This is where we present practical advice from HeroQuest narrators who want to share their ideas. Narrating, campaign-building, characterization, use of the game rules and many other issues are suitable for the Narrator Advice column.
Another excellent (interactive!) resource to check out is the HeroQuest forum on The Forge.
Failure is Always An Option: Character Defeat is Player Victory Too, by Mike Holmes (added 19-Jun-2006)
Glorantha for the Yoots, by Ian Young (added 1-Jul-2005)
Writing Strong Hero Descriptions, by Mike Dawson (added 8-Mar-2005)
Not Heresies, by Mike Holmes (added 27-Jan-2005)
Improvising Keywords, by Mike Holmes (added 1-Dec-2004)
Extended Contests and Ranged Combat, by Brand Robins (added 26-Sep-2004)
Passionate Intensity: Augmenting With Personality Traits, by Brand Robins (added 19-Mar-2004)
Failure is Always An Option: Character Defeat is Player Victory Too
by Mike Holmes
Copyright © 2005, Mike Holmes
RPG players have long noted that, while RPGs aren’t films or books and shouldn’t always be treated as such, that often the rules of drama do apply well to decisions made in RPG play. I mean it’d be a dull film if Indiana Jones got out of the snake pit and didn’t find that the ark was just then being moved, but instead that it had been shipped a while back with no trace as to where it had gone. Character failure in drama is never used to cause the plot to cease in the middle of the interesting stuff; instead it moves the plot along. Writers use the principle below constantly.
Basically what this essay intends to show is how to ensure that character defeats are fun for players. Because characters are going to fail in Hero Quest – perhaps at an even greater rate than they do in other RPGs. To make the game really fun, players have to enjoy failures as much – or even more – than they do the victories. This is not as hard as people think.
Rule #1: Failure Doesn’t Mean the Character Looks Bad
Goal statements are never 100% airtight as to what a player can expect from a contest. The narrator has the rights to affect the outcome in several ways. For example, he certainly has the right to add whatever sort of color he likes. That is, beating the other character up the wall, the narrator would be within his rights to narrate either of the following results for a failure:
“Your character slips a lot, and generally looks like a klutz, making several stupid mistakes along the way, practically handing his opponent the victory on a silver platter.”
“Your character climbs skillfully, and with great vigor. And it looks like he’s going to win, when suddenly the wind throws dust into his eyes, and his opponent manages to just squeak by him to win the race as your character pauses.”
So here we can see that the narrator has substantial control over the stakes in that he can make a character look good or bad, at the very least. This is a powerful form of control over the stakes, and leads us to the first rule of making failure fun.
To some extent, the content of the above narration could be said to simply be color. There’s not necessarily and mechanical effect. Though in HeroQuest, it’s possible that the narrator could pass on a penalty, in addition to the loss condition, representing embarrassment or something. He doesn’t have to do so, but it’s his prerogative to do so.
But even if it’s solely relegated to color, the player may feel that his character simply isn’t cool any more. For most “Player Heroes,” this sort of narration less than heroic. So, generally speaking you want to make the character look cool in resolution. There are several ways to do this, but one technique that always works is to assume that the loss was the fault of fate, not the character’s abilities. That’s the difference in the examples above. The first example assumes that the character’s skills failed him completely somehow, and that it was entirely his fault for the failure due to terrible performance. The second example has fate conspire to cause the failure.
In fact, it can be argued that it’s more “realistic” to have the dice represent the minutia of fate – after all, the character’s skill doesn’t actually change at the moment of a bad roll, does it? If he’s “Agile” he doesn’t suddenly become clumsy because he had a bad roll. Something happened that made him look bad. You don’t really need a rationalization for this rule, but if you want one, here it is.
Now, that said, sometimes the character is clumsy, or the character may be the comic relief. Or it may simply happen that now would be a good time to show how human the character is, meaning how inconsistent we can be. The point is that you shouldn’t follow this rule 100% of the time. But that’s not the same thing as saying that you shouldn’t be working to make failure fun. What it means is that you have to decide when a clumsy or funny failure is better than one that leaves the character smelling like a rose.
When in doubt, make the character look cool. You really can’t go wrong.
Rule #2: Failure Means Conflict
Failure Means Failure
Many scenarios, published or not, suffer from a problem in their design. At some point there’s some contest that’s slated to occur upon which the entire success of the scenario hinges. Now, sometimes when this is the climax of the scenario, this isn’t that problematic – the scenario is due to end anyhow.
But it’s long been understood that when you come across such a scenario situation, and failure occurs that you have one of two choices: either end the scenario, or create some way on the spot to allow the scenario to continue. Yes, we’ve all become good at figuring out tricky ways to get around these points when they happen. But why should we have to do so? Often these tricks don’t work, in fact. While they might put the scenario back on track, they may do so at the expense of the feeling that contests are risking anything. That is, if your character fails, and then is given the award that was supposedly at stake anyhow, one begins to feel that the resolution system is pointless.
In fact, HeroQuest is so dedicated to the idea that you have to feel the stakes, that it has the “No Repeat Contests” rule. If you fail to get the door open, you fail to get the door open, and you may not try again until you get it right. A roll in HeroQuest goes directly to whether or not you get the goal of the contest.
Don’t let failures be meaningless, make them count each and every time.
Failure Means New Options
So how can one avoid the problem of characters dead-ending when they fail? By complicating their lives when failure occurs. Instead of failure simply being a resolution to an open conflict, it should be an opportunity for the narrator to create a new conflict.
So, looking at another example that’s often used to illustrate this concept, a character wants to pick a lock on a door. Now the narrator could say that failure means that the character tries for hours, and finally just gives up. In addition to violating rule #1, here, this leaves the player with no options. If, in fact there are other options – say breaking a window, then the new conflict becomes whether or not to break the window.
Basically, if there is no situation that existed previously that would constitute other options, always be sure that the failure gives new options, and ones that aren’t as savory as the previous ones. You can do this up front by negotiating more interesting stakes with the character. In the lock-picking example, you can make the goal to pick the lock before anyone comes along and sees the character at it. Because failure then means that the character has to deal with this new individual, a new conflict.
In fact, instead of allowing a player to try other options, make failure mean that he has to abandon the previous contest, and deal with an entirely new problem. This creates more action, and means that failures have a lot of bite. It also often means that it’s dramatically allowable for the player to come back to the original contest if he takes care of the new one. For instance, if the character defeats a guard who caught him picking the lock, then you can allow him another shot at it, with new stakes. Perhaps this time it’s to open the lock in enough time to get back to somebody he’s supposed to meet. Make sure to escalate the consequences here, however, else you risk this becoming just another case of allowing multiple stabs at the goal.
When in doubt, make the failure stick, but give the player a whole new set of circumstances to deal with, rather than allowing him to come back to a previous contest. But do make sure that this new set of circumstances is at least as dramatically compelling as those that were lost with the failure.
Quite simply, never allow failure to be a dead end to player options.
One particular case often comprises such a wall, and that’s failure to get critical information from somebody. GMs in many games are fond of making contests out of these situations to see if the character can get the NPCs with information to talk. The first thing to consider is that these often aren’t all that interesting as contests, and that if you can find a way to have the NPC spill the beans, that you should do so. Being a good narrator means getting information to players as fast as possible, while maintaining drama. So don’t stonewall with NPCs too often.
If you feel that you have to make a contest out of such a situation – sometimes a player will demand such – then be creative with the stakes so that failure either leads to the case where the player has some new problem to deal with. That is, often it’s just as dramatically appropriate to have the contest be about making a deal for the information. Maybe the character has to give something up to get it if he loses the negotiation (maybe it’s a contest over the amount of payment). Maybe the contest is really about how nasty a character has to get in order to force the information out, and, therefore, how much of an enemy he makes with the character in question.
Rule #3: Fiddling After the Fact
All of the above assumes that you’ve made these stakes clear ahead of time. If the player says, “I want to get the info from Fast Eddie” then you respond, “Well, I’m sure it’s just a matter of time…if you fail that’ll mean that it’s taking forever to get the information and you’ll miss your scheduled meeting to get it.” The player, once he understands what the potential failure conditions are, will be satisfied with them if they come up, because he’s tacitly agreed to them (or, for some groups, even negotiated for them explicitly).
However, it’s possible to skillfully alter the failure conditions after the fact. That is, the player didn’t say that the negative outcome of his contest had to be not ever getting the information. In fact, in most cases, it’s hard to imagine that a character would fail at something like this given time and persistence. There has to be something else at stake that’s not stated that indicated the end of the contest.
So occasionally it’s OK to play around with the obvious negative outcome, and make it something else. In the Fast Eddie example, instead of clearing the stakes with the player up front, you simply announce that Fast Eddie is talking forever, and that it’s dragging on. If you know your players fairly well, they usually will appreciate this. Especially if the downside that you create is at least as harsh as what would happen if the simple failure condition of failing to meet the goal occurs.
Some people see this as letting the player off the hook, or messing with their intentions. If you think that you’re doing either, then go back to the simple obvious failure declaration. Don’t risk it. But if you have the trust of your players, and think you know what would be cool in a particular situation, then changing the outcome here is really just the same sort of narrator prerogative that is employed when creating color like making a character look cool (from Rule #1 above). You’re tweaking the outcome to be more appealing to the player.
And it will be more appealing if this tweaked outcome leaves more options open than less. Especially if there are now harder decisions to be made.
This rule has one other advantage. If the narrator keeps for himself the right to modify the negative stakes somewhat after the fact, the player can never be sure exactly what’s coming. This is suspenseful. Could death be around the corner – would the narrator do that now?
Rule #4: A Fate Worse than Death
Players often see death as the “Ultimate” penalty, and so they should, since it’s actually the only real player penalty. That is, you lose the ability to play your character (usually), if he dies. This can be a very powerful thing in play, actually… if and only if the conflict from which the death occurs is worthy of it, however. Somebody once called Rolemaster “The game where butch veteran warriors are accidentally killed by backhand slaps from frail barmaids.” What he’s commenting on is that there are times when physical confrontation should not be about whether or not somebody dies. Because there are more interesting things to put at stake with relation to these sorts of conflicts.
Oh, sure, it may seem like a NPC is trying to kill your hero, but that doesn’t mean that the narrator has to assume that this is the downside stake. This is the most powerful example you can give of where the “standard” contest says that death should be the outcome of loss. But even then it’s not necessarily true. For several reasons:
- There are fates worse than death. What does Westly say in response to Humperdinck saying, “To the death?” He says, “To the pain!” And then explains what awaits Humperdinck should he fight – which does a better job of intimidating him than threatening death ever could. When in a situation where characters seem to be trying to kill each other, consider that the enemy may consider maiming as a better result than death.
- Or incarceration. There are so many reasons you can come up with for characters to incarcerate each other. Including torture and deathtraps? Are deathtraps unrealistic? Well, no, they relate to…
- Humans don’t like to kill other humans. It’s arguable that it’s genetic. But at the very least it’s certainly trained into us by every culture in the world. If the opponent isn’t a sociopath, then he’ll only kill in a moment of passion. And that’s rare.
- So, even in combat, humans go out of their way not to kill each other if they don’t have to do so. Taking prisoners is horribly debilitating in terms of your ability to fight, but most societies do it anyhow as part of the “rules of war.” Why? Because killing is the most ugly business, and they hope that the other side will feel the same if they’re captured.
- Even when one does want to kill, one wants this for some specific reason other than just the death of the opponent. That is, there’s always something else on the line. Perhaps pride, or love, or justice. In any case, whatever this reason is, can be the actual goal of the contest.
Now, all this said, am I saying that death should never be on the line? No. There’s always the sociopath villain who doesn’t have time for a deathtrap, and who we all feel has gotten so fed up with the protagonist that he wants to kill him. The point, however, is that you’ll know these moments when they happen, and the player will probably agree with your decision to put death on the line. This turns out to be the case in a remarkably small number of cases, as it turns out.
