Sunday, October 24, 2010

Review of HeroQuest

I’ve already written at The Escapist about how much I like HeroQuest, but I’ve decided to write a more detailed review of the game itself as information for the Gentle Reader.

Robin Laws wrote HeroQuest, and it incorporates many of his ideas about roleplaying and includes numerous, helpful discussions of good game-mastering principles without interrupting the flow of the rule explanations. The book itself is only one hundred-thirty pages long, including an appendix introducing Glorantha as a roleplaying setting, tables and charts, and extensive index.

HeroQuest’s basic mechanic is the Challenge. Players roll a twenty-sided die and match it against a character’s trait rating, be it Sword, Government Connections, or Fly X-Wing. If the roll is equal to or less than the rating of the trait, success; if above, failure. The lower the number, the better. A roll of 1 is a critical, indicating particular success, and a roll of 20 is a fumble, leading to an especially bad outcome.

Whereas some situation might call for a simple die roll, players often make rolls as opposed challenges, where the Narrator or another players rolls against her own trait rating. Rolls during a simulated game of Tri-Dimensional Chess might result in one player having a Success of 12, the other a Success of 17. In this case, the first player’s character wins the game but barely. On the other hand, a Fumble versus a Critical would reflect a devastating victory for the second player, perhaps altering the characters’ social standings or reputations.

Beyond this, if a character increases a trait above a rating of 20, then it gains a master level. Foe example, a rating of 23 is noted as a 3W. The player tries to roll a 3 or less on the die, and each mastery level (W) of the trait raises the result level by one. Thus, a fumble is only a failure, a failure is actually a success, a success becomes a critical, and a roll of 1 reduces an opponent’s success by one. If two characters both have a mastery level, then they cancel out. Clearly, characters with the advantage of one or more mastery levels have a dominating advantage.

The basic rules also handle group contests and extended contests, when the storyline becomes most dramatic. Individuals or groups accumulate Resolution Points until someone has suffered five or more, when the contest ends. The Narrator determines results based on the Resolutions Points, reflecting the uncertainty and back-and-forth of a pivotal challenge, be it a martial arts battle in an exploding refinery or negotiations with alien ambassadors.

The beauty of HeroQuest is its flexibility. Traits can reflect anything. A Narrator could require players to draw from a certain set or from background material to reflect the chosen setting. Games can scale for any level of power. If everyone is playing a Norse deity, then it is fine to have their characters’ basic traits measured without mastery levels, saving higher mastery levels for Fenrir or J√∂rmungandr.

HeroQuest has a short chapter on relationships and followers. Relationships allow a character to gain advantages from connections like Friends in High Places, Son of King of Gondor, or Knows Good Fixers. Relationships work both ways, however, and can obligate a character to do something to aid their patron or friend. Followers act as extensions, some more autonomous than others, of the character itself. In some situations, they will operate with their traits, as if they were those of the character herself. In others, they will merely augment their master.

HeroQuest also has a system of hero points, which allow a player to influence the die rolls by gaining an one-time mastery level or something else judged appropriate by the Narrator. I allow my players to add important story elements with hero points. Without skewing the game, hero points give players a heroic edge and a greater sense of control in the game.

At the end of the book are sample genre packs like Bitter Winds Shaman and High Elves of Ammelon, plus several pages covering Glorantha using HeroQuest. These exemplify the system’s flexible nature. With HeroQuest, gamers can play the roles of anything, ranging from single heroes to nation states, from ecologies to ideas. I’ve used HeroQuest as the basis for science lessons and debates, as well as for more traditional tabletop play.

As I mentioned earlier, Robin Laws includes numerous insights into creating and running games. He discusses three methods for character creation in detail, all committed to defining character traits and identity. He also extensively applies his ideas about story beats to game play, providing examples from literature, like Beowulf, but also narrowing down to actual play situations. In this system, the traits of villains and other obstacles are based not on any absolute rating, like “town guards have an ability of Spear Fighting 15,” but instead are based on the results of the previous scene. This creates an undulating story of highs and lows, heavy challenges and relief scenes.

HeroQuest is a narrative game that pushes Narrators and players to verbalize their stories in ways they don’t have to in roleplaying games based in scores of die rolls and charts. This and its flexibility allow me to run all sorts of games with people from nine year olds through adults. It’s a natural system for our raconteur species.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Friday Afternoons

I'm running a Friday afterschool game this autumn for fifth through eighth graders at Paideia School, where I teach. I've been offering this activity for about ten years. I began it to give some of my fifth and sixth graders a place to socialize outside of classes but available to me for observation and guidance. Those kids are now out of college, but the games have remained popular. In the past, many kids have played through the whole year, year after year. In fact, this session I have three eighth grade boys that I've known as players since they were about eight years old. Most of my players, though, are fifth and sixth graders, about three-quarters male.

