This is the first in a series of critical previews about the new HeroQuest 2 rules. I’m fortunate to have one of the play-test copies that were given out a Continuum 2008 since I’ve been on the playtest since the start. This is the version of the game that I will be be ‘reviewing’. This is a simple ring-bound print out of about 150 pages, without art and a simple colour cover – using Jon Hodgson’s excellent cover.

Please note this a very long first post.

Bit of back ground to myself, which needs to borne in mind while reading these posts.

I’m a Gloranthaphile – so I’m interested in using the rules to run Gloranthan games. The new HeroQuest 2 rules are Generic, with a few asides and Appendix on Magic for existing Gloranthan players. While I will critically access how the new rules meet the criteria of being a Generic system I will also tend to drift back to musing how useful it will be for a Gloranthan GM.

I’m pretty jaded with HeroQuest at the moment. Previous editions of the game (HeroWars and HeroQuest 1st Edition) had serious problems that made them difficult to run and for me generated allot of GM fatigue. I’ll go into this in more detail later, but for now lets just say seven years of continuous years of playing the game pretty intensely has left me very conscious of its short comings and I’m reluctant to embrace a new version that may introduce as many problems as it solves. At this point I’m only really looking at HQ2 because I need some sort of understanding of it because its going to be the language of choice for Gloranthan 3rd Age publications, and for my Convention Games, because there’s nothing worse than the players turning up eager to try out a system as written only to have the GM spend fifteen minutes explaining how he has house-ruled the game to ‘fix it’.

So here’s a bit of history of the game and my experiences with it.

1998: HeroWars “Mum where’s the hit points ?!?”
Deluxe HeroWars, the version I bought, was a box set which included a collection of trade sized paper backed books ;

  • Hero Wars Book (aka the Players Book), which had the majority of the rules and details for generating Lunar DaraHappans, Heortlings, Black Horse Country Knights and Horses and Grazelanders.
  • Narrator’s Book which had narrator specific advice, a short Gloranthan bestiary and a short adventure arc designed to show off the system.
  • Gloranthan Visions a short collection of short stories and articles about Glorantha, which never really hung together and instead of begin the ideal introduction to Glorantha to newcomers felt and read like a random collection of notes thrown together to make the book up.
  • A map of Dragon pass – a very rough hand drawn affair, the politest thing that can be said about is that there are better maps available for free online.

I’ve been playing RuneQuest on and off in Glorantha since 84 and took the plunge and moved over to HeroWars (effectively the first stab at HQ) when it came out in 98. I remember the trepidation and excitement I felt when I opened the Deluxe HeroWars box set. “Mum where’s the hit points!!” was my reaction to the new Narrative rules contained within, were bizarrely everything was a skill and not a trapping of RPGs wargamming past was to be found. It was a big leap as the board game Settlers is from Monopoly.

I tried but didn’t get it. I talked to fellow Gloranthan GMs at cons. The brave admitted they didn’t get it, the foolish pretended ‘everyone has their own way of playing this game’.
You see HW was a confused mess of a game. On one hand it had this wonderful unified mechanic of Contests which added drama not just to combat but also social situations or any sort of skill roll. The simple procedure, which is still at the heart f the system, is that you roll a D20 against the Ability you are using and depending on how you narrate your action you could add bonuses from other Abilities (known as Augmenting) vs an Opposing Resistance, where the Narrator rolls a D20 against a the Ability of the opposing NPC or opposing resistance (such as a slippery mountain side in a Climbing contest). Results were compared and the winner or loser declared with level of victory/defeat all quickly and seamlessly . Pretty straight forward if one side was clearly the winner but it got fiddly and obscure if it wasn’t. Also it was less than clear how characters’ suffered damage. This is before you even get to ‘Extended Contests’, which are how HeroQuest deals with big dramatic actions, and ‘edges’ which were fiddly modifiers that were used in conjuction with equipment (and to be honest I never used). Oh yeah and Issaries Inc, which was funded by the fans at that time, ran out of money during the production and had to release it as was. With numerous editing gaffs and without an Index – which in many RPGers books is an unmentionable crime.

