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What is it About the HQ Rules and Bringing Out Setting?

Started by Christopher Kubasik, January 01, 2005, 10:11:45 PM

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Christopher Kubasik

Hi all,

I was fishing about and came across Brand's thread on using HQ for Earthdawn.

Several quotes jumped out at me:

Mike: "Since using HQ, I've been, as you say, playing the world [of Shadow World]. Which is what I wanted to begin with."

Brand: "HeroQuest doesn't just allow you to play the Earthdawn game, it allows you to play the Earthdawn world. The game is all about adepts having adventures in kaers and fighting evil empires, the world, however, is about much more than that."

Ron wrote: "Or to put it a different way: Planescape + HeroQuest = awesome Planescape. What's interesting is that setting it up simply erased all the aspects of D&D, such that the Planescape that emerged was a new animal - which happened to be the one we wanted all along."

Now, as a guy who helped create all that Earthdawn background, I got this chill reading Brand getting all excited about about playing the world.  Because that's the part that interested me the most.  I tried to help build a thematically rich place.  The fact that I was working with FASA, who loved building backgrounds waiting for player's imaginations to run rampant with color and theme, meant I could have as much fun as I wanted.

At the same time I know that whenever I was playing the game I got all tangled up in Greg Gordon's wifty -- but ultimately not my cup of tea -- rules about spell matrices and circles and whatnot.

Now that I've been at the Forge a while I can see that my desire to "play the world" I helped build had a lot more to do with a desire to play the thematic material inherent in it than anything else.  The rules were the part I had to get through to kind of get to the stuff I wanted to actually be touching.  So that part I've got down.

What I *don't* have down is the magical quality HQ seems to have for people whereby stripping out the original rules of a setting and using HQ seems to release -- genie-in-a-lamp-like -- the color, setting, themes and ideas that drew everybody to want to play the original game in the first place.  It's not just threads here.  There's a dozen or more testemonials over at as well.

Now someone (probably Mike, if anybody) might have covered this already.  And if the link's available, just post 'em.  But if not, I'd love to see what people have to say about this.

I think there's something significant going on here.  People buy new settings to touch and nuzzle against the thematic, emotional, or imaginative elements contained within them.

But it seems as if certain rule designs (or rule design paradigms) have actually blocked people from getting to the the very things they wanted most -- the settings and all the cool stuff attendent to each setting.  (If people are saying, "Now I'm finally playing the world because I'm using HQ," this seems a fair conclusion.)

So my questions are:

What the heck was going on with the way we used to think about rules that blocked getting to the setting?

What the heck does HQ got going for it that's rubbing the lamp of all these richly imaginative settings and letting the genie out of the bottle?



PS This might belong in RPG Theory.  I leave it to the moderator to deal wth.
"Can't we for once just do what we're supposed to do -- and then stop?
Lemonhead, The Shield


Hi Chris,

I think what we're seeing is folks finally getting the chance to shed a lot of old habits and assumptions with system.  When you look at HQ, it's an excellent system for Nar OR Sim play, both of which can have a ball with setting and theme.

The beauty of the system in Heroquest is that it leaves the definition of conflict up to the group playing it.

Read that again.  Whether we're talking Planescape, Shadow World, or Earthdawn, the fact is that many systems predefine what conflict and play is about.  You may be wanting to shift the paradigm of the inhabitants in Planescape, but D&D's conflict engine is all Hitpoints and spells.  HQ allows you to pick what exactly is interesting to your group and what factors are important enough to take into account.

For some groups, that means niggling over weapon reach, metal forging techniques, individual handgrips and stances in combat, etc.  For other groups, its all about emotional confrontations, calling people out and emotional revelations.  HQ is a plug and play system.  Pick what matters, and that is your conflict.  That's the genie.



Good points.

Something I´d add, although it´s really only relevant on Sim-HQ:

HQ allows Culture, Belief and similar concepts to matter, even if the campaigns/games central conflict isn´t really about Culture or Belief. Compare HQ Homeland or Religion keywords with most other games out there:

Most games either ignore culture alltogether or only take it for some minor "powerz", like D&Ds "All elves are competent with Elven Exotic Weapons as Martial Weapons" and similar stuff. This is, in a way, understandable, as it is harder to display cultural (or racial, or religious...) differences with a set of generic rules. Often, this is the skill systems "fault", as it has a set of skill that apply to all and everyone in the game and thus have a hard time accounting for individual differences, like, dunno, a Fremens specific cultural background, for example. Of course, this can be done, for example by a "Specialisation"-system, but these often are used more for things that "are really usefull" for the character. (Especially in point-buy systems.)