This all said, one can put death on the line more often than one might think in HQ, especially using simple contests, because the odds of a complete victory between somewhat equal opponents is only 1:400 on either side. And, as always, there’s the “immediate rescue” escape clause in these cases. The fact that this is 1:400 means that if you do decide to use the escape clause, it won’t get hackneyed.
Only put death on the line when it’s dramatically very appropriate to do so. Otherwise, put something else more interesting at stake.
Rule #5: Handling Complete Defeats (A Fate Other than Death)
Now, for a more technically difficult topic: what to do when a complete defeat comes up in a contest where the goal is not death? To understand this, you have to understand what the penalty is with regards to Complete Victory. There’s this escalating scale of penalties and then…death? Or vague notions of something similarly permanent?
Complete Victory means you alter the opponent permanently in a way that makes the opponent unable to compete at all in that arena of conflict. Death, in fact, means that the character can’t compete in any arena. But, let’s say that the goal is to get the grail out of the temple intact. What does this mean to a character that gets a -10% penalty? Well, he’s injured, but he can take another stab at digging the grail out, right? Probably with the penalty applying unless he takes time to heal up.
What does failing to kill a character mean? Well, that he’s probably wounded, but that he lives to be a source of potential conflict in the future. Only by Complete Victory do we eliminate him as a source of conflict in the combat arena by killing him.
So what does Complete Defeat mean in the case of the grail? It’s destroyed, of course. No chance at recovering it, the temple collapse has crushed it flat, and the magic is gone. There can no longer be any contests regarding recovering the grail, that avenue is now closed completely.
Now, that sounds like it could be a rotten result. But it’s just like selecting death as the negative stake – we assume we wouldn’t have set up this contest unless it was the end of the movie, and it would be dramatically appropriate for it to be forever lost. So, again, we only choose this stake if/when the outcome would be cool. Otherwise we come up with a more interesting conflict, one that probably uses Rule #2 to lead to new contests.
For example, a complete defeat on climbing might leave the character get half way up, suddenly realizing that he has a paralyzing fear of heights, and unable to get down. Now he has to figure out how to get down (new conflict), and he can never, ever have a contest to climb anything high again.
Until, of course, he can. Note that “permanent” for a complete defeat doesn’t mean that the situation can’t be remedied. Climbers with acrophobia can be cured of it (just ask Jimmy Stewart). Holy Grails can be rebuilt from the crushed remains. In fact, the dead can be returned to life. There’s nothing like being completely incapacitated in some way to create conflict about fixing that situation. Check the healing chart out, it’s right there: Resistance only 20W.
Rule #6: When In Doubt, Ask The Player
Really this is self-explanatory. If you’re not sure whether or not a player will like a particular form of failure for his character, there’s one easy way to find out. Simply ask. Don’t always do this – it takes time, and can drain a little of the suspense out of the results. But if you’re at all uncertain, there’s no reason why you can’t have a quick discussion with the player to find out what he thinks the most interesting failure is.
In fact, the entire game group is a good source for inspiration here if and when you’re out of creative ideas. Instead of going with something default, try getting somebody else to come up with a creative failure condition. The narrator has final say on what it is, but that’s no reason not to tap your players for ideas.
There’s nothing in HeroQuest that mandates that contests must be framed in one way or another, it’s quite open about it. Narrators should feel free to be creative with how they construct the conflicts and interpret the results so that they can make them constantly entertaining to the players, even when the results of contests are failures. Work with the players, not as an adversary, to come up with results that are entertaining for all involved.
The biggest benefit of failure being entertaining for players, is that they can stop worrying about try to play to win, and instead concentrate on playing their characters in a way that’s entertaining. This is how HeroQuest facilitates heroism – not with Hero Points there to save the character’s bacon, that doesn’t work a remarkable amount of the time. It’s loving failure as much as victory that drives players to have their Heroes act, well, like heroes.
My Young Son’s First Roleplaying Adventure
By Ian Young
Web Adaptation by Nick Eden
About a year ago, my then-4-year-old son was watching me read my copy of HeroQuest with considerable interest. He’d been eager to tell impromptu bed-time fantasy stories for the previous year, and had been discovering an interest in board games (checkers, Candyland, chess), so when I told him the book I was reading was a game, he declared that wanted to play. I already had some ideas rolling around in my head, and I was eager to put my new game to actual play, so it wasn’t long before we got down to business.
The stories that follow relate my son’s first steps in roleplaying – first character creation, and then actual play as the campaign developed. In them I also deal with the roles of being a new HeroQuest Narrator, and a father playing games with his very young children, both of which present some unique challenges.
Character creation presented the first of the challenges posed by using the HeroQuest system in a game with a 4-year-old. First, his degree of literacy, while admirable, wasn’t up to the challenge of learning the rules himself, and writing a 100-word narrative was right out of the question. So what I decided upon was a combination of the “List Method” and “As You Go” character creation rules. What I did was ask a few pivotal, leading questions – keywords, really – letting my son improvise from there, assuming that we’d probably not come anywhere spending all of the character creation points. Any unused character points could be spent later as he got the hang of the game and developed new ideas about what he wanted his character to be like.
Very roughly, here’s how his character took form. In spite of some initial confusion, I was pleased by how creative he got.Father: Who do you want to be? A boy? A grown man?
Son: A boy, not a man. His name is Mevi, and he’s a boy who fights!
Father: How old is Mevi? A little boy like you, or a teenager? Or something in between, like 10 or 12?
Son: An older boy, not a teenager. He’s 12 years old. And he has gold cuffs, and gold boots!
Father: Gold cuffs, huh? You mean like bracers? Big bands around the wrists?
Son: Yeah, and he can use them when he fights. He punches and kicks.
Father: Okay. Where does Mevi live? Is he from the mountains, or the forest, or the seaside, or the plains?
Son: He’s from the forest, near the mountains. It’s a warm forest.
Father: Warm forest? You mean like a jungle?
Son: Yeah, but not a jungle. Like a jungle, but a forest. And his family got killed by a jaguar.Father: Er, warm forest…like a jungle, but not. Near mountains. I guess that kind of sounds like Teshnos. Looking at a map here, I’d guess something like Wokistan, right on the border of Fethlon here.
Son: No, not there. On an island. Right here.
Father: Uh, that’d kind of complicate things a little for what I have in mind. Can we just say he’s from here in Wokistan? And, hmm, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of jaguars in Glorantha before…not sure where they’d be from. How about a tiger killed Mevi’s family?
Son: No. I want a jaguar. And it didn’t kill all of his family, just his mom and sister. His dad’s still alive.
Father: Oh. Hmm. Okay. What is it…page 181? “It’s Their Glorantha Too”, so there are now jaguars in Wokistan/Fethlon. Oh, hey! Is it just important that it be a spotted cat? How about a Cloud Leopard?
Son: Yeah! A Cloud Leopard killed his mom and his sister, but not his dad.
Father: So what does Mevi do? What’s he good at?
Son: He hunts, but he doesn’t like killing animals. His dad does all the hard work.
Father: Okay, so it sounds like his dad is a traditional hunter, so maybe Mevi is a trapper. You know, using snares and pits and cages to catch animals.
Son: Yeah, he’s a trapping hunter.
Father: So what weapons does he know how to use?
Son: He doesn’t use any weapons. He just punches and kicks to protect himself.
Father: Well, he’d probably have something to use in a pinch. No sword? No knife? No bow and arrow? Hey, how about a sling – like in the David and Goliath story?
Son: Yeah, a sling and he can throw really sharp rocks with it. And he’s really, really good with it.
Father: Okay, that just about does it, really. Anything else you can think of?
Son: Yeah. He has special powers that help him fight.
Father: Special powers? Have anything in mind
Son: Um…he can fly!
Father: Fly? Uh…why don’t we just stop here for now?
So, using the suggestion from page 177, I decided to start his keywords off at 13 and use just 15 extra points instead of 20. Relationships I let start at 17. His character, before beginning play, looked like this:
- Mevi Homeland: Teshnos (Wokistan) 13
- Occupation: Hunter (Trapper) 13
- Sling 1W (in lieu of Archery, and he said he was “really, really good”)
- Trapping 13
- Common Magic: Book of Well Being 13 (he didn’t ask for this, but it’s very common in Teshnos – I’ll explain it to him later)
- Spell of Health 13
- Scrappy Fighter 13
- Gold Cuffs and Boots 17 (I put a couple of extra points here because I figured this is where I might put his undefined “special power”)
- Hate Leopards 17
- Miss Family 17
All told, 12 of 15 character points have been spent, for a 12-year-old Mevi is downright dangerous with a sling, and he has some very interesting background to play up without being too deep and complicated. I decided that I might give him more character points if it seemed he needed them to introduce new ideas as they occur without trying to explain them as in-character development with Hero Point expenditures.
Before I even decided to sit down with my son to create a character, I figured that our first session of play would be a variation on a simple scenario I like to use to introduce new or young players to roleplaying games – a young cowherd on the way to market saves a nobleman’s daughter from a troll…with a twist. However, my son threw me a curve in describing a boy from Teshnos, so I changed things around a to fit the new setting.
As the game began, Mevi’s father entrusted his son with the task of taking two bundles of furs – half a season’s worth of labor – to market to trade for gold. While walking along the forest path with the bundles of furs yoked over his shoulders, Mevi spotted a large, upright lizard (later revealed to be a beaked dragonewt) coming toward him along the path with a large sack slung over its shoulder. Something in the sack seemed to be writhing about, and Mevi was almost sure he heard the muffled voice of someone crying from inside.
This juncture proved the first big hurdle for a 4-year-old. Though playing a much more mature boy, my son’s initial reactions were along the lines of “I go back to get my dad.” So I coaxed and coached him along by letting him know that Mevi was too far from home to get his dad in time, and that Mevi was probably old enough to do something on his own. I emphasised that as the dragonewt drew closer (it apparently had not noticed Mevi yet), it became clearer that there seemed to be a person inside the sack trying hard to get out. At this, my son took the bait and Mevi sprang into action.
Before the game started, I realised that the bookkeeping necessary to perform extended contests was simply beyond my son’s grasp, so all contests would be simple contests – no AP bidding. I was a little concerned that combat might seem rather flat with this method alone, but then I realised that the boy had nothing to compare it against.
Mevi ducked off the forest path, dropped the yoke of furs, and readied his sling with the sharpest stone he had. For some reason my son declared that he was aiming for the dragonewt’s belly and Mevi cut loose from ambush. Mevi rolled a Success as I scrambled through the book trying to figure out what resistance a beaked dragonewt should have in combat (drat! no stats for dragonewts in the rulebook!), eventually settling on not-too-tough resistance of 17. The dragonewt rolled a Success as well, though higher than Mevi’s, granting the boy a Minor Victory with the bump from his Sling mastery, striking the lizard square in the belly and winding it soundly. The dragonewt dropped the sack and doubled over to the ground.
Round two faced the same problems of indecision for my son. At this point, I think he was either too tense to decide or concerned for the dragonewt’s welfare. I pushed (maybe just a bit too hard) to counter his declarations that Mevi ran away at this point, reminding him that someone was in the sack who seemed to need help. I also used this moment of indecision to inform him that the dragonewt was staggering to its feet and scanning around to determine who had attacked it. My son then firmly declared that Mevi was really good at hiding and promptly did so.
I referred to Mevi’s Occupation Keyword abilities, noting that Hide would be at 13, which didn’t strike me as “really good”. Spending the remaining 3 character points would raise him to only 16, so I gave him a freebie and wrote down Hide 17. No more character points for developing his background, which left me a little dissatisfied. In any case, the dragonewt rolled a Failure to Spot Assailant, while Mevi rolled a sound Success, a Minor Victory. I interpreted this to mean that the dragonewt had figured the general direction from which the stone had come, but didn’t know precisely where Mevi was hiding. With the giant lizard shambling ever closer in his direction, drawing its fearsome klanth from its scabbard (the description of the klanth did wonders for character motivation), Mevi loaded up another sharp rock and aimed for the dragonewt’s head. Again, both contestants rolled successes, and again Mevi rolled lower, granting him another Minor Victory with the mastery bump. The dragonewt reeled backwards at the sharp blow to its forehead from the whizzing rock, falling down thoroughly dazed.
