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[Heroquest] Well of Souls in China, part the second

Started by Eero Tuovinen, February 16, 2005, 11:41:16 AM

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Eero Tuovinen

So, my game of Heroquest continues. Been a couple of sessions since I last wrote about it. The game is going wonderfully well: the lethargy of the first sessions has disappeared quite completely. This is something Ron told me at some point, actually: a pure narrativist game might start as a cold and somewhat formal thing, but it bursts to fire when the issues are developed and come to a point. The game is now reaping benefit from the color points we've established; the players routinely do different Chinese bows and greetings in dialogue, and while it was somewhat worrying (as it seemed to take away from issue development) in the first sessions, now it actually flows into the thing and guides decisions in surprising ways. Like, characters planning assassinations of each other based on what kind of courtesy they choose to display and such.

I've usually creeped on nar through some pretty elaborate sim constructs (to wit, my perennial modded D&D), which has actually become pretty routine to me. This time the system was Heroquest, so it was natural to pick the readymade narrativist scenario, Well of Souls. This kind of "sharp" narrativism is still a pretty new style to me, and I've mostly played it in highly focused systems like MLwM or Dust Devils. Thus it's been pretty exciting to observe how the game develops: first establishing characters and picking premises, then some mixing and stirring, and now it's burning quite happily.

The last session was especially rather unexpected, as about every character's issues clinched simultaneously, even if they didn't touch on each other almost at all. Quite strange synchronity, I wonder if it's some psychological current I'm not seeing. Let me tell you about the key scenes:

The Scholar On Womanhood

Fa Ho Sheng the scholar failed a conflict, at stake the favor of his mesenate, Tsao Kuoxuan (Old Maslin). He was sent for a lecture in the Buddhist temple. Sheng opted to get the lecture from his old friend, Peng Kuoqing (assessor Ratier). A kind of tentative interest has been developing between Fa Ho Sheng and nun Yuting (sister Josette), at least in Fa Ho Sheng's heart. Now, Peng Kuoqing is in the nun cloister, as he's currently in charge of that branch of the temple.

Fa Ho Sheng comes in and can't avoid overhearing Peng Kuoqing verbally abusing this same nun Yuting over inappropriate familiarity towards prince Bang (Guilbert). Sounds of struggle, too. What does Fa Ho Sheng do? Why, he hurries in and scolds Peng Kuoqing most severely over abuse of women. The latter answers in kind, complaining about Fa Ho Sheng usurping his authority in the cloister. The gathering splits in a huff.

The scene was made interesting by the piquant color we've been establishing for the game: the great teacher Confucious' teachings were invoked as the sole reason of complaintment, for instance. Yuting had nothing else to say to his savior except to assure him that she'd never show up in such shameless dress (her hair was unbound due to Peng Kuoqing's abuse) if she had any say over it.

But the best part came afterwards: the player of Fa Ho Sheng told us in internal monologue how he decided to ask for Peng Kuoqing's forgiveness, as he had done injustice to the monk! And a couple of scenes later he was already considering stealing into the nun cloister to confess his feelings to Yuting. What a messed up hero we have here...

The Ambassadorial Gambit

Other goodness abounded in the game, as well: Xue Ron, the ambassador-cum-ninja finally played his hand in the matter of taking revenge on Sima Yuhui (Raoul de Nesle). He has maneuvered most carefully to get the latter discredited in the court. Now Xue Ron however moved quickly: the player authored a plan to get Sima Yuhui to come alone to a meeting, where he quickly captured the merchant. Then Xue Ron took him outside the city, killed him and ditched the body with the help of his associates from the kingdom of Qin.

All the other people on the table were going WTF at this point. I ruled that no further roll was needed, because the capture was already effected with a contest roll. So it was just a matter of notice to kill the NPC. The event electricized the table: we'd been used to Xue Ron acting foolishly, doing pretty pointless things. And now he changed into this cunning snake who first arranges a party just to discredit the merchant who wouldn't arrive, because he's dead at that point already. As one player said, it's finally clear that Xue Ron is the evil essence of the court of Quanyuan.

Hero and the Way of Dao

Meanwhile, the horsemaster Ma Shen has been sorely pressed in the court. Here's the bang:
- General Song Mingxion (Sir Serge) offers Ma Shen the high office of Daoist Holy Man in court, a post that's been empty for a generation, since the buddhist ascendancy. The price: lie about his friend Fa Ho Sheng the scholar. The alternative: become the scapegoat for the king's illness the buddhists are looking for.
When first hearing the general, the player of Ma Shen wasn't ready to make any decisions. He's perhaps the most passive of the players in grabbing the game by the throat, and the aggressive bang reflects that. A successful contest allowed Ma Shen a day to think it over, but after that he had to make a decision.

