Monday, 1 March 2010

Kingdom of Heroes - scenario review

You may have noticed in my main review of Kingdom of Heroes that I said there were a few things missing that I would have liked to see more of. Given that, at the same time, I pointed out how unusually large the book is for a RP supplement, you might quite reasonably have wondered what I would get rid of to fit this extra information in. The answer, quite simply, is the scenario.

This isn't, I hasten to add, because it's a poor scenario - it isn't. It's just that I don't feel a scenario belongs in this sort of book, or certainly not a scenario of this length (70 pages). Removing this section, perhaps along with the material on the Colymar tribe that supports it, would not only have made the book shorter (and cheaper), but, perhaps more importantly, might have made it more attractive to players as well as GMs. The scenario deserved to be published, no doubt about that - but it could have had its own book without any real problem.

Nonetheless, Moon Design chose to publish it here, so the question is what is the scenario itself like? To begin with, it provides some information (most of it new, so far as I can tell) about the PCs' suggested base, the Orlmarth clan of the Colymar tribe. There is no particular reason why a GM would have to use the Orlmarth, though, and the scenario would work just as well with almost any Sartarite clan that isn't pro-Lunar - including, obviously, one that the players might have created themselves. Of course, it would require more work to do that, so the detailing of the Orlmarth as a typical clan is very welcome here.

The scenario itself concerns the PCs' attempts to acquire three things of great importance currently in the possession of hostile forces. I've heard it claimed that the scenario is rather 'rail-roading', but I really can't agree with that at all. There is one bit of rail-roading, which I'll return to later, but only one that I can see. For most of the rest of the scenario, multiple different options are frequently spelled out, often in some detail. This is partly why the scenario is so long, in fact.

The heroes have multiple different ways to resolve the problems in front of them, and the scenario won't break if they decide on the "wrong" approach, although choices made earlier on will most definitely have differing repercussions later. This, I think, is really the way to do it, and the authors have made a good job of it.

Oddly, though, I can see why it might not feel like that. In part one, for instance, the authors clearly hope that the PCs will take a specific, and fairly convoluted, path to acquiring the first item. That this path gets so much detail makes it appear quite rail-roaded even though, actually, you don't have to take that particular approach to succeed at the task.

Perhaps worse, there's a suggestion that the GM should, effectively, take over one of the PCs at critical points in the scenario, ensuring that he responds to challenges in the way that will best further the scenario. This is supposed to represent involuntary hero-forming, but the irony is that, in most cases, the players will probably do what they're supposed to do without the prompting. And if they don't... well, it might be a little more work for the GM, but the scenario won't break. In other words, you're giving them the illusion of having no choice in affairs, when actually they have free will. I'd recommend ignoring those bits, and let the players extemporise their own hero-forming, if they must.

There are also a few minor quibbles here and there. On a couple of occasions, the writers seem to forget that some of the PCs may well be heterosexual women, and there's an NPC with a background so mysterious, even the GM isn't allowed to know what it is - beyond the fact that, whatever it is, it's significant!

I had to read the description of one of the challenges three times to make head or tail of it, since it looked as if even a Complete Success would result in the hero failing abysmally. It turns out the stake wasn't what I thought it was, and the writers had made an unstated assumption that the heroes would be trying something that hadn't even occurred to me. That could have been made clearer, and alternatives provided. And the snippets of poetry get a bit tedious after a while, so that some groups might prefer to ignore or paraphrase them.

But these quibbles are, indeed, minor. Any experienced GM can sort them out with a minimum of fuss if they look likely to raise a problem in his game. Slightly more of a problem is the one bit of rail-roading, which occurs right at the beginning. Essentially, one of the PCs makes a decision that kicks off all the events in the scenario, and if he doesn't make that particular decision, you're screwed. Moreover, it has to be a PC who meets certain requirements; the scenario doesn't work if the "wrong" PC is the only one who takes the course of action in question.

Fortunately, the requirements aren't especially onerous, and I'd guess 95% of groups will have at least one PC who fits the bill... but how the other 5% are supposed to cope isn't at all clear. Given how far the rest of the scenario goes to account for varying PC actions, something more than the advice "you must ensure one of the PCs does X" would have been a very good thing here.

If the beginning of the scenario is a bit iffy, the ending is spectacular. It takes the form of a heroquest, with all of the good points of the Boat Planet scenario from Gathering Thunder, and none of the bad points. This time, the heroes really are the ones in charge, the ones that the legends will be written about - and, make no mistake, what they're doing is pretty legendary stuff, enmeshed with a key event in Gloranthan history. This really is "HeroQuest", not the HenchmanQuest of the Boat Planet. Yes, it's fairly linear, but then heroquests often are, and so long as the heroes get to come centre stage, that's fine by me.

All in all, I think it's a great scenario, one worthy of the Gloranthan canon. It's fun, exciting, and heroic, and most of the problems that might come up can be easily fixed by a competent GM.

The big let-down, unfortunately, is not the fault of the writers, but of HQ2: the scenario has essentially no stats. Not just no numbers, but no real stats at all, even in outline - opponents are described as "Very Hard to overcome", or whatever, and that's it. I'd hardly expect fully worked character sheets for the NPCs, because that would take up too much space, but I found that the absence of anything at all to get my teeth into detracted from something that should otherwise have been excellent. It feels empty and bland, only partially offset by the grandeur of the narrative scenery.

I can already hear some people moaning "but the stats never worked in HQ1". Perhaps not - although I remain unconvinced that there was no way of fixing that - but, for me at least, that's not the point. Perhaps I'm in a minority, but I very much having prefer stats that are "wrong" to having no stats at all. Bad stats I can adjust; missing stats require a lot more work than that.

But, as I say, that's not a fault of the scenario per se. It is written for the system as it is, not as I'd like it to be. With that caveat, it's one of the better HQ scenarios to be published. Even if I think it would have been better in a book of its own.