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[HQ] Well of Souls in China

Started by Eero Tuovinen, January 02, 2005, 11:01:47 AM

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Eero Tuovinen

So, I started a little mini-campaign of HeroQuest for a change. I'm currently up north in my little home town, and got an opportunity to play with some high school kids. Never played with the guys before, but it was nice to know that roleplaying continues there even after my own group split up.

Anyway, I thought to write some about this particular implementation of HeroQuest. Some background:
- I've never played HQ, but lifted most of it's structure and content into a D&D homebrew shortly after it's appearance. Thus I'm quite familiar with how the game should be run.
- We started the game with an orientation session, which was started with everything up in the air. We played a round of Attika before even starting to discuss what we'd like to play. I introduced some games like PTA, DiV, Sorcerer, Universalis and HQ to the guys, and connected them with some concrete goals of play. For some reason we ended up with the idea of playing a dramatic historical game set in ancient China, around the end of the Warring States period... that's where those movies, Hero and Emperor and Assassin are set, among others. The players seemed to know the genre (both wuxia and epoch drama!), which would have been rare when I was their age. Strange.
- The players seem to have a pretty typical Finnish background in gaming: massive amounts of computer games, some board games, '80s roleplaying and some larping. Pretty solid as far as it goes, but I was positively surprised how easily they took to the ideas presented in the games I showed-and-told: "You get dice for your screen presense instead of abilities? Well, that makes sense." In the southern cities I've come up with much more narrow assumptions; I guess it's the distance, most people up here don't put too much stock to, say, playing D&D by the rules.
- The players expressed a preference for HQ, however, probably because it's rather more traditional than some systems. Also, one player had had the opportunity of playing the system before, and had liked it then. Being that we were set on doing historical drama, HQ was deemed suitable by all.

Now, I had a situation that made this rather interesting: I don't have the rulebook with me. Never played the game, don't have the rulebook. Luckily I've always held that the pages of HQ are largely redundant and can actually be condensed into a ten-page pamflet. What takes up room in the book is mostly nitpicking demonstrations (as well as some Glorantha setting stuff). Anyways, I downloaded the tables from the Issaries web page and used those for the game.

So, before that, in the orientation session, I agreed to GM HQ for the group, and even started with character creation using some pen and paper and my interpretation of the character creation rules: pick what your character is about and choose some keywords, which are defined as necessary.

For keywords I decided that the appropriate spread would include a homeland, occupation and the loosely defined "heroic aspect" keyword theoretized in the HQ forum here: the idea there is that while in Glorantha you're very much defined by your cult, that's not necessarily the case in another world. The most general replacement for the magic keyword is to allow any exclusive heroic aspect suitable for the game world, be it "I'm a cybernetic experiment" or "I was raised by wolves". As long as it's exclusive, special and broad enough to allow for different interpretations, it's all good.

I should note here that I don't put much stock to enumerating keyword traits in any way: it's sufficient to state that the keyword includes anything and everything reasonable to the concept, and those traits can be named and added as needed in-game. I never did understand the logic of listing endless lists of details about the keywords.

Anyway, those should explain how we could do chargen in the run; soon we had the characters roughly defined and stopped for the night, to do the details the next day. We had decided that the game would be set in the fictional kindom of Piu somewhen around the year 230 BC. The characters all had disparate reasons to be there.

The keywords we used were pretty general nomad/rural/city for the cultural keyword (defined further later on), any ancient occupation for the occupation keyword, and a gamut of possibilities for the "heroic" one. The players picked "The Crane School of Swordmanship", "A Will to Mastery", "Buddhist Kung Fu" and "Daoist Ancestor Worship", without anybody knowing what those were supposed to do at this point.

At this juncture I had the one evening for preparing a scenario to play, set in ancient China. In the time-honored custom of lazy GMing I took the Well of Souls scenario, changed the names and wrote the thing out as a relationship map. Had never even read the finished product, although I remember following the development thread when it was current.

The only change I cared to make in the scenario concerned the heroquest, which just requires some change of social context and terminology to work. We'll see if the players stumble over that option at all.

So, the very next day (today, in fact) we convened again, this time with character sheets and lists of Chinese names. Still only one d20, though, which should tell how asswards my preparation for gaming was when leaving Helsinki. Had no idea I could get some heavy-duty gaming done here.

We started the day by doing detailed chargen. Still no rulebook and no particular interest in following the rules, so I just asked everybody to choose seven good traits in addition to the keywords, as well as spreading ten experience points around. Worked well, although in the manner of these heavy chargen games we had to really work to detail the characters enough. Here's the interesting points about the characters:

Xue Rong:
The Swordsman Diplomat
Xue Rong is a courtier of Qin, distant kin to the king who is fated to unify the Middle Kingdoms. He's won the duty of taking a convoy of gifts to the king of Piu, a neighboring kindom. His secret mission from his cousin the king is, however, to foment war in Piu.
Citizen of Qin at 9
Courtier at 17
The Crane Sword School at 13
Interesting traits:
Gliding Death at 4M and a bunch of other wuxia techniques, most defaulting to keyword
Poetry at 1M
Proud at 10
Perseverance at 10