Again, the state of tension and concern for the dragonewt bogged the action down a fair bit and I had trouble getting my son to make a decision. Eventually (again with perhaps too much encouragement from me), Mevi skirted around the fallen dragonewt to the unattended sack, releasing a young girl from inside. The girl had long, wavy blonde hair, dark brown eyes, and pale skin, like no one Mevi had ever seen before (she was, in fact, a Yelmalion from Sun County in Prax, taken as a slave by Morokanths and literally sold down the river – not that either my son or Mevi had any idea what that meant). Here again there was trouble getting my son to make a decision as to what to do, with the dragonewt recovering and the girl still in bonds. He eventually resorted to asking me to decide for him, but I encouraged him to choose the most simple yet heroic thing to do. At that suggestion, Mevi led the girl to the nearby trading village and (hopefully) safety, leaving the bundles of furs behind with the dragonewt.
The girl’s arrival in the village caused quite a stir with her strange looks and Mevi’s state of distress. Not long after, though, the dragonewt arrived with the furs in tow, demanding to see the person who attacked him. This was a fun example of an introduction to the strangeness of Glorantha, as my son had assumed the giant lizard was just a monster with no sort of legal rights. The village headman was summoned and an impromptu hearing was held. Both Mevi’s story and the dragonewts were recounted, the dragonewt demanding his fairly-purchased slave to be returned as well as compensation for his wounds. Here my son rose to the occasion, refusing to turn the girl back over. The rest of the humans in the village were sympathetic to Mevi’s reasoning, feeling more akin to the foreign girl than to the dragonewt, so the headman informed Mevi that he would have to provide fair price for the slave and compensation for the wounds he had caused. The dragonewt protested slightly, but allowed that the bundles of exotic furs would suffice, and the bargain was struck. The dragonewt left with Mevi’s father’s furs, and Mevi left for home with the girl.
Upon returning home, Mevi’s father flew into a rage, declaring that without the proceeds from half a season’s hunting and trapping, he wouldn’t be able to support his own family, much less the extra mouth he brought home. Mevi was cast out of the home with the girl and told not to return until he could come up with the fortune he lost and could earn his own keep. I was surprised that my son took this part as well as he did, though he was visibly shaken – perhaps it was a little too intense, but it played out well.
That night by firelight in the camp that Mevi made for himself and the strange girl, she was able to communicate her name to him – Ruihella – and draw a picture of the Sun Dome temple from where she lived. Mevi recognised the temple that she drew as resembling the Kralorelan-influenced Yelm temple he had once seen on a far-ranging hunting trip he had taken in the mountains bordering on Matkondu in northern Teshnos. My son had already decided that he wanted to return the girl to her parents, so he declared that Mevi would lead the girl to the Yelm temple in the mountains where the priests there could hopefully help him find out where she was from and how to get her there.
Thus ended the first session.
As a day of firsts – my son’s first roleplaying game ever, and my first stint as a HeroQuest Narrator – a number of loose bits shook out on the test run.First, I found it rather frustrating that my son sometimes wanted me to make decisions for him. Mostly, though, I think this was just part of the game that he was getting used to – rolling dice was fun and made perfect sense to him, but responding to hypothetical conflicts made him think that I already had an answer for him. He got considerably better as the story progressed. There were moments when my son was just plain a 4-year-old boy and wanted his dad to show him how to do things. I encouraged him to take the reins himself, but still gave him enough helpful suggestions to get him started, and occasionally even suggested which was the best or worst course of action. I wasn’t too concerned with frightening my son. Just as when a Narrator considers introducing potentially objectionable material into a game with mature players (sex, drugs, whatever), you just need to know your players and what they’re ready to handle. I avoided particularly gruesome details, and I kept the encounters from becoming too macabre. A beaked dragonewt was just about as bizarre as I wanted to get, at least at first. Honestly, I was more concerned about the emotional impact of Mevi’s encounter with his father, which my son took rather well.Pacing and session length were important, too. We had to tailor the event to the attention span of a 4-year-old boy. I planned ahead on breaking things down to 1-hour blocks, seeing that my son is commonly able to sit for about one-and-a-half hours steady when being entertained passively with a video. Figuring that roleplaying would involve a fair amount of “work” on his part, I didn’t want to push his limits, so an hour seemed just about right.Finally, another learning lesson for me was to pay attention to augments and modifiers. There were a couple of instances where, in retrospect, I realise my son’s character could have benefited from augmentation, like adding +1 for his Skirmish Combat 13. Then again, the dragonewt would similarly benefit from other abilities and such. Also, I experienced misgivings about setting Mevi’s character abilities and starting points so low – he’s already tapped out and the character is hardly described yet.
This session got off to an interesting start. My son declared that his character didn’t actually have his golden cuffs and boots yet, but that he wanted to find them during the adventure. Frankly, I was stunned – a desire for delayed gratification? From a 4-year-old? I thought this was a particularly cool thing, and very much in keeping with the narrative style of HeroQuest. Just for that, I arbitrarily decided to bump the possession from Golden Bracers and Boots 17 up to 1W for free.
The journey from Wokistan to the mountain temple of Yelm took a number of days, described as tough hiking, but not presenting any immediate dangers. Basically, I just wanted to get Mevi and Ruihella to the temple and then on to greater adventure. Once in sight of the golden-domed temple, Ruihella expressed great relief and joy, which pleased my son nicely, though I think he may have thought he had already gotten her home. The temple guards were reluctant to let the two foreign children in at first, but Ruihella was able to exhibit her related cult status while Mevi related recent events. They were admitted to the courtyard and told to wait.
Before long, a temple functionary arrived to greet them and find out what the two children sought of Yelm and the temple. Again, my son briefly recounted the story, emphasising the link between Ruihella’s drawing of a domed temple and this temple. The priest then turned to Ruihella and began to speak to her, and Ruihella began to speak back to him haltingly. The priest shortly informed Mevi that she was able to speak a dialectical form of an ancient temple language, and she was able to let him know that she was from a Sun Dome temple in a strange land far to the west – Prax and Sun County. Further, she had been taken captive by marauding Morokanths, sold into slavery, spending weeks on a ship until they made port and she was sold to the dragonewt. The priest was sure to impress upon the two children that it was a great honor to be chosen by the inscrutable dragonewts, even if it was possibly with the intent of being eaten. At this point, Ruihella produced a necklace that was hidden in her clothing, at the sight of which the priest’s eyes went wide with surprise and awe. He then hurriedly excused himself to consult with his fellow priests and promised to return shortly.
Now, it’s worth mentioning at this point that I played fast and loose quite a bit here. In my original plans, this scene was supposed to take place at the Sun Dome temple in Sartar, in which case the language barrier wouldn’t be quite so significant. However, with the relocation to Teshnos things had to be stretched significantly. Gloranthan truists may be quick to point out that there is no known temple language among the Yelm pantheon that spans the entire continent of Genertela. Well, there is now in my game, and at least it is still subject to dialectical drift. Also, the exact nature of the necklace and is still undetermined at this point. It was originally rolled up at random from the old RQI book Plunder, a necklace that serves as a deed to land, and was the original inspiration for the character of Ruihella all those many years ago. So, basically, Ruihella is heir to some special role among the ranks of the Yelm pantheon worshippers, something important enough to raise eyebrows all the way on the other side of the continent. Again, this would be more easily waived aside if the distance involved was simply between Prax and Sartar. Thankfully, my 4-year-old son is not so critical.
I noticed that all this talky-talky stuff was beginning to make my son’s eyes glaze and he began to fiddle with the dice. Seizing on the priest’s absence as an opportunity to introduce a gratuitous simple contest to keep the boy’s interest, I had a captain of the temple guard approach Mevi, scoffing at his claims that a mere boy bested a dragonewt warrior with only a sling. My son pressed his claim to his merit, whereupon the captain challenged Mevi to a contest. He walked twenty paces and balanced a gold piece on edge on top of a low wall. Knock the gold piece off with his sling, the captain challenged, and you can keep the coin. Two good things in play here – a chance to show off his one really top-notch ability, and also an opportunity to start collecting that repayment for the loss of his father’s furs. The first roll, given Mevi’s skill and the tiny size of the coin matched a success against a success, with my son rolling lower again – a Marginal Victory. The coin was grazed by the whizzing stone, setting it spinning and then rattling to a halt still on top of the wall. Amid the jeers of the other onlooking guards, the captain grudgingly picked up the coin and flipped it to Mevi. However, declaring it a lucky shot that barely succeeded, the captain further bet Mevi another gold piece that he couldn’t repeat the feat, obviously hoping to win back his losses. Mevi accepted and the captain placed a second gold coin on top of the wall. This time around my son rolled a 1, a critical hit, and the roll for the coin failed – a Major Victory. Mevi hit the gold coin squarely, sending the coin ricocheting off the wall so hard it made the captain duck. The other guards cheered Mevi heartily, the captain handed him the second gold piece, then clapped the boy on the shoulder and half-jokingly declared that Mevi would have to teach him how to use a sling like that some day. My son seemed deeply satisfied by the results of the contest, particularly excited by the captain’s praise.
After the contest, the priest returned to the courtyard and invited Mevi and Ruihella into an inner chamber to meet with a small group of other priests. There, the priests explained the importance to the temple of Yelm and Yelm’s children that Ruihella be returned to her rightful home. Something about destiny and yadda-yadda-lofty-templespeak. Mevi was praised for his bravery and his role in restoring Ruihella to her intended path. Furthermore, he was invited to help return her to her home if he wished to do so. My son readily agreed, thoughts of Mevi’s previous life in the forest far behind, and Ruihella expressed her eagerness to include Mevi as a companion. Preparations were set in motion to organise a mission to travel to Prax.
At this point I asked my son if he wanted to adventure in the desert or on board a ship. He eagerly announced that he preferred to go by ship, but that afterwards he wanted to travel in the desert on a horse. So, a party of monks and guards was put together to travel from the mountains of Matkondu to the bustling port city of Gio to hire a ship bound for the West. I foresaw shades of Star Wars already – “The seaport of Gio. You’ll not find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.”
The session concluded with the small caravan assembling for its departure. Bactrian camels laden with supplies. Guards and monks mounted on decorated horses. The captain of the guards resplendent in his full armor and horse bow over his back, greeting Mevi as an honored equal. Ruihella appearing on the back of a cloud-white horse, freshly washed and dressed in new silken finery, a bow across her back and a spear at her side. Mevi was offered a mount, but being a backwoods trapper, he hardly even knew what a horse was. I wrote Ride Horse 6 on his character sheet and let him roll. Not good. Mevi failed and the horse succeeded, indicating a Minor Defeat. The horse minced and pulled as Mevi attempted to mount, causing the boy to slip from the stirrup and fall to the ground. My son was unhappy with this result, but Ruihella rode up to Mevi, offering her hand to him and helping him astride to set behind her. Both Ruihella and the captain promised to teach Mevi to ride in the days to come. My son was satisfied and we brought the session to an end.
