Games I might want to run #2 – HeroQuest

Next up, let’s take a look at a fantasy system: HeroQuest.
First, a particularly good and useful review can be found here, listing both the good and the bad of the system, all of which I entirely agree with, and some of which I’ve co-opted for the summary below.

HeroQuest is the latest roleplaying game set in the world of Glorantha. It is, essentially, a second edition of the “Hero Wars” RPG [insert long story about the copyrights to the HeroQuest name here… personally, it’s not worth reading about] — it’s a much improved version over what I’ve seen for Hero Wars.
Long topic, especially if I decide not to run in that setting.
Briefly, Glorantha was created by Greg Stafford over 35 years ago — it’s probably one of the industry’s longest-standing fantasy settings. It has been the backdrop for several war games, five roleplaying games, two magazines, a computer game, fiction, gaming conventions, and dozens of websites. It’s really a shared world; thousands of people have explored and contributed to the setting.
There are three character creation methods in HQ.
In the “Narrative Method,” the player composes a 100 word description of his character, incorporating some “keywords” from the rules or inventing his own. A “keyword” can be a homeland, such as “Heortling” or “Dara Happa,” a profession like “Warrior” or “Merchant,” or the name of a god, pantheon, or religious philosophy. For example, the sentence “Ysara Carusias is a Foot Soldier from Lunar Tarsh” incorporates two keywords from the book, “Foot Soldier” and “Lunar Tarsh.” This automatically gives the character access to the skills and abilities associated with those keywords. In addition, a player can create unique traits just by writing them in the narrative. “Ysara is attractive, but fiery tempered and stubborn” gives the character the traits “Attractive,” “Fiery Tempered,” and “Stubborn,” all of which will be assigned a numerical rating and have an effect on play. This is a good option if you have a clear holistic vision of the guy you want to play.
Using the “List Method,” the player simply goes through the book and selects keywords and abilities and pencils them on his character sheet. The player is generally allowed a homeland, professional, and religious/magic keyword, as well as 10 additional abilities. This is a very good and familiar option for folks used to standard “point buy” rpg systems.
The “As You Go” method is perhaps the best for players completely unfamiliar with RPGs. Basically, the player comes up with a very general concept, but is allowed to create the character in play, selecting keywords and abilities as he discovers them.
What I’d heard about the task resolution system is what attracted me to HQ to begin with. A character’s abilities are rated from 1 to (potentially) infinity, with every increment over 20 being expressed as a “mastery.” A starting character might have Cook Tasty Meal at 17, a more experienced chef would have it at 10W1 (ten with one mastery, read as “ten-mastery-one,” or the equivalent of 30). The legendary heroes have their most important abilities at 10W5 or higher. If both hero and opponent have masteries, they cancel each other out: our 10W1 chef preparing a very complicated meal of difficulty 5W1 would test an ability of 10 against a difficulty of 5, because the masteries cancel out.
Preface to the following: This is not a d20 system. It uses a d20 for resolution of conflict, yes, but this is not an OGL derivative. The two systems have nothing to do with each other.
All actions are resolved by an opposed d20 roll.

  • A natural 20 is a Critical Failure.
  • A natural 1 is a Critical Success.
  • Any result higher than the the rating of the keyword or ability being tested is a Failure.
  • A result lower or equal than the target number is a Success.
  • A mastery allows you to “bump” your result by one category for each level of Mastery you have – from fumble to simple failure, from failure to success, or from success to critical.
  • Leftover bumps (once you hit Critical) can be used to bump down your opponent’s result.

You roll, and your opponent (whether a person or some sort of inanimate obstacle like a cliff face or tricky padlock) rolls, and whoever ‘wins better’ wins — the bigger the difference between the winner & loser’s results, the bigger the “win” is (there’s a simple little chart). That’s the basic system.
There are, however, some possible complications.