Bihul Sying:
The Mendicant Advisor
Bihul Sying is a mendicant monk working at the court of Piu as a geography teacher of elder prince Bang. His utmost wish is to find a permanent office in the court of Piu.
Buddhist upbringing at 9
Mendicant at 17
Buddhist Kung Fu at 13
Interesting traits:
Walking long distances at 1M
Buddhist rites at 1M
Drinking all night long at 1M
Mutual Respect with the head of the temple at 14
Scorns those less cultured than he at 13
Loves Children at 15

Ma Shen:
The Daoist Horseman
Ma Shen is a commoner who's risen with hard work to the rank of the horsemaster to the king of Piu. His eventual aspirations are towards a noble rank, but otherwise he's quite average.
Rural in Piu at 13
Horsemaster at 17
Daoist ancestor worship at 9
Interesting traits:
Skillfull rider at 1M
Knows the roads at 1M
Living in saddle at 1M
Whiplashing(?) at 20
Good Ancestor relationship at 13
Respects work at 18

Fa Ho Sheng:
The Confucian Scholar
Fa Ho Sheng was the personal student of the great Kung Se, but that hasn't brought him any worldly good. Now he's come to the court of Piu to offer his services as a wise man to the king.
Rural in Hu at 9
Scholar at 17
The Will to Mastery at 13
Interesting traits:
Explore consequences of things at 1M
Read old manuscripts at 1M
Play and research the lute at 17
Disciplined at 1M
Old-fashioned at 1M
Loved for his manners among scholars at 9

Overall, I'm a little puzzled with these now, although i had no time to consider them during the session itself. The players don't seem too inspired, and just spread those traits out whichever way, or it seems to me that way now. Might be the genre: I know how hard it is to orient in a weird setting, even if familiar from the movies. I imagine that the problem disappears soon, when the players get some experience in taking control of the game.

Each character luckily has some point, even if it's not depicted in the traits very well. I wasn't too pleased with the horsemaster at first, mainly because it seemed to me that the player expected to make a lowly stableboy or something. Whether that was the case or not, I handled the character as a moderately high official of the court instead.

Anyway, after characters were detailed I explained the simple contest rules to the players and then we started playing. I started the game with the emissary of Qin, Xue Ron, arriving to the city if Quanyuan, the capital of Piu. The idea was to start before the accident of the king, and to give the players some notion of how we'd run the game. To my delight the player of Fa Ho Sheng almost right away specified that the scholar had leeched himself on the convoy of the emissary, to gain entrance to the palace that way. In general, I was quite pleased with the player: he clearly has mucho experience in purposeful, active play. Now, if I can just teach him to support others in their turn as well, we'll have no problems at all.

The first set of contests concerned itself with the welcome this wandering scholar found in the court, first skulking around pretending he belonged there, then striking conversation with officials to create some backing, culminating in meeting an old friend of his, who'd become an inspector monk for the temple. Nothing conclusive surfaced, but the scholar found a room in town and decided to continue working towards a position in court.

Meanwhile the emissary Xue Rong was told that the king would not receive him today, as it was the time for the "night of the bitter scales", a local festival. Apparently it's a daoist tradition frowned upon by the buddhist officials of the temple. But as the king supports it, it continues.

At this stage I tied the other two characters into the events by having the elder prince meet with his tutor, Bihyl Sying. Prince Piu Bang was agitated, wanting to gain the blessings of his tutor for a journey to the kingdom of Wang in the south, where the best warhorses are bred. The tutor decided to side with the king in the matter, counselling against the idea, especially as the prince wanted to - totally unreasonably - leave right that day, without waiting the festival night or the Qin emissary to leave. Tutor Bihyl Sying even went so far as to reveal the plans of the prince to the king to scurry his favor.

Meanwhile, the younger prince went for a horse. In highly suspicious circumstances the prince Xiao came to the horsemaster Ma Shen, requiring a horse from his father's best stock. The prince wished for the horsemaster to tell no-one, and not suspecting anything the good servant acquiesced to the prince's wishes (to his sorrow later, maybe).

At this point I had the situation baking well, but the players didn't show much enthusiasism for the events. Might be that they're accustomed to rather restrained play, but I had trouble reading the reactions for the whole session. As far as I could ascertain the players liked the events: the most passive one was the player of Ma Shen, and he specifically took the bother of telling me that he really liked the rules system after the session. What do you know, I myself felt that the events neglected him, partly because his own passivity.

A strange turn of events came up when I asked what the emissary Xue Ron would do that night, the night of the bitter scales. He didn't want to mess with the local rites in fear of disrupting them, so what's the hero to do? Why, of course he dresses in black rags, climbs over the walls of the palace and goes running over the roofs of the city! The emissary used his wicked ninja skillz to fly over the walls and to spy the events of the night of the bitter scales from afar. I didn't bother with die rolls on his ability to fly here, to drive home the point that characters can fly everywhere for all I care; better to save the rolls to interesting situations. We rolled for his ability to escape without being seen, though, and that bombed quite nicely: the emissary was spotted by a guard when leaving.

We found out that the night of the bitter scales was about a journey of sacrifice the king himself made to the foothills of the nearby mountain range, to the burial mound of the old earth goddess Jiawenglong. The townsfolk all waited outside the city for his return. The king was only escorted by his closest guards and some exclusively daoist court officials, the horsemaster Ma Shen among them.