During this session, I had occasion to consider why I chose to introduce my son to Glorantha, and not some other, simpler game world. I chose Glorantha, first, because I’m so familiar with it, which provides me with ample fodder for improvising a wide range of fantastic encounters. Second, because much of the seminal influence on Glorantha was not only mythical but fantastical and fairy-tale-like. Also, it’s a setting that I just plain like, an indulgence for myself as the Narrator. Granted, the Glorantha that I’m presenting is really more of a Grimm’s version with more simplified interaction and conflict. By and large, my son will only be seeing the glossier, more agreeable side of things.Another issue that occurred was that of overruling my son’s creativity. There have been a few times when I had to veto some of his suggested actions. For instance, when running from the dragonewt during the first session, once Mevi reached the village, my son insisted that he quickly built a stone wall all around the settlement to protect them from the following lizard. I gently told him that it would take far too long to build it, so he then suggested that Mevi and the entire village band together to build the wall. While I admired his passion for cooperation and organisation, I simply informed him that even as Mevi attempted to gather the people of the village together, the dragonewt arrived in town. I tried to refrain from “No” answers and redirect him with “Yes, but…” answers. “Yes, you can try that, but…there will be complications.” We may be creating a fantasy together, but I want my son to be challenged within his capabilities, both as a character and a player.Finally, there was the down side of gaming – when rolls go poorly. Dealing with failed rolls, particularly in tense game situations, isn’t a problem confined to small children. In the case of my son, I was ready to mitigate the sense of failure in any number of ways – alternate opportunities, NPC backups, or trying to make good fun of the situation. The scene where Mevi first tries to mount a horse (and fails) is a good example. In this case, I knew the character had little chance of succeeding, so I was prepared to have a couple of trusted and knowledgeable NPCs immediately offer help. My son didn’t want to give over so easily at first, but then he saw the sense in going along with it. I made certain that Ruihella and the captain of the guards expressed their continued respect for Mevi, which seemed to take away the sting.It’s bound to happen, though, that we’ll encounter a situation where he’ll end up upset and despondent over the results of the game, but that’s where being a parent will take precedence over being a Narrator. We’ll take a break, I’ll give him a reassuring hug, and we’ll discuss how one failed roll – no matter how important it seems at the time – isn’t the end of the game. I’ll explain how the game is meant to simulate real life in a way, and that no matter what the momentary setbacks and upsets are, there are an almost infinite number of possibilities for fun just a short way down the road…as long as we keep playing. We’ll get a quick snack, review the fun parts of the game thus far, then we’ll get back to gaming.
By our third session, we invited my 3-year-old daughter to join the campaign. She had been watching us play and expressed an interest in actually playing, so my son offered her the character of Ruihella. This, unfortunately, didn’t work out very well. The girl is whipsmart, but wasn’t quite ready to structure her imaginative thoughts into a linear narrative.”She’s a princess!”
“She has pink hair!”
“She goes to her castle!”
“Uhhh…I don’t know.”
None the less, she had a fun time watching my son and me play, she became quite excited by the narrative, and was fascinated by the die-rolling. In general, she enjoyed the game in the role of an audience. So, she’s expressed an interest in attending our game sessions now, if not actually playing them (though she actively roots for Ruihella and occasionally shouts out desired actions for her to take, which I try to heed when appropriate).
With regard to the action, Mevi and Ruihella set out from the Solar temple in a caravan of supply-laden camels and warrior guards, resplendent in yellow, gold, and red silk uniforms, mounted on fine horses. Following Mevi’s unfortunate mishap with his first attempt to ride a horse, Ruihella had taught him the basics of riding (spending a Hero Point for Ride 13), and the captain of the guards had begun to teach him the fundamentals of the bow and arrow (another HP for Archery 13). Mevi also taught the captain how to use a sling properly, which was a good ego-stroke for the boy. These events were used to help drill the mechanics, but they didn’t pack much drama, so I decided to cut loose and spring something more fantastic on him.
By and large, the caravan stuck close to a river for their journey, but in order to make better time, they eventually struck out across a plain covered in a vast sea of tall grasses. Swaying waves of green and tan grass tassels washed around the heads of horses and the seemingly legless torsos of their riders, heads of camels with their humps like swaying islands covered in packs of supplies. Everything seemed calm and uneventful until, springing from its hiding place in the grass, a huge tiger leapt across the back of Ruihella’s horse, seizing the girl in its huge jaws and unseating her from her saddle. Much to Mevi’s surprise, the tiger didn’t complete the arc of its leap to the ground, but continued to bound swiftly higher and higher into the middle air – a Storm Tiger!
Mevi readied a stone in his sling, but was afraid of hitting Ruihella, so he sat frozen in his saddle for a moment, trying to figure out how to help the girl. Just when all seemed lost, the tiger growing smaller in the distance, a sleek Cloud Leopard bounded next to Mevi, whispering in a low growl, “Quick! Grab hold!” The beauty of playing with a little boy is that he did just as the leopard said without paranoid hesitation. With Mevi holding on for dear life around the cat’s neck, the Cloud Leopard proceeded to leap upwards from cloud to cloud, pursuing the Storm Tiger and Ruihella.
Things got good here. My son declared that he was going to try to bean the tiger with his sling after all. When I asked him how he was going to free his hands, he stated that he was going to hold onto the leopard with only his legs. A bold move, and the roll went surprisingly well, allowing him to do just that. Unfortunately, in the subsequent roll to sling a stone, my son rolled a 20 – a fumble – and the fleeing tiger did pretty well on his resistance roll. The result was that, in all the excitement and bustle, Mevi failed to cast the stone at all, but instead smacked himself in the forehead with it and fell off the back of the leopard, plummeting toward the ground far below. The leopard snarled out to him, “Reach for the clouds!”
My son took the advice to heart and Mevi tried to grab the nearest cloud as he fell. He was close, but managed only a Marginal Failure. Mevi felt the cloud almost break his fall, but he still slipped aside and continued to fall. The next two attempts didn’t go much better, and eventually, Mevi had to be saved from certain death by the Cloud Leopard who snatched him by the collar at just the last moment and began leaping upward through the clouds again. The leopard eventually let Mevi off on a cloud, exhorting him to follow the tiger and save the girl. “It’s vital that you do so! Don’t fear the sky. Leap from cloud to cloud as I do – it’s your birthright!” Then the leopard leapt off and away into the mist.
Now, if you’ll go all the way back to the beginning of this story, you’ll note that my son said he wanted his character to be able to fly, but I poo-poo’d that notion. Well, I changed my mind, and it makes sense in context now. I haven’t told my son yet how it is that Mevi is able to do it, but the character now has the ability of Cloud Leap 13. Unbeknownst to my son (and probably incomprehensibly, too), Mevi has become caught piggy-in-the-middle of a conflict between Storm Rune extremists who are out to undermine the power of both the Solar temples and certain Storm Rune moderates who are trying to rein in the extremists to maintain a state of détente with the Solar pantheon. Of course, the only thing that really matters is that, now, Mevi really can fly…sort of.Back to the action, Mevi found himself able to leap falteringly between the clouds, and eventually came upon a high mountaintop where he found the tracks of a large tiger. The action ended when my son rolled a Complete Defeat while tracking the beast toward its lair and I tried to figure out a new angle to reasonably allow him to find the tiger and the girl. Still, things are pretty exciting at this point.
This session provided a good example of how remembering that Your Glorantha Will Vary makes for good fun – allowing a Cloud Leopard the ability to leap across the sky from cloud to cloud was my own impromptu contribution to Glorantha. My son didn’t know this wasn’t supposed to be the case, and it bore out a certain logic – Storm Tigers race across stormy skies, Cloud Leopards leap from cloud to cloud. It’s fun, and it also got my son’s character where he needed to be.Also, this session impressed upon me that no matter how important it may seem to the Narrator to go on at length to describe any given situation or event, if the other players start looking bored you need to throw caution to the wind and treat them to a serving of action and excitement.
Good Lord. I let almost six months pass as everyone became busy with bigger fish to fry before getting back to the game.
Well, as the flu swept through the Young household, both kids were tied down to the home fort, the videos had all been watched a couple times over, and we were all getting a little stir-crazy. In a moment of inspiration, I said to my son, “Hey, should we pick up where we let Mevi off?” grabbed the book and the dice, and instead of debating the matter we just got down to it.
Here’s an added bonus. My daughter, who is now 3-and-a-half years old (you’ll recall her from our previous session – “I’m a princess! I wear a pink dress!”), who had just gotten done vomiting the only meal she’d had for the day, who was staring at us like a zombie from the sofa, pricked up her ears as my son and I re-capped who Mevi was, what he could do, and what he was going to do now that he was on the mountain peak stalking the storm tiger. She slid off the sofa, disappeared to find herself a pencil and paper, picked up a die (the frosted clear one), and settled in on the living room floor with us. She had matured a lot in the intervening six months, and she was into it. Agreeing to take the role of Ruihella, her only question was, “Does she wear a dress?” I showed her the robes and pants that Jen Yu wears in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, suggested that they were yellow and red in color, mentioned the rose-gold sunburst medallion at her throat, and my daughter was fine with it.
So here’s what happened…
Mevi leapt from the clouds to the mountain’s peak, and proceeded to use the hunter’s skill he learned from his father to track the Storm Tiger. It wasn’t easy, but he managed it. However, the Storm Tiger was waiting in hiding to ambush our young hero. What the tiger didn’t count on was rolling a natural 20 and fumbling his ambush. Even masteries didn’t keep Mevi from scoring a marginal victory – Mevi was alerted to something wrong. So, taking a cue from the character Haku in the Hayao Miyazaki film Spirited Away, my son declared a new magical power, picking up a pinch of snow and blowing it from his fingertips in the Storm Tiger’s direction, succeeding in creating a disorienting swirl of cloud and ice. In the confusion, the tiger stumbled and Ruihella got away, while Mevi readied and loosed a stone from his sling. The slingstone connected with the tiger’s front leg, causing him to go lame for at least the time being.
Given the break from the threat of the Storm Tiger, my son had Mevi try to hurry Ruihella away and off the mountaintop. My daughter had other ideas, though. Grabbing Mevi’s bow, Ruihella nocked an arrow, let loose and pinned the tiger’s other front leg. Not to be outdone (and trying to cover for Ruihella’s foolhardy bravery), Mevi slung another stone, beaning the tiger in the head. At this point I expected our heroes to beat a hasty escape, but my daughter was just beginning to get the hang of rolling the dice. Ruihella nocked another arrow and she declared that she was aiming for the tiger’s eyes.
Now, archery is Ruihella’s best skill, and my daughter proceeded to roll amazingly well. Bumping up with a mastery, while the tiger rolled unfortunately poorly, Ruihella plugged him in the eye. At this point, Mevi took to higher ground to get a better shot at the tiger (don’t ask me why – it didn’t make much sense at the time, but my son’s not a seasoned tactician) and break one of its other legs, while my daughter declared that Ruihella intended to plug the Storm Tiger in the other eye…and rolled well enough to do just that! The great beast stumbled to the snow, quite dead.
At this point, I realised that a combat like this wasn’t playing out properly with simple contests. Strictly speaking, the first simple contest should have been the only one, resulting in a minor victory and a broken foreleg on the tiger. However, my son and daughter wanted to keep going at it, so I sort of fudged together a rough extended contest.
Having slain the storm tiger, Mevi rolled exceptionally well on his skinning ability and took the exquisite hide from the beast. Then, with the hide strapped to his back, he lead Ruihella to the cliff’s edge, and hand-in-hand they leapt downward from cloud to cloud until they got to the ground at the caravan. With the skin as a trophy, the two were hailed as heroes and honored with song and dance at a feast in camp that evening. The look of pride and excitement on my kids’ faces was like treasure to me. My son was particularly happy, as he intended for Mevi to bring the skin home to his father to repay the loss of the hides at the beginning of the adventure. Good memory this one has.
From there, the caravan made it’s way to Gio on the Teshnan coast. Some of the porters on caravan talked Mevi into letting them cure the hide and make a gift to him and Ruihella. Once in Gio, they presented the two of them with beautiful storm tiger skin coats, Mevi’s with the paws and top of the head still in place (my own little Harrek…sort of). Again, my kids were thrilled, and I’ll allow a tidy augment to Mevi’s Cloud Leaping ability while he wears his. In Gio itself, I regaled them with descriptions of the sights and sounds of the bustling, urban port, with its exotic peoples and atmosphere. Together, Mevi and Ruihella explored the marketplace, trying to catch jewel-eyed geckos from sandstone walls, and Mevi settled on buying a prehensile chameleon as a pet. I left them there, their caravan camped to one side of the market, while the captain of the guards seeks passage on a ship bound for Corflu. Night falls, and the caravan guards vigilantly set watch against opportunistic thieves….
