However, as I grew older, my quest for the “perfect system” came into focus.
I wanted something quick, simple and flexible. The rules needed a single mechanism for resolving all manner of conflicts. I wanted to reproduce the style of swashbuckling adventure at the table which I enjoyed in a film. Finally, I wanted to play a game where the emphasis was on the story we created as a group.
My quest finally came to an end when I read HeroQuest 2 by Robin D Laws. This essay explains why I love HeroQuest 2.
This article is part of the Dyver’s Project, where a collection of bloggers each describe their favourite game system. Ours is a wonderfully broad hobby, and we are all looking for something different in our games.
The project is being co-ordinated by Charles Akins, who blogs at Dyver’s Campaign. Charles described the project as follows:
The core idea of this project is, “I love this game, now let me tell you why.” What we’re doing as a group is each author is taking their favourite game; telling you what they love about it; posting it on their blogs; and then at the end I’m compiling all of the posts into a single Free PDF.
The HeroQuest 2 rules by Robin D Laws are available from Moon Design as a pdf or a softcover book. Moon Design summarizes the game as follows:
Anything you can imagine, you can play . . .
HeroQuest is the innovative, dynamic, and flexible rules engine by Robin Laws, suitable for play in any genre or setting. It presents a simple and flexible system that allows Game Masters to make decisions the way authors and screenwriters do when creating novels, TV episodes and movies. HeroQuest encourages creative input from your players, resulting in an exciting, unpredictable narrative created through group collaboration.
There are many facets to HeroQuest 2 which really appeal to me, but my love starts with the huge flexibility for character creation within the game.
As Moon Design say, “anything you can imagine, you can play”, and this freedom begins with the broad approach to abilities adopted by HeroQuest 2 (henceforth HQ2). Literally anything can be an ability, which allows the Player to highlight whatever trait or story hook they want to be relevant to their Hero.
Any word or phrase can be picked as an ability. This allows for the standard skills or characteristics so beloved of the hobby, as well as items or spells. Followers work the same way, be they human or animal. HQ2 also allows personality-focused elements like relationships or beliefs to be taken as abilities.
Even a catch phrase can be an ability. There really is no mechanical limit to what can function as an ability. Of course, the Player will need to explain how the ability is narratively relevant at the time of conflict, but this is another matter. For the purposes of the rules, any word or phrase are potential abilities.
Building the Hero
Just as there is great freedom with choosing abilities in HQ2, so too is there flexibility when it comes to building a Hero. The heart of the process is a fixed number of abilities for each character, along with a pool of points to increase these abilities. This process ensures a degree of equality between starting Heroes, as they all begin with the same number of abilities and points.
However, this is a very simple point-build system. There are no formulae to remember, and all abilities cost the same. HQ2 offers no opportunity for mathematical mini-maxing.
What it does offer are three different approaches to creating a character. There is the standard version of choosing the desired abilities and assigning the points. This method resembles the standard character creation technique used by RPGs since Gary Gygax first took Heroes down the dungeon.
HQ2 also offers a more narrative version of character creation, where the Player describes their Hero in 100 words. Select words and phrases from this description form the abilities of the Hero. This method has the strongest storytelling heritage, and ensures a tight correspondence between the Hero and the Player’s initial concept.
The third and final method of character creation is the build-as-you-play option. This is my favourite method, as it allows new Players to begin gaming almost immediately. The beauty of this approach is how it allows the Player to create a Hero with relevant abilities, as these choices are made within the game. Furthermore, new Players see the game in action, and thus have a greater chance of building both the sort of Hero they want to play and the type of Hero best suited to the game.
Adding a Bit of Class
Before I move on from the treatment of Heroes in HQ2, I want to highlight the use of the Keyword. Essentially this represents a collection of thematically linked abilities. Sub-abilities within the Keyword can be listed with an additional bonus modifier, which allows for great customization within the concept.
The best way to understand the Keyword is to think of it as a traditional RPG class. Thus, a Hero could have Warrior or Mage as their Keyword. I have found the Keyword a great framework for new Players to build their character around. There is familiarity in this concept, and while every Hero can choose distinctive abilities, it helps to have a Keyword at the heart of the character.
However, HQ2 does not stop here. The Keyword is too clever an idea to be restricted to just a career, or class. Players also have the option of taking species as a Keyword, or their Homeland, or perhaps a religious Keyword. Each of these Keywords can have different types of sub-ability, yet they all work the same way in the rules.