Playing wise I ran it a couple of times at cons, to great enthusiasm and openness in the first year of its release since HW was (and still is) so different as a system from anything else, to great apathy in subsequent years a people decided it wasn’t for them. At home we tired it , liked some bits but hated it as a whole and moved onto playing other things. For a group that had been playing for a best part of ten years at this point it was like our Gloranthan journey was over.

2000 HeroQuest “A step in the right direction – until the magic chapters”.

Just as I was beginning to hate this brave new dawn of Gloranthan gaming and move onto pastures new, HeroQuest (the current and first edition) came out. A single standard gaming sized softcover, it was a great leap forward. The rules were clearer, the Gloranthan content was more spread out throughout the world (ten Homelands from Seshnela to Teshnos are covered), and the main contest rules were bit It was still a Gloranthan game at heart, although more and more people were looking to it as a generic game. In fact this was the books downfall. Sandwiched between the main rules chapters and the narrator’s advice chapters was the Magic Chapters. These were specifically Gloranthan, dense and hard to understand even for Gloranthaphiles like myself. While the rest of the book you could easily strip out the Gloranthan content and adapt it to other settings the incomprehensibly of Magic section was a real road block.

But the game was in a much much more playable form than HeroWars. In fact so much more playable that it became a convention game of choice for me and something I’ve run as a campaign at home for the last eight years. It still has its issues however, see below, but it was embraced by the fans allot more wholeheartedly than HeroWars ever was. However HeroQuest really is the Marmite of roleplaying games. Some people despite playing it with Narrators who know it inside out and how to get the best from it dislike it with a passion. So one thing I’ll be looking in to in the series is if the new edition will change the minds of those people who think it ’smells like wee’.

200? HeroQuest 2nd Edition “A cure for all our ills?”
So with the playtest version of the game in my hands, my main question is this version of the game going to get it right – especially in light of the original system author Robin D Laws back in charge of this edition.
To my mind the major show stoppers were as follows.

1.Multiple Augment madness (aka Trait Whoring)
HQ allows you to use other abilities to ‘augment’ other skills during contents. In HQ1 as long as you can give a good enough narration of what your character was doing, you can add multiple skills. I regularly had players sitting there for a good 5-10 minutes pouring over character sheets for augments. Yes I could have put my foot down and said no or limited augmented, but this was often occurred to me after the event. In HQ1 Augmenting was a core mechanic that for many players was a selling point, and they got huffy if the GM took it away or limited it.

2. Rubbish Extended Contests
In HQ1 most contests are the single roll Simple variety. When you want do big important dramatic contests you use the Extended Contest system, were over a series of exchanges opponents bid Advantage points (AP, calculated from the skill + augments used at the beginning) on the outcome of the dice roll. Whoever lost the roll would lose their opponents bid, and the loser of the contest was the person whose AP was reduced to zero or less first. It was a fiddly system and hard for many people to grasp what it all meant in story telling terms. Also its complexity was compounded by Trait Whoring, as people tried to get as many augments to get their initial AP as high as possible. It was so problematic that at conventions I only used Simple contests or Chained Contests ( a series of Simple contests where the outcome of the previous contest affects the next, devised by Graham Robinson and implemented in Mythic Russia, which uses the HQ 1 engine in Medieval Mythical Russia). I can safely say that out of all the times I’ve tried to run a HQ 1 extended contest only once has the out come been satisfactory. As a mechanic it is truly reviled by both me and my players.

3. Contests without any consequences
In HQ1 as written you can run a combat as a contest, and while your opponent is either out on the floor dead or dying or merely given up your character is left without a scratch. The damage rules for combat are also rather inconsequential, to the point I never bothered using them.

4. Vague interpretation of Contest results.
Linked to above. HeroQuest published scenarios were full of Contests that gave examples of what the consequences at various levels of victory/defeat are. As well as being galling as a scenario writer, it showed a fundamental flaw in the rules that every scenario was an attempt to explain something that should have been covered in the rule book! Since Contests are the foundation of HeroQuest, you can see how this can often leave the Narrator on shaky ground.