I should explain that in this version of mythic China, we have basicly three separate yet connected belief systems, which the common folk frequently follow all at once: the buddhist temples, the daoist reverence of ancestors, and the general antropomorphic "gods of heaven", serviced by travelling priests and wise men. In principle the three are separate, in practice the commoners mix them however they wish. For the scenario, I'm postulating that Jiawenglong and her son Dongsheding are ancient earth spirits, belonging equal part to the myths of the gods of heaven (variably as monsters and an alternative pantheon of sorts) and daoist beliefs (as "ancestors of the earth", abstract god creatures). As far as the sophisticated temple buddhists are concerned, the spirits in question are demons, as are all spirits; for our needs it's sufficient to postulate that these buddhists consider all spirits as either a part of the cycle of reincarnation or outside it, the latter being possible only for the evil spirits and buddha.

Anyway, that's for the theology. At this time the game was a little static to my tastes, with me doing much exposition and the players mainly listening. We needed excitement, and that we got: the next dawn arrived with terrible news: the king had fallen into an unnatural sleep at some point of the night, and wouldn't awaken.

Now, the Scholar Fa Ho Sheng took an active stance in the matter, saying to himself "Fa Ho Shen, your keen deductive skills are needed! The mystery of the king's illness will require the wit and will of the scholar to solve! And it won't heart your position in the court, either!" So off he went, to discover what had happened in the court.

Meanwhile Xue Ron, the Qin emissary, was mainly concerned over his own skin. If somebody found out that he'd been skulking in the night, all suspicion would fall on him, especially as he was the emissary of the Qin, suspect themselves. With time it came out that the emissary wasn't in any danger, but meanwhile the player turtled admirably.

Bihyl Sying, the tutor of prince Bang, meanwhile lost no time in penetrating to the innermost chambers of the kingdom, using his relationship to the prince and the name of Ye Lide, the abbot, most efficiently. He was however soon whisked aside by the abbot himself, who ordered the mendicant monk to lead a troop of men in apprehending the horsemaster Ma Shen, who obviously was behind this daoist plot on the throne. The abbot took it as granted that the strange illness of the king was connected with the night of the bitter scales and the sacrificial ritual the king made. More accurately, the abbot believed that one of the daoists had poisoned the king.

I was trying to aggravate the player of Ma Sheng to action, but his reaction to being jailed was good-natured and trusting, with the horsemaster repeating that he had faith in the goodness and justice of the king. This reasonableness won him the right to stay in the stables under guard, instead of being whisked to cells as the buddhist abbot would have it. The monk Bihyl Sying didn't clearly share his superior's mistrust of daoists, which will probably prove interesting later on.

Soon after that the scholar Fa Ho Sheng made some major progress in solving the mystery, as well as carving a place in the court for himself. He gained entrance to the stables and made friendly compacts with the self-effacing and good-natured stablemaster, who gained him an entrance to the palace proper despite his own imprisonment. Also, the scholar found out about the younger prince's horse-business from the previous day. A clue, a veritable clue!

However, the illustrious Fa Ho Sheng did not stop here. When in the palace, he went straight to Tsao Kuoxuan, the old mentor of the young prince Xiao and advisor to the king. Tsao Kuoxuan is a most respected scholar, and Fa Ho Sheng did his best to impress his utmost respect for the elder statesman. For a change he gained a major victory in the challenge roll, which meant that the statesman took the young scholar under his protection and allowed him to take in hand the investigation of the king's illness. A most illustrious victory!

I will have to give Fa Ho Sheng the cognomen "Zoyue Pipa" for his methods of courtly intrigue, though ;) The guy carries a lute everywhere he goes, and when he sits down for tea or plain talk, soon the lute flies into his hands and starts putting out cadence for his words. Might have something to do with the fact that Fa Ho Sheng doesn't have any real social skills, just the "Playing lute" trait :)

Anyway, the partners in investigation Fa Ho Sheng and Ma Shen soon found out from the stableboys that the younger prince Piu Xiao had taken the horse from the stables and given it to a young lady to ride, instead of taking it himself. Furthermore, the horse had not been taken back. The stableboy couldn't name the lady, though, as they hadn't met the orphan protege Xiulan prince Xiao favors.

Meanwhile the emissary Xue Ron had dared to brave the halls of the palace, and was soon accosted by a number of courtly officials and nobles trying to ascertain the stance of Qin in the serious matter of king's illness and succession. The emissary was careful, telling each what his instincts told him they wanted to hear. The captain of the guard Lu Xinming was told that the emissary had slept quite deeply the night, and hadn't heard anything from the garden, for example. Both merchants Po Weide and Sima Yuihui approached the emissary as well, and he rebuffed both most haughtily.

Other developments had the general Gong Song Mingxion positioning his own soldiers to guard the king's chambers. The abbot Ye Lide also found out that the king's condition was not of medical roots, but rather a matter of a terrible curse, which of course the buddhists took a further proof of the culpability of the daoists in court.

The player of Bihai Sying had to leave us at one point, as well as the player of Fa Ho Sheng. Regardless, we finished the second day and the night before stopping: Xue Ron the emissary got an invitation to meet the merchant Sima Yuhui a second time in the evening in the town itself, and the brave wuxia hero that he is, he donned the black once again and sneaked out of the palace when the dark had fallen. Again he failed marginally in the sneaking (the security was pretty high, the situation being what it was), but preferred to be seen and escaping rather than staying back.