Parents (and Narrators): Don’t lie to your kids. And don’t sell yourselves short! For six months I had been telling myself and my son that I wasn’t quite ready to pick up the adventure again because I didn’t have anything prepared, when in reality I was afraid that I just wasn’t inspired enough. I have to be honest and admit that it mostly had to do with a combination of overweening perfectionism and more than a little bit of stage fright. In other words, I was afraid that I hadn’t worked everything out in intricate detail and didn’t know where to take the adventure. It’s a conundrum I think most Narrators face, and I believe it’s a false problem. Especially with my kids, they’re thrilled with just about anything I throw their way, and they also did a great job of taking the reins themselves. Basically, block out a framework, then just get in there and wing it.I find that what works best with my son, and probably my daughter too, is to railroad them from scene to scene (gasp!), then let them take over situationally. Curiously, it really is a lot like taking the railroad – the train delivers them from one locale to another, then they get out and take in the sights before getting back on again. They seem to enjoy the tourist approach for now, and if they ever tell me some place in particular where they want to go, then, by Jove, we’ll take another train there.The Haku-maneuver from this session was interesting. My son has been enamored with that image ever since he saw a preview for Spirited Away on a video last year. Interestingly, I don’t think he really cared what the magical ability actually did, he just wanted the mental image of Mevi doing the same thing. That, of course, is what roleplaying games are all about – giving life to our personal fantasies. It also corresponds well to a number of other Air and Movement rune characteristics I’ve been assigning to Mevi. In any case, it’s a cool and not-terribly-powerful ability (unlike Cloud Leaping!), and it spiced up the action nicely.
As I write this, Mevi and Ruihella have already set sail from Gio aboard a westward-bound Kralorelan junk. They’ve met and made friends among a congregation of sea-going raft-homes of the Sofali Turtle People. Their new friend among the Sofali is about to get them embroiled in a conflict with the Seabird Army as they help try to recover and re-establish the last of the long-lost Sofali egg nests on Choralinthor Bay. Ruihella will eventually find her way home, and may also eventually find herself astride a unicorn and being inducted into the temple of Yelorna. If Mevi continues far enough west, he may find himself squired to an unruly Seshnelan knight. And, of course, Mevi will eventually discover the secret of his birthright, regain the riches that he lost his father, and return home a hero.
I don’t know how long it will take to play out all these adventures, but it’s an opportunity I look forward to in all the years to come.
Writing Strong Hero Descriptions
By Mike Dawson
Web Adaptation by Nick Eden
Recently a friend’s enthusiasm for HeroQuest turned into a spate of character creation just because, well, HQ hero creation is fun. This friend has boundless enthusiasm and creativity, but his writing skills don’t keep up. So I started helping him with his descriptions, and the process helped me realize there are straightforward guidelines to help any player create a colorful, capable and evocative hero. Why should the english majors be the only ones with an easy time of it?
This article doesn’t address how to create your hero description using the same meter as the Eddas, or how to interpret haiku as abilities. If you want to do that sort of a description, more power to you, but you don’t need my help.
Some of these guidelines may sound painfully like your high school English class, but bear with it and you’ll see how by training your ear to hear wasted words and missed opportunities, you’ll end up with more interesting heroes.
There are really only four guidelines:
- Write efficiently.
- Use direct references even if they’re ambiguous.
- Never miss a chance to underline.
- Don’t explain what you don’t have to.
Those guidelines in mind, let’s look at my friend Kirk’s first pass at a character description.
Dasdandros, born under the knife, grew up alone with his father, a disgraced Heortling border watchman. His only friends were 3 talking Alynx who taught him to slash spirits and he became a devotee of Yinkin unwittingly young. Small, fast, strong and god-touched handsome he annoys people with his feline attitude. He learned to vomit when he wishes and blinded Gormush three legs, a troll warrior. With too much spare time Das, stole lunar war gauntlets and made flesh ripping bronze cesti. After his fathers death Das traveled south where he found an Alynx runt he named Giant Smasher, who he carries in a bag. With no care for the (name) clan that spurned his family he travels happily and lazily to see what kind of trouble he can get into.
Not bad, but of course it is 30% too long. One good thing is that the description uses active voice more often than not. More on that later, just keep in mind that active voice (“Das blinded the troll”, not, “the troll was blinded by him” helps you follow the first guideline.
Judicious editing can trim down further:
Dasdandros, born under the knife, grew up alone with his father, a disgraced Heortling border watchman. His only friends were three talking Alynx who taught him to slash spirits and he became a devotee of Yinkin. Small, fast, strong and god-touched handsome he annoys people with his feline attitude. He learned to vomit when he wishes and blinded Gormush Three Legs. Das stole lunar war gauntlets and made flesh ripping bronze cesti. Das traveled south where he found an Alynx runt named Giant Smasher. With no care for the (name) clan that spurned his family he wanders, looking for trouble.
That’s exactly 100 words, and only two lost underlinings. Since names of any length only count as one word, we’re even a few words under 100. The only detail lost was “unwittingly young”, which is probably best off as back story. (That’s guideline four.) Also, we dropped “a troll warrior.” Guide four again. Kirk needs to mention Gormush Three Legs, not explain him.
On the other hand, there are several underlinings the writer missed, some of them rather important:
- Alone – could become Lonely or Prefers Solitude or Hates Crowds.
- Befriended – this easily becomes Befriend Alynxes or Friendly.
- Three Talking Alynx – at least a relationship, if not patrons or a “group” sidekick.
- Blinded – becomes “Blind with Vomit” or some sort of Talent.
- Stole – becomes “Steal.”
- Lunar – Relationship: Hunted as thief by Lunar Army, even “Infiltrate Lunar Camps”!
- War Gauntlets – a possession
- Made – Make Cesti or Make Weapons.
- Looks for trouble
Let’s underline those, saving them from future edits. And then let’s try to trim it without losing anything.
Small Dasdandros, born under the knife, grew up alone with his father a disgraced Heortling border watchman. He befriendedthree talking Alynx who taught him spirit slashing so he devoted to Yinkin. Fast, strong and god-touched handsome his feline attitude annoys people. He learned to vomit at will and blinded Gormush Three Legs. Das stole lunar war gauntlets and made flesh ripping bronze cesti. He traveled south where he found the runt Alynx, Giant Smasher. With no care for the (name) clan that spurned his family he wanders, looking for trouble.
By turning around the sentence “… fast, strong and god-touched handsome, he annoys people with his feline attitude” we saved one word that did nothing – an example of why active voice shortens descriptions and improves readability. And for better style, we moved “Small” to another sentence because the original version strung too many adjectives together. Also, “His only friends were the…” changed to “He befriended…” to save words while retaining the same skill of Befriend Alynxes. If Kirk wanted a hero with some personality trait like Hard to like or a relationship of No Other Friends in the World we could leave it.
Now let’s look at “Das traveled south where he found an Alynx runt named Giant Smasher.” Two things here – are Well Traveled and something like Knows the South the sort of abilities Kirk wants for Das? If the idea is to repeat “traveled” so the hero gets the bonus for duplicate words, fine. (Assuming your Narrator uses that house rule.) But if not, how about substituting “traveled south” for “In Heortland” or “In an Elf Forest”, “On Kero Fin”, “In the Castle of Lead” or any other specific reference that gives more color and a new underlining?
Preferring to keep his hero focused, the player chose “In Heortland” so Das gets a new skill: Know Heortland. Kirk might have chosen to list it out as Heortland Customs, Heortland Contacts, or something as specific as Heortland Forest Trail Knowledge.
Note we also tightened things up by changing “and he became a devotee of Yinkin.” to “so he devoted to Yinkin.” Changing to active voice meant fewer words, and it explains better.
Oops! What’s missing? Here we are this far into the description, and we just noticed that there’s no professional keyword. So we have to fit that in too. This Yinkini can catch two birds with one swipe:
Small Dasdandros, born under the knife, grew up alone with his father a disgraced Heortling border watchman. He befriendedthree talking Alynx who taught him spirit slashing so he devoted to Yinkin. Fast, strong and god-touched handsome his feline attitude annoys people. He learned to vomit at will and blinded Gormush Three Legs. Das stole lunar war gauntlets and made flesh ripping bronze cesti. Hunting in Heortland he found the runt Alynx, Giant Smasher. With no care for the (name) clan that spurned his family he wanders, looking for trouble.
This illustrates that a keyword doesn’t have to have an exact reference in the description. Now we’re at 90 words, or 85 after subtracting the extra words in “Gormush Three Legs”, “Giant Smasher” and “the (name) clan.”
He still needs a clan. How about the Greydog clan? They exist, and there’s a reason for them to dislike Yinkini!
If you’re reading this, you probably have a computer. So here’s a tip for counting your words: Put the description in an otherwise blank document for whatever word processor you use. Then smoosh all your “names” together like this:
SmallDasdandros, born under the knife, grew up alone with his father a disgraced Heortling border watchman. He befriendedthree talking Alynx who taught him spiritslashing so he devoted to Yinkin. Fast, strong and god-touched handsome his feline attitude annoys people. He learned to vomit at will and blinded GormushThreeLegs. Das stole lunarwargauntlets and made, flesh ripping bronze cesti. Hunting in Heortland he found the runt AlynxGiantSmasher. With no care for the Greydog clan that spurned his family he wanders, looking for trouble.
According to the word processor, we’re down to 82 words, and we’ve got more description than we started with! Plenty of room for Kirk to look at what else he’d like Das to be known for. Kirk added “He seduced BeyetWhiteEyes, an untrusting seer witch.”
Dasdandros still has six words left. That’s plenty to add another sentence once he sees the other Heroes he’ll be playing with, giving Kirk a chance to tune the hero to the specific campaign.
Let’s edit our way, sentence by sentence through another player’s first pass at a description:
Harvald Thandrensson is a young Heortling warrior and intiate of Tatouth the Scout. Bitter that the clan was forced into exile, he yearns for the day that the Heortlings can drive the Lunars from Sartar so that the clan can regain their ancestral tula. On a recent trip to a foreign tula he made contact with rebels and plans to aid them as best he can. However, he realizes his place is with his clan and he cannot afford to rush off on some foolhardy scheme to oust the Red Men. His daily routine involves patrolling the outer Marsh to warn the clan in case of an attack by the dead things. He has struck up a cautious friendship with Eyepeck the Raven who brings him news of undead movements in exchange for a tasty morsel. So far, Eyepeck has been as good as his word, but Aski does not know how far he can trust him. Lately, he has been haunted by dreams of a pale and beautiful maiden beseeching him to rescue her from the Marsh.
Just as “was” is a flag to rewrite, so is “is”. A sentence with “is” starts the description, so let’s start by editing that. By removing the passive verb, we end up with a sentence fragment “A Heortling warrior and intiate of Tatouth the Scout”, but that’s fine, because it can become the first clause of the next sentence.
A Heortlingwarrior and intiate of Tatouth the Scout, Harvald Thandrensson is bitter over his beloved clan’s exile, and yearns to expel the Lunars from Heortling lands so that the clan can regain their ancestral tula.
Sure, it still has an “is” in it, but it makes a good start and we’ve saved lots of words, down from 41 to 33. Quite a lot, considering we kept every underlining!
On a recent trip to [clan name] he contacted rebels.
Wow, that is boring. It needs serious application of Guideline Two. And don’t miss underlinings like “local clan”. Sounds like a Relationship: contacts skill to me. Or maybe Know X clan’s lands?
Don’t hesitate to name the clan, tribe or group that you want your hero to have a relationship with. Your Narrator can always discuss a substitution if she has something worked out already, and if not, then your story helps her to flesh out the setting.
So be specific even if you’re being ambiguous. Instead of “On a recent trip to a local clan he contacted rebels” try “Travelling by night, he contacted Angry Storm Band rebels among the Lismelder’s Greydog clan.”
