Protagonist Play in HeroQuest

Mon, 30 Sep 2013 08:00:35 +0000

Submitted by Ian on Thu, 22/09/2011 – 22:00

HeroQuest PCs differ from those in other role-playing games. They have a range of quite distinct abilities and not skills picked from a common list. If a player puts an ability on their character sheet, then they are telling you, the narrator, that it is something they want to appear in play. If a player writes Sword and Shield Fighting 1W on his character sheet, that player wants his character to fight his way through problems. If a player writes Loves Janesta 17 then he wants his relationship to Janesta to be part of the story.

In many games, the PCs’ back-story and personality never impact on play. In HeroQuest, they can. HeroQuest is much more like fiction in that regard. So, bring their abilities into the spotlight. Make those choices the players make mean something in play.

The playwright Anton Chekhov advised authors that you should not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it. The same applies to PC abilities. There is no point to them unless you, the narrator, weave them into the story.

The higher the ability rating, then the more the player wants to focus on those challenges. The player wants to be a protagonist in the story. So, provide challenges that focus on those abilities.
Weaving Stories Together
Although we focus on individual narrative threads, we want to weave them together into a tapestry that tells a whole story. One of your jobs as the narrator is to ensure that these threads weave together. This can be the obvious option of bringing the separate narrative threads together for big events or climaxes. It may be that events in one thread echo in or influence another indirectly.

Players often prefer to play as a group, partially because this means less waiting whilst another has their turn, partially because the enjoy interacting with each other. For this reason it is important to weave the PCs stories together regularly.

To help with this ensure that the PCs relationships and beliefs give you excuses to weave their paths together. That way you will have a joint story rather than unrelated threads. To achieve this create a PC with a number of relationships or beliefs that cross with those of others. One way to encourage this is to allow a player to take for free relationships or beliefs that bind them together.

When creating new Red Cow PCs for my own campaign I offer the following relationships ‘free’. This can be either before play begins or ‘as you go’ and creation points can be spent to increase these abilities, as with other starting abilities, but they don’t count toward a PCs existing limit.

A belief that supports or opposes one of the factions of the Red Cow clan. The clan has a number of factions that hold different beliefs as to how the clan will survive: Eye of the Hurricane, Moon Winds, Conquering Storm, Free Sartar and the Wolfskinners.
Sue decides that her character Janesta believes in the manifest destiny of the Cinsina to dominate the Jonstown Confederation, and the Red Cow to dominate the Cinsina. Sue writes the following on her character sheet:

Supports Manifest Destiny of the Coming Storm 13
A relationship to a Red Cow NPC who supports or opposes one of the PCs beliefs. This relationship is either an ally or adversary to the PC – as adversary can be either a flaw or an ability (see HeroQuest, p. 60-62).
Jim decides that his character Hallarax hates the Telmori and admires Duke Jomes Hostralos; Hallarax puts aside any distrust of the Empire to support that renowned wolf fighter. Jim decides that he has worked for Duke Jomes as a mercenary in the past. Jim writes the following on his character sheet:

Former Mercenary to Duke Jomes 13

This is a great relationship because it not only shows how Hallarax feels about the Telmori, but also about the Imperial occupiers.
A relationship to an NPC who influenced on the PC’s beliefs. This relationship should tell us more about your hero’s beliefs. It is not enough to have a relationship with your father; we must know how you feel about him. The NPC should be a patron to the PC (see HeroQuest, p. 61)
Jim decides that Hallarax’s wife dominates him, nagging, goading, and pushing Hallarax from the quiet life he would otherwise prefer. He imagines her as one of the women in the Viking sagas, touchy about honor and status, pushing me to achieve more. Jim writes on his character sheet:

Goaded by Wife Jenesta 13

This relationship lets everyone know that Hallarax’s beliefs are not his own, they are his wife’s. The narrator might notice this and see if she can force Jim to choose between what Hallarax wants and what his wife tells him to do.
A relationship shared with another PC. This is not a relationship to the other PC, but a relationship to an NPC with whom they have a relationship. Of course, the nature of the relationship to that NPC may differ. This connection helps link your PC and the other PC together making it easier to weave your stories together.
Looking over everyone else’s character sheets, Jim notes that Sue’s PC has the relationship Loyal to Borngold Many-Brothers. Jim decides that Hallarax opposes Borngold and does not want him to be the next chieftain of the clan. This puts us in conflict, which is a great source of story.