Xue Ron met with the merchant in a tavern, hearing most frank and offending suggestions about the possibilities the king's illness would offer to the king of Qin. It's common knowledge that the king of Qin has pledged to his ancestors to gather all the Middle Kingdoms under his authority, and the merchant Sima Yuhui wanted to know if the emissary Xue Ron would report all with due haste to the king. When the emissary rebuked the merchant for his presumption, Sima dared to threaten the emissary: he had, so he said, already sent word to the king of Qin about what transpired in Quanyuan, and if the emissary wouldn't send the fastest horse, it just might be that the merchant's report would reach the ear of Qin first, to inestimable harm to the emissary himself, who apparently couldn't keep his king informed any better than a common merchant.

Xue Ron didn't show any fear over the threats of a merchant, and the two men separated with amiable courtesies, the merchant hinting that he would and could support any action by the Qin, should they decide to take some. Afterwards Xue Ron however took to the rooftops again (the guy doesn't even know about roads, it seems!), intending to trail Sima Yuhui to his residence.

An unexpected setback was however met in the form of a major defeat in the trailing contest; I ruled that the wuxia emissary tripped and fell, twisting his knee and getting almost trampled by a runaway horse. What horse? Why, the horse of the maid Xiulan, who, mad with fear, happened to escape through the abandoned streets of the city just then. Our intrepid hero spooked the horse by dropping out of the sky so that Xiulan fell, leaving Xue Ron to calm down a terribly frightened girl.

However, the hero had to attest with the thing Xiulan was escaping in the first place: a snake of darkness, slithering through the streets towards the hero and the girl. A simple contest made short work of the snake, which disappeared in a buff of foul air when touched by the sword, leaving only soot on the blade itself.

The girl had great difficulty in believing that Xue Ron meant well, what with his dark clothing and suspicious appearance. Especially as the man trapped her by main force and wouldn't let go without answering his questions, Xiulan grew frantic. Xue Ron managed to learn the name of the frightened girl, and her belief that it was Dongsheding that trailed her, but nothing else would she tell, not of her mission, nor of her position in court.

A short conflict later left Xue Ron down in the mud with the mysterious girl escaping with her horse. Served the brute right, I say: who's heard of forcing fair maidens to share state secrets in the middle of a dark street!

The victorious snakeslayer himself had to limp back to the palace, climbing and flying over the wall. Imagine his surprise when he was welcomed by a most skillful opponent, the swordmaster Shen Shing, who had been waiting patiently for the nightly perpetrator to return! Xue Ron had now shown himself three times in the gardens of the palace, finally leading to the swordmaster himself taking hand in guarding the palace.

I was pretty sure that Xue Ron would simply reveal himself and take the social suspicions, but instead he was ready and willing to fight the obviously skilled swordmaster for the right to retain his identity. A wuxia swordfight extented contest followed, with Xue Ron starting at 26 AP, Shen Shing at 56.

The contest went well, with the very first exhange revealing that Shen Shing and Xue Ron shared the school of the crane sword. Obviously the fight was pretty airborne, with the two circling the sacred fountain, jumping on it and applying the palace wall in interesting ways. Shen Shing went in confident, bidding time and again the full amount of Xue Ron's AP, trying to drive him to zero. Wondrously Xue Ron could (with copious hero point expenditures) again and again drive the rolls to crit-crit near-ties, with himself winning a couple. He could even gain some balance in the AP department, despite applying only his decidedly inferior fighting skills against the swordmaster. However,  a couple of turns later the situation was at 60-20 to Shen Shing's favor.

Shen Shing demanded to know the unknown swordman's master, who Xue Ron readily revealed. Shen Shing was of course the brother of the said master, explaining the similar styles of the two. The conflict was a done deal as far as Shen Shing was concerned, but then he rolled first an 18 , bringing himself down to 40-20 to Xue Ron's advantage. When Xue Ron bid, he bid a full 20, and Shen Shing rolled a fumble, a natural 20! The result was Xue Ron at 100 and Shen Shing at -40, quite tidily. A clean defeat for the swordmaster, to his shock.

Xue Ron flew around Shen Shing, giving him a nasty scar to the face, but desisting from shedding his life's blood. Instead Xue Ron escaped inwards to the palace, finding his appointed rooms and hiding his night clothes.

At this point it was well past the time to stop, so we decided to convene again as soon as possible (which in this case would be in some two weeks :( ). The players were self-contained, but I at least had fun with the last two scenes. The situation should continue along nicely. Overall I now realize pretty sharply how much this kind of game plays from the setting and situation details. I'll probably write something about that to the players before we continue, to give some basis for riffing. I've been in the habit of playing with minimal setting lately, but with a game like HQ that can weaken the experience, especially with the players somewhat passive in the color department.

HQ itself plays exactly like my d20 version, so no suprises there. The Well of Souls is a nice scenario, although most of the NPCs probably won't see use. I'm expecting that the players will get in the action in the next session as well, so we'll have some pretty exciting adventures. Pretty good, all things considered.

As an aside, if somebody can remind me of the ways hero points are used within adventures, that'd be great. I remember that a result can be bumbed one degree with a hero point, but was there other possible effects in the HQ rules? I'll probably allow resisting magic with common traits with an expenditure, as well as some other stuff, but I'm also interested in the canonical options.
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Hi Eero,

Funny enough, when I was designing WoS, I really was thinking about conflict in that classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Hero, etc. fashion.  But then again, for designing conflict, I always either turn to Indian epics or Chinese ones as my source of utterly intertwined, nasty conflict.  All that said, a couple of key points:

In both the finished version, and the working version in the thread here at the Forge, I highly recommend that the players get an overview of the relationship map AND be connected to two of the NPCs on the relationship map.  The reason I suggest this is that it puts players into defining why their heroes are involved, it takes out the work of trying to "hook" them and allows them to point towards what sub-conflicts engage them right off the bat.  After that point, just keep ramping up the conflicts they've chosen as interesting for them, and ignor the rest.

