"And sometimes he's so nameless"

Heroquest 2.0 – the first mini-review?

Posted in Games by Chris Jensen Romer on July 1, 2009

It’s just gone one here, one hour since Heroquest 2.0 officially became available! And here are my very first thoughts, pending a proper review later in the week, to be posted on rpg.net. I cheated, Jeff Richards gave me a copy of the pdf on Friday so I could get cracking on the review, and even with the weekend from hell behind me I have now had a chance to make a very brief first foray – full review to follow soon…

What is an rpg?

For those who don’t know what Heroquest is, it’s a tabletop (pen and pencil, NOT computer) roleplaying game (rpg) that you play with your friends. All but one player has a character, and sitting round a table the players participate in exciting adventures . Another player who has prepared that night’s story plot is the referee, and plays all the people the players  interact with, setting puzzles and challenges for them to overcome.  You use dice to handle random luck, see if your character  succeeds or fails  at certain tasks, and try and think up cunning plans to get the treasure/capture the enemy ship/save the colony on mars/seduce the handsome prince/pull off the stockmarket fraud of the century/beat the Nazis etc. etc. Stories that can be told are only limited by the riules, and the players and referees imagination. Yes, like Dungeons and Dragons, but arguably less geeky, more cool…

What stories can you tell with this game?

Pretty much any you can imagine, in ANY setting. This is the second edition of Heroquest, which in turn was based on an earlier game Hero Wars. both those games were set specifically in one fantasy setting – Greg  Stafford’s evocative world, Glorantha. This new edition of the rules does contain a small section on playing Heroquest 2.0 (henceforth HQ) in Glorantha, which covers basics of magic etc, but these rules are truly multi-genre – and without much real immediate obvious need for setting packs.  You can run almost any story you can imagine with them – because they abstract the technology and vehicles etc in terms of their role in your story, NOT a simulationist attempt to define how they would work in reality.  If you want starship construction rules, stats for a hundred different guns, and a detailed approach to armour and movement and maneuver rules, this is NOT the game for you. Chaosium’s Basic Roleplaying might be a better bet, or GURPS? Heroquest 1.0 might work well for you.

Heroquest 2.0 is unashamedly a game about stories and characters, where the genre defines the way the game runs — and the styles that can be supported range from satire to cinematic to gritty realism or even tragic operetta. Yes I mean that – so long as your central aim is to tell stories and explore characters, not to simulate an alternative reality physics etc. The examples which are well written and highly evocative range through dozens of settings and gave me some good ideas!

So what’s changed?

Everything and nothing. If you don’t know Heroquest 1.0, skip this bit! The game is still identifiably Heroquest, and everything I loved about the original is there. Yet also it’s completely different – a change in approach comparable in the difference between D&D 3rd edition and D&D 4th edition, but in the opposite direction – from bean counting and tactical play, towards narrative storytelling.  Yet there are still a LOT of rules, they are still number heavy, but much simplified over HQ1.0, and augments which were a problem for me in Heroquest 1.0 have been totally reworked, and are now mainly about doing something new and interesting, not “add the +3 for sword skill, the +2 for Humakti, the +1 for hate Lunars, the +3 from my deathly glare and the +2 for my bunions of death, that’s +11 every turn”.  One major change is augmenting is now usually with one ability, and you roll for it (or in some campaigns the GM can use the optional static augment – but then it’s now a 5th of your skill.) The need to think up something new to do each time you augment to justify it appeals to me, but some GM’s may wish to ignore it I guess.

Extended contests and the consequences thereof have changed radically – and I explain how in my full review to follow soon. Basically there are two types of Extended Contest — ones that take place during the main part of the story, which are less likely to mangle your character, and the final climax, where death or injury are far more likely. Gambling for points bid is gone – replaced with a neat “first to 5 victory points” mechanic, which is going to have to wait till the morning. If you wanted you could of course still use Heroquest 1.0′s mechanic easily enough. There is loads of good advice on running contests, examples throughout, and modifiers now give a +3, +6, or +9. There are no fiddly +1 or -2 type modifiers, every modifier if worth putting in is boldly drawn. And the old weapons and armour pluses are gone too – characters are assumed to just have them as part of their abilities, and creating your own abilities is as before a big part of the game, but in non-Gloranthan settings even bigger than before. There are rules for creating communities, including for designing clan history style background questionnaires to let players have input through their choices in to designing the communities past ( like the one in Barbarian Adventures )- but now you can create your own for any setting. The community chapter also includes resource management rules, with variable scales, and where player character actions are important over and above random rolls.

The really dramatic bit

Every so often I read an idea that makes me rethink the way I think about roleplaying games. This was one of those occasions. In most rpg’s the characters face certain resistances, defined by the setting. Dragoons are terrible, mighty foes, Klingon ships are dangerous adversaries, goblins are spiteful but puny, the Nazi’s vicious but dumb, the system you are trying to hack homicidally loaded with dangerous software to prevent an easy success. These numbers are dictated by the rules, the referees world vision, or even how experienced the characters are – “don’t go in to the third level of the dungeon unless you are third level!” None of this applies here.

Here, the difficulty of an encounter varies by it’s place in the story, and how well the characters are doing. If they are constantly failing, the challenges get easier and easier till they succeed. If they keep succeeding, they builder up in difficulty throughout the session, and either way always culminate in a dangerous a nail-biting climax!  That’s right, the difficulty of the challenges vary with how the characters are doing. A typical story will include both many successes and a few failures, which the characters will have to find ways round.  When I first read this I was truly appalled – it seemed like the referee was just making the game up as they went along, and there was no way to be clever and “win” through good tactics – all story, but less game.

And then I saw - the Narrator (referee) can retrospectively create challenges based upon the next difficulty level, and is encouraged to change the difficulties to maintain genre and game world conventions – it does not matter how many times the characters failed climbing up the lonely Mountain, if they poke Smaug on the nose with a stick they are in BIG trouble, and probably toast.  Yet the Pass/Fail cycle really does seem to offer an exciting way to pace your narratives – letting the players succeed in defeating a minor obstacle before encountering Smaug may restore fun when the whole story seems to be falling apart through little more than bad dice rolls.

And if you hate it, well you can run Heroquest the “standard” rpg way, assigning all difficulties long in advance.

In conclusion

I have barely touched on the joy that is HQ2.0, but I need sleep and it’s nearly 3am, and I have to be up in the morning. Suffice to say that I love the game, perhaps the most exciting new rpg I have ever seen. Revolutionary, elegant, beautifully written, my full review (already 4,000 words long) will be offered ot rpg.net later this week. If you’d like to check out Heroquest 2.0. it’s available now as a pdf and book from

www.glorantha.com – and there is an excellent free preview which will show you much more about the game on that site, at the bottom of the Heroquest page!

From me, it’s good night!

cj x

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