5. Is this a Narrative system in Sim clothing?
Rather than trying to model game reality by having numbers that measure things in terms of scales, HeroQuest is a Narrative system so it has rules that play to create a coherent story. .

To quickly sum it up the difference between a Narrative system and a Simulation system (such as RuneQuest or D&D) In a Simulation (or Sim) system you would have numbers which measure the Hulk’s and the Thing’s superstrength and other abilities. In a Narrative system you would have abilities that measure the Hulks and the Things abilities to affect the story. Therefore when the Thing and the Hulk have their annual fight, the Sim system would tell you who won the fight depending on the numbers of who was the strongest, made the best tactical options and had luck on their side during the fight. While the Narritist system would tell you who won the fight and in story terms, with what emotional factors swung it as well as choosing the right tactic at the cruicial moment being important.

Problem is that the examples given to help narrators determine opposing resistances in HQ1 are all based upon measuring things on a scale, which is decidedly Sim. There’s more of this widespread confusion, where parts of this supposable Narrative system are explained in Simulationist terms.

6. I can’t work out how magic and other supernatural powers work?
In HQ 1 you can’t work out how non-mundane abilities would work because the examples given are so firmly Gloranthan.

7. Gloranthan Magic as presented is over complex and confusing.
While Theism (divine) magic worked fine, both Animism (spirit) and Wizardry (Sorcery) were confusing messes.

I’ll go into each of these in more detail as in later posts, but for those of you that are impatient here’s a quick summary of how HQ 2.0 deals with each of these issues.

1. Multiple Augment madness (aka Trait Whoring)
Multiple Augmenting is gone. Augmenting is back to rolling for the level of bonus, auto augmenting is gone completely, and only if the Narrator approves it. Much stronger guidelines are given for when to allow Augmenting and the section that details it is after the main contest section, so it’s more of an afterthought rather than the core imperative of the system. So you can still augment, which is good, but its allot more managed and not as common as HQ1.

2. Rubbish Extended Contests
Completely rewritten. Gone is AP biding, in is a first past the post system, were you need to score five points against your opponent over a series of exchanges (opposed simple contests).

3. Contests without any consequences
Contests now have carry over benefits for winners and penalties for losers. It also covers situations where the victor wins barely and so walks away hurt.

4. Vague interpretation of Contest results.
Out of about 150 pages, the playtest draft spends 50 pages on when to call for specific types of contests and how to interpret the results. Its pretty intimidating if you try to read it all in one go, but as Robin says in the introduction HQ2 is more of a tool box in approach. Read the bits you need and refer to it when specific instances turn up in play.

5. Is this a Narrative system in Sim clothing?
No, its purely Narrative and Robin spends allot of time explaining, with examples , how this works. All the Sim elements, such as the sample resistances, have been striped out of the rules. It still takes allot of stomaching at times, but the internal logic is sound and when you go away and think about it. May not sell the game to its detractors, but at least they will be able to see more clearly why it’s a game not for them.

6. Can I work out how magic and other supernatural powers work?
Yes there are dedicated sections on this. Pretty straight forward and in essence they work as any other ability does.

7. Is Gloranthan Magic fixed?
Only time and actual play will tell on this. It certainly is a lot more streamlined and concise. Jeff Richard has reworked the three magic systems, so that they have the Runes at their heart. He’s also done away with some of the hideous complexity from the previous edition. So no Liturgists and Schools of Wizardy, just a quick guide to Sorcerors for the sorcery section.

So after this long introduction, if you are still with me here’s where I’m I going in future posts. Well I’ll probably rack up a ton of actual play before the rules are out officially, so future posts will focus on that as well as looking at the rules in detail section by section. Experiences during Playtesting (or how my group migrated from HQ1 to HQ2) will probably be the next post, followed up by Character Generation.

Any questions feel free to ask in the comments below.