HQ2 displays the flexibility and simplicity which I want. There is no need for different rules for each category of linked abilities. Treat them all as a Keyword, with one set of mechanics, and the job of the GM is made a lot easier.
Which brings us nicely to the mechanics of HQ2. At the heart of the game is a single method of contest resolution. Admittedly, there are several steps to the process, and some of the principles can seem counterintuitive at first. Yet, it is worth persevering with, as the payoff is a simple life for the GM. I shall explore the benefits below, but it is worth talking you through the central rules mechanism.
The aim of these rules is to resolve a contest between two opposed abilities, or a Hero ability and a resistance assigned by the GM. The rules engine does not care which abilities these are, just that they are in opposition. For this example, I shall assume a Player is rolling against the GM, but Player vs. Player contests work through the same steps.
First the Player and GM both roll 1d20 against their ability rating. Let’s assume an equal contest, where both sides a using an ability rated at 14, a typical starting value. There are four possible results of each roll:
- Critical – roll a 1
- Pass – Any number higher than a critical, but no higher than the chosen rating, in this case numbers 2 to 14
- Fail – Any number higher than the chosen rating, but lower than a fumble, in this case numbers 15 to 19
- Fumble – roll a 20
The results of the Player and GM are then compared on a matrix to create a graded outcome. Two similar results can produce a Marginal Victory to the side who rolled the highest, i.e. a Pass at 13 vs. a Pass at 5. Conversely, two widely dissimilar results can produce a Complete Victory, i.e. Critical vs. Fumble.
As to be expected, most outcomes produce only small levels of Victory or Defeat. This is enough to keep the story moving along. However, the luck of the dice can still produce enough extreme results to maintain Player interest during contests.
The Single Rules Engine
One of the key features I love about HQ2 is how this one process lies at the heart of every contest. There are different ways to arrange the contest, either as an individual endeavour or as a group effort. A simple contest involves just a single roll to resolve the conflict, or an extended contest which usually involves several rounds. These different approaches offer the GM flexibility and variety, as it is a personal choice as to which approach to use for any given conflict.
The real beauty, the shining gem at the heart of the rules, is how this single contest resolution engine allows any pair of abilities to fight each other. There are no fiddly subsystems or mechanical limitations on what the Players can attempt. This single mechanic does not care what abilities are being pitted against each other, that is a matter for the narrative and GM approval.
If the Players can show how their chosen ability is relevant, and the GM approves, then they can use anything on their character sheet. HQ2 uses the same rules engine regardless of which abilities are in conflict. While the troll may be trying to hit the Hero with a club, the Hero is not limited to responding with a sword. Nor is there any penalty for trying to overcome the enraged troll with magic or wit.
Here are a set of rules which enable so many familiar fantasy tropes. The bard with caustic wit is just as likely to defeat the troll as the warrior with a shining spear. The dashing swashbuckler can swing from chandeliers and banter with the troll just as easily as the pyromancer can hurl fiery magicks.
Of course, the relative values of the opposed abilities has an impact, but the rules are not penalizing Players for their narrative choices. A quick wit, an insult, a flashing rapier and sheer determination all have a chance in overcoming the troll. The likelihood of success is dependent upon the opposed ratings, and the luck of the dice, not by having the “right” ability for the current situation. The nature of any victory will be dependent upon the winning abilities used, but this is once more a narrative consideration.
The rules simply treat each and every combination of abilities in the same way, allowing the Players immense freedom. Firstly, this means freedom to choose the character you want. Those ancient Celtic bards who could wither a warrior with their barbed wit are now a possibility. First edition HeroQuest had an origami mage as a sample character, a concept simply too radical for most RPG. Remember, “anything you can imagine, you can play.”
Secondly, this single rules mechanism allows great freedom of action within the game. Just because the troll runs in with a club does not force the Players to respond with the same tactic. The Players are free to choose the action which best suit their characters, or just pick what seems the coolest option. Wuxia-style actions of running along the ceiling, or floating in the air exchanging blows are narrative choices not mechanical ones.
The core engine does have several steps. However, over the course of our campaign, we have reached the point where everyone understands how to make a roll, and what the results mean. For all its apparent complexity, play at the table involves little more than an announcement of target numbers, a die roll, then by a quick check on the chart. The fun part is interpreting the outcome.
