Thoughts on 2nd and 3rd edition Heroquest

I’ve been re-reading the second and third editions of Heroquest lately. I’m sort of a little bit of a fan for Greg Stafford’s things, so this is mostly me warming up for the new Sartar book which I’m going to get whenever somebody brings it to me from the coastal trade towns. I have historically almost never played roleplaying games in Glorantha, but it’s still one of my favourite fantasy worlds. Now I feel like commenting upon these texts a bit.

The short bibliographical outline

For those who don’t know, this whole Glorantha thing is a bit of a mess insofar as getting into it goes. There are many different textual traditions you might read, and as we’ll see, the conclusions are pretty different. Consider:

  • The setting first came into prominence in Runequest decades ago. I played my share of the game itself, but never in Glorantha. As far as I’ve discerned, the Gloranthan material of the time was rooted in the adventure model of roleplaying at the time, so it was quite concerned with things like combat magic. Still, it was already then one of the more unique and literary worlds in roleplaying.
  • Runequest has a new retake that should be mentioned here, published by Mongoose. The new game is set in the relative past of Glorantha. I haven’t familiarized myself with the game, but I understand that many Glorantha fans are not too happy with the quality of the material. What I’ve seen hasn’t been as interesting as the Heroquest material, anyway.
  • Heroquest, the current flagship game for Glorantha, was first published around the millennium under the moniker Hero Wars. I’ve yet to locate the main book for this edition, but I’m going to get that one as well whenever it crosses my field of vision; the supplements I’ve read are all top notch, such as Thunder Rebels and Cults of Sartar – in fact, those are some of the best roleplaying setting material I’ve ever encountered.
  • The second edition of Heroquest followed the first one unseemly soon in 2003 due to some sort of creative and practical issues with the publisher – my understanding is that there was dissatisfaction with the rules text, quality of printing and format of the digest-sized Hero Wars. Anyway, I have the main book for this edition, and have in fact utilized it for gaming, although not in Glorantha. It’s a nice book, but I’ll write more about its distinct features below.
  • Finally, the third edition of the game came out this year. I’ve been doing a bit of comparative reading between the second and third editions, which is the topic of this post.

There is much that could be written about this game and its different versions, it is an interesting subject. However, I’ll concentrate on my central observations here, there’s no need for me to puke out a long, long introductory analysis. I’ll give you just the best bits:

Backwards improvement

Interestingly it seems to me that the Heroquest books are usually better the farther back you go on the line. By this I mean that the creative agenda of the game appears to become hazier and more confused as years go by. This is one of the main reasons for why I’d like to get my hands on the Hero Wars main books; based on the supplements I’ve read I can only imagine that it’s a much more focused game than the second edition book, despite the formal rules being almost identical. Based on the supplements it seems to me that Hero Wars has a very clear vision of a sort of anthropologically inspired heroic roleplaying that views fantasy communities as an in-depth background source for strife that the player characters need to handle. I don’t get much of an adventure game sense at all out of it, and apparently there is not much in the way of GM plot in the game.

In comparison, the second edition of the game has somewhat streamlined rules, but the purported agenda is much more of a mess than the game I imagine the original to be. If I had to pick an overarching theory for what the 2nd edition of Heroquest tries to accomplish, I’d say that it’s mostly character development (adding points to statistics, that is) and contributing narration to a GM’s ready-made plot railroad. I wouldn’t back this claim in a disputation, but then the text of the game seems to wander all over the place in its colorful examples of play and copious rules. I can sort of see the original game’s goals in the text as well, maybe because much of the text is copied directly from Hero Wars.

Meanwhile, the third edition of the game is again a very clear text. It just happens to clarify a way of playing that I don’t find very interesting. In the world of third edition Heroquest the major goal of the GM is to entertain the players by providing them with appropriate challenges for their characters, and to perhaps tell stories on the side. I can’t help but feel that the potential of the great game I see embedded in the second edition text has been lost here.

Setting difficulties

The big, fat procedural difference between the second and third editions of the game seems to be in the logic of difficulty-setting. The third edition text is very focused on the procedures of play, which is part of why it’s so clear as a game. One part of this clarity is the complex heuristic provided for determining resistances in conflict resolution. To cut a long story short, the basic goal of the system is to provide for fun conflict situations in the game by ensuring that difficulties are always appropriate to the dramatic situation at hand. This is achieved basically by GM fiat – the GM picks a difficulty that is appropriate to the situation, helped by Robin D. Laws’ heuristic that tells him what to look for in this regard. I don’t think that I do the system any great injustice by saying that it advocates a model of play where on average the heroes win conflicts when dramatically appropriate and lose them when that is more appropriate.

