I’ve been re-reading the second and third editions of Heroquest lately. I’m sort of a little bit of a fan for Greg Stafford’s things, so this is mostly me warming up for the new Sartar book which I’m going to get whenever somebody brings it to me from the coastal trade towns. I have historically almost never played roleplaying games in Glorantha, but it’s still one of my favourite fantasy worlds. Now I feel like commenting upon these texts a bit.
The short bibliographical outline
For those who don’t know, this whole Glorantha thing is a bit of a mess insofar as getting into it goes. There are many different textual traditions you might read, and as we’ll see, the conclusions are pretty different. Consider:
- The setting first came into prominence in Runequest decades ago. I played my share of the game itself, but never in Glorantha. As far as I’ve discerned, the Gloranthan material of the time was rooted in the adventure model of roleplaying at the time, so it was quite concerned with things like combat magic. Still, it was already then one of the more unique and literary worlds in roleplaying.
- Runequest has a new retake that should be mentioned here, published by Mongoose. The new game is set in the relative past of Glorantha. I haven’t familiarized myself with the game, but I understand that many Glorantha fans are not too happy with the quality of the material. What I’ve seen hasn’t been as interesting as the Heroquest material, anyway.
- Heroquest, the current flagship game for Glorantha, was first published around the millennium under the moniker Hero Wars. I’ve yet to locate the main book for this edition, but I’m going to get that one as well whenever it crosses my field of vision; the supplements I’ve read are all top notch, such as Thunder Rebels and Cults of Sartar – in fact, those are some of the best roleplaying setting material I’ve ever encountered.
- The second edition of Heroquest followed the first one unseemly soon in 2003 due to some sort of creative and practical issues with the publisher – my understanding is that there was dissatisfaction with the rules text, quality of printing and format of the digest-sized Hero Wars. Anyway, I have the main book for this edition, and have in fact utilized it for gaming, although not in Glorantha. It’s a nice book, but I’ll write more about its distinct features below.
- Finally, the third edition of the game came out this year. I’ve been doing a bit of comparative reading between the second and third editions, which is the topic of this post.
There is much that could be written about this game and its different versions, it is an interesting subject. However, I’ll concentrate on my central observations here, there’s no need for me to puke out a long, long introductory analysis. I’ll give you just the best bits:
Interestingly it seems to me that the Heroquest books are usually better the farther back you go on the line. By this I mean that the creative agenda of the game appears to become hazier and more confused as years go by. This is one of the main reasons for why I’d like to get my hands on the Hero Wars main books; based on the supplements I’ve read I can only imagine that it’s a much more focused game than the second edition book, despite the formal rules being almost identical. Based on the supplements it seems to me that Hero Wars has a very clear vision of a sort of anthropologically inspired heroic roleplaying that views fantasy communities as an in-depth background source for strife that the player characters need to handle. I don’t get much of an adventure game sense at all out of it, and apparently there is not much in the way of GM plot in the game.
In comparison, the second edition of the game has somewhat streamlined rules, but the purported agenda is much more of a mess than the game I imagine the original to be. If I had to pick an overarching theory for what the 2nd edition of Heroquest tries to accomplish, I’d say that it’s mostly character development (adding points to statistics, that is) and contributing narration to a GM’s ready-made plot railroad. I wouldn’t back this claim in a disputation, but then the text of the game seems to wander all over the place in its colorful examples of play and copious rules. I can sort of see the original game’s goals in the text as well, maybe because much of the text is copied directly from Hero Wars.
Meanwhile, the third edition of the game is again a very clear text. It just happens to clarify a way of playing that I don’t find very interesting. In the world of third edition Heroquest the major goal of the GM is to entertain the players by providing them with appropriate challenges for their characters, and to perhaps tell stories on the side. I can’t help but feel that the potential of the great game I see embedded in the second edition text has been lost here.
The big, fat procedural difference between the second and third editions of the game seems to be in the logic of difficulty-setting. The third edition text is very focused on the procedures of play, which is part of why it’s so clear as a game. One part of this clarity is the complex heuristic provided for determining resistances in conflict resolution. To cut a long story short, the basic goal of the system is to provide for fun conflict situations in the game by ensuring that difficulties are always appropriate to the dramatic situation at hand. This is achieved basically by GM fiat – the GM picks a difficulty that is appropriate to the situation, helped by Robin D. Laws’ heuristic that tells him what to look for in this regard. I don’t think that I do the system any great injustice by saying that it advocates a model of play where on average the heroes win conflicts when dramatically appropriate and lose them when that is more appropriate.