Heroquest allows, through keywords and player-created abilities, to display a characters cultural, religious, racial, whatever,... background without making the system needlessly complicated or making the character less "usefull". It doesn´t punish the players for having characters that focus on their heritage.

Does that make sense?

When you love something, let it go.
If it doesn´t return, hunt it down and kill it.


When describing the HQ system to the players in my Song of Ice and Fire RPG, I said something along the lines of "What you have to understand is that the HQ system doesn't give you ideas, it supports the ideas you already have. In most RPGs you think of a vague action you want to take, look at your sheet for crunchy factors to enable it, and by doing that focus the general intent into a specific action. You may then add description/stunts on top of that, but in the end you get a lot of your direction, crunch, and support from looking to the system first. In HQ you have to have your idea first, and then use the system to give it dramatic play support. You won't have a list of maneuvers to scroll down, or a bunch of charms to choose from – so if you look to the system to tell you what to do, you'll find it becoming a been counter system where APs go back and forth without meaning or direction. But when you have clear ideas about what you want to do, when you go in with a goal and a desire to do something, then the system will support you in taking the actions you want to without the interference that's trained you not to do that in other systems."

HQ has the ability to support doing what you think is important, rather than being an overly large set of assumed conditions about what you should want to do and what the focus of the rules support needs to be.

Let's put my bumbling Earthdawn conversion aside for a second, and look at Neel's Mage conversion in this thread:

This is an excellent, sterling, beautiful example of HQ conversion bringing out things about the Mage universe that the normal game fumbles. Neel, through his understanding of the setting and the concepts of paradigm and consensus has built a very simple conversion that allows the fundamental ideas of magic as presented in Mage to really shine. It's a setting in which you can suddenly actually have mechanical support for changing consensus, in which paradigm is the thing that lets you do magic, and in which the crunch is broken down in order to let players more fully define what magic will actually do.

Even my objection to the sample keyword was just another example of deciding what was important. Neel apparently liked the very traditional Vajrayāna image of Akashic monks, where I like to do a more urban-fusion magic of the mosaic style setup for my traditions. In defining which abilities and assumptions we would give to the keyword we decide exactly what we want our game to be.

Now, to a degree this is nothing new – because it's almost like building your own game based on someone else's setting. Whenever you convert a game you do so because you aren't getting what you want out of the game with the current engine, and when you make the decisions to switch over you (hopefully) do so in a way that brings out the things that you like. Its just that HQ, because of it's extremely open drama-rather-than-effect system makes such conversions easy.  

Well, not easy. They become easy once you've decided exactly what it is you want out of your game, which can be a hard enough thing on its own. By focusing on issues and situation from the ground up, and making the level of focus they get depend on what you want, HQ really lets you ask "What matters to this setting, and how do I make it happen in game?"
- Brand Robins

Russell Hoyle

In regard to HeroQuest's ability to bring more life and vibrancy to a setting, I feel I should also highlight an effect Mike Holmes has described before.

In preparing Keywords for a specific setting, one is in fact applying a filter that removes much of the game crunch whilst highlighting the colour.

I have found this very thing when I have been converting parts of a setting/adventure (d20 Worlds Largest Dungeon) to my beloved HeroQuest. The generic Ogre with a club just becomes so much more interesting when you apply the HeroQuest filter...

Instead of worrying about armour class hit points and damage, the abilities I included in my conversion of said ogre included a lot of things from my own imagination about Bragdor... things I don't think would have been a consideration if I relied only on the d20 stat block:

Bragdor the Ogre

Large 8M            
Tough 1M
Great Club Brawling 19M       
[Great Club +7]         
[Hide Armour +3]
Throw Javelin 19
[Large Javelins +4]
Dark Vision 19         
Strong 11M
Clumsy 18            
Stupid 2M
Naive 14            
Ugly 19
Alert 19            
Sharp Hearing 2M
Hit Harder Charm 18

I am sure Mike Holmes could expand on his experiences...


