One of my favourite RPGs is HeroQuest, currently published by Chaosium. This game was originally published as Hero Wars, as the HeroQuest name was under trademark with Milton Bradley for their entirely unrelated board game. When MB let the HeroQuest trademark lapse, Greg Stafford grabbed it and the second (and current) edition of the RPG was published under that name.
While Hero Wars was intricately tied to the Glorantha world setting, the HeroQuest second edition core rules were published with the intent to be used as a universal system RPG campaigns. There was a single chapter at the end of the book titled “Gaming in Glorantha” but the rest of the rules were designed around using any genre or setting.
Those familiar with both games agree that HeroQuest shares some similarities with the Fate RPG system, though with some notable differences. The main point of HeroQuest is that characters have traits that they use to solve problems in the game, but those traits are not necessarily skills as they appear in most other RPGs. A trait could be something like “Loyalty to my King” or “Get by on my looks” or they could have more traditional skill-like names like “Sword fighting” or “Ride horse.”
The key difference between HeroQuest and most other games is that the rating in the trait does not indicate how good you are at doing whatever it is that is covered by the trait. Rather, the number represents how well you can use it to succeed in your goals. It can be a subtle difference at times, but it’s an important one.
A character could have a trait “Legendary swordsman” but not have a particularly high rating for that trait. Having an average rating doesn’t mean the character isn’t a legendary swordsman, or that he doesn’t have much skill with his sword. What it means is that this character isn’t very good at using his legendary sword-fighting ability to get what he wants. Say, for example, the player is trying to intimidate a bunch of thugs to leave without a fight, and he decides to use his “Legendary swordsman” trait. If he fails the test, it doesn’t mean that he wasn’t intimidating, or that he’s not really “legendary.” Rather, it more likely means that the thugs decide that, since there are a bunch of them, they could make a name for themselves if they actually kill this legendary swordsman.
But the two things I love about HeroQuest the most are a) how you resolve conflicts, and b) how you mechanically represent opponents, hazards, and obstacles.
Unlike many roleplaying games, HeroQuest doesn’t treat combat any different than another other kind of challenge. The exact same rules are used for climbing a mountain, arguing a legal case in court, seducing a love interest, fighting a duel, commanding an army, or fixing a car.
These challenges are represented by either Simple Contests or Extended Contests.
Simple Contests are used when you want to play out a challenge of some sort, but you don’t want it to take a long time. These are minor “beats” in a story, like bluffing your way past the bouncer at a club in order to gain access, or battling a couple of minions. These contests come down to a single roll by the player, compared to a single roll by the GM, and then comparing results on a chart to determine the outcome. A Simple Contest can take less than a minute to resolve.
Extended Contests are really just a handful of Simple Contests that result in Resolution Points for one side or the other. The first side to get 5 points wins the contest. Extended Contests are used for more dramatic conflicts, where the players decide they want to focus on this particular challenge because it carries a good deal of dramatic weight. This type of contest is used when Inigo Montoya finally confronts the six-fingered man who killed his father, or when Luke Skywalker participates in the attack on the Death Star.
But no matter which type of contest is used, they are easy to run, take little time to play out, and allow the game to keep flowing.
Opposition and Difficulties
The other major thing I love about HeroQuest is that all opposition—whether it’s the mountain that the character is trying to climb, the prosecutor he is facing across the courtroom, the love interest he is trying to seduce, the villain he is dueling, the opposing army he is facing, or the damage to the car he is trying to repair—is all represented by a single number.
There are no long, draw-out stat blocks, no calculations of derived values, and no hit points to track. At most, the GM may note a couple of ways the opposition is strong, and a couple of ways the opposition is weak. But other than that, the difficulty of the opposition is based on a single number representing how hard it is to overcome.
For example, let’s say the base difficulty for newly-staring characters is 14. A moderate challenge will use the base difficulty of 14, a high difficulty with use 20, a very high difficulty will use 23, and a low difficulty will use 8.
Now I could simply use those numbers to represent any opposition. If I feel that climbing the mountain should be hard, I could set the difficulty at 20. If I feel that taking out a couple of guards should be easy, I could set the difficulty at 8. These are the numbers that are used by the GM in the Simple and Extended Contests I mentioned above.
If I really want to get detailed, I could list a couple of noteworthy things about the opposition. For example, I could list the duelist as follows:
Duelist: Use High difficulty for fencing and gaining his trust; use Low difficulty for trying to make him angry; Use Moderate difficulty for everything else.
That’s all I need mechanically to run this NPC.
So Where Can I Use It?
Just like the early editions of RuneQuest, the HeroQuest game was initially tied to the world of Glorantha, an extremely detailed setting with ubiquitous magic, a bronze age feel, and a lots of different tribal cultures.
But Glorantha is not for everyone. I’ve read a moderate amount of the setting information available over the years, and Glorantha has never captured my interest or imagination. There is nothing I’ve ever read that made me sit up and think “I’d love to use that in a game.”
And that’s okay, because many people do love the Glorantha setting, and there are new products being produced for it regularly. In fact, Chaosium also publishes a version of the Heroquest rules that fully integrates it into the Glorantha setting (named, appropriately enough, HeroQuest: Glorantha).
But what if you’re like me and don’t have any interest in Glorantha. What else can HeroQuest do?
The answer is “pretty much everything.” As the examples I used above show, HeroQuest is suitable for both The Princess Bride and Star Wars. In fact, it’s trivially easy to use HeroQuest for just about any RPG setting, either published or home-brewed.
Obviously, if you want to use a great universal system for a game like the James Bond movies, you’d be better served with the generic HeroQuest rule book, rather than the one written specifically for Glorantha. But that book has everything you need to run a game in that setting.
Well, maybe not everything. You still need appropriate information on the setting itself, because it’s important that all the players are on the same page when playing the game. And that’s something that no one has really published for HeroQuest.
There’s a great chapter in the core rule book called “Creating Genre Packs” that talks about how to adapt the game to various genres and settings. But nothing in a Genre Pack changes any of the rules. Rather, as the book itself explains, a Genre Pack “is an information kit for your players, telling them what sort of world they’ll be operating in, what they can expect to be doing in it, and what extraordinary abilities (if any) they can use to accomplish those aims.”
All of which brings me to my next focus on this blog over the next few weeks. I’m going to talk about using HeroQuest to run various kinds of games. I’ve already talked about using Fate Core for superheroes and action-espionage, and HeroQuest is great for both of those settings as well. But it is also great for many other settings, and putting together a genre pack, while fairly easy, is something that not everyone wants to do themselves.
So over the next few blog posts, I’ll put together a few different genre packs and talk about how HeroQuest can be used for those kinds of games, and what kind of experience you can get out of it.
See you next week.