And yes, most of the characters will not be used.  I tried to throw out several sub-conflicts for the players to hook onto, allowing a group to focus on whatever ones sounded fun.

Did anyone develop any relationship traits, or get to use them as augments?  Missing out on this is missing half the game.  I'll be interested to hear how player engagement goes over the long term, and whether you'll try integrating this key feature of HQ or not.


Eero Tuovinen

Quote from: Bankuei
Funny enough, when I was designing WoS, I really was thinking about conflict in that classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Hero, etc. fashion.  But then again, for designing conflict, I always either turn to Indian epics or Chinese ones as my source of utterly intertwined, nasty conflict.  All that said, a couple of key points:

Yeah, I had no trouble at all with the adaptation. As said, I just changed a couple of names and that's it. The only character whose role was a little problematic was the church inspector, but I figured that the actual role wasn't as important as his relationship to Josette. I actually ad-libbed a background for him when the player of the scholar decided that he wanted another former disciple of Kung Tse to be in the court.

In both the finished version, and the working version in the thread here at the Forge, I highly recommend that the players get an overview of the relationship map AND be connected to two of the NPCs on the relationship map.

No problem in that regard: I didn't mention it, but I tend to do that kind of stuff as a matter of course these days. I explained the concept of relationship map, as well as introduced this particular one, before the chargen was finished. Most players picked relationships for their character from the map, and the one who did not (Xue Ron) soon gained some when the grabby NPCs started drawing him into the plotting. As the emissary of the neighboring, strong kingdom, he's pretty important.

Then again, the relationships still lack some color, probably because of the challenging setting, new style of play and the celerity of the game overall. I'm not worried, because the players soon started to define their characters in-game. I think that the player of Bihyl Sying, the mendicant tutor, liked it when he gained the king's favor as a trait right away for telling on the prince. The less successful traits (like the "friendly competition" between the horsemaster and the captain of the house guard might prove to be) will fall by the wayside in the process, so no harm done in any case.

The reason I suggest this is that it puts players into defining why their heroes are involved, it takes out the work of trying to "hook" them and allows them to point towards what sub-conflicts engage them right off the bat.  After that point, just keep ramping up the conflicts they've chosen as interesting for them, and ignore the rest.

That's my plan. At this point much of the game is about us gauging each other, as I haven't played with these guys yet. I've thrown out some feelers on different kinds of play, and will be much better prepared come the next session. I already have some pretty good notions about where we're going with this.

And yes, most of the characters will not be used.  I tried to throw out several sub-conflicts for the players to hook onto, allowing a group to focus on whatever ones sounded fun.

That's certainly valid, and I plan to make use of it. I don't know how long I'm going to be here, but it's good to have enough material for multiple sessions. There's so much stuff in the adventure that I won't have to let the princes confess anything for many sessions yet.

Did anyone develop any relationship traits, or get to use them as augments?  Missing out on this is missing half the game.  I'll be interested to hear how player engagement goes over the long term, and whether you'll try integrating this key feature of HQ or not.

Oh, yes. Some examples:
- The high point of the session for Fa Ho Seng the scholar was gaining the trust of the famous scholar Gong Tsao Kuoxuan (Sir Maslin), after failing or only marginally succeeding multiple times at lower levels of the courtly bureaucracy. With the gong's blessing he will be able to walk the halls of the palace without disguising as a servant. The gong hopes that Fa Ho Seng could uncover the reason of the king's illness, as he was greatly impressed by how much the scholar deducted without even stepping inside the palace in the first place! There's a definite theme of murder mystery in this skein, perhaps mostly because we almost picked a hard-boiled Sorcerer murder mystery instead of HQ fantasy China as the game to play.
- Xue Rong took a "Wants to find out the secret of Xiulan" at ten (I allowed him to pick the level) after saving the girl and being bested by her. (Xiulan is Brier from the adventure.) Xue Rong doesn't know who the girl is, what's her position in the palace, or why she was so adamant in hiding her purpose on the street that night. I'm hoping to develop some interesting character play here. The player tried to objectify Xiulan somewhat in the actual scene (not like a woman, but like a NPC is objectified), but I shortly rebuked and played her to the best of my ability as a real person, who cannot just be trussed and used as a source of information like some tool. I have hopes for the player, even if the group hasn't apparently played too much character-drama before.
- The scholar Fa Ho Sheng and horsemaster Ma Shen took a relationship between each other, at three (they chose the level themselves), after sharing information on the events of the night of the bitter scales and promising to support each other in uncovering the truth. This is perhaps the most significant event of the session for Ma Shen, which is a tad problematic, because it played out in practice as more of a "let's form a party" thing than any actual choice of the characters. I felt that the horsemaster trusted the scholar just because it was another player character and the player felt that he should do what the more assertive player asked. There's no danger of the party starting to centipede around, though, even if they form a hero band of some kind. I'll keep stressing the social limitations to ensure that characters simply cannot stay together.
- For Bihai Sying, the high point of the session was gaining the king's favor at five by revealing to him the intention of prince Bang to abscond to some adventures in the south. Although the prince would have asked permission after talking with Bihai Sying (who disapproved), and the king would have denied the idea, he was pleased when the monk chose loyalty to the king over loyalty to the prince.