Mike Holmes

I think everybody is right here, and I'm going to try to put these altogether to give the picture of why it works so well in a gestalt fashion.

1. Chris is right that the conflict nature of the system is a key. HQ doesn't tell you with the resolution system what the conflicts are. But what Chris leaves out, is that it does inform you as to what the conflicts are, and that is by the character enumeration. So, as he says, the players come up with the definition of conflict, but they also inform what those conflicts will be by their selection of characters. If nobody takes a character with combat abilites, then there's going to be little combat.

2. Brand is right, because he lays out just precisely how it is that HQ does what Chris says it does. It doesn't inform you to do anything other than what the players put on the character sheets, because of it's "all effects are equal" design. So you have players free to select character concepts that are all equally effective, thus allowing theme to be the primary thing in determining choice. But what themes?

3. Minx is right, because it's precisely that the players enumerate their characters in terms of culture and beliefs. This is the link between the character and the setting. So we have players allowed to select the conflict, without resolution system bias, and that conflict being stated in terms of the characters in their place in the setting.

4. Russell is correct, because in selecting the homeland, species, and occupation templates, you end up with abilities that are theme laden in terms of how they relate to the setting. That is, you define the character in terms of the setting. Are there Ogres who are Shamans? If so, then you've said something interesting about the setting. Or, the reverse, if you know there are ogre shamans, and write this up, suddenly the character is attached to the setting in a very mechanical way. So you have players allowed to select the format of the conflict, without resolution system bias, the conflict being stated in terms of the character's place in the setting, as objectively stated out in the keywords selected.

But here's what everyone's missing - what abilities tie the character to the setting?

5. My response is that everything does, but nothing so well as the relationships present in each keyword. I mean, you'll still have those "powerz" that Minx mentions - elves will still be talented in using the weapons of their homelands. So what makes HQ different than D&D in this respect? Well, you know where you get that weapon skill from in HQ. For an elf, it might be "Relationship to Tribe" or whatever. Not only does this single state incentivize you to make sure that the conflicts in play are about the character's relationship with his tribe, or family or whatever, but that all of their abilities are a reflection of the culture that they come from. Use Elven Bow is not the same as Use Woodman Bow. Not just in that the weapon is potentially somewhat different - they'll only have improv mods with respect to each other, and be otherwise completely equal. No, the difference is that the elves think that their way is better.

This is the key. Everyone thinks that their way is better (even if their "way" is to be egalitarian or cosmopolitan, they can at least point to their egalitarianism - Lunars). This is what is key to most of these worlds. What makes the relationship between Gimli and Legolas interesting? It's the rivalry between the races. Men and Elves? "I was there that day three thousand years ago when the strength of men failed us."

All fantasy stories are, to some extent, about the conflict of cultures. Even in stories like Conan, where he's not really all that attached to any particular culture (although is Cimmerian chauvanism does show at times), the stories are all about the strange lands he's passing through, and which is at war with which, or how the local custom is going to get him boiled in oil...

If you feel that the setting has themes that need to be played, then HQ can bring them out automatically. Being an Ork in Earthdawn is no longer about the superior killing ability of being an Ork, but it's about all that "Ork" stuff about their peculiuar form of honor and such. Yes, how well he can kill will be important, but only such as he can prove that the Ork way of life is the right way. If he's questing after some magic whatsis, it's so that he can bring it back to his tribe, and make it stronger - note that the rule in HQ says that the character's Hero Band automatically takes half or more of any such stuff brought back. This is not just an explanation of where stuff that doesn't have HP spent on them go, but a statement of the character's committment to his group, and belief system.

Characters in HQ always have a purpose, and it's always in terms of the setting - their culture and beliefs. So all play can be, if one wants it to be, about the setting themes. This is so strongly supported, that I think it's only strong traditions of play that make it so that not every player who participates in HQ play has this experience.

In other systems, you can have all of these things. My only character in Planescape was a Hobgoblin Warrior/Priest. There were NPCs that I made up that explained where he got his abilities from, a family he'd left behind, everything you could have in HQ, in terms of background. I made up a ton of material explaining what Lawful Evil meant in terms of their culture, and why it made sense for him to be Lawful Neutral. I made up an entire religion, with festivals, and even discluded some of the "priest" canon spell list based on this stuff. I mean, I really went out of my way to bring this character to life in terms of him being a part of this very rich setting where Hobgoblins could theoretically be pals with all of the other PCs.

