Sunday, 12 July 2009

HeroQuest Review - pt 3

So now we come to what is, perhaps, the hardest part of the review. That's because it deals with what is, for me, the biggest problem with the new edition, yet that is not in any way a criticism of the writers. The writers make it abundantly clear what they're trying to do with the rules, and of how they've written it to support a certain style of play. Quite rightly, they warn you up front (on p. 5, and again on pp. 8 and 77) that the game they have designed won't suit everyone.

And that, to my mind, is a good thing. Too many games either make out that they're for everyone, or inadvertently (or otherwise) end up deriding other styles of play. HeroQuest 2 nails its colours firmly to the mast, and for that it should be congratulated. Unfortunately, they aren't colours I like, and I can't complete a personal review of the product without saying why. But, at the same time, it's important to note that the changes they have made are exactly what many people were wanting; a lot of people are going to love this new iteration of the rules, and more power to them. But for me, the changes have removed useful tools, made the game harder to use, and failed to provide a good replacement.

One caveat to the above though is that the rules do state on p. 7 that their intent is to:
...either help you run the game in its emulative style, or, if you prefer a simulative approach, to understand how you’ll need to modify it to suit your preferences.
In response to that, I really do have to say that the books fails completely in its intent to fulfil the second half of that sentence. I can't help but wonder, especially since it more or less says the opposite on the next page, if that sentence snuck in from an earlier draft, and got missed when something was revised.

Anyway, the core of the problem here is embodied in what the rules call the Pass/Fail Cycle. Oddly, it's not the cycle itself that's the problem, but more the underlying principles that allow it to work. The cycle aims to reproduce the way that narratives work in novels, films, and other forms of storytelling. As a guide to writing stories, or even to writing RPG scenarios for publication, it's pretty good advice (and, indeed, does not claim to be original in this regard). The sequence that you get in D&D of a bunch of relatively easy opponents/challenges leading up to a tougher Level Boss, and then starting the pattern again at the next level, is, it seems to me, an illustration of this principle in action.

So far, so good, but in an actual game we are not interested so much in the difficulty of past challenges as in how well the characters overcame them in practice. After all, sometimes you will fail at an easy challenge, or succeed at a hard one. As a consequence, the Pass/Fail Cycle of HQ2 relies on the outcome of prior contests. If your characters have been having a tough time of it, then whatever they try to do next should be easier, and vice versa. But that, if taken literally, can produce nonsensical results, especially if the players do something unexpected (as they probably will).

So, of course, you are not supposed to take it literally. There are "credibility tests" and the oft repeated exhortation to "use your own judgement" in the rules to compensate for the shortcomings in the Pass/Fail Cycle. Well, yes, but how often would you expect to use the Pass/Fail Cycle to determine difficulty? 90% of the time? 5% of the time? And, crucially, when you want to ignore the Pass/Fail Cycle and go with a clearly simulationist approach ("well, what they are doing is X, so, to maintain credibility, it should have a resistance of Y"), where is the guidance to help you do that?

There isn't any, because there's not supposed to be - you "use your own judgement". But, for my money, that's just not good enough in a rules system. If you're doing that all the time, you might as well be doing systemless gaming. Not that there's anything wrong with systemless gaming, but if I've paid to buy a game system, I kind of want something for my money. You use your own judgement when the system doesn't give you clear answers, of course; no rule system can cover everything. But HQ2 doesn't give you clear answers at all, unless what you want is a wholly narrative/emulative game (which, of course, is the idea).

And this is really where HQ2 fails for me. If you do want a wholly narrative/emulative game, great - you'll love this. But, if you don't, there just isn't the guidance. HQ1 managed to strike a good balance between the narrative elements and the simulationist support where it was needed. You can see it, for example, in the Community Support table (or at least the general idea that such a table should exist). All of that has now gone.

