He urged me to include more HeroQuest 2 content on Tales of a GM. As my Players have recently been creating new Heroes for our Sigil PD campaign, I have been thinking about keywords in HeroQuest a lot more..
The Key Rules
Keywords in HeroQuest 2, by Robin D Laws, serve a similar function to classes in the f20 games. They are a package of linked abilities.
A keyword gives you a package deal: you get a number of abilities by selecting a pre-existing character concept, which you then modify.
There are three approaches to keywords explained in the rules, of which I prefer the umbrella keyword:
A middle ground is to treat keywords both as raisable abilities and as a collection of more specific abilities.
So, the keyword is a broad label, such as Nomad Warrior, which equates to an f20 class, and bestows a packages of abilities onto the character. Individual abilities can be listed as sub-abilities of the keyword. These highlighted skills are particular areas of expertise for the character.
The selection of these sub-abilities allows for flexibility and customisation within the game. Thus, two Nomad Warriors can have the same keyword, but if their sub-abilities are different, then there is a greater distinction between the two warriors.
The rules give an example keyword, created for a game based in Victorian London:
Know Local Accents +1
Stiff Upper Lip +2
This character has two specialized abilities, each of which is rated a little higher than the keyword. By selecting the right combination of sub-abilities, a Player can create the exact character they want to play in the game.
Heroes in my game start with four keywords. Each of these keywords are set out in slightly different ways. They all display some variation from the standard HQ version of the keyword. The bulk of this article will explore these four starting keywords.
The occupation keyword fulfils the role of class in f20 games, and is the closest to the HQ2 umbrella keyword. The only change I have made is to apply a limit of five standard sub-abilites to all my keywords.
Five sub-abilities gives keywords enough variation to distinguish between two similar Heroes. In play, we have found this still makes the keyword a worthwhile ability. The limit also serves to keep a cap on Players who wish to game the system and add too many sub-abilities to a Keyword. Each Hero has multiple free-standing abilities too, and I am yet to have a Player who could not build the character they wanted because of a lack of abilities.
There are other mechanical interactions, such as augments and experience point costs, which keep the keyword balanced. I do not want to delve too far into the mechanics of HeroQuest in this essay. Suffice it to say, the five ability limit has worked well for our games as a good compromise to ensure varied characters without them becoming overpowered by piling too many sub-abilities onto a keyword.
The inclusion of a religion keyword in my game represents the prominence of religion in the setting. This is one of the central features of Glorantha I carry over into my campaign. Too many games only seem to highlight religion for priestly classes. However, in both ancient and medieval times, religion was generally a central pillar of daily life. By giving all characters a religion keyword, this principle becomes true for our game.
The religion keyword is structurally very similar to the occupation keyword. The only difference is the flaw included in the package. Flaws are not part of the HeroQuest rules, but another addition of my own.
In terms of the keyword, the inclusion of a flaw in the package allows an additional ability to be added to the keyword. Thus, religion keywords have six sub-abilities and one flaw. This flaw is the requirement to devote time to the religion, covering both prayer and actions in accordance with the religion.
A Flawed Hero
In broader terms, I use flaws to fulfil two main functions.
Firstly, they provide shade and nuance to the Hero. I generally want the Heroes in my campaign to be Heroes, to serve the cause of good. However, life is rarely this simple, and the inclusion of a flaw brings both realism and a little tension to the character. In this way, the flaws add to the story by giving the Heroes something internal to overcome.
Secondly, a flaw provides a hook allowing the GM to tug at the Hero. I tend to use a light touch regarding flaws in my game. My Players are so good, they often play up their own flaws without any prompting on my part.
Yet, these abilities are available to me should I need to provide a narrative pull for a Hero. By choosing the right flaw, at the right time, I can nudge the story forward again. Very often it is what a Hero does not want to do which can drive a story. Whenever a Player chooses a flaw, I always make it clear to them how I would use the flaw to drive their Hero. By then accepting the flaw, and taking the benefit, the Player is also accepting the described consequences of the flaw.
The homeland keyword is my way of making the background of a Hero relevant in the game. It is my belief that a backstory, no matter how compelling, is of no relevance to the Hero unless it is expressed in the mechanics. If it is not on the character sheet, then it is not part of the character. This keyword puts the past onto the character sheet, and makes it relevant to the game.
However, the sub-abilities of the homeland keyword have specific categories set by me, and combine to form the background of the Hero. There is plenty of scope for Player choice within these categories. These categories are:
- Cultural Trait – a belief or value learnt from the home culture
- Formative Childhood Event
- Pivotal Adolescent Event
- Unique Trait – “I am the only [insert species] who . . .” Gives each Hero a unique ability
- What my parents taught me – usually a trade or craft, but can be a belief
- Trouble – “Why I am a Hero”
- Flaw – Haunted by my past
As you can see, this version of the homeland keyword acts as a potted history of the Hero, and a selection of abilities for them to use at the table. The unique trait and the trouble explain why the Hero is driven to adventure.
The last of the keywords is the species keyword. This is the keyword with the least customization for the Player, as this package of skills is set by me. This is a package deal of abilities which encapsulates my interpretation of a species.
I have tried to keep these as balanced as possible. Each species has a set of fixed abilities, along with a pair of flaws.
Evolve through Play
Heroes have one last way of acquiring a keyword in my game, by evolving one during play. Keywords are a potent package of skills, so I want to limit their use. However, they are also the perfect way to represent a tightly-linked set of abilities.
The most common additional use of keywords has been to represent magical items. In this way an ability representing a single spear can evolve into a magical spear with a suite of different powers. The slow revelation of these powers during the course of the game can make for an interesting storyline for the Hero. This gradual unlocking of powers is akin to the weapons of legacy concept from D&D.
Once again, HeroQuest 2 shows its flexibility with the many uses for keywords in my game. This one tool enables us to represent so many different aspects of the Hero.
How else would you use keywords in your game? What do you think to these changes to the rules? Share your thoughts in the comments below.