What did I get? Go there and get the whatsis for your employer. The "link" to the setting was the generic hook that all RPGs use, money. Money is an interesting thing, because it's an exchange material for the usefullness that a culture issuing the money feels you have to the culture in theory. But it's an impersonal link. One can't really buy loyalty with gold, one can only buy work. Sans anything on the character sheet saying that my character's family was important mechanically, or his village, or his belief in his god, none of the play was ever about this. And not for me failing to try, either. I was just ignored, or, worse, considered to be obstructing play somehow.

Played with HQ, no doubt all of that background would have been enumerated in the character, and every action he took would have resonated with themes of the setting. The other players would have understood why it was that I reacted with fear and loathing when elves were near (instead of calling my play tactically unsound). Why my character sometimes manhandled other PCs, instead of thinking that I was trying to instigate PvP conflict. Perhaps the scenarios would have said something about his beliefs, instead of being completely tangential to them.

Gamism aside (that is, it's not just the mode being different), what's on the character sheet informs players of what it is that they're supposed to explore. And making them all positive modifiers for conflict incentivizes playing to these abilities. Since they are based in setting, players explore setting. I mean, the difference between a wizard in Rolemaster, and a wizard in HQ is that the wizard in HQ has a relationship with the order that gave him his spells, and has to consider that if he wants to keep the very important mechanical support he has from them.

And this makes all the difference in the world.

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Hi Christopher,
I think your question has two answers. One has been danced around already but not really hammered down. I didn't see it explicitly mentioned but that doesn't mean it wasn't (flame-retardant disclaimer starts here). It just means I didn't see it reading through the other posts and can potentially be either going blind or losing my cognitive skills from too much computer usage. (My mother always warned me that would happen...)

Anyway, I didn't see it in explicit terms, so here's number one...

HeroQuest quantifies everything, even things that other games have deemed unquantifiable. It's not so much that HQ emphasizes culture. There are a bunch of games that do that in their settings. HeroQuest gives culture a value, a real number value that's wired into the system. IMO, that's not unlike Riddle of Steel or even Pendragon. Only HeroQuest, as others have mentioned, allows for cultural values to shift more readily from culture to culture depending upon what a player expects out of play and what is important to him or her.

That said, part two is a related bit that I think is important too.

HeroQuest enforces culture. By providing cultural norms, roles and traits a quantifiable value, culture is enforced in the rules of HeroQuest. In D&D we can *say* Elves are stuck-up. We can *say* that most Elves live to be 500 years old.

In HeroQuest they get values for those traits, which, IMO, makes all the difference.

Sure, I'm not breaking any new ground here and pretty much just pointing out the bare foundations of what most everyone has already said. But I think those two things are the heart of the matter.


P.S. Russell I have an HQd20 chart that may help you in your conversion. I based it off of some of Mike's suggestions (adjusting the conversion ratios accordingly) and it transfers over d20 abilities, skills and DCs to HeroQuest ratings with a bit more accuracy than the quickie add 15 or 17 to every DC that Lael had worked out for the Midnight-HQ conversion. You could definitely run things fast and loose off the chart, only needing to detail a handful of important adversaries instead of every single one. If you're interested, drop me a PM. I'd be happy to send you a copy.

P.S.S. Cross-post. Mike mentions point one in his post with "enumeration" etc. Sorry, Mike. I came in right behind you. :)

Mike Holmes

No prob, Scott.

And we very much agree, statistical enumeration makes "all the difference."

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Most RPGs specify their settings twice: once as prose that tells the players how the world is supposed to work conceptually; and once again as a set of mechanisms that model the world and make it work in play.

This has several downsides:
    You can convey a lot in a few paragraphs of prose. It takes a more space to convey the same in rules form.

    It takes a lot more effort and time to come up with rules for everything in the world you are describing.

    It takes more effort for the reader to absorb all these rules. Something a group either has to do quite a bit of ahead of play, or play has to keep getting suspended.[/list:u]Since development time, effort and space are limited these prebuild rules only ever model part of the world. Loads of things get left out the model. No matter how interesting these ideas are they will be sidelined as players are forced to concentrate on the rules during play. Worse - some third party has decided which bits the players are allowed to care about and which bits are fluff.