Opposes the rise of Borngold Many-Brothers 13


Blood Opera
One aspect of protagonist play that may be unusual to some is that player vs. player play is more common.

You have to be sure that your group is comfortable with this style of play. The trick is to describe all actions openly at the table. No note passing. Do not take a player aside while you listen to his plots against the others. If someone double-crosses another player in the game, he does so in the open and to his or her face. The reason for that double-crossing should be that it creates a better story. Not personal, not competitive, but for shared story. Do it well enough and the other player may help you put their PC at a disadvantage.

Some folks dislike blood opera where the PCs do not co-operate to achieve a goal, but work against each other. Be sure to understand how your group feels about this. If your group prefers to have everyone on the same side, even if for different reasons, be explicit that you don’t want player vs. player conflict in the game.

Good stories are ones that have conflict.

Conflict produces stories because it reveals character. Conflict reveals character because it forces people to make choices. Stories come from people making choices. In the Lord of the Rings, when Frodo decides to abandon the Fellowship of the Ring, he makes a choice that takes the story in a new direction. When Sam makes the choice to join him, it takes the story in a further direction. Choices. That is what story is about. Make the PCs make choices.

Conflict between people is more interesting than conflict with abstract forces. Monsters are only interesting in what they tell us about people. Monsters force people to make choices. Save yourself or save the village. Save the girl you love or your childhood best friend. Save your own life or save your friends. People are more interesting because we can make them make choices. Choices make good stories.

In the Lord of the Rings, Sam, Gollum, and Frodo’s journey to Mordor is about the personal conflicts within the group. Those conflicts force people to make choices about whom they trust. Outside forces, such as Shelob or the Orcs, serve only to show us the strengths and weaknesses within the relationship.
Community-Centered Games
With the above in mind, to play a community centered game you need to create a community that has conflicts within it. Before the game starts, those conflicts should be in stasis or status quo. As the game starts, a crisis drives the conflict within the community out of equilibrium and into a new phase.

The crisis may be the result of abstract forces or external forces. That is the role of such forces within the story, to drive the conflict within the community, which is what interests us. The players themselves might be the source of conflict.

In R.E. Howard’s classic Conan story, Red Nails the feud between the Xotalancas and the Tecuhltli is the conflict that drives the story. When Conan and Valeria enter Xuchotl their arrival forces the feud out of equilibrium and into a new, and final phase.

You can use community-centered conflict to drive story, even if it is not the PCs’ home community. First, though you need the PCs to develop relationships with people within the community. Those relationships may be on both sides. As the crisis develops, the PCs must make choices about whom they support, and how they overcome internal division to deal with external threats.

At the end of the game, choices will have been made and the status quo overturned. After your game, nothing will be the same.


Recommended Reading

Much of what I learnt about this style of play came from Ron Edwards Sorcerer supplements, particularly Sorcerer and Sword and Sex and Sorcery, which I would recommend for insights, even to those who don’t play Sorcerer. In addition, I would recommend Chris Chinn’s Ways to Play articles on RPG.Net for their discussion of this.

Submitted by Kevin McDonald (not verified) on Sun, 02/10/2011 – 08:53.
Excellent article! One quibble is that giving out free abilities runs counter to the idea that what is on the character sheet is what the *player* wants to happen in the game. Instead, I am thinking of creating a reward for players who write back-stories that tie certain abilities to the other characters. “Retired Mercenary” is OK, but it is worth a freebie if paired with “Wracked With Guilt for Helping to Sack PC#2’s Home Village”. The player of PC#2 can get a freebie for taking “Sworn Revenge on the Unknown Mercenary Band that Sacked My Home Village”. The reward could be extra development points for character creation or a special pool of HP that can only be used for bumps relevant to that sub-plot.

-Kevin McD

Submitted by Hervé (not verified) on Sat, 01/10/2011 – 08:08.
Very interesting article, and Chris Chinn’s WAYS TO PLAY also was good reading. Never hurts to look back at the fundamentals. I especially liked the “if it doesn’t happen in the game, it doesn’t exist” line. And the reminder to aim for the PLAYERS’, not characters’, feelings. Make them shout out in joy or bang their heads on the table in despair !