[HeroQuest 2] System and Story Tug of War

Started by Bret Gillan, December 15, 2011, 03:40:24 PM

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Bret Gillan

Hey guys. I recently got a Glorantha game going. We're using the HQ2 system and man is it weird. It does this judo on the way we determine obstacle levels for rolling dice. Most of the time it's fiction-first, right? Based on the fiction and the narrator's judgment, obstacle levels are determined when it's time to roll the dice. Using the HQ2 narrative rhythm system, though, the difficulty is determined based on how the PCs fared in the last few rolls (a series of failures results in an easier difficulty, and a run of successes means harder difficulties), and the GM adapts the fiction to the difficulty. And sorry if this is old news to everyone. I'm just setting up my post here.

So in the first session of the Glorantha game, after a series of failures in various contests, Ivar the Skald (played by Ian) is facing down Agrin Doomfist, this huge warrior who's been mocking him. So Ivar challenges him to a drinking contest. I determine that the difficulty is easy, so as setup to the roll I say that he's already a bit wobbly on his feet. He's belligerent and has already had a few drinks in him. The difficulty gives me as the GM feedback to color the circumstances of the challenge.

However, the rules note that there are going to be exceptions. In an example from my game, a follower of Chalana Arroy (a goddess of peace and healing played by Shael) was trying to break up a fight between two dozen armed and pissed off warriors. At this point I said, well, I'm throwing out narrative rhythm. This is a nearly impossible task. It was two bands of a dozen ancestral enemies working each other over. And I explained it and the hero bought it. I find this pre-roll setup discussion to be very important, otherwise you're just looking at a chart and throwing out a number, or making GM declarations of difficulty.

The exceptions do make me a bit uncomfortable as the GM though. Knowing when it is appropriate to make an exception to the chart, either towards higher or lower difficulty, is not something I like doing. There was a point last night where Shael is in another situation that he's spent a lot of time setting up. His character prepared a gift and made his way past a troop of hostile baboons into enemy clan territory to try to make piece with a warrior I was setting up as the antagonist of the arc. He succeeded in a bunch of necessary rolls to make this happen, and then when finally face to face with the antagonist, narrative rhythm calls for a moderate difficulty roll. I was tempted to make it harder. Is this the appropriate difficulty level for someone who has a number of grievances against the PCs? And I could easily set up the fiction so it is - he's impressed by the courage and generosity of Shael's character, and so is less harsh than he usually is. And if I do increase the difficulty, is it because of incontrovertible fictional truths, or am I trying to steer the game towards an outcome I want? In the end, I just went with the narrative rhythm, and Shael failed the roll anyway (resulting in a lot of satisfying angst for Shael). I'm trying to follow a rule of thumb where if I suspect that I am letting my own desired outcome influence obstacle setting to just let narrative rhythm determine it. I should only deviate if it's obvious to me and everyone. But I still feel the stated exceptions to the narrative rhythm rule, unclearly defined, make me feel a bit uncomfortable utilizing that exception.

How do you, or how would you, use this exception in running the game?

Eero Tuovinen

I struggle with the third edition rules exactly because I don't buy the Aristotelic simulation thing. It seems like something that will work fine if you can get behind it as the GM and use it in the spirit it's intended in. Smart people have explained it to me just like you do here - the point is not to ignore the fiction when setting the difficulties, but rather to find retroactive detail in the fiction that justifies the difficulty that is found appropriate according to the laws of drama. In principle this is not so very far from ordinary dramatic coordination (framing scenes that deal with relevant subject matter and enable players to resolve interesting issues), which I do all the time completely routinely in various games, but in practice I'm bothered by the very idea. It's just too close to arbitrary GM-determined difficulty levels for me. I'm especially rankled by the way the difficulties raise as a function of PC competency, so that the very same challenge would get a different number to it if encountered in the first session or the tenth session of the campaign. It all just makes me feel that the players are like performing monkeys being prodded by the GM to dance through a set routine, after which they're rewarded with ultimately meaningless character development points. It's just Pavlovian.