The first has local clan and rebel contacts. The second has Travel by Night, rebel contacts, Lismelder Contacts and Greydog Contacts. Angry Storm Band Rebels counts as one word. So both of these sentences are 11 words!
Of course it doesn’t have to be Travel by Night. How about “Travelling Covertly” (saves a word), “Using Raven Magic” (ties in with Eyepeck and adds “Raven Magic” to the common magic keyword), “Riding his warhorse”, (gains a follower warhorse) “At Old Wind”, “In Orsaltor’s Camp” or…you get the idea.
While ambiguous references are good, vague and colorless references are bad. So, “On a recent trip” bad. No underlines. “Crossing the Sword Bridge” good. “A Local clan” bad. “Lismelder’s Greentree Clan” good.
He has struck up a cautious friendship with Eyepeck the Raven who brings him news of undead movements in exchange for a tasty morsel. So far, Eyepeck has been as good as his word, but Aski does not know how far he can trust him.
These sentences seem to revolve around the raven, so we’ll take them together. The first sentence violates Guideline #4 with phrases like “struck up” “cautious” “brings him news” and “has been good as his word”. Another problem is the reverse of what we’ve dealt with before–who the heck is Aski and why do we care if he’s skeptical?
To get this fixed up, the player needs to clarify what he has in mind. Here it is, clarified, with back story removed and with some useful description added:
Patrolling the outer Marsh, his cousin Aski the Reckless met Eyepeck the Raven, a valuable source of information. Though as good as his word, Harvald is skeptical. A pale and beautiful maiden haunts his dreams, beseeching him to rescue her from the Marsh.
Now Harvald has Patrol Outer Marsh or Outer Marsh Knowledge or something like that, we know Aski is some sort of follower or sidekick who has a relationship with Eyepeck. There’s no reason that Harvald can’t have a direct relationship to the raven as well.
So, after plugging these changes in, what do we have now?
A Heortlingwarrior and initiate of Tatouth the Scout, Harvald Thandrensson is bitter over his beloved clan’s exile, and yearns to expel the Lunars from Heortling lands so that the clan can regain their ancestral tula. Travelling by night he contacted Angry Storm Band rebels among the Lismelder’s Greydog clan. Patrolling the outer Marsh, his cousin Aski the Reckless met Eyepeck the Raven, a valuable source of information. Though as good as his word, Harvald is skeptical. A pale and beautiful maiden haunts his dreams, beseeching him to rescue her from the Marsh.
This totals up as only 78 words after name subtractions, almost a hundred words less than we started with, yet it describes more about Harvald. Plenty of room now for all sorts of colorful ability additions. And really, this description could be even tighter. Consider how you would reduce the section about Harvald’s bitterness or the description about Eyepeck. Do we really need to know that the raven is as good as his word, or that he’s a valuable source of information? This is Harvald’s description, not Aski’s or Eyepeck’s. Followers, contacts and sidekicks only need to be mentioned in the description. You don’t have to list all or even any of their abilities.
Take the time to look at each sentence, each phrase, each word in the precious one hundred you have to describe your hero. When you do, the process rewards you with a more colorful, unique and able hero with which to change the world.
Thanks to Kirk Gisiner and James Dyer for permission to use their experiences in description editing as the basis of this essay.
For more on effeicient writing techniques see:
by Mike Holmes
Copyright © 2005, Mike Holmes
There are traditions that people have in playing RPGs. No surprise, the nature of such games is that a lot of interpretations of rules have to occur to get from the rulebook to actual play. As such, every group comes up with traditions on how to interpret RPG rules. Over time, a very “typical” standard has developed that’s shared by most groups out there, being the result of the convergence of many RPG systems, and the advice that the rulebooks have on how to play. Actually this standard has quite a lot of variation to it, but there are some strong assumptions that the tradition holds.
HeroQuest is not your run of the mill RPG, however. This is not merely a fanboy statement, the text is substantively different from other RPGs in terms of what it implies (or does not imply, in many cases). What this means is that if one applies the standard traditions to HeroQuest, that one gets a certain sort of play from it. But the text can be read very differently from other RPGs, too, if one decides not to filter it through the gauze of that tradition.
Basically, there is another substantive alternative (possibly amongst many, actually) reading of the text. And it’s one that produces a rather different experience of play. Not necessarily better than the form of play which tradition would produce, but definitely one that caters to a different set of goals for play. What follows are called “heresies” in a tongue-in-cheek way, because they defy a lot of common RPG convention (and the original idea of casting them this way came from the author posting them on a mailing list). If the reader finds that a tad too precious, just ignore the term and substitute “exception to tradition.”
As such, these “heresies” are in no way an attempt to say that this is the “One Way” to play HQ. They are the way that the author finds works best, but every game has it’s own unique requirements, and everybody needs to have their own interpretation of how to play the rules. In fact, it’s unavoidable that this happens. And the “best” way is the one that works for you. As such, should you play the traditional way yourself, or some other way completely, this is not a challenge to your methods. It’s just one interpretation of the text.
Before going on, the author acknowledges that a good portion of these ideas come from Ron Edwards either from his own direct observations of how to play, or from his game Sorcerer, and his expanded discussions of how that game is played. The concept of “scene play,” “Bang Driven” play, playing the rules unfailingly, and the metagame nature of abilities all come from Sorcerer. And it was Edwards who pointed out several other things that lead to many of the conclusions below.
Given the origins of these thoughts, that is as an email, they are probably incomplete, and may even be incorrect in some ways (the rulebook may actually contradict some of them directly). The point is not to say that the rulebook says that this is how one should play – though there’s a lot of support in the text for these methods. Instead it’s to show a certain view of how to play that the rules do support well, overall.
Mike’s Heresies of HeroQuest Play
Mike’s Heresy #1 points out that there’s nothing in the rulebook that says you have to play adventures like the samples provided (including the published works), with the possible exception of the rules for HP distribution. In fact, the rulebook can be read to indicate rather more freedom than many of the adventures would indicate. So, given that the samples are just that, samples, there’s no reason why one shouldn’t play “Bang Driven” sessions instead, or any other functional style. The one hitch is that one has to interpret the term “Adventure” in the HP rules as meaning “A Dramatically Appropriate Volume of Play” and decide then when these end in their game. One common method that works is to give them out per session.
Mike’s Heresy #2 points out that, implicit evidence in the samples of play and adventures notwithstanding, there’s no rule that says that the players have to play as a “party.” Meaning that one is free to play using “Scene Play” instead. Meaning that instead of assuming that the PCs are all together all of the time, they all go off and do whatever is most appropriate to them at any given time. Given the virtues of HQ, this works amazingly well.
Mike’s Heresy #3 points out that there is no way for a character to be taken from a player in HQ, without the complicity of the narrator. First, at no point does the narrator ever have to create a contest with potential results that would effectively eliminate the character from suitableness to play. Second, even if one does create such a contest, the worst result possible only indicates that the character is potentially damaged in the way indicated – that is, “dying,” not “dead.” Meaning that any manner of contrivance can be used to save said character from elimination. If this seems too metagamey, to save a character repeatedly, then one should consider that the problem is that they’re placing the characters in a position of potential elimination too often (one could say that even once is too much), and that they should solve the problem at the level of selection of conflict. What this means is that no player has to ever worry about engaging in any contest, and no narrator has to worry about “accidentally killing the party.”
Heresies #1 – #3 can be combined and summarized as: In HQ, Failure is Always an Option. Unlike other game systems where failure can mean the end of an adventure, or the end of the game even, in HQ, failure means more fun stuff happens.
Mike’s Heresy #4 points out that a consistent reading of the rules regarding impairment implies that the “Dying” result really means that the source of the conflict is eliminated from the game. If one looks carefully at the dramatic source of a conflict, it’s not always the most obvious choice. The source of conflict in a hunting contest is in getting game from the forest, not in slaying one deer. Thus, one can kill a deer on a marginal success, because the conflict will still remain. Should he try again, he’ll have to roll again. Only once he has gotten a Complete Victory result will he be able to go into the woods and always come back with food again sans a roll in the future – the hunter has conquered that woods in this way. Similarly, killing nameless mooks, if there are more yet to slay, does not eliminate the challenge they pose. So a marginal success can mean the death of innumerable mooks (we’re sure Mr. Laws knows what we’re talking about here). In many ways, Heresy #4 is just the contrapositive to Heresy #3. (Though Dying doesn’t have to mean removal of a PC, even a marginal victory can mean the death of anything else).
Mike’s Heresy #5 points out that nowhere in the book does it explicitly say that ability ratings are direct indications of the potency of a character in-game. While it’s convenient to think this way in most cases, in certain others it’s very useful to be able to see that the numbers are just ink on a piece of paper that the player is holding, and meant only to generate interesting outcomes in play. Using this logic, all questions of things like appropriateness of abilities, and whether Big 17 is larger than Large 15, become very simple to answer. Be forewarned: Achieving understanding of Heresy #5 requires a Zen like approach that requires that one want to understand it first. If you don’t want to understand it, you never will.
Mike’s Heresy #6 points out that the book says that NPCs never have contests if you read it one way (or, rather, that only Heroes do). Basically NPCs can always be resistances to overcome, or augments for the Hero. Otherwise, if they are the “primary” characters in some conflict, the narrator should just narrate the result. Sans a Hero being involved, there can be no roll involved. This informs everyone that play centers around the Heroes. If you want a roll, find a way to get a hero involved.
Mike’s Heresy #7 points out that the book says that the contests to become a member of a religious organization, and all of the contests in the adventures, etc, are actually examples, and not in any way “official” rules of the game. That is, one should feel free to skip these contests, unless they’re an interesting part of ongoing play. Or should feel free to substitute in better conflicts, more suited to the heroes at hand. Put more succinctly, it’s always better to construct a contest from the conflict at hand, or even better the conflict that’s central to the character, than it is to railroad players into a contest in which they may not be interested.
Mike’s Heresy #8 points out that there’s nothing in the book that says that you are required to stat out an NPC, or any other resistance, before a contest. So, worried about making sure that the character is of an appropriate level of difficulty for the character to make the contest go like you want? Then simply wait for the players to add up all of their augments, and make up his resistance on the spot (which can be assumed to be his ability level, you need not give the NPCs augments unless the ability giving the augment has been established in play). Use good knowledge of the in-game scale, and whatever other tools you need to do this well, but once you practice a little, it becomes very easy to do. This has the advantage that you’ll never do an ounce of unneeded game preparation again, and never feel the urge to railroad to a conflict in which the players may not be interested.
Mike’s Heresy #9 points out that all contests are equal, despite some heavy examples that would seem to privilege combat. Better stated, there is no “combat” in HQ. There are some contests that involve fighting and such, but the rules apply to these contests in precisely the same way as any other contest. This should inform players that all contests are of equal value potentially. While there’s nothing wrong with a good rousing fight, the appearance of said sorts of conflicts should be precisely as common as dictated by the needs of the story, and no more. Meaning that some will have not one fight at all.
Mike’s Heresy #10 points out that, unlike most games, the way to achieve Maximum Game Fun in HQ is not to ignore the rules, but to apply them quite vigorously. In fact, ignoring MGF is the only Heresy that actually alters the HQ rules dramatically. Which is quite ironic. The only rule to ignore is the rule that advises to ignore other rules.
Unfortunately, even taken together, these do not give a clear vision, necessarily, of how this style of play looks. But hopefully one can see at least that there’s a potential form that can come from these ideas that’s substantively different from the “traditional” form of play – one that HeroQuest supports well. More generally, HeroQuest is not the average RPG. That is, one can try certain alternate methods, and not just get away with it, but also actually have a ton of really fun support from the system. The book is chock full of advice that can lead one to these non-traditional methods of play. So keep an open mind when reading, and realize that you don’t necessarily have to apply the traditional filter for interpreting the rules, that you can form some new assumptions of your own regarding play.
by Mike Holmes
Copyright © 2004, Mike Holmes
Players will at some point want to create new keywords. One of the barriers to players taking on this challenge is that they might not feel comfortable about it. After all, other RPGs make this difficult to illegal. Not having a strict method for development of new keywords, narrators might not feel comfortable coming up with new keywords with players. However, the rulebook does imply that it’s an option:
Page 18 – “First Time Narrators”
Start with the keywords in this book. As the players learn the system, they can experiment with keywords from the player’s handbooks, mixing and matching keywords, or creating entirely new ones.