  • HERO POINTS Players have Hero Points. These are the currency of the game, used to purchase new abilities, increase old ones, etc. They can also be used to “bump” a result up just like a mastery. Of course, this uses them up, so you have to decide between “immediate payoff” and “long-term advancement”.
  • AUGMENTS Related abilities can be used to “augment” a character’s rating. This can either be taken as an Automatic augment that basically works as a flat “Synergy Bonus”, or you can be a little riskier and take a Variable Augment, where you roll your augmenting ability against a difficulty number based on the bonus you want it to give you — the risk is that you could blow the roll and your augmenting ability (say, “Fiery Temper”, used in a fight) might actually penalize you. The upside to this risk is that if you succeed, you get a bigger bonus from a Variable than you would get for an Automatic augment.
  • EXTENDED CONTESTS Extended contests, usually reserved for climactic trials, give your hero a number of Action Points (APs) equal to his ability’s numerical value. Our 10W1 chef would have 30 action points in this contest, while the meal he’s preparing would have 14 action points. In each round of the contest, both the hero and the GM bid a portion of their action points, with larger bids representing riskier attempts. Both sides then roll as for a simple contest – the degree of victory or failure indicates whether you lost some APs or whether your opponent lost some (or, if you really nail it, whether they lost some and you get them, which creates a great interchange with point totals dwindling only to skyrocket in a last-second comeback).

As with character creation, the word is “options.” How many last-ditch, campaign-ending duels have boiled down to the same tired interchange of “roll, parry, roll, hit, damage, initiative” that followed all the duels that led to this one? Or, alternately, how many times have you wished that you could just handwave through inessential trials (fording a river, bribing a guard) so they could get to the meat of the story? HQ gives you two options where most systems only give you one
The default setting is pretty magic-rich. Everyone has some magic, and everyone uses it. A farmer prays to the god of crops to bless his fields, and a warrior invokes the god of war. HQ uses four types of magic to simulate these things.

  1. Common Magic: These are simple powers derived from inside the character himself.
  2. Animism: This is magic that summons spirits to perform certain tasks.
  3. Theism: This magic calls upon the gods to aid the hero.
  4. Wizardry: Calls upon cosmic “essences” to benefit the individual.

The character’s cultural backround generally determines the kind of magic he uses, and as a result, how he views the world. A nomad might use animism, and thus for him, the world is alive with spirits. A soldier might worship a god of battle and view the world as a reflection of the struggle. Magic is not so much a game mechanic in HQ as it is a philosophy and system of beliefs. It shapes the character’s personality.
As for the mechanics, magic can be used to augment abilities or called upon to perform spectacular feats. The more focused you are on your magic, the more powerful it is, but the less flexible it becomes… casual users can do more ‘whatever’ types of things, but it’s a more expensive prospect for them to get better than hedge-magic.
There is scope in the game for all sorts of adventures. The most obvious beginning is that all the characters are from the same tribe or city, the oddballs who get sent out troubleshooting while normal folks are farming and cattle-raiding. Eventually they might become mighty heroes who beat up enemy gods.
HQ is good. The system is simple enough that creative minds can easily invent new powers and abilities, while traditional RPG players can simply bring old spells and manuevers with them into the game. However, it is a very free-form system, so players who prefer detailed combat rules, clearly defined results, and lists of spells, skills, and results may not like it as much. It is not, and strongly resists any attempt to make it, a simulation. I resisted it for awhile but was won over once I began to grasp the possibilities offered by the system.


  1. Perhaps because I’ve heard so much about Glorantha (from my RuneQuest rip-off days), but never actually played in it, it’s not clear to me how this is much different from what “Glorantha D20” would be. In some ways, it feels like the setting wagging the system, and, frankly, Nobilis has sort of saturated my “Epic Mythos” circuits for a while.

  2. As they man said: “If it sounds like that, then I’m telling it wrong.”
    By this I mean: if it sounds like a d20 system, I explained something horribly horribly inaccurately — the system is about as far from d20 as…
    Nobilis from Amber?
    No, that’s unkind to Amber.
    At any rate, it’s uses a d20 for resolution, but the mechanic for resolution is ENTIRELY something else… You could (honestly) use any size dice, though it would do odd things to the power-level of the game.
    The other bit where my explanation obviously failed is in describing said power-level — while there is Myth, it is not the same kind of Myth as Nobilis. To be honest, at the lower power levels, you’re doing things like “Go to this tribe that stole our magic War Spear and get it Back!” — it’s all very tribal and earthy. It’s not until you really… hmm… until you’re kind of Important that it makes any sense to go on a heroquest of any kind, which is where the myth comes in.
    In day to day play, it feels sort of Roman Empire, with the default home of the PCs being someplace like Germania (except with more open plains)?
    I suggest I’m still underexplaining some of this, but there it is.

  3. Stafford wrote in the preface to the book: “After 35 years, I finally have a system that lets me do, within the system, the things I’ve been doing outside the system since the beginning — Glorantha is finally, truly home.”
    He makes examples of what he’s talking about, but that’s the gist of it.

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