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.

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...

Thursday, 2 July 2009

HeroQuest 2 review - pt 1

The second edition of HeroQuest was launched yesterday, and, since the first edition is what I've done most of my game writing for, I immediately picked up the PDF. I've had the preview edition for about a year now, but I didn't want to write a review of it until I'd seen the final, published, version. On the other hand, since my opinion seems to be different from virtually everybody else's, I think that some commentary will be useful now that it is out. Because differing viewpoints are always a good thing.

But let's begin with the positive stuff, and get on to the differences of opinion in later posts.

Perhaps the most obvious difference from earlier editions is that HQ2 is a generic system, not wed to a specific setting (namely Glorantha). You don't need to do more than flip through the book to realise that the intention is that HQ2 will work with any setting you can imagine; it's about general rules for resolving dramatic situations, not about modelling a specific world. And that, to my mind, is a good thing. I have no idea how many people will pick up this edition when they avoided the earlier ones because they didn't fancy the setting - but I am sure there will be at least some. And because the system does work with a wide range of settings, that's a useful thing to do. The downside is that I get less of the specific stuff that I'm after, but I think that's a price worth paying for the ability to do all sorts of other things with the rules.

Of course, it's not really true that HQ2 will work beautifully with any genre imaginable; no system can do that. Any system, as a result of the way it is constructed, will favour certain game styles and genre conventions over others. In the case of HQ2, what it favours is dramatic, cinematic, often larger-than-life genres. It would be good for action films, superheroes, high fantasy, space opera, and many more besides. (It would probably be quite good for soap opera too, were one so inclined). Which isn't to say that it can't do grittier genres, since it's open enough to fit anything, but I suspect it's going to be somewhat unsatisfactory for those. Grim danger just isn't something it does well - just as some other generic systems won't do the cinematic stuff very effectively.

This isn't a criticism, since no game can be all things to all people. In fact, I'd say that HQ2 is about as generic a game as its humanly possible to construct, and that's a good thing. In this respect, then, HQ2 is a clear improvement over HQ1.

And the improvements don't end there, because once you do get a chance to properly read the rules, it becomes clear that they are chock full of advice. And much of it is very good advice, at that. The resolution system in HeroQuest was always a little different from that of most other RPGs, so the addition of even more examples than in the previous edition (which had quite a few) is certainly a welcome feature.

A particularly significant change, in terms of the nuts-and-bolts of the system is the new Extended Contest system. In previous editions, this worked by a bidding mechanism, which, in my experience, never really worked well. In its place we have a much simpler and easier-to-grasp system that relies on a series of simple contests to generate a final outcome. This really is a big improvement, and seems to have been successful the few times I've managed to try it. Moreover, the chapter explaining contest resolution is the biggest in the book, being chock full of varying ways the system can be used, and examples of how to do so. This is, from my perspective, pretty neat stuff. If I used nothing else from this book, I'd use that.

But, aside from a nice rule on p. 57 ("Catch-ups"), is about as far as the improvements over earlier editions go. Still, it's not a bad start, and many of the good features of the earlier editions, such as the scaling, remain more or less intact. It's still a fairly good system, but... well, we'll get to "but..." in Part Two.