The second edition of the game (and the first, I’m pretty sure) had a pretty different approach in that conflict resistances were derived from the features of the game’s setting in a manner that is most clearly described as simulational: a cliff might be resistance 20 because it’s a mean cliff, or 40 because it’s insanely difficult to climb. A normal man wrestles with 15, while a giant wrestles with 60 points. That sort of thing. This is almost totally orthogonal to the third edition system, mostly because while the third edition heuristic includes a nod towards this sort of setting realism, it doesn’t really set any meaningful benchmarks – if I didn’t have the second edition book I wouldn’t know that the Saint Plane can be reached with a 120+ level conflict; based on the third edition text, I really could do little but look at what the player character has in his score and base the resistance on that. The sense I get is that most difficulties in the third edition game should be resolved by looking at the player character scores and basing the difficulties on those directly: if you the GM want a situation to be difficult, then take the player’s score and add n points, if you want it to be easy, deduct n points and so on.
I find the third edition system to be incredibly dull, mainly because I’m not that interested in replicating a priori Aristotelian story models. The rules text makes a big deal of how faithful the system is to classical story models and how easy it is to replicate them at your gaming table as long as you the GM guide the flow of the game according to the challenge heuristic. I cannot really disagree, it’s just that I find no joy in having the player character wrestle down a giant because I think now is an appropriate point for him to display his strength; I’d rather have it happen because the character is a mean wrestler or because of luck or whatever. In fact, almost any means of resolution is better than asking me to decide whether the character should succeed or not, which is what the third edition heuristic amounts to: if I wanted to make these sorts of decisions as an author, I’d be writing novels.
This is all a shame, as when I look at the second edition text I get the sense that the quirky ability system of the game was originally created specifically to treat with the large scale of power typical of Glorantha. For those who don’t know, Heroquest features an innovative dicing system wherein scalar numbers like the aforementioned 120 are transformed into target numbers on the 1-20 range (20m5 in this case) for a roll-under d20 check. It’s really quite aesthetic, and makes handling the in-setting power levels quite simple. Most significantly, it allows for real limits in what the characters can or can’t do, and a fruitful tension between the possible and the impossible; insofar as I can see, the complex additive bonus system in Heroquest is specifically intended to interact with the fact that sometimes the conflict resistances are literally out of this world. At least the second edition rules make a big deal of how various bonuses accumulated for heroquesting ultimately allow the characters to overcome the insane difficulty levels.
The third edition rulebook doesn’t seem to be completely subjective in how it approaches the setting of Glorantha, interestingly enough. The book still states that characters can only become f.ex. mages by achieving a rating of 21 in an appropriate ability. Numbers 31 and 39 make an appearance in the slim Glorantha section, too, indicating a bit of something about the scale. I’d interpret this very naturally as meaning that one mastery (20 points) is some sort of natural line of demarcation in the new system. I guess I’ll see when I get the new book whether there’ll be more absolute ratings in there.
I think I’ll have more to say about these texts, especially the second edition one. That’ll have to wait for later, no need to write up a huge post all in one go. For now it’s enough to note that while I’m not all that interested in playing the game in the way the third edition book presents it, I’m otherwise pretty impressed with how streamlined and logical the system has become here. In fact, most of the things I houseruled away from the second edition rules set while playing it have been removed from the third edition, making it mechanically quite clean and slick.
I recommend these game texts to others interested in game design simply because they’re really quite educational regarding the demarcation of rules system vs. rules mechanics. The system of interaction in the game has undergone a drastic upheaval in the evolution from the first edition to the third, while the mechanical system has only been cleaned up. As I’ve already convincingly discussed with others several times, nothing in the mechanics of the third edition forces you to play it as a railroading game; all the same bits are there that were in the first two editions. Regardless, all the advice and prescribed GMing technique is radically different. I could easily see a game that used the same exact mechanics, but replaced the GNS-simulationistic GMing advice with the narrativistic material I think I see in the earlier editions.