So there were plenty of forming relationships. Perhaps not so much of augmenting with them, although I distinctly remember some of that as well. My plan is to use the relationships formed now as basis for situations in the next session, so we should be seeing some augments then.

One rules question popped to mind (as we remember, I don't have my copy of HQ with me here), namely the question of altering attribute values. Did the book give any useful principles for determining the values of new traits, or deciding on the changes made to old ones? I have such tools in my d20 take, but can't remember if there's anything similar in the HQ rules. I'm not talking about experience spending, but rather trait changes engendered by in-game situations. Am I supposed to set new, appropriate levels for, say, the king's favor, after every audience with the king, or should I be thinking in terms of adding or lowering the existing trait? Or is it completely freeform?

In any case, I think I'll be revamping the xp system to accord more with my own ideals set out after years of d20. Namely, characters will have to cement all traits they want to keep after an adventure, while their keywords will each either raise somewhat or get re-interpreted. All non-cemented traits are removed. Helps to keep the number of traits down and to sharpen the vision of the character, when the player has to actively regain traits he deems valuable. The number of hero points needed is not so bad, because I'm using the double-use mod: the players can only use "used" hero points as xp, so they will first have to use the point in some manner in the adventure.

Now, if I just could convince the players to write their character sheets so that I could read them as well, that'd be nice ;) The group seems to have a serious case of doodlidis, the acute need to draw stuff when not immediately in the scene. The boys seem to be talented in that regard, so I might have to resort to giving them some specific subjects for the drawing, if I cannot engage them for play. The habit of passivity when not in the scene is perhaps the greatest single problem we have (which if course is pretty well with new people).

Anyway, I'm actually pretty optimistic on this campaign and these players after writing the stuff out! During play it seemed like a little lackluster, but that's to be expected with strange people and a first session. After letting the stuff mellow somewhat I'm seeing much good in the session. I'm already expecting great fun from the clashes we'll be having in the next session :)
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.

Eero Tuovinen

Another session of HQ. No breakthrough plotwise yet, but we're set up quite well for big events next time. The plot seems somewhat fragmented at this point, but will likely tighten up when I finally get some handle on things.

Some events:
- Bihai Sying spent a night in prayer, and was revealed the name of the demon behind the king's illness: it's Dongsheding, which the farmers of Piu worship in ancient proprietary rites. I've not particularly hidden any of the plot from the players, mainly because they're much more interested in the political maneuvering than the metaphysical stuff.
- Xue Ron, when trying to gain information on the mysterious lady Xiulan, managed to send his servant into the dungeons, when prince Xiao got note of the servant's interests. Most of the session was actually spent in quite ridiculous search for a new servant, as the high noble of course couldn't get anything done without one.
- Fa Ho Sheng the scholar was caught in the middle in a acerbic exhange of words between the monks Peng Kuoqing and Bihai Sying, which was interrupted by the two princes confronting each other: the younger prince Xiao asked his brother Bang for support in defeating the malicious spirits holding their father in thrall. Adviced by his teacher Bihai Sying, prince Bang refused any help to his brother.
- Bihai Sying scurried favor from the general Song Mingxion by revealing the plans of prince Xiao. He promised loyalty to prince Bang, but the general suspects him of trying to gain influence through the soon-to-be-king.
- Fa Ho Sheng and Ma Shen were confronted by the swordmaster Shen Shing, who told the duo all about his meeting with a mysterious assassin swordsman in the night. Fa Ho Sheng directed the swordmaster's suspicions towards the foreign emissary Xue Ron.
- Xue Ron faked his own kidnapping and left the palace unnoticed, using his fabled kung-fu techniques. Outwardly the player was just goofing around with the servant finding farce, but as the GM I read his heart and set him up with further adventures in town.
- Fa Ho Sheng revealed the duplicity in the kidnapping attempt of Xue Ron, but failed to find out who or why would fake such a thing. Also, nobody knew where the emissary had disappeared.

The session was mostly like that, with many NPCs and the PCs contacting each other and gauging allegiances. The most important developments were scholar Fa Ho Sheng taking the side of the younger prince Xiao and the monk Bihai Sying making his own bid through trying to control the elder prince Bang. I tied everything up with some action:

While out in town with his friends, prince Bang was accosted by some bandits clearly out for royal blood. Luckily his tutor, Bihai Sying, was with him, trying to get the prince to return to the palace. Bihai Sying had only just found out that general Song had situated his own troops near the royal chambers, and wanted the prince to return before any new developments.

Also, by coincidence, mostly, the most elaborate servant-gaining venture of Xue Ron the emissary had just come to an end, when he found a servant to his liking: Cong Cong, the old one-handed soldier pleased Xue Ron in this regard. Anyway, Xue Ron noticed the impending ambush of the prince and decided to gain his gratitude by saving the prince.

Now, both Xue Ron and Bihai Sying are martial artists of heroic skill, one representing the Crane school of swordmanship, with the other being one of the Ki-wielding martial monks of Irontop monastery. The two singlehandedly offered us a feast of martial goodness in the best traditions of mass-battle-on-Chinese-streets, without which every kung fu film is lacking. Special rule of the battle: ladders give a +3 to all attack actions.

