Goals in a Conflict

The thing with the Heroquest system is the Conflict Resolution vs. Task Resolution; it’s all about the former and unremarkable at the latter. To put it another way, the question in an HQ game is never whether or not you pick the lock on the safe, but whether or not you get The Thing You Want. Picking the lock is only the means to the end.
The point to that statement lies in remembering that every conflict you have in the game should have a Goal stated, and once that Goal is stated, the Stakes of the Conflict are then fairly obvious. (A.A. Milne capitalization rules are now In Effect.) When I remember this, a conflict really hums in the game, when I don’t, it’s pretty flat. The best part about this is in determining what it is that will happen if you fail. Failing is awesome in HQ. It’s fun — at least it can be, if you as the GM don’t screw up setting up the Stakes for the player’s stated Goal, and in doling out Consequences.
The big hurdle to figuring out that Failure != Horrible Unfun was in my own misinterpretation of the rules — I’d missed the little clause that said you could only change a Conflict result by one step using Hero Points, and players were (understandably) spending however many points they needed to in order to avoid any kind of failure whatsoever. Fine on the surface, but it led to a mindset of ‘failure can and should be avoided at all costs.’
I corrected this mis-reading during our last game and this time, people failed here and there. They’d spend a point when they wanted to capitalize on a win or mitigate the results of a loss, but by and large we were more ‘exposed’ to failure… and it turned out pretty cool.
Again, when it didn’t, I blame my failure to think in terms of a Good Goal, and the resulting Interesting Consequences.
Mike Holmes, for whom I have all kinds of respect as an HQ GM, wrote about this at some length recently. I’d link to it directly, but it was on a mailing list, which presents a problem. I’ve reproduced the key bits below. Bold-faced. underlined emphasis, [and boxed commentary] mine:

I first understood this regarding contests to get information. It’s what I now refer to as the “hidden clause” idea; basically all statements of goals include clauses that aren’t explicitly stated.
So, [take] this a bit further, and say that the actual negative outcome stakes for any contest should be whatever is most interesting, not neccessarily a literal negative of the stated goal. That is, the rules are pretty clear that failure means that the character doesn’t get what he intended to get. What you can play around with, however, is the nature of the goal statement. [As an] example, the stated goal is to find some information, for example in a library. The obvious failure condition is to narrate, “You don’t find what you’re looking for.” But that’s potentially disasterous for the plot – it might leave the player with nowhere to go, and nothing to do with his character.
So what Bruce proposes is that the goal statement includes a hidden clause, “without pissing off the librarian.” So failure can mean getting the information, but pissing off the librarian in the process, such that the character will have problems later when looking for further information.
What’s going on here is that the narrator is deciding on what the most interesting stakes are for this contest. Note that he could decide that this is an automatic success deeming it “something no self-respecting hero” would fail at. Indeed, failing to find a book in a library after a dilligent search with unlimited time (especially if the character is good at this sort of thing), seems to me to fall under that category. So the narrator is simply creating some more interesting stakes after the fact. The goal statement could have been, in fact, “I want to get the information without pissing off the librarian.”
Now, you might retort, you’re qualifying the contest by saying that they have unlimited time. What if they don’t have unlimited time? Well, then that is, in fact, a case where not meeting the goal might be interesting. That is, OK, now the demon has come to life because we didn’t make our time goal in finding out how to stop it in the library, so now we have to deal with the demon. The only case where it’s bad form to cause people to fail is where failure means that there’s nothing interesting to do now.
[T]here is no “standard” contest anywhere in HQ. All contests presented in the text are examples. Let the circumstances of the contest decide what the stakes of the contest are, not happenstance or player action statements that are not being thought of in terms of what’s at stake. Don’t say, “Oh, it’s an [magical gate] opening attempt, let’s use the contest in the book” unless the circumstances match those for this example contest. As I’ve said, consider what’s really at stake. The question is whether [being blocked in your tracks] is the right negative consequence for the opening contest in question.
Perhaps losing your way is a better negative consequence in a particular case. Or being cursed. Apply one that is most interesting in that it moves the action along, rather than shuts it down. Sometimes that means you get turned back – maybe people chasing you catch up to you. Sometimes it means…
Well this is the fun part of being the narrator, it’s up to you what failure means. It’s your job to come up with interesting and creative ideas for what failure means. You get to really hose the characters, instead of the system telling you in what way the characters are hosed (usually quite uninterestingly in other games).
Now, I sometimes get pushback on this idea, and largely it comes from a very valid fear. That is, yes, if you use your ability as narrator to come up with [altered] failure stakes of a character to let him off the hook, then, yeah, you’re doing your players a disservice. I most wholeheartedly agree. Always hammer the character on failure. Go to town.
A problem in many RPGs is that [most Conflicts are “combat”, and] all combat has “the ultimate price,” death, as the only likely negative consequence. And so we’ve gotten used to that idea. But, again, the one place where the HQ rules are absolutely explicit about this is in the case of character death – it should only rarely be the chosen failure consequence (if ever, since you don’t have to even state combat stakes in terms of death at all). Our experience with other games informs us that death is the “right” stake here, and HQ has to correct that impression.
To me, this screams that the narrator should be coming up with better failures than just “you don’t get it.” Instead, the system gives you an injury or something that becomes a complication for your character, an obstacle to be overcome. If you play this way from the start, players will begin to expect complications as the result of failure, instead of the system punishing them as players by shutting down their options. And then they’ll not only expect that these are the sorts of stakes that are coming down the pike, but, better yet, they’ll begin to love when their characters fail.
And this is when the HQ rules really start to humm, in my experience. If players know that, no matter what they do in contests, that the results will be fun for them as players (even if the results suck for the character), then they’re informed that they can concentrate on playing their character as a hero with the motives on their character sheet, as opposed to figuring out how to have their character shy away from conflict, because they’re worried that the system will punish them as players.
So many systems claim this as a feature, that system lethality makes players have their characters act “realistically” because the player fears character loss as much as the character does. Well, what really happens is that the player figures out how to make his character’s motives match the player’s in keeping the character alive, instead of having the only criteria for what to do being the character’s personality traits, relationships, etc, the things on the character sheet that the character cares about.
Yeah, sometimes having this sort of “plot immunity” will lead to players having their characters do things that seem to be just a little unrealistic in the name of following their motives. In books and movies we call these characters heroes. In any case, the level to which a player does this is only motivated in HQ by how cool it makes the character seem. So, no, in HQ you don’t see players having their characters idiotically walk off of cliffs – like you might see in D&D – to avoid a horde of trolls (since in D&D he has enough HP to survive the fall, but they don’t). Instead they turn to face the trolls.

The thing I need to remember to do when running Heroquest is to put a sticky up on my laptop screen that says “What are the Goals? What are the Stakes?”
Good stuff.