The second edition of the game (and the first, I’m pretty sure) had a pretty different approach in that conflict resistances were derived from the features of the game’s setting in a manner that is most clearly described as simulational: a cliff might be resistance 20 because it’s a mean cliff, or 40 because it’s insanely difficult to climb. A normal man wrestles with 15, while a giant wrestles with 60 points. That sort of thing. This is almost totally orthogonal to the third edition system, mostly because while the third edition heuristic includes a nod towards this sort of setting realism, it doesn’t really set any meaningful benchmarks – if I didn’t have the second edition book I wouldn’t know that the Saint Plane can be reached with a 120+ level conflict; based on the third edition text, I really could do little but look at what the player character has in his score and base the resistance on that. The sense I get is that most difficulties in the third edition game should be resolved by looking at the player character scores and basing the difficulties on those directly: if you the GM want a situation to be difficult, then take the player’s score and add n points, if you want it to be easy, deduct n points and so on.

I find the third edition system to be incredibly dull, mainly because I’m not that interested in replicating a priori Aristotelian story models. The rules text makes a big deal of how faithful the system is to classical story models and how easy it is to replicate them at your gaming table as long as you the GM guide the flow of the game according to the challenge heuristic. I cannot really disagree, it’s just that I find no joy in having the player character wrestle down a giant because I think now is an appropriate point for him to display his strength; I’d rather have it happen because the character is a mean wrestler or because of luck or whatever. In fact, almost any means of resolution is better than asking me to decide whether the character should succeed or not, which is what the third edition heuristic amounts to: if I wanted to make these sorts of decisions as an author, I’d be writing novels.

This is all a shame, as when I look at the second edition text I get the sense that the quirky ability system of the game was originally created specifically to treat with the large scale of power typical of Glorantha. For those who don’t know, Heroquest features an innovative dicing system wherein scalar numbers like the aforementioned 120 are transformed into target numbers on the 1-20 range (20m5 in this case) for a roll-under d20 check. It’s really quite aesthetic, and makes handling the in-setting power levels quite simple. Most significantly, it allows for real limits in what the characters can or can’t do, and a fruitful tension between the possible and the impossible; insofar as I can see, the complex additive bonus system in Heroquest is specifically intended to interact with the fact that sometimes the conflict resistances are literally out of this world. At least the second edition rules make a big deal of how various bonuses accumulated for heroquesting ultimately allow the characters to overcome the insane difficulty levels.

The third edition rulebook doesn’t seem to be completely subjective in how it approaches the setting of Glorantha, interestingly enough. The book still states that characters can only become f.ex. mages by achieving a rating of 21 in an appropriate ability. Numbers 31 and 39 make an appearance in the slim Glorantha section, too, indicating a bit of something about the scale. I’d interpret this very naturally as meaning that one mastery (20 points) is some sort of natural line of demarcation in the new system. I guess I’ll see when I get the new book whether there’ll be more absolute ratings in there.

Interim conclusion

I think I’ll have more to say about these texts, especially the second edition one. That’ll have to wait for later, no need to write up a huge post all in one go. For now it’s enough to note that while I’m not all that interested in playing the game in the way the third edition book presents it, I’m otherwise pretty impressed with how streamlined and logical the system has become here. In fact, most of the things I houseruled away from the second edition rules set while playing it have been removed from the third edition, making it mechanically quite clean and slick.

I recommend these game texts to others interested in game design simply because they’re really quite educational regarding the demarcation of rules system vs. rules mechanics. The system of interaction in the game has undergone a drastic upheaval in the evolution from the first edition to the third, while the mechanical system has only been cleaned up. As I’ve already convincingly discussed with others several times, nothing in the mechanics of the third edition forces you to play it as a railroading game; all the same bits are there that were in the first two editions. Regardless, all the advice and prescribed GMing technique is radically different. I could easily see a game that used the same exact mechanics, but replaced the GNS-simulationistic GMing advice with the narrativistic material I think I see in the earlier editions.

10 thoughts on “Thoughts on 2nd and 3rd edition Heroquest”

  1. Gotta say, I totally agree with your conclusion. HQ2 is streamlined just in a way that hits the spot, but the “subjective challenge” or simulation of classic narrative just isn’t for my tastes.

    I will propably be using some sort of hybrid in my games.

  2. Nice substantive review, although I think you underestimate how badly broken HQ1’s set resistances became in a campaign game of more than five sessions. David Dunham (King of Dragon Pass) and I both concluded that HQ1’s resistances simply were broken in long games (something to which Robin Laws concurs).