I've been mulling this over slowly, and I'm pretty convinced that I'm not merely negative on Laws's logic, but I rather gain some positive value from the old 1-2 edition philosophy. As you probably know, the focus of the system used to be on a grand attempt at measuring the world of Glorantha in various ways. I found the merely incidental and concrete applications like the oft-discussed size attributes of various animals pretty weird (the game has always tried too hard to make traditional adventure gamers happy, I've felt), but the abstract and general idea of relative weight felt very useful to me: knowing that the Unknown God of the westerners was around 10th mastery in "importance", while a primary Rune-holding major god like Orlanth would be around 8th Mastery, and the clan champion swordsman or such would be 2nd Mastery, all this helped me understand the structure of the world and gauge appropriate numbers to be fed to the conflict resolution system. The old version of the game encouraged thinking where the setting is formed of levels of challenge, and heroes would occasionally rise above their accorded level due to dramatic circumstance, piling on incidental bonuses that would allow them to beat the odds, and the ordinary rule of nature.

In truth I admit that I haven't used the mechanics of the Heroquest system a great deal in play, as the older editions have been less elegant and expressive than eg. The Shadow of Yesterday (which does very similar things philosophically), but the philosophy and intent behind the rules pleased me much more than the otherwise more streamlined third edition does. The two past editions felt to me like they were genuine about the idea of expressing the setting of Glorantha in a rich way, allowing players to put their mark on it and deal with the consequences; the new edition, on the other hand, has a strong feel of GM authorship in its way of thinking, encouraging the GM to have his own plot with its twists and turns. It's not inconsiderate of player feelings, but the feelings it celebrates are unique snowflake princess play feelings, the game thinks that players will be happy as long as they get their chance to shout the character's motto and spend the experience points at the end of the session to get (seemingly) more powerful.

All in all I think that my being uncomfortable with the game is not because it's a bad game, but rather because of a simple agenda disagreement (GNS-wise, you know); the game you're offered in the new rules, should you follow and accept Laws's logic, is one where everybody is excited about being able to fill in the lines on a pure, straightforward story. The text encourages you to seek unity of plot, proper establishing scenes and strong climax. Player characters are predesigned carefully, and they are supposed to be exceptional, interesting beings that you spend your time expressing as static objects of art. The old game was a dramatic adventure game that incidentally (from player viewpoint, that is) produced stories that could be small or large, run in tandem or series, stop abruptly or never resolve. Player characters were seekers, looking for their place in the cosmos and unsettling everybody else on the way. These two processes of play are so different (simulationist vs. narrativist, if we want names) that I wonder not at all that some people will find one or the other game to accord with their tastes to much greater degree.

Keeping the above background in mind, I fear that my own thinking would be pretty rigid when it comes to using the GM fiat exception in the difficulty-setting procedure of the new rules: I can't imagine that I would be using the new rules in the first place if I didn't buy into the idea of running an Aristotelian, cleanly plotted story. And if that were what I was doing, then I would probably treat my own inclinations about making exceptions to the conflict difficulties as impure thinking, poisonous attachment to specific outcomes in play. Who am I to say that this conflict should be difficult, if I have this narrative theory guiding my steps? If it's time for the player character to win this conflict to provide appropriate variety and pay-off after his past difficulties (the core idea of the new system), then surely I should do my best to figure out what sorts of facts I could be showing to the audience to justify this, rather than overruling the procedure. As you said, usually it's quite possible to justify a low or high difficulty by bringing in more facts about the situation, showing before the dice hit the table how this or that situation is tense and difficult for the protagonist.

I would probably only use the override option in situations that were genuinely exceptional, ones where I felt that the outcome would otherwise be ludicrous. I would preface the decision by asking the players to forgive my limitations, and I would ask them to agree to my judgment of using a special difficulty this one time. Making an exceptional deal about it would help me resist unhealthy attachments, so that only situations where my creativity genuinely fails me would require me to deviate from the Plan.

I can't help if the above seems a bit vapid. As I explain above, I'm far from convinced that the new system is even that smart an idea. Still, not following it seems even worse, as with it you at least have some sort of logic to what you're doing.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.

Neil the Wimp

First, a caveat: I've not played HeroQuest 2 yet, and I've not worked out my feelings about the pass/fail cycle and setting resistances. But, there's an important part of the rules which I think is often overlooked.

Quote from: Robin Laws
Some narrators arrive at resistances based purely on their own creative instincts, without reference to any of these rules. That's not just acceptable, but commendable.
(p. 71, and the first mention of how resistances should be set.)

Quote from: Robin Laws
Always remember that the pass/fail method of resistance assignment is a fallback measure. Use it when you have no strong answers to the questions listed above. Don't let it rigidly override your dramatic instincts, or sacrifice the broader credibility of the narrative to the pacing needs of the moment.
(p. 72, emphasis in the original.)