The fighting duo made short work of the bandits hired by the merchant Sima Yuhui. Xue Ron guessed who was behind the cowardly attack, and revealed all to court officials. I have no idea why he earlier scorned the alliance the merchant offered, but that's roleplaying!

Overall I still disliked the slow developments in the session, but the situation is getting better. I noticed that the players get much more active with a little judicious action scene application, so I'll probably work out some more aggressive situations for the next session. Otherwise the players seem content to watch carefully and non-committingly while the NPCs fight for the crown.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.


Hi Eero,

Don't forget that the NPCs are a perfect means of instigating a faster pace.  All those loaded conflicts?  Have someone do something drastic, and push things along faster.  Rest assured that alliances will sort themselves out along the way, especially as people become more desperate to push the situation in their favor.


Eero Tuovinen

Quote from: Bankuei
Don't forget that the NPCs are a perfect means of instigating a faster pace.  All those loaded conflicts?  Have someone do something drastic, and push things along faster.  Rest assured that alliances will sort themselves out along the way, especially as people become more desperate to push the situation in their favor.

Point. I've been stepping pretty lightly, compared to how I play with more familiar people. It's definitely time to start up some drama.

It's weird how roleplayers are wired - fighting seems to include it's own drama, so to speak, while the other, just as valid sources of drama have to be consiciously milked. It's because fighting is familiar content to players, I guess. They stylize the fight scenes like there's no tomorrow, with battle choreography worthy of a game where you're paid for stunting.

My favourite conflict in the situation is probably the one between the daoist and buddhist practices. I'll have to think up something interesting along those lines. Could be just prince Xiao going public with his theory about the king's ailment (the prince actually knows pretty much, no player character just has gained his confidence yet). The committed buddists seem to be content to do nothing at all, so this should spark things nicely. It can also be interpreted as an obvious drive for political power.

One thing I'm happy about is that the players do not have any problems with things like talking out premise, shared authorship, director stance or other typical problems. It's something in the water, I guess - my home town is this itty bitty <6000 people wilderness, but the roleplayers both in my youth and now seem to be consistently above the expectation.

Case in point: the player of Fa Ho Sheng came straight out and told me that he wanted a romantic side plot for his character. That'd be so out of the blue for most people I've played with that it isn't even funny. Both the idea of a romantic sideplot, and the idea of requesting one outside the game. Now I'll just have to design some bangs to give room for the female characters of the show, to give the player the chance...
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.

Eero Tuovinen

Yet again, HQ in ancient China. We played a session last Wednesday, and it seems that this is becoming a weekly event. The players were pretty interested in how long I'm staying in town, so I guess that they like the game. I'm also having fun: the last session was the first one where the fun of getting to play with new people was overshadowed by the fun of the game itself. The players are still fun, it's just that the game is blooming quite nicely. It's a pretty common attitude in Finland that you shouldn't play with teenagers if you want a serious game, but I've had no problems with that. To the contrary, a case in the point:
"Oh, I should mention that we don't drink [alcoholic bewerages] in my games, so let's stick with the lemonades..."
"You fool antediluvian, we're all underage. It's illegal for us to drink at all!"
In general, playing with the youngsters makes for a nicely leisurely pace I've not experienced since high school. These people are clearly not wasting in the office all day long ;)

Anyway, the session: the dramatic arc of the game centres around politics, with two forks:
1) The king is in coma, and the nobles are maneuvering.
2) Emissary Xue Ron muddles the situation to his best ability.
The latter is a rather surprising turn, but I've now recognized that the player of Xue Ron really sees the king-thing as just a suitable backdrop for his own maneuvers. He's stealing the show as a weird, mysterious arch-villain, in other words. We're still waiting to see if there's reason to his rhyme as he lies, hides and maneuvers around the city of Quanyuan. Either he's planning to rise to political prominence in the kingdom, or he's planning to brew a multiple assassination against the heirs, or he's fulfilling the mission he got from the king of Qin, to foment a war. Or he's running faster than he's thinking, as the case might be ;) The players are positively enchanted by the roles the system allows them to have, after doing typically Finnish ultrarealistic, ultradark historical fantasy for quite a while.

Meanwhile the other characters are pretty well enmeshed in the courtly intrigue: Bihai Sying spars with general Song (aka Sir Serge) over authority with prince Bang. Fa Ho Sheng got introduced to both Yuting (aka Sister Josette) and Xiulan (Brier) in rapid succession, to accord with the player's wish for romantic possibilities. Ma Shen was given the choice of betraying Fa Ho Sheng to gain high office in court.