Meeting with Fa Ho Sheng, Ma Shen decides to side with friendship. He's ready to escape the court when prince Xiao (Hugo) calls him to attend. The reason: the prince wants the horsemaster, now a known daoist heretic, to find him a daoist holy man (apparently to cure the king). To do this he has to ride to the mountains and seek the highest peaks for such a hermit. This rather galvanizes the player, who apparently has been somewhat waiting for a GM-induced Quest. Especially as the king has been appearing in Ma Shen's dreams, it now becomes clear to him that his is the quest of saving the king.

At this point let me say that the players have learned the system just beautifully. The player of Fa Ho Sheng, for instance, sent his sidekick along to help Ma Shen, and split his Wealth rating with the horsemaster to help on his quest. Heroquest works really well for troupe style play a la Ars Magica: the sidekick, an ugly brute of a mongol, is quite intuitively acting as a secondary character for the player. Hmm... Heroquest would make Ars Magica palatable, I've been wondering what to do with that overtly complex system...

Anyway, off Ma Shen went, and we figured out an adventure for him. I flat out asked the players what kind of scene would come next for the horsemaster on a royal quest. Being that we were at that point in an... excited mood and had been for a while using cinematic terminology to get all that color out there fast enough, it's quite natural that the immediately next scene after the horsemaster riding out was pure color and character development in the style of historical drama: brave men riding over plains with the orchestra playing and such.

After getting down enough to actually figure what'd happen next I came up with an idea: Ma Shen would of course ride to his home village, to seek out any rumours or folk knowledge about daoist holy men. He's a villager born, so he might have some chance of getting the farmers to reveal things they wouldn't tell to high court officials. At this point I grabbed the community support table, one of the more elaborate HQ rules modules. HQ has a couple of hundred pages of rules you don't actually need, but I can't say that they bother the game much, either. In this case, for example, I just used those rules because the table set I have happens to include the community support table (I'm GMing the game from memory, if you remember).

I've been doing well in sharing the GMing burden, as well. The players are getting used to me not bothering with many things, I feel. In this case I just flat out asked the player of Ma Shen to pick the size of his home village so we could figure out the difficulty of finding out information.

The contest itself was rather funny: as I don't have the rulebook with me I don't quite have the rules on hero point use to hand. I've been playing it so that each character participating in a contest can use a hero point, regardless of whether they throw dice or just support. This means that the side with more players is at a significant advantage, which is just what I want. Anyway: Ma Shen failed the roll, but Fa Ho Sheng used a hero point, which was possible because his sidekick was participating. The crude mongol gave a speech about the importance of family ties and loyalty, getting the villagers to set aside their distrust of the high court official. In the compulsory celebration the mongol then continued gracefully to harassing women and eating everything he got his hands on.

The contest result: Ma Shen's old mother told him, "Don't you know son, whence your father went?" and the father, he's apparently perched on a mountaintop up there where the crooked finger points. And he's become a daoist holy man after his son was appointed to court. The ultimatum when he climbed the hill: should any of his family come to get him, he'd jump from the ledge right away...

The Monk Meddles in Politics

Bihai Sying's situation is rather simple: he was approached by Sima Yuhui, who wanted him to distance the elder prince Bang from his friend Po Wangzheng (Etienne). The prize: Wealth 15, and later on Wealth 5w, should the prince ascend to the throne.

The kicker is that Bihai Sying accepted the offer, and the very same day Xue Ron offed Sima Yuhui. Wonder what's happening now?

The Next Session:

The next session will be so full of tinder that it just might burn the house down. Some bangs here, and most need no additional set-up at all:
- Xue Ron set up a party where he's invited the sword master Shen Shing. The latter doesn't know that the ambassador is his mortal enemy, but does recognize him on sight.
- What will Fa Ho Sheng do? The trick is, he is currently responsible for protecting the second eligible maiden, Xiulan (Brier), too, in addition to self-appointing himself to mess with the prince-assessor-nun triangle. And the poor fool is convinced that his romantic future is knocking on the door, so I think that we'll be messing with him some more. The funny thing is that Wu Peide (Lady Noella) is coming to the city in the next session, too...
- The quest of Ma Shen runs itself, because it's at this point a pretty straightforward heroic quest. But what happens when he comes to court with the holy man, who the buddhists will think devil-possessed, if for no other reason than political expediency.
- Bihai Sying is a little in the air, but there's all kinds of ties there. Especially as it's now known that he's for sale, I think I'll try to buy him again...