So, Bret, by picking resistances that make sense because of the fictional situation, you're following the rules as written. If you let the pass/fail cycle override your "dramatic" or "creative instincts", you're going against the rules of the game. You're perfectly correct to set the resistances how you wish. You only let the pass/fail tracking to set the resistance if you don't have any better idea of what the resistance should be.

In other words, when you say...

Quote from: Bret Gillan on December 15, 2011, 03:40:24 PM
I'm trying to follow a rule of thumb where if I suspect that I am letting my own desired outcome influence obstacle setting to just let narrative rhythm determine it. I should only deviate if it's obvious to me and everyone. But I still feel the stated exceptions to the narrative rhythm rule, unclearly defined, make me feel a bit uncomfortable utilizing that exception.

...I think you've got it backwards. Most of the time, you set resistances according to the fiction. In those exceptional cases where the fiction doesn't strongly indicate what the resistance should be, then you refer to the pass/fail cycle.

Does that help?
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Concrete Cow 12 a one-day con, 10 March 2012, Milton Keynes, UK.


So, coming from an ignorant, purely procedural level... (that is, haven't played aught but HQ1, but I want to opine anyway)

Maybe be more transparent about setting the difficulty? You could maybe share your dilemma with the players and have them act as an (admittedly biased) sort of jury of creativity.
You'd need to work together to create a group-level commitment to the "logic" of the fiction. Like, get to a point where people honestly really do care about the details, where they really are interested in fiction-stuff beyond whether it helps "their guy" or not.
From there, maybe you could either set a range of wiggle room (centered on the "proposed" difficulty) or you could just start where they suggest and go wild from there.

Mask of the Emperor rules, admittedly a work in progress - http://abbysgamerbasement.blogspot.com/

Bret Gillan

Neil, I'll have to go back to the rules and reread them. The part you're quoting seemed to me at the time of my initial readthrough to be a bit of archaic backpatting about how awesome the GM is when he or she ignores the rules and does whatever they want. If the GM choosing the difficulty is truly the primary method of determining difficulty, that's disappointing and the rules suddenly become virtually useless to me. What's high difficulty? What's very high? What's low? Etc. There is no guidance in the system, which leaves it to my "gut feeling" or some other system I devise like what Abkajud is recommending.

Callan S.

QuoteAnd if I do increase the difficulty, is it because of incontrovertible fictional truths, or am I trying to steer the game towards an outcome I want?
I think the exceptions make you uncomfortable because the above two things are actually the same thing. It's funny how when we dream at night we'll say "Well, it was just my own mind making it up" but come roleplay it's an "incontravertable fictional truth" as if ones mind isn't heading towards some outcome and somehow it's something outside of ones mind that just has to be that way.

Maybe you enjoyed the way a system result that goes against how you imagine things actually challenges and stimulates your imagination. Of course now your finding that the system can't go against you/put up any amount of resistance against you - your procedurally empowered to brush it aside without any effort at all (not even any currency cost - it's a freebie brush aside).

Do you think you maybe enjoyed that mechanical resistance put up against your imagination - but vetoing its use and the suddenly clarity about how much of a free veto it is suddenly popped that feeling, as it's clear now you can always easily overcome the rule structure when you try even the faintest bit (by vetoing)? Adversity is the mother of invention, but adversity just got veto'ed?

Eero Tuovinen

Neil's right about the text, I understood it the same way - the primary method for the GM is to be the masterful auteur of his excellent story and just throw out arbitrary numbers that support his vision of where the story is to go. The other methodology is basically intended to be used when you actually want some rules support to prop up your viking helmet.

This is, of course, a pretty shitty sentiment if you come into it from a certain direction. Most people I've heard of who play the system try their best to use the suggested methodology rather than being arbitrary.

Also, Callan: we get it, you don't believe in shared imagined space and player ability to communicate and agree upon it genuinely. All player evaluations of game fiction are arbitrary opinions with no empirical backing of any sort, and for this reason all real game design concerns itself with player rights instead of referencing the state of the fiction, which does not exist. This is just my opinion, but I'd appreciate it if we limited the discussion of this (relatively useful) viewpoint to some subset of threads on the forum instead of bringing it into all discussions, as it is a pretty fringe viewpoint. I would expect that the fiction-denying viewpoint would flourish better if it was spread with pull strategy, such as by writing essays or actual play reports, rather than pushing it into discussions that clearly assume that the fiction may actually be known at the table. It's like, we'll never have a chance to talk about second-order concerns if we always get stuck on trying to decide whether fiction can be known and evaluated at all.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.