    But of course tastes certainly vary. I personally greatly prefer the newest version of HQ2 to HQ1/HW, but reasonable people can differ on their favorite editions.

    Moon Design LLC

  3. I wouldn’t really know about the balance of the given numbers, as I think I haven’t played with the HQ system in Glorantha. It’s easy to believe that the large amount of numbers in the 2003 book would come essentially out of a hat, though; I’m not quite naive enough to expect much in-depth playtesting for that sort of thing. It’s notable that I don’t find the unreliability of the various numbers much of a problem for my own preferences, for two reasons:

    • It’s not that difficult to fix the numbers in actual play to match the setting better as long as the core technique of deriving the numbers from the setting is in place. If I know that these numbers are intended to represent something in the setting, I can easily fix them as I go along and find that they actually don’t.
    • What is unbalanced, ultimately? I can totally understand that an adventure-oriented GM would find it problematic if the opposition he has chosen for the player characters is too easy or too hard, but if that’s not your premise, the whole problem disappears: nowadays we have plenty of paradigms of play that are fully capable of dealing with situations where player characters are genuinely overpowering or genuinely defeated – if that’s the sort of game you’re playing, mere inequality with player character strength level does not equal unbalance.
    • How one prefers to set the conflict resistance levels is of course totally a paradigm issue, I can certainly vouch for the new method in terms of logic – as far as I can see, it does exactly what it purports to. As you say, Jeff, it’s a matter of taste whether that is something we want to do with the game, though. I suspect that if a given customer dislikes the mock contest rules in the new book (a sidebar that advocates lying to your players about contest procedures to increase tension), that’s a pretty good indication that the entire approach of the book’ll leave a bad taste in his mouth like it does for me. That’s some heavily specialized GMing technique right there.

      Anyway, I’d like to concur with Olorin in that I much prefer the streamlined mechanical approach of the new book in comparison to the idiosyncratic exceptions heaped upon exceptions that the older editions have. Calculating bonuses and penalties in percentage fractions of whole numbers is far from aesthetic as far as number games go. It’s just the play advice, GMing technique and creative agenda espoused by the book that I don’t like at all. The next time I do something with the system, it’ll probably be these new edition mechanics complemented with a simple cheatsheet of setting-appropriate resistances and a clearly narrativist technical approach.

      In case somebody is really reading this as a review (instead of just random musings), let me say that Heroquest is at this point one of the most important games of the decade, and the new edition rules are the cleanest version yet. I disagree vehemently with the paradigm of play espoused in the new book, but the mechanics are better than the old and I like the universal toolset approach (resembles my own Solar System quite a bit as a product, in fact); considering that the mechanics are pretty agenda-neutral and easily slotted back to the more narrativist/realist approach of the earlier editions, I see no reason for anybody to avoid the new rules-set. If you’ve never picked up Heroquest, this is the best edition to get, and if you have an older version, you’ll find it easy to pick the good mechanics from this one into your old game. The only customer this book is going to fail is one who is looking for a solid introductory rules-set for narrativistic story gaming (as opposed to simulationistic, wherein this is a heavy hitter) and doesn’t know how to float the system towards that; I imagine that those people are a vanishing minority, considering the fact that you won’t be looking for support for narrativism without first having learned about it from other games, in which case you’ll have little trouble adapting this for your purposes.

      I’ve met some folks who’ve been a bit upset about the direction taken in the new Heroquest rules, but I’m relaxed about it myself. The new Sartar book is going to be much more interesting, I do dearly hope that it’ll be as cool as the Hero Wars supplements were for a Glorantha dabbler like myself.

  4. Differences of play style are aesthetic judgments – there is no right or wrong answer. Some people love Robin’s approach (I am certainly in that camp), others do not. But as a rules system, HQ2 is definitely the most clearly written of the three.

    Jeff Richard
    Moon Design LLC

  5. Olli Kantola

    I’m running the Colymar campaign from the new Sartar book right now and I have to say that it has been alright thusfar. The campaign itself is pretty heavily railroaded, but I’ve managed to find some breathing space for the players.

    The rules don’t support gamism, but other than that, they are pretty neutral as far as creative agendas go. The two main things seems to be that the GM is a style/genre police and that situations and complications are improvised after the fact.

    The style/genre police thing is crystallized in that difficulties of contests is determined byt the GMs estimation of the potentially cool/plausible things that can result from either failure or success in a contest with the style and genre of the game in mind. Also the level of detail given to the resolution of conflicts follow this logic.