Indeed, what if a player wants a character to be from an area that’s off the map, or to have an occupation that isn’t listed? Certainly such exist, and as viable options for heroes. There are many cases where it makes sense to alter existing keywords or invent new ones. This article will hopefully serve as a guideline on some of these issues to lower the barrier to players making their own keywords.
When to Tinker
When is it appropriate for a player to make a new keyword? Well some might even take the view that most keywords should be individualized to the character – everybody should have them! But that’s probably overdoing it. As I said, for a player new to the game, it really all depends on how much they want to investigate this part of the game’s potential. Still, there are some common times when it might behoove you to at least alter a keyword.
The Obvious Cases
Some players just create things out of the blue, such as new occupations, or they want to play a character from an area that you don’t have keyword information on (for example, Haragala if you only have the regular HeroQuest book). Assuming the narrator allows this addition to the world, she should briefly explain the process of creating a new keyword, have the player look at the Keyword Templatesto see the basic format, and go for it if the player decides that he’s interested in participating in the work. If they’re not invested enough to help you with the process, suggest to them that they might be more comfortable with one of the published keywords.
There are less obvious cases, however. To catch these opportunities to customize the character, pay attention to each keyword selection the player makes.
Species can be a complex issue in HeroQuest. There may be occasions where alterations to species are suitable, but in general the topic requires a lot of consideration and so might be the subject of a future article.
Often, in a narrative background, players will describe their characters as being from part of a homeland that doesn’t seem to match the overall homeland description. This is actually likely to be quite common. For example, the Heortling keyword might need to be altered to fit a character from the Heortling city of Boldhome. The homeland keywords can be modified to cover the variety of characters available from the entire homeland.
Class also potentially impacts homeland keywords. Does it seem that the nobles in this region don’t do any farming? Then perhaps there needs to be a “noble” version of the keyword with farming replaced by something like hunting. Yes, noble can also be an occupation. But the homeland keyword represents a base cultural knowledge, whereas occupations ought to be considered separately. So, similarly, the poor (where they can eke out a living) will likely also have their own keywords. Some cultures may have special castes or other class systems that merit this treatment.
In many cultures there will be differences in sex – if you think that a current keyword doesn’t take this into account, then by all means alter it for sex.
Often, a player’s description of his occupation doesn’t exactly match one in the main rulebook (or in any of the other HeroQuest books available to you). This is one place where it really behooves you not to ask the player to just pick from the existing list of keywords. Instead, ask him to describe what he has in mind. Lists are important for things like homelands where the player may not have a good knowledge of what exists. But the “tropes” represented by the occupation keywords are well enough known that players can come up with them on their own. And when they do, titular differences or varying descriptions can tip you off that you may do well to at least alter an existing keyword. It’s OK to use a close match if nobody objects, but just as often it’s really a simple matter to create a new keyword.
One case deserves special mention. Frequently, keywords will “overlap,” meaning that there will be an ability contained within more than one keyword in which the player is interested. There are lots of ways to handle these redundancies. One is to just ignore the redundant ability. While the rules support this (page 19), players sometimes feel punished by this rule for what are often very good hero concepts. Another method people use is a kludge that involves the notion that the player would keep the second ability, but that it would more or less always augment the first. That translates into a +2 bonus to the starting ability in most cases (editor: many narrators give +4 to emulate the process used for the homelands in books like Imperial Lunar Handbook), which is usually added straight onto the rating for simplicity’s sake. But a potent and interesting method is to alter one of the keywords instead. We’ll start the next section with how to do just this.
How to Tinker
Once you’ve decided to tinker, then, how do you do so? Well, first review the various Keyword Templates. Where you go from there depends on the types of changes you need to make.
Adjusting for Overlap
If, say, a character had Barter from his Homeland and the same ability from his Occupation, it seems likely that he wouldn’t have had a need to learn to barter in his occupation, having learned to do so as a youth. People of his occupation from this land wouldn’t learn that particular ability as part of their occupational training. What they might have learned was something similar to it, however: an enhancing ability that would broaden their range of ability in the general area. Thus, in the case of Barter, the narrator and player might decide, based on the description and typical personality traits of the culture, that Haggle might be an appropriate ability for the occupation.
This method has several benefits. First, it doesn’t violate the rules in any way. It is the most potent option available, in that it maintains the character at the same level of effectiveness that he would have had if the keywords selected had no matching abilities. The character will likely have the benefits of the auto-augment from one ability to the other, but will have a somewhat broader base, given that either ability can be used as the primary ability. And when one of the two augments a third ability, it’s likely the other will as well. By comparison, the other methods discussed above for dealing with overlap (automatic augment, permanent bonus, ignoring the overlap completely) weaken the character ever so slightly, creating a dis-incentive to take the combination.
Other Minor Adjustments
Often, modifying a keyword is simply a matter of changing just one ability. For homelands, this probably represents the majority of cases. If they speak a dialect in that area, then note that in the title of the spoken language skill, as in Speak Holayan (Tarsh Border Dialect). The neat thing about dialects is that, though they probably have some small penalties with the base language, they may be understandable to other cultures. In any case, it certainly gives some color to the character and the setting if the player has invented the dialect or accent. If from a far-flung province, the character might be familiar with a slightly different geographic region. If the culture mixes with another over the border, the player might be able to wrangle an additional cultural ability out of the narrator (or a change to a syncretic culture). There are many ways to change things slightly, such that they take on a unique cast.
In general, changing one or two abilities in a keyword is such a small and sensible alteration that you really can’t go wrong. Just make sure that the abilities exchanged are about equal in number and breadth. Obviously, you don’t want to substitute a very broad skill for a narrower one.
Sometimes slight alteration isn’t enough. Sometimes you’re going to want to make up new keywords from the ground up. To do this, simply emulate the sort of template that the example keywords set out for you. Find the abilities in any text that you have that describes what you’re defining, using a method similar to the narrative character generation method. That is, go through the text looking for important words, and pull them out for use (underlining them, or using whatever technique works for you).
If the keyword is something that there’s no text for, a completely original addition, then ask a lot of questions about it, until you have enough information that you think you can start making your list. Once you’ve gotten going, you’ll find that more and more questions pose themselves, especially in light of comparisons of the new keyword to the samples. A lot of, “This keyword has X, does the new keyword have something similar?”
Again, this is a complex subject, and as such, will be dealt with in a future article dedicated solely to it.
On page 37 there is a definition of the overall format for these Homeland Keywords. They break down into the following salient areas.
These tend to be very formulaic. For example, every homeland has the following in its Native Abilities section:
- Survival Skill of some sort appropriate to the typical ecosystem in which they dwell.
- Geography knowledge of the surrounding area.
- Culture knowledge, representing knowing one’s own customs
Add to these a couple of abilities that everyone needs to support the local socioeconomic and political mode. For example, in a very agrarian society, everyone will have Farming. In highlands where farming is harder, everyone knows Herding. In hunter/gatherer societies, everyone knows how to hunt or gather (split between men and women, typically). In militant societies, one weapon type will be taught to everyone. In trade hubs, everyone knows how to bargain or barter or trade, depending on how advanced they are. In places that are power centers, abilities revolving around intrigue and politics become ubiquitous. Fill in those blanks, and you have your Native Abilities covered.
Typical Personality Traits
Personality is just a matter of how you view the people. Are they Stubborn? Hospitable? Warlike? Enterprising? Just jot down four things that describe the stereotypical member of the society. One more or less than four is probably not problematic, as long as the culture is well described by the selections. While it’s true that players don’t have to take all of these abilities, it behooves you to do a complete list, so as to have a reference for the culture as a whole.
Relationships depend, again, on what sort of form the society takes, including their religions. “to Family” is almost ubiquitous, though one can imagine a society where family isn’t important (probably tribal or clannish, then, where these institutions perform the same roles). Following that, what other sociopolitical structures are there? If it’s feudal, then you’ll have a house that you belong to in some way or another. If there are guilds, you may belong to one of them. Castes? Religious organizations? Leagues? Clubs? You can look at what exists in other homelands for examples, and go from there. There should be several, however; again, you’re looking to complete the keyword, not just include those abilities that the character will have.
Religions are covered below, on their own. The sample names that are included with written up keywords are unlikely to be important at first, but it can be fun to create them. These often give an idea as to what the language might be like.
Religion Keywords are short and to the point, and shouldn’t present much problem to create at all. These are practically spelled out in their entirety on pages 106-107 of HeroQuest, in the section on Worshipper Abilities. (The format can be found on page 37.) They are formulaic to the point of requiring almost no creativity to produce. Once you have an idea of the nature of the religion, enumerating it is very straightforward. (Example, Common Religion template).
Occupations are a tad tougher – tough enough to generalize upon that not much can be said here, other than to use common sense and guidelines similar to those given above for other keywords. Fortunately, those that exist cover a lot, and creating ones completely from scratch will be rare. If an occupation bears any resemblance to one already listed, then just swap out better-labeled abilities of the same scope, one for one, in a manner similar to the above methods for simple changes. If it is absolutely necessary to make one from scratch, the format can be found on page 31.
Balance in HeroQuest comes at the point where the player will see each keyword as potentially inviting. To that extent, the number of abilities in a keyword should remain near the average, but can vary somewhat. There are other ways to balance things out as well. Looking at keywords that have more than the average number of abilities, many of the abilities tend to revolve around something in particular, really being facets of a larger area of competence. For example, Grazers (HeroQuest, page 46) have all sorts of horse-related skills, but it all boils down to “Great Horsemen,” essentially. If you have a homeland that needs a couple more abilities, then break a larger ability down. Sailing can become Boating, Sail Ship, and Navigation, for the right culture. Another might have Fishing, Boating, and Make Net. Yet another might have Rowing, Lobster Trapping, and Repair Boat. Hunting can break down into Tracking, Stalking, Spear Fighting, etc.
Little breakdowns like this can really help detail a culture. The first maritime culture above is one composed of ship-builders; the second, fishermen; the third, trappers. The example hunting culture hunts with spears instead of using bows. These little things say a lot about the daily life of the culture’s members, and go a long way toward making a keyword attractive. This is an effective way to balance a new keyword with other keywords that offer more abilities.
Characters with tailored keywords are probably more individualized than characters with only standard ones. Further, if the player works with the narrator to create these keywords, the player takes on greater ownership, not only of the specific character, but of the elements of the world that he’s helping to define. Such a player often becomes more easily engrossed in what’s happening in the setting.
By making new keywords, you expand the game world as you go. There becomes more for the narrator to use in making narrator characters for the heroes to come into contact with. More for players to interact with. More context in which to have fun play. Give it a try.
Extended Contests and Ranged Combat
by Bradley “Brand” Robins
Copyright © 2004, Bradley Robins
Running a ranged combat in HeroQuest, especially in a situation in which one side has missile weapons and the other none, can give players and narrators alike migraines. Because we’re all used to thinking of battles in terms of ranges and movement values, revisioning such a combat in HeroQuest terms is a difficult task. A similar problem can occur with extended contests in general. Sometimes players get stuck in the place where the contest starts and are unable to find ways to dramatically change the conflict because they see action points (AP) as being simply an abstraction. For many groups, these two problems are linked, because both involve learning to envision contests with shifting focuses as part of a greater extended contest. Using the AP system to allow dynamic results in conflict, rather than just gaining and loosing points, is one key to making extended contests more dynamic and making ranged combats work without pain.