Erik Weissengruber

Quote from: Bret Gillan on December 15, 2011, 03:40:24 PM
But I still feel the stated exceptions to the narrative rhythm rule, unclearly defined, make me feel a bit uncomfortable utilizing that exception.

How do you, or how would you, use this exception in running the game?

How about this: I want to make the setting real, effective, the locus of drama, etc.

That means details of the setting, esp. the religious powers and mythical forces that are the components of Glorantha, should be stable points of reference for challenging players, responding to player challenges, etc.

And the community-centric nature of the setting would be bolstered by sticking to the the Community Resources rules.  These require the creation of a "hyper character" with certain abilities that face consistent challenges and which grows or shrinks or changes based on player character actions.  These, note, do not involve the dramatic rhythm used to set resistances elsewhere.

So: when dealing with the Community, stick to the numbers.  That means as players improve their abilities, their chances of influencing the community increase, which would give some purpose to the advancement mechanics.  When dealing with Otherworld entities (spirits, daimons, gods, whatever) use the rating scale from previous editions or set up a similar.  That way the players can set goals, create fictional positioning, manipulate game currency, with some consistency. 

The heroquest journeys into the Otherworld are the biggest way protagonists alter their setting.  So once a heroquest is established, keep the resistances the same.  Improving characters take on bigger challenges and bring about more extensive changes to the world.  The surprises during heroquesting come from myth hackers or other opponents.

What to do with magic though?  What happens when a mundane being flings a powerful spell, or releases a spirit.  If NPCs are invoking mytho-religious power and such power has been lifted out of the dramatic rhythm, then it should come at the players with the same heft as magical beings.  So magical keywords, if the players are opposing them or suffering pressure from NPC magic, should be set with reference to the scale of magical power and kept consistent.

Where does that leave dramatic rhythm?  It could come in when the GM is filling in connecting details between the dramatic situations sought out and brought about by PCs.  Improvised NPCs to flesh out the mundane world or to provide reactions to the PCs actions would be another place.

These are options running through my mind as I try to set up a Glorantha game.

Erik Weissengruber

Reviewing the posts and other Heroquest discussions, I can't really justify the narrative rhythm approach for a situation where I want setting to matter.

That means keeping HQ 3 with its various scales of conflict resolution (possibly tied to a Burning Wheel-like rationing of scene types available), the simplified extended contest rules, player options for stake setting and risk taking, the community support rules.

It means returning to Hero Wars for the scale of supernatural beings (Double digits for very weak ones, 10 masteries for the most remote, primal forces), mundane NPCS (1 mastery for an expert, 2 masteries for a leader,3 masteries for a hero, 4 for a superhero.

Consistent difficulty numbers for Otherworld beings in the mortal world.  At most the dramatic rhythm could be used as a procedure for assigning difficulty numbers to new entities as they are improvised ("Oh yeah, everyone knows that the Dribble Stream is very easy to cross, give it a 17") but if difficulties have been prepped beforehand, with reference to the scales above and to prior decisions about setting, the GM is to honor those.

What to do with the currency?  Every Hero Point spent on some ability during a contest adds 1 to its rating.  What to do about the banking up of currency between sessions? I have seen FATE points and the Chips in Deadlands used to do serious turtle-ing where the player hoads chips to ward off any challenge to the PC.  Hows about this: 3 Hero Points are handed out per session.  Hero Points spent during challenges improve the ability by one.  2 HP max may be banked at the end of a session.  As soon as a character improves an ability by a mastery, the bank is increased by one.  Initiation, Devotion, Rune Lord/Rune Priest advancements also expand the bank by 1.

I am trying to do some informed drifting here: I played a lot of Hero Wars and was involved with the playtest for HeroQuest 3.  The changes suggested above are for my upcoming game.

Sorry to threadjack.  But I won't really have AP reports until January and Bret's posts have got me thinking.

Eero Tuovinen

My experience with turtling is that insofar as it's of a sort that's curable by mechanical measures, then it's a better idea to simply hit harder rather than discourage it mechanically. If a player has the luxury of saving up Hero Points and using them to succeed in situations, then maybe the GM should be punching harder. Of course, the player has the option of avoiding going into challenging situations, but that's an option they have regardless of Hero Points: the real turtle is a problem not because his character is strong, but because he refuses to even test the character.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.