So I won't really need to do anything to prepare. Just throw all those NPCs in there and see what the players do.

Gender themes in Well of Souls

In this thread there's a discussion about gender themes in the scenario I'm running. To put it shortly, I'm agreeing with Mike: there's no particular gender theme here, more than in any other scenario with men and women. That's something rare, though: if you take any pre-90s scenario at all, the odds are that there's no women at all in any interesting positions. (Which is again a weaker argument when you notice that there's generally no interesting positions in those scenarios at all.)

Going to detail, in our game the setting and the players have affected gender questions much more than the scenario ever. The setting is ancient China, with strict rules on proper conduct between sexes. This translates to a lesser position for women, of course, which is something we're developing. The two main woman NPCs, Xiulan and Yuting, are both pretty headstrong, although the latter is obviously wedded to the power structure of the buddhist temple. Both are likely to meet with trouble for their attitudes, at which point the players get to make some choices about what to support. I don't intend to let them off the hook with "my guy..." arguments either.

It's notable that the scenario does represent all the women as strong individuals, much more than many of the men. I could mention Alfan, Maslin, Father Rance and Trencavel, who all are easily less proactive than the women of the scenario. I can't say if this is because the scenario tries to be PC, or because it's intentionally emphasizing gender premise.

But back to the game: in our game gender questions came most strongly forth with the altercation in the nunnery. We're yet to see how Fa Ho Sheng will fall, but it was brought in as a quite real possibility that he'd turn away from the abused woman just because of his friend's accusations, even when they were pretty obviously caused by jealousy.

Another place was in the first session, when Xue Ron and Xiulan met at night on the streets. Xue Ron got the opportunity to save Xiulan from a shadow snake, which apparently made him pretty confident: he tried to use force in detaining the mysterious woman, got a kick in a bad place, and was left in the mud by the headstrong Xiulan. Gave some perspective on the women of the setting, certainly.

Interestingly, when looking at the relationship map, the only character with no screen time at all is lady Collette. She was mentioned in passing once, but hasn't been a part of anything since then. Actually, now that I'm here: any ideas about bangs to use for her, or color methods of bringing her in? I'm a bit at loss on how she should be used at all. The only way I'm seeing is to make her take the side of Hugo in the inheritance struggle, to off-set the loss of Sima Yuhui. Seems like a rather weak reason, though.
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Hi Eero,

Sounds really fun!  I don't think you should worry too much about working in all the NPCs if they're not really appearing.  I designed WoS with all those conflicts assuming that folks would focus on the 2 or 3 subconflicts they liked and drop the rest, including ignoring NPCs that don't fit into the focus for your game.

QuoteI could mention Alfan, Maslin, Father Rance and Trencavel, who all are easily less proactive than the women of the scenario.

Actually it might be an indication otherwise- women who aren't proactive just aren't in the conflict at all. :)  But these guys were rather secondary characters, for sure.  

As far as Lady Collette, I would either ignor her as anything worth focusing on at this point- or else craft some bang around her that makes her a key player that no one has been counting on to this point...  That is, either fade her out or put her in with a bang, and a big one!  Possible bangs include hidden alliances, drastic actions, personal ambitions, mixed with hidden abilities.  If you reveal that she's a "Kaiser Soze" that no one expects... then she becomes relevant very quickly.

Can't wait to hear more,


Paul T

Sounds like a fantastic game, with you throwing in some pretty tough, straight-to-the-point Bangs.

I don't know the scenario well enough to suggest anything for Lady Colette (although linking her somehow to the yet-to-arrive swordsman could be interesting, maybe as someone she recognizes from a long time ago in her past...).

However, I hope you don't mind if I ask you a question:

Quote from: Eero Tuovinen on February 16, 2005, 11:41:16 AM
This translates to a lesser position for women, of course, which is something we're developing. The two main woman NPCs, Xiulan and Yuting, are both pretty headstrong, although the latter is obviously wedded to the power structure of the buddhist temple. Both are likely to meet with trouble for their attitudes, at which point the players get to make some choices about what to support. I don't intend to let them off the hook with "my guy..." arguments either.

When you say that you don't intend to "let them off the hook" are you talking about  a) a social contract-level thing, b) something in the game, like tying it into the reward system, or  c) just putting them under pressure (by escalating the stakes of the conflicts) if you feel that they're backing off?

I'd love to hear how you plan to handle this.