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 Jörmungandr.
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.