforts, too. Success on a relevant prior contest aids you in the present one. The bounty-hunter’s savage take-down of the thug described above might augment his chances to intimidate anyone who saw it. There’s a good relationship chapter, which explains how to use the basic mechanic to manage sidekicks, followers, contacts, and so on. And there’s an excellent chapter on using the resources of a community to which you belong—whether it’s an Ars Magica-style covenant, a Gloranthan tribe, or even the nobility of 14th-century Venice. The mechanics for deciding if your community will let you consume some of its resources (cows, gold, men, diplomatic influence, whatever) are particularly elegant, but they basically boil down to rolling a character ability against an appropriate community ability. There are detailed rules for preserving and managing resources, which must refresh after depletion.

Finally, there’s an extended conflict resolution system for when the drama of the moment calls for the contest to be drawn out—fighting the Troll-lord, for example, carrying on an extended flirtation with the one, or running an entire election. It doesn’t have to be a traditional face-to-face confrontation. In fact, it really doesn’t matter what the conflict is; as long as you and your players can conceive of attributes to oppose, the conflict-resolution system can handle just about any genre.

How to Play It?

Laws is at his best here. I can’t remember having ever read a better how-to-GM article than HeroQuest’s. At its base, Laws’ advice amounts to: Set resistances based on the player’s recent successes or failures; if they’ve done well, make tasks harder. If they’ve had their heads handed to them, make the next bits easier. Well, duh. Sounds like it would be common sense to all but the worst GMs, no?

Laws takes this elementary idea much further, however. He gives excellent advice on how to break the narrative down into what he calls the pass/fail cycle. It’s a simple enough idea: diagram the progress through the story, showing if they pass or fail (and how well or badly) at overcoming each obstacle they face. It’s essentially a tool that helps you see your game as an ongoing piece of drama. Are my heroes challenged enough, or are they so downtrodden that Thomas Covenant would pity them? There are ten really solid pages of systems and advice for how to make this simple idea work.

Long-time narrativist gamers might not need the chapter, but as a recent convert from highly simulationist games, reading this chapter was a bit of a revelation. It’s been a while since I so thoroughly enjoyed just reading a rulebook. It’s refreshing to read a game where the sort of rules-bending I’ve done for many years is actually baked explicitly into the rules to such an extent. Yet the Rolemaster-loving simulationist in me is quite happy to find actual tables showing how to implement it all. Still, I can see that (as Laws says, more or less), once you get the hang of it, you’ll go back to eyeballing it—it’s just that now you’ll be following the rules, instead of bending them.

What Kind of Worlds Is It Good At?
Different universal systems are better at handling different sorts of games. HeroQuest is, unsurprisingly, best at recreating stories based in classic genre fiction. It’s easy to create games if everyone has the same broad assumptions about the world. We’ve all read The Three Musketeers, and we all know how Jackie Chan movies work, so it’s simple to agree on what the ground rules of games set in those worlds would be in HeroQuest. Anything where narrative trumps all else—most novels, movies, and TV shows—is easy to recreate.

It would take more work to recreate the world of a simulation-based RPG. The vastly disparate spell lists of the average D&D wizard would be nightmarish to recreate in HeroQuest, I believe. The magic examples in HeroQuest pretty much equate to one spell or thematic ability per skill. It would be much simpler to reimagine a D&D-style wizard as being more focused, with just a few larger-scale thematic abilities like Elemental Magic: Fire. His player would describe an effect, and, if it was something simple like lighting a campfire, he’d get a bonus; for something complex like capturing a balrog with a lasso of fire, well, that’d be harder. Ambitious GMs might set minimum Mastery levels for certain effects: fireballs at M1, melting rings of power at M4, for example.

I think this bias toward simplification is actually a great thing. That player who’s always complaining that D&D magic isn’t flexible enough may mourn the loss of her 142 quirky Vancian spells, but she’ll will quickly fall in love with HeroQuest system, which will ultimately let her do much more with far fewer abilities. Note, also, that the more coherent and logical Ars Magica and Mage systems would be much simpler to adapt. Even RoleMaster, with its thematic Spell Law lists would be much simpler to recreate.

What Could Have Been Better
My one complaint with the substance of HeroQuest is that the section on general advice for implementing the system—building your own worlds, designing keywords, creating psionic, magic, high-tech, romantic, or even musical-comedy powers feels a bit short, at just 13 pages of general advice.

It’s all very well to say that you should base your games off the great fiction you love and not the often-dysfunctional RPGs you play, but, let’s face it, most of us (and most of our players) think in terms of games we’ve previously played; that’s our starting point, that’s the way we tend to approach gaming our favorite fiction. I would have especially liked richer examples of how to implement various standard role-playing tropes.

The section for designing magic systems is just a page long, for example, as are the sections on high-tech and psionics. The couple paragraphs that I wrote above about creating a Vancian mage character are my own conclusions, not advice from the book. For the vast number of potential converts from D&D, GURPS, and so on, more advice and more concrete examples would have made for a lower barrier to entry to this otherwise excellent system.

To Glorantha
Fortunately, the one detailed example of world-building is a decent one. This is where the Glorantha stuff finally comes in. There’s fifteen pages worth of Gloranthan basics, mostly descriptions of how Glorantha’s various magic systems work. It’s really more an illustration of how to implement HeroQuest’s rules, however, than enough information to play in Glorantha. There’s also a basic guide to the Gods, as well as a primer on Glorantha’s runes. Sure, if you’re already steeped in the lore of Greg Stafford’s world, you could do the rest, but it’s nowhere near enough for a new player to delve into Glorantha.

Don’t fret, Stafford-ites: there is a lot more Glorantha stuff coming from Moon Design. The enormous Sartar: Kingdom of Heroes book is out, and it’s great. Disclosure: the company sent me a PDF to review, which I shamefully still haven’t done. On the other hand, I liked it so much I actually bought the physical book, so I don’t feel too bad. There’s a Campaign pack for Sartar, and there’s a meaty Sartar Companion, too–I own them both. I’m definitely also looking forward to picking up the massive Pavis, Gateway to Adventure book, too. I really hope Moon Design is able to continue giving RuneQuest the sort of support it deserves. So far, the signs look very good.

In Summary
HeroQuest is an excellent game. The presentation is pretty good, though I wish that this incarnation of the system had gotten a slightly more stylish treatment—art and layout to match Robin Laws’ well thought out and elegantly explained rules. But it’s the rules themselves for which you’ll buy this game, and they’re worth every penny of your gaming dollar. Could there be more to the book? Yes, certainly. But there’s also something extremely appealing to an entire system in a slim, affordable volume. I’m never going to have time again to read another 800-page core rules set (sorry, Hero, nice knowing you), nor am I likely to shell out $100 dollars for a basic set (so long, Warhammer FRP). Especially not when I can get such a fantastic, intuitive system in a 132-page, $30 book. Good stuff.

Note: This review originally appeared on RPGnet.

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