My current game is set in Glorantha, as they often are, and involves a small hero band that troubleshoots for the Lunar Emperor. They're off by moon boat to investigate two issues, raids on tax caravans and illegal religious activities. They created a range of characters, ranging from a holy servant of the imperial dog cult to a large centipede magician. Without leaving them the leeway of TOON, I wanted them to create characters that interested them. Interesting for me, as they created characters, many of them referenced parts of World of Warcraft, a game that fascinates them but about which I know very little. The generic fantasy elements were familiar enough, but I had to break them of some of their assumptions in order them to have coherent characters for my game. Their early fantasy experience in the online game had taught them that dwarves were this and shamans were that, and I pushed them to think more flexibly. They were willing, but it was not without effort. Ten and eleven year olds like to know the rules and to have things clearly labeled and categorized. At the same time, they are just reaching the age when abstract though and relative definitions begin to come more readily. It's been fascinating to watch them explore this in their preparations for the game and during the first scenes.

I have a larger group, fourteen kids, than has been the norm for the past few years. The age range requires some planning, but the eighth graders have been playing these games with me for a long time, and they are happy to craft some of their own story and operate more independently. They also seem to be enjoying watching their younger selves find their way in the activity, and they've asked me more than once if they used to play "like that."

The younger students are staying together and working together, though this requires frequent argumentation, something they enjoy. They love succeeding and are generally supportive of one another's efforts. There is quite a range in personalities, which keeps things interesting.

I'm sure I'll have more comments about this bunch in the future!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

King Tut moves into my classroom.

This past Friday, October 1, we began a year-long LARP, known as Tut. Every other year, the theme in my classroom at Paideia School is Ancient Egypt. We tie in as many areas of the curriculum as we can, and the Tut LARP is one of the core elements that integrates and inspires much of our study.

I wrote this LARP years ago but continue to update it based on current research and from observations of students' interests during previous years' sessions. Kids come into my class knowing that a game is coming, and this year's bunch have been excited since August. As I mentioned in a previous post, I cast the characters, which is quite a commitment for the school year, so I always wait at least a few weeks in order better to know them and their relationships with one another. I had a good feeling about this bunch.

On the last Friday in September, we spent the afternoon introducing the game and handing out their character folders. Each character itself is about ten pages long, including basic information like titles, age, and personality; historical background; relationships with and opinions of all of the other characters; traits and card list; initial goals; events and tasks during the seasons and festivals of the Ancient Egyptian year; pertinent religious hymns; and their game cards. Each folder also has a copy of the basic game rules, overview of the year, royal family tree, government hierarchy, maps, and any other items that accompany an individual character.

In designing the game, I wanted to give each participant more than enough material to occupy them for a school year, roughly fifty hours of play. They soon generate plenty of their own goals and obstacles as well. The cards allow them to affect the game and one another or to block someone trying to do so. Cards are a limited resource, though there are ways, for example, being appointed as a high priest, for a character to gain new ones. Most importantly, the cards leave most of the game resolutions to them, while I can observe or sort out the most complicated or dramatic situations.

After about an hour, during which I set the stage for the game and expectations about play and then handed out the folders with some ceremonial bows, we crowned young King Tutankhaten and his queen Ankhsenpaaten and got down to some of the students' important questions. After that, they were off for the weekend, admonished to read at least some of the twenty and more pages in their packet.

I was not disappointed! The conspiracies and palace intrigue clearly multiplied through IM and Facebook over Saturday and Sunday, and the plots that were laid struggled not to burst out into the open over lunches and on the playground. Costumes and accessories began to appear in cubbies, and the eye makeup came out by the end of the week. This past Friday we began the first season of the Ancient Egyptian year, the Season of the Inundation, a time of many festivals since little work could be done on the flooded fields.

Most of the students spent the afternoon meeting their fellow nobles in the flesh; bargaining over if not actually trading cards representing gold, lapis lazuli, beer, and so forth; and getting a sense of the game's operation. A few, however, got down to business. Spies uncovered a few secrets, at least one murder investigation is underway, and plans emerged for the rebuilding of at least some of the temples of Egypt.

I could see the scenery come up in their eyes as they began. They bowed, intoned hymns and formal greetings, and generally began exploring their possibilities. The elder statesman Ay was consolidating his supporters, including his ambitious brother Anen. The queen veered between asking her young king for aid and bullying him in the directions she desired. The nomarchs began organizing the festivals that would carry them through the year to harvest season, when their lucrative lands will bear many valuable goods. More sinister discussions took place in corners and among the bookshelves of the class library.

It was wonderful. They left eager for more time to play and are no doubt plotting new dramas even now!

P.S. I listened to All Things Considered podcast today. Lots of great ideas!