AP in an extended contest are often seen as being divorced from the actual situation of a contest, as being a nebulous indicator of relative position that is not directly tied into shifting control or location of the contest. It’s fairly typical to hear players say that they’re frustrated with extended contests because winning or losing AP has no effect on the conflict until someone goes below 0 and goes down. Extended contests in combat thus become a “I hit him”/”I parry” sequence until someone drops. This is obviously not acceptable, as HeroQuestconflicts are supposed to be about scene resolution rather than task resolution – but even more importantly are supposed to be fun!
One way out of this is to allow actions in an extended contest to radically change the situation. Rather than just sucking away AP, an action can cause different skills to be used, change the setting or range, add or remove modifiers and equipment, or otherwise affect the course of the contest. Rather than just being beans for counting, AP can reflect actual gains and losses with concrete effects in the contest. (Obviously, this won’t be necessary for all contests or all groups, but it can work to great effect when desired.)
The “Sample Advantage Point Bids” table on page 68 of HeroQuest should become everyone’s best friend, as it makes a great guideline for determining how much a character needs to risk in order to make the change they want.
Some examples of this principle in action:
|Thomas the peasant is in trouble, as Sir Ector is trying to ride him down for sport. Sir Ector has chased Thomas to the edge of the woods, and is now trying to stick as sword in poor Thomas’s back. Sir Ector has a lot of advantages in the contest – a horse, heavy weapons and armor, the ability to do charge attacks, and so forth. Poor Thomas has only his own little self and a rock – and, he notes with relief, the Climb Trees ability. Thomas knows that climbing a tree is taking a big chance – if he slips and falls he goes under the hooves, if he doesn’t get up fast enough he gets pinned to the trunk like a butterfly to a tray. He’s willing to risk it, however, as he really has no other chance. The narrator rules that climbing the tree before Ector can get there is a contest of Thomas’s Climb Trees 5W vs. Ector’s horses’ Run Fast 10W, and that it’s a normal bid for Thomas. Thomas bids his 10 AP and rolls, getting a low success against Ector’s high success. Thomas gets half the AP, and the narrator rules that he gets high enough that Ector can’t use any charge or horse-based skills against him. Now if Thomas can survive until his next turn, maybe he can get high enough into the tree that Ector can’t do anything to him unless he abandons horse and armor and climbs up after him…|
|Ranulf the Heortling is engaged in a heated debate with the beautiful Lunar priestess Jalvera. Ranulf’s best debating skill is his Bragging 17. Jalvera, on the other hand, has a Debate of 5W2 and it is quickly becoming obvious that Ranulf is going to lose, and lose badly, unless he can change the focus of the argument. Ranulf, in a move dear to every barbarian adventurer’s heart, steps in and grabs Jalvera to lay a kiss on her that will curl her toes and make her lose track of all her arguments. The narrator rules this is a desperate move, and requires Ranulf to bid every single AP he has on the contest. However, Ranulf is able to use his Seduce Nubile Maiden 2W2 against Jalvera’s Resist Manly Barbarians of 17. If Ranulf loses Jalvera is going to slap his face and publicly spurn him, probably humiliating him so badly that he’ll never be able to show his face in town again. If he wins he’ll gain a huge advantage and be able to move the rest of the “debate” from verbal skills to bodice ripper skills.|
This method also works very well for running ranged combats, even ones where one side has missile weapons and the other doesn’t. At the start of the contest, one group is able to use their combat skills to affect the AP totals and the other isn’t. Through the contest the non-missile side must make AP bids and take actions that allow them to change the situation. This could be anything, from a simple charge to gain ground to using the landscape for cover to something as complicated as changing the formation of the non-missile troops so that they can use the small group of slingers they’d forgotten they had in order to gain range. (See Xenophon’s “The Persian Expedition” for a real world historical example of this happening.) If the non-missile group is able to gain the AP, they switch the contest up. If they don’t, they don’t.
|A group of Dara Happan hoplites has run into a group of Tarshite skirmishers. The Tarshites approach like they were friends, and then attack from surprise while the Dara Happans are bidding them welcome. The combat starts with the Dara Happans having to use their Spot Foe against the Tarshite Thrown Axe augmented by Cunning, Scouting, and Know Local Territory. The final score is Dara Happans 1W, Tarshites 20W.The Tarshites act first, and make a normal engagement bid – as they’re happy with the situation as it stands – for 13 AP. They get a success against the Dara Happan failure, dropping the hoplites to 8 AP. The Dara Happans, knowing they have to close the distance or be butchered, decide to charge into the Tarshite axemen. The narrator rules this is a determined action, and will require that they bid all 8 of their remaining AP – meaning they’ll be out of the fight if they fail. The hoplites risk it, and use their March skill augmented by their Unit Mass Combat to attack the Tarshites, who use their March to resist.The Dara Happans get a success against the Tarshite’s failure, getting 8 AP back and closing the distance so that the fight now becomes melee on melee, putting the Tarshites at a disadvantage.Alternatively, if the Dara Happans had gotten a tie with the Tarshites they wouldn’t have gained or lost any AP, and so wouldn’t have closed the distance. They charged forward, but the Tarshites fell back. The Tarshites could continue to attack the hoplites without the hoplites being able to attack back.If the hoplites had failed, they would have been crushed under a hail of Tarshite axes, and been forced into an ignominious retreat. Maybe that night they could realize they could make slings, and then the next time they meet the Tarshites they’ll be the ones with the range advantage…|
That is the way to make extended contests and missile vs. non-missile combats work dynamically. AP bids and the fall of the dice should change the course of the conflict, the skills used in the conflict, and be something more than a game mechanic that has no relation to the course of the fight. Using AP bids in this manner will generate more creative, dynamic, and interesting conflicts and will stop a lot of headaches about how to resolve missile combats and similar problems.
Augmenting With Personality Traits
by Bradley “Brand” Robins, with acknowledgements to Mike Holmes, Ralph Mazza, and Michael Schwartz
Copyright © 2004, Bradley Robins
“Personality is only ripe when a man has made the truth his own.”
One of the most commonly-voiced positives of the HeroQuest system is that it can make a hero’s personality matter as much as his skills. So the fact that your hero is Loyal Until Death can matter as much as-or more than!-the fact that he has a broadsword. Sometimes this will be with contests in which a personality trait is used as a primary ability, but most often it will be when heroes augment other abilities with their personality traits. However, many players and narrators face uncertainty when using personality traits in this way. Which ones are relevant? How many should be used? Can a positive personality trait sometimes become a flaw? This article attempts to answer some of those questions, and proposes a few tricks that can be used with personality traits.
The first question is: “How many personality traits can be used to augment a contest?” The answer: as many as are relevant. This leads directly to the next question: “How do you determine which personality traits are relevant?” To answer this, I’m going to create the Passionate Intensity Clause, which states that a personality trait is relevant if, and only if, it is passionately engaged in the contest. The key here is that the personality trait used to augment must be something that reveals a part of the hero’s personality as he profoundly interacts with the situation. It cannot be something that the hero doesn’t care that much about, or which doesn’t make a statement about who they are in the situation, or that just plain isn’t relevant to the roll.
Example: a knightly hero armed with a sword and shield cannot use his Brave 5W to chase two 8 year olds in rags out of the village because there is nothing brave about the action. His personality trait simply isn’t relevant. Similarly, he couldn’t use his Brave 5W if he was at a tournament at which no one was going to be killed. Even in battle, his Brave only comes out if he is at the front of the battle, doing brave and daring acts. If he is hanging back and playing safe he can’t use his Brave because he isn’t passionately engaged in the battle-he isn’t bravely putting his neck on the line, so he doesn’t get to use his bravery to make himself stronger!
So how do heroes make sure they can use their personality traits to augment themselves in important situations? How do they make sure they’re passionately engaged? The answer is by interacting with the story and creating opportunities to engage their personality traits so that when a contest comes up their heroes already care about it. This effort will combine the attempts of the players to get as many augments as they can for their heroes with their personality and the development of the story. Then everything-game power, hero stats, and story-come together at one point. Players will want to get their heroes involved and to make a story that depends on their heroes’ passions because it gives them both a good story and a mechanical bonus.
Example: Our Brave 5W knight is also Honorable 1W, Combative 17, and has a True Love trait at 15W coupled with a Hate Heortlings 19. He is at a tourney and is going to have to do battle at a point later in the day. Normally, few of his traits would be relevant, as the tourney uses rebated weapons, so there isn’t a lot of bravery involved; he hasn’t done anything that relates to his true love; his honor isn’t on the line; and he’d have to be lucky to get a Heortling opponent. However, what if our doughty knight swears to his true love that he will win for her if she gives him her favor, then challenges a Heortling to single combat with live weapons, and insults the Heortling until the warrior insults the knight’s honor? Suddenly, all of his personality traits are engaged and relevant. His honor, his true love, his hatred, his bravery, and his combative nature are all on the line, so all give him bonuses. The player has also managed to go from having a simple (boring) swing-fest at a tourney to having a bitter enemy, love on the line, and a thousand other story possibilities hanging on his actions. (What happens if he kills the Heortling, or if he loses? Will his love leave him, or has his pugnacious nature annoyed churchmen? Was the Heortling he challenged an ambassador?)
The final question is: “Can a positive personality trait sometimes become a flaw?” My personal answer is yes, but this trick should be used lightly to avoid the perception that players are being “punished” for taking lots of personality traits. Sometimes, however, having a powerful passion will have a downside, and so personality traits may give penalties to actions that go directly against them. Our Brave, Honorable, and Combative knight, for example, should have trouble backing down from a fight in which a superior opponent insults his honor and then calls him out. Everything about the hero means that he should leap into the fray. Similarly, a Pacifist 15W hero might not only have a tough time getting into a fight, but may be at a disadvantage through the whole fight because of his aversion to violence.
The balancing point to using a personality trait as a flaw is to give the hero a chance to turn it around. If a hero can reverse the situation in which the trait was used as a flaw (or comply with it in the case of situations in which the flaw is urging him to do something), he is automatically passionately engaged. So, if our Pacifist hero gets to a place where he can try to stop the battle, or our knight takes up the gauntlet in the next fight, their relevant personality traits automatically augment them. After all, the traits are obviously important, because the heroes wouldn’t be in the situation in the first place if it wasn’t for them!
Those options should cover most situations in which personality traits are used as augments. There is one other trick you can use with personality traits: the Opposed Personality Trait Contest. A player can use this tool to determine what to do when his hero is divided against himself. When a hero has two personality traits that are at odds with each other (or a personality trait and an attribute like a relationship) and the player wants a springboard to creativity, he can roll a contest using the two traits and let the dice decide which comes out on top.
For example: Our Combative knight finds himself facing off across the battlefield against his true love’s brother. The knight is torn, because he doesn’t want to hurt his lover-but his honor and Combative nature demand he fight her brother. The knight’s player has a simple contest between the two personality traits to help him decide what his hero would do. If his Combative wins then he attacks, if his True Love wins then he avoids engagement with the brother.
Such contests will usually be simple, but in the case of very important or interesting tests of character, they could be run as extended contests. This would be appropriate for situations in which a hero is divided between “light” and “darkness” and their soul (or at least their whole future) is on the line.
Example: After killing his true love’s brother, our combative knight has wandered in exile for many years. His true love hates him now, and all that is left is his anger and combative heart. His Combative has gone up to 15W-equal to his True Love trait. Now a message comes from his lover, telling him that she will have him back if only he will give up the sword forever. Caught between a life of love and peace and a life of glory and blood, the narrator and the player decide to handle the contest as an extended roll in which the knight’s feelings of love war with his lust for violence.
- HeroQuest 1 – Character Sheets (2003)
- HeroQuest 1 – How Many Concentrate?
- HeroQuest 1 – Natural Magic (2004)
- HeroQuest 1 – Q&A (2004-2005)
- HeroQuest 1 – Rules FAQ (2005)
- HeroQuest 1 – Sample Heroes (2004)
- HeroQuest 1 – Sample Keywords (2007)
- HeroQuest 1 – Scenarios (2007)
- HeroQuest 1 – Templates (2004)
- Just Starting?