    Prebuilt rules have a second failing: they cant be as correct as the description of the world. The prose description can't have quirks that can be exploited at the expense of believability. Rules often do and railroad players into exploiting them in order not to get outgunned.

    Play that uses a shared understanding of a setting, as opposed using a shared set of rules modelling the setting, has a further benefit. Players minds are focused on the setting and the elements of the story - because those are also the actual resources they are using in play. They are not thinking about some abstract numbers which distracts them from whats actually happening.

    Pre-build rules have definate upsides too; but these are IHO mostly important to gamist play which is why HQ is getting raved about for sim and especially nar play.

    Robin Law's act of genius was to cut out all the need for world modelling  by
allowing players to work directly from the prose description of the world without any need to have rules. If we read in the background that a Jack'O'Bear is stronger than most heros and has a gaze that magically freezes people then we have everything we need to use one in play. If we read elsewhere that chaos priests can get magic that makes chaos creatures serve them then again we are ready to use it. In otherwords: everything that is written about the background is useable and will be used to the degree that the reader finds it a cool concept.

This is complemented by the rules free way of organising information about the setting and the people in it.  Organisations, cultures, religions, races, etc are all described as prose so that the players all have a common understanding and then condensed into a set of meaningful words and no numbers. This is important to anyone doing a conversion because its setting up these keywords that summarises the different aspects of the world for the players. But whats key is that no extra rules are needed - its really just an efficient summary of the prose description of the setting.

Aside: Consider how the rules have evolved from HW through HQ. Note the various special rules introduced to model 'important' aspects of Glorantha: berserking, weapon damage rankings ('edges'), misapplied worship, etc. IMO they tend to be confusing and/or unneeded; and a whole load got dumped in the latest version. This was because of the misconception that if its important in the world then it should be modelled explicitly in the rules. Hopefully the remaining ones like concentrated magic will get dumped in the next version whenever that might be. It could even be argued that having special rules for animism is a mistake: they are just people with access to followers and allies who happen to be spirits. If the players understand how spirits act and relate to an animist that might well be enough.
Nick Hollingsworth

Christopher Kubasik

Thanks guys.

You know, I developed a habit a while ago of flipping past all the description, the color and the rules and just checking out the character sheet at the back of an RPG.  I realized that by looking at that sheet I'd be able to figure out what one actually did in the game.

I realize now that while HeroQuest has a character sheet, it's essentially a cipher in regard to what the game will be about to a large degree until a player fills it in.  In this regard it's much like Over the Edge, The Pool and several recent games that are waiting for the players to say, "This is what I care about, this is what I want this evening to be about."

HQ then takes those chosen issues and runs them through a clean machine that strips away (if played this way) a lot of Sim concerns and lets the issues float straight up to the top.


"Can't we for once just do what we're supposed to do -- and then stop?
Lemonhead, The Shield

Mike Holmes

Wow, well said, everyone. And I think we did it without overly fanboying the reasoning (which I know is hard for me, at least).

So, I pulled Earthdawn off the shelf last night, and read it again. Well, the salient parts, which are about a tenth of the book. That is, outside of the parts describing the world, and races, etc, 90% of the book is given over to rules which are largely about how to kill things in increasingly complex manners. Meaning that out of a considerably chunky book, there's only a small supplement's worth of world.

But the pathos of the world is pretty good. Got me hooked again. Even the art, which doesn't usually do much for me, was inspiring, in the context of the setting. I wanted to know who that Obsidiman Merchant was at the end of one of the sets of color plates. I wanted to play that Obsidiman. With his colorful costume, and the pensive look on his face - and the simple juxtaposition of personal strength, and the merchant attitude.

Oops. No Merchant template. Guess I'll have to use Hero Quest...


I give the Earthdawn guys credit, the did create one template, the Troubador, that wasn't all about the killing. Well, at least not as much about the killing (though a lot more than any musician I've ever met). But I wouldn't want to have to create a Merchant template in that system. But, as Nick points out, even if I didn't have one in HQ, I could make one up by just putting "Merchant" as my character's occupation - simple as that.

And suddenly all of the implications about the new trade routs of Barsaive suddenly as it opens up again, become something that the game can be played about.

Cool. Brand, going to run a game online? I call the Obsidiman Merchant!

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