    The other thing is that the level of resistance of a conflict is determined first and it is justified later. So for example, first you determine the difficulty of getting inside the gates of the city with your style/genre police hat on and the you justify it with complications and/or circumstances. Using the city gates example, when the PCs try to talk their way in, the GM judges that the interresting stuff is happening in the city, but that some nice local interaction could ensue if they fail, so the difficulty is low. The GM then narrates how the guards seem uninterrested and that one of them curses the fact that he has been stationed in this hellhole.

    Another point that I’d like to make is that the difficulties aren’t actually tied to the abilities of the PCs. Instead they are tied to a rising base difficulty. That means that the ability chosen isn’t irrelevant. Anyway, heropoints can buy you victory in most cases if you really care.

    Come to think of it, it seems to me that when analyzed with the old drama/karma/fortune divide, it seems one of the biggest differences between the new HeroQuest and the old is a major emphasis on drama mechanics over karma mechanics.

  6. Everything I’ve heard of the way you play the new game I like, Olli. We’ll have to do that get-together we talked about one of these days, perhaps we could play a bit of Heroquest then. And you can bring me a copy of the Sartar book, too.

    Justifying the difficulties after determining them makes immense sense for the system to be sure, especially if a certain level of consistency is maintained once the difficulty has been established – Kallyr’s ability rating shouldn’t get recalculated for every conflict, for instance. Other than that, interpreting the new rules in that manner make them a reasonable framework for improvisation.

  7. Olli Kantola

    I’m actually ok with varied difficulties in dealing with Kallyr. Let’s see what we have. . .

    Kallyr doesn’t actually have numerical abilities! Instead we have the setting/genre/style specified in the beginning of the campaign, the situation, including Kallyrs place in the setting etc. and how the PCs are related to her, a system for determining resistances and lastly we have the thing the players are after.

    If you just use the system, the results will make sense.

    During a single session you might first want Kallyrs recognition, her help in kicking some lunar ass and finally you might want to romance her. No problem if the resistance varies, right?

    What about if you try to get her help several times? There are no retries in HQ so the situation would have to change between tries. The new difficulty wont be hard to justify.

    In the end, it’s all down to who will win, Batman or Superman! =) Social situations etc. are easy to justify, but if you are fighting Kallyr her “abilities” should not change, right?

    Situation is king here IMO. Killing Kallyr might be nearly impossible for most of the campaign, but in the end it might be more interresting and/or plausible if Kallyr goes, thus lowering the resistance to very hard. A couple of points here and there from the rising base difficulty won’t matter much, but what the players are after will matter much more. Capturing Kallyr would propably be much more interresting for example.

    Anyway, I don’t see any difficulties in coming up with circumstances that justify the resistance in each case. The resistance of killing her should be more static than the pass/fail cycle implies anyway, because the pass/fail cycle is down the ladder of procedures, behind the plausibility test and the interresting consequences bit.

    Now there could be a disconnect between the difficulty of imprisoning her and killing her. Imprisoning her could lead into all sorts of interresting situations so perhaps it should be easy or maybe we should default to the pass/fail cycle. In order to justify the low difficulty I’d narrate some sort of crookedness that the PCs would have to resort to in order to catch her – perhaps making it into a bang of sorts. Another option would be to narrate some heroic stunt that she performs but that leaves her fatigued.

    I have to admit that in the Colymar campaign there is a real problem with resistances that I have to resolve. At one point of the campaign the PCs are facing enemy clansmen and such, but session or two later they will be facing some pretty nasty demons. I will have to keep in mind that the complications and situations that I narrate will have to take both into account. Another possibility is that the campaign could have a power level creep that isn’t related to the abilities of the PCs.

    So IMO the issue isn’t unproblematic, it’s just a bit unintuitive that the crux of the matter doesn’t with the numbers, but with the picture that you have of the setting/genre/style of your campaign.

  8. You sure give a convincing argument here, Olli. I’ll certainly have to bow to your superior experience in this case. The part I’m most skeptical about, ultimately, is that the heuristic used here ultimately revolves on a very nuanced differentiation between what the GM considers interesting vs. what he wants to happen. The line between story facilitation and railroading here is hair-thin and I am not sure if it is possible to distinguish between them with these tools. But I do confess that the way you’re viewing the game text, there is a system there with enough substance that I can’t reject it out of hand without testing it in practice. I have a feeling that the story comes out too pat for my tastes when the directions all spring from the head of one individual in the form of his difficulty-determinations, but maybe it’ll work out.

  9. I agree that the line is thin. Luckily the players can spend any amount of heropoints in a simple contest and one heropoint per round in an extended contest. This and the fact that very hard is still pretty easy, especially if you use your best ability and are able to augment even helps balance things out.

  10. I was a bit skeptical at the begining, but after two games (with Newsalor as gamemaster) I’m totally sold.

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