The Joy of Story
HQ2 is a narrative game, and it excels at allowing a story to grow. This is propelled by the graded outcomes produced by the rules engine. There are a sliding scale of outcomes, four defeats, four victories and a tie. Both the defeats and victories are graded marginal, minor, major and complete.
Examples are given for these categories, and it does not take long for the group to accept a sliding scale of success, or failure. This allows for more nuanced outcomes and those complicating results which are hard to achieve in a system with a binary pass/fail result.
For all the Players want complete victory, it is the marginal victories which more often drive forward the plot. These outcomes broadly equate to a “Yes, but . . .” result:
“Yes you pick the lock, but not before the guard walks round the corner.”
“Yes you hit the troll, but now she is enraged.”
“Yes you sweet talk the barman, but now his girlfriend is staring daggers at you.”
Our game has found a large bulk of the story within a session emerges improvisationally from these graded outcomes. These graded outcomes are not the sole source of story in our game, but these rules definitely generate plot momentum. As a prep-lite GM, this is incredibly helpful. It is also hugely entertaining, as I have no idea where these outcomes will take the game. HQ2 is very good at surprising me with what happens in our game.
The last area I want to explore is how wonderful it is to run a game with so few, and so flexible, rules. I have reached the age where I cannot absorb a mass of rules, tables and subsystems. HQ2 achieves it all with a single rules engine, allowing me to focus on the narrative.
Considerations of my impending decrepitude aside, there are other benefits to such a simple set of rules. As the rules are so light, game prep is likewise very simple. Any opposition which the Heroes may face can be improvised as required. This is crucial as HQ2 allows the Players huge creativity in terms of what abilities to use, which translates as facilitating all manner of methods.
In a traditional game, if the GM knows a band of trolls will ambush the Heroes, then the outcome can really only be a pitched battle. Thus, the GM prepares the combat abilities of the trolls. With HQ2, in contrast, the same event can be answered in so many ways. Why waste time prepping the combat abilities of the trolls when the Players may choose to defeat them with a barrage of insults? Or a storm of summoned lightning elementals. Or bring down the walls of the ravine onto the ambushers.
Instead, the HQ2 GM can improvise a skill and a resistance on the spot, and then roll against whatever cunning plan the Heroes are pursuing. Running a rules-lite game is liberating, as it frees the GM from a heavy prep burden. Plus, it allows the game to have a sense of spontaneity as it really is being improvised at the table. I see this as the core of our hobby: creating a cool story, in the moment, with your friends.
Following on from the reduced game prep is the utter simplicity of converting all your existing game source books to HQ2. This can be done from traditional stat blocks or, more flexibly, from prose descriptions.
Converting from stat blocks is a matter of looking for the names of skills, feats or spells and simply using those as HQ2 abilities. Direct translation of the associated numbers is not needed. Consider the relative power of the creature compared to the Heroes, and rate appropriately. Or adjust according to the needs of the story and the demands of the setting. Or simply what seems like fun.
Remember how I described the prose method of character creation? Well, this principle can also be applied to creatures or locations as desired. Thus, any piece of prose in a book can be treated as a list of abilities to use in the game. It really is as simple as that.
Barriers to Entry
In the interests of balance, I should note some of the obstacles you may face converting to HQ2. The beauty of the game is the simplicity and flexibility it offers, but some Players struggle with some of the core concepts. This is a narrative game, which does not track money, or arrows, or bullets, or any kind of game minutiae. I found the change to be liberating, but some Players find it disorientating to discard so many traditional game aspects.
Likewise, the central rules mechanic is very different from the more traditional games. There is no granularity in these rules, and the outcomes may seem vague at first. HQ2 is a long way from the mechanistic wargaming roots of the hobby, and will probably be learnt faster by novices than by experienced Players.
These are not insurmountable obstacles, and I certainly found the process worthwhile. However, early sessions are not likely to flow as well as the GM might like, and some Players may struggle with the narrative mindset of the game.
Throughout this essay, it should be clear how much HQ2 facilitates narrative. This is why I love HeroQuest 2, as I want to focus on the story we create at the table not the intricacies of the mechanics.
How are the Players dealing with the problem facing them? How are their chosen abilities coming into play? Where does this take the narrative? What are the consequences of their actions?
These are the answers I want, and HeroQuest 2 allows me to find them at the table. This is why I love HeroQuest 2.