The high points of the session were still disparate, but that's more because of genre; this is the kind of storytelling that comes together over time, with multiple arcs going at once. Some of the best parts:
- Fa Ho Sheng met the nun Yuting when the cloister was tapped for help after the street slaughters of the last session. We had some very colorful character play with the uncompromising no-nonsense nun and the traditional, unbending scholar squaring off. Soon afterwards the scholar was naked to the waist, showing off his mad surgeon skillz on the wounded citizens in the hopes of impressing the nunnery...
- Continuing that riff, Fa Ho Sheng saved the leader of the assassination crew, a big, ugly brute of a mongolian. In the actual battle in the last session the leader was just the compulsory focal point of the resistance. Interestingly, the player of Fa Ho Sheng reminded me then of the necessity of there being such a being in the crowd of mooks... and now, in this session, he took the same brute as a relationship ;)
- Xue Ron, after saving the prince, escaped the site of carnage and hurried to the palace. There he saved his new one-handed veteran servant Cong Cong from his guards, and absconded again back to the city. Various court officials and others are slowly realizing that the Qin emissary is actually the Crane swordsmaster who wounded master Shen Shing (aka Xavier) in a duel, but few know of the true extent of his deeds... especially as Ma Shen hid his sword, which he had to leave to the battleground, and which would otherwise have revealed him to the court!
- My favourite point of the session: Fa Ho Sheng was called to report to his protector, Gong Tsao Kuoxuan (aka Sir Maslin). While there, they were interrupted by Xiulan, who asked the gong in the name of his fatherly feelings to help find and rescue the emissary Xue Ron. Xiulan was saved in the first session by the emissary, and the girl wants to pay back the favor of the mysterious foreigner. Why, old Tsao was so impressed by Fa Ho Sheng's actions to date that he gave the mission of finding and delivering the emissary to him. This was pretty funny, as we the players know quite well that Xue Ron is hiding, not kidnapped. Fa Ho Sheng of course accepted the job graciously, gaining a tentative smile from the sweet maiden, too :)
- Ma Shen saw a dream of his king, revealing him the reason for the illness. The humble stable master just has to learn to take a hand, unless he prefers to crumble beneath the weight of secrets...
- Shen Shing (aka Xavier) stumbled on his enemy, Xue Ron, in a scribe shop. This is stuff of drama: Xue Ron was taught the secrets of the Crane style of combat by Shen Lan, the brother of Shen Shing. And now Xue Ron has defeated the master decisively, marking his face with an ugly scar. Some pretty heavy words were exhanged, but Xue Ron managed to escape his nemesis once again. Becoming his modus operandi, the other players belittle Xue Ron's manner of escaping his conflicts.
- The final high point of the session was when general Song Mingxion (aka Sir Serge; players routinely call him "mister nazi" and are quite certain that he's looking to gain the throne himself; still, doesn't stop Bihai Sying from allying with him) came to the humble official Ma Shen and gave him a thinly veiled ultimatum: he'd be used as a daoist scapegoat by the buddhist high officials on the matter of king's illness, unless he would speak ill of his new friend Fa Ho Sheng to general Qiu Wulong (aka Alfan); in the latter case he'd be given the long unfilled position of "daoist holy man", the highest religious court position for daoist priest. After some consideration Ma Shen declined the general, which goes to show how much the players hate him.

Systemwise, the session went well. The players have learned the conflict rules well enough to run conflicts without my interference. I've taken to a habit of offering "discounts" on abilities when any good situations come up. Like, "Hey, if you take 'Friendly with general Song' after that dialogue, You'll get it at 17 for just one XP!" Helps the players to remember developing those abilities.

In the next session the speed will just go up, when I get my new bangs on the line (my players might want to skip the rest of the message, hint hint):
- Wu Peide (aka Lady Noella) comes with her daughter from the kingdom of Wu to court the princes. The ceremonies of arrival will be used to further dastardly plots by the two merchant families (one of which is the sworn enemy of Xue Ron at this time). Unluckily, the plots will cancel each other out unless the players decide to interfere.
- Peng Kuoqing (aka Assessor Ratier), an old and dear friend of Fa Ho Sheng, found out from Ma Shen about the games Fa Ho Sheng played with Yuting the nun. That'll definitely come to haunt him in the next session.
- Shen Shing continues to seek out Xue Ron, so it's just a matter of who finds him first: the avenger, Fa Ho Sheng the sleuth, or possibly Xiulan, who was deeply impressed when the emissary saved her from the shadow snake.
- I might have Piu Xiao (aka prince Hugo) call for a venture to save his father's spirit in the next session, if nothing else fires things up. I figure that that'll be something to get things going.
- Ma Shen will be summarily blamed on the king's coma (he was with the king during the night of the bitter scales, after all) by the buddhists, which will likely end up with him incarcenated. The player hasn't been too active in protecting his behind, so I'll probably start with his old friend Lu Xinming (aka Trencavel) warning him and giving opportunity for preventive action.
- Prince Bang will take decicive action over his assassination attempt, so it's a question of who gets to advice him? Bihai Sying has a good position after saving the prince, but Yuting the nun will likely try something, too.

Well, that took care of much of the session preparation. Good thing I can refer to this list when doing the actual preparations.

Overall the scenario is working nicely, and has quite a bit of mileage. I don't think that most groups would play this as slowly as we've been doing, but there's good points to that as well: the relationship map is getting used pretty comprehensively, it doesn't feel too big anymore. Actually, it's just the right size: I've got half of those NPCs out there doing stuff, and the rest are on the fringes, ready to come in at need. If we continue with this leisurely pace, there's quite a bit of play yet to come. The color of ancient China gets room, too; flowery dialogues are an important part of play, especially as the PCs meet each other. I've taken to summarizing less important meetings in third person, just to speed up the information flow and curtail the gift-giving and poetry.

I'll just have to figure out how heroquesting works in ancient china. This particular quest is clearly closely tied to ancestor worship and daoist-type shamanism... actually, not that difficult at all. Spirit journeys are an established part of daoism (of which we're doing a Hollywood version anyway), so it's not even difficult to rationalize that part of the adventure.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.