What an update of HQ1 needed, more than anything else - the one thing I was really, really looking forward to seeing in a new edition - was clearer guidance on how to set resistances in a simulationist framework. Many times you won't want to do that, and that was where HQ1's mixed approach really shone as a stirling example to other systems, but I, at least, always need that framework to be visible to me as GM. If nothing else, it tells me what I need to do to depart from it.

As another illustration of the same fundamental problem, nothing, other than the PCs, ever has stats in HQ2. It seems that everything is pretty much made up on the spot, using the Pass/Fail Cycle or "your judgement" as a modifier to something called the Base Resistance, which gradually increases as the game progresses. Again, this creates the same issue of their being no fundamental, objective framework, on which to base your judgement. (Not to mention that writing up the stats is half the fun of prepping for a game session).

But, moreover, there is no clear guidance on what the increase rate in the Base Resistance is supposed to represent. And I don't mean in a simulationist sense (since, clearly, it doesn't represent anything in that sense), but actually in the narrative/emulative sense that the book is supposed to be about. What's the intent here? What is it supposed to do? Is it meant to keep track with the increase in the PC's abilities - in which case, why not base it on that? Is it meant to increase more slowly than the PCs, and, if so, by how much? Sure, I might want a different pace, but without knowing what the original intent is, how am I supposed to modify it to reach my desired goal?

Going back to look at an actual character, I see that in the time that my current PC's best ability has increased by +5 points, the Base Resistance should have increased by +7 points. That may, of course, reflect differences between HQ1 and HQ2, or it may reflect my play style, so it's not necessarily illustrative of much. Which is as well, since, whatever the intent of the rule is, it's probably not that!

And, of course, the rules do say that you should modify the Base Resistance based upon your play style, and that it won't work for certain styles at all. There is, of course, no clear guidance as to what you should do if this happens. Which, once again, suggests that HQ2, wonderful though it may be for those who want a particular sort of game, just doesn't support my own preferences.

To which the obvious response is, "why should the game support your preferences?" And that's a fair answer, since the game clearly works for many people, and supports what they want, and any game, no matter how well designed, will always leave someone out in the cold. But, remember, this is a personal review - I am saying why the game does not work for me, not why it will not work for you. It so happens that a game I really liked has been turned into something I like a lot less, and that there won't be any further published support for my preferred style from Issaries/Moon Design. It would be dishonest to pretend I'm happy about that, but sometimes, those are the breaks.

From my perspective, it's a tragedy, but it was always going to be a tragedy for someone. If they had done it my way, a lot of players who were looking for a more emulative approach would have been pretty narked. Someone always has to luck out when there's a change.

And this time, it's me.


grahamrobinson said...

I don't think this is as controversial as you think, given I agree with pretty much everything you've said across the three parts. I haven't seen the finished version, but I get the impression it hasn't changed significantly from the Continuum preview. Heroquest had some flaws, primarily the ease with which PCs could acquire exponential power increases, especially during a long-running campaign. But HQ2's attempts to fix the problems are ham-fisted and ineffectual. Add in a very narrow definition of "the right way to play", and I've very little interest in the game.

JRevell said...

Yeah, I'd agree with "HeroQuest 1 had some problems - this wasn't the way I wanted you to fix them."

Thanks for the support, and glad you liked the review!

tmellis said...

Like Graham, I haven't seen the final copy of the rules yet. (I'm hoping they will arrive in my FLGS by the end of the month in time for Constitution)

However, like both of you, what I have seen and heard of the new system suggests it goes further in directions I am less comfortable with to fix problems I didn't particularly experience. (I will admit, however that I have only run HQ as a "one off" game, not an extended campaign, so some of the perceived problems may not have been apparent anyway).

There are, undoubtably some good bits (I like the new extended contests much more than the bidding method, which always sounded like it should work, but ended up being a meta-game that distracted from the story), so in the old tradition of picking the best bits of all the available versions I'm sure it won't be a wasted purchase.

I really need to wait until I can see the scenario in SARTAR to see just how much the new "stat-less" approach annoys me