Saturday, 4 July 2009

HeroQuest review - pt 2

So, in some significant ways, HeroQuest 2 is an improvement over earlier editions. Which is just as it should be - why else do a new edition, rather than re-releasing the old one? There are, however, a few areas where I have niggling doubts; where it looks, certainly at first glance, that they have made a step in the wrong direction.

Incidentally, it's clear from forum discussions that very few people agree with me on any of the following. If you think HQ2 is perfect, and you don't like people disagreeing with you, you probably don't want to read on. And, frankly, if you've tried it, and it does work for you (as it will for many people), what do you care what I think, anyway? I've said it before, and I'm sure I'll say it again: this is a well-designed system that many people will love; I'm just not one of them.

Character generation proceeds in much the same manner as in HQ1, although, obviously, with less specific Gloranthan guidance. For the proper Gloranthan implementation we're going to have to wait for Kingdom of Heroes, currently planned for release this Autumn. As I haven't seen even a pre-release of this, I know little about its approach, and it will, in any case, deserve its own review when it appears. Judging from the rulebook though, there should be no problem with compatibility issues, and characters should translate easily from the old edition to the new one, which is a great relief. For instance, while there are two new approaches to writing keywords, the HQ1 method is still enshrined as one of the official options (now called the "package" approach) in the new rules, and the sample keyword format on p. 94 is fully compatible with this.

Which makes it a little odd that the designers have been saying elsewhere that the two systems actually aren't compatible at a character generation level - that is, that characters designed for HQ1 won't work properly with HQ2, and that, in practice, you're going to be forced to create new ones. I hope they're wrong, since continuity is a major selling point for me, but it seems unlikely that they don't know what they're talking about. Mind you, they're not claiming its actually impossible - after all, one could convert from D&D to RuneQuest if one really wanted to - just that the changes are drastic enough that the character will lose a lot of it "feel", making the whole result unsatisfactory and a little bit pointless. Either way, this sounds counter-intuitive, given the similarity between those aspects of the relevant editions. So, I'm going to test it out for myself, to work out just what it is that I've missed (probably something in the magic rules). I'll post the results here at a later date.

On to a problem that is apparent from the rules as written, and that I've observed in actual play using the pre-release at conventions. Or rather, a set of problems. These concern augments, bonuses that can applied to a main roll to boost its effect. For instance, if I'm trying to chop a tree down, my ability in Forestry might be augmented by my physical strength, or by a Tree Chopping Spell, or by a magical axe, or, well... many other things. One problem that HQ1 ran into here, at least for many players, was that you could, in principle, add a vast array of augments to a single roll, boosting it into the stratosphere, and slowing the game down while you hunted out all the possibilities.

Now, I can honestly say that I never had this problem. The only occasion when it happened, I actively wanted it to happen, so it wasn't an issue. (As an aside, that specific situation could probably be handled using "Lingering Benefits" in the new rules, so we can leave that aside). Normally, it just never cropped up, because, in my experience, players Just Don't Do That. On the other hand, it is abundantly clear that for many groups, players do indeed, do just that. Indeed, I've seen it happen myself, in games I'm not GMing, so there's no doubt it is the case. For those groups it was an issue, and, clearly, something had to be done about it.

For me, though, the cure looks worse than the disease. I liked the idea of multiple augments per roll; what was needed was a way to limit them. The obvious method is a simple cap, but, unfortunately, the writers of HQ2 have picked a cap of, err... one. In other words, multiple augments are now completely forbidden - one roll, one augment. Now, I can sort of see the rationale for this; keeping to a single augment makes that augment more dramatic. But, in practice, in my experience, it feels constraining, and I don't think that that's good. As I say, I liked multiple augments.

I've been told that I will change my mind if I play the game with single-augments-only for a few more sessions. In fact, I'll concede that that is possible, although I remain unconvinced. Because, unless the opposite is obvious, I can't really know what I'll think after I've done something that... well, I haven't actually done yet. So, yeah, maybe.

What I'll require a lot more convincing about is the "freshness" clause that has now been added to the augment rules. This, except under the most exceptional of circumstances, prohibits you from using the same augment in the same way twice in succession. To which my immediate response is "why the heck not?" The excuse seems to be that it isn't interesting, but that, to my mind, is forcing the game designer's (or the GM's) opinion of what is interesting onto the player, whether he agrees with it or not. It's almost saying "you might think this is interesting, but it says officially here in the rules that you are Wrong".

OK, so I'm sure that's not the intent. And, true, there is an "entertainment" clause that trumps freshness, but it's written so as to imply it's meant to be used only sparingly. If you expect to employ it for about 95% of all requested augments, then fair enough, but I really, really, can't imagine that's what the writers envisaged.

There is also, incidentally, an "illumination" clause that's rather difficult to make head or tail of; I'm left with the question of what sort of an augment wouldn't fulfil that criterion!

And I'm not talking from abstract theory, here: I have played HQ2 at conventions and found that the freshness clause was, without doubt, my biggest impediment to enjoying the game. Might I change my mind after, say, a further ten sessions? I can't say definitively, but, in this case, it looks pretty damn unlikely from where I'm standing right now. Arguments to the contrary are going to have to deal with the simple fact that, when I tried it, I just did not like it.

One problem that HeroQuest 1 did have, and its predecessor, Hero Wars, as well, was that it never handled weapons and armour well. The new edition deals with this problem by sweeping it under the carpet, and essentially ignoring the whole issue, leaving it up to on-the-spot judgement by the GM. To be fair, I'm not sure that that's actually a step backwards... but it's hardly a step forwards, either.

Now, there is one thing that all of these problems have in common: they're easily fixed. Don't like the freshness clause? Just don't use it; it's not going to make any difference to the rest of the rules, or to your ability to use any published supplements. Want to have multiple augments per roll? Sure, that's easy - although you'll probably want to use the HQ1 version of the Quick Augment rules as well, or it's going to get real slow with all the dice rolling. Heck, if you wanted to use the old bidding approach to extended contests (not that I would), that's no problem, either.

One might well argue that, by this point, you're not really running HQ2 any more, but so what, if it doesn't actively create problems? There's nothing wrong with what we might choose to call HQ1.5. Problem is, though, there are other issues that are harder to deal with in this way. They're bigger, and more fundamental.

And they're also the topic of part 3...

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