Heroquest – But Can It Do D&D?

Well.

Apparently there was some interest in my post last week about the amazing HeroQuest RPG and its great approach on mechanically resolving conflicts. It’s the most popular post I’ve ever done on this blog, by a good margin.

So this week, I’m going to address how HeroQuest would work as an alternate set of rules for what could be considered the most popular type of RPG gaming out there…Dungeons & Dragons.

Inevitably, any time a generic set of rules is published (and even when the rules aren’t generic), gamers start looking at it with a mind to determine if it would be a good alternate set of rules for running a game of D&D. This has already been asked about HeroQuest on various fora out there over the years.

This week, I’m going to discuss it in a bit more details.

Which D&D?

The important thing to remember about Dungeons & Dragons is that the game, and the most common campaign types, have changed over the years since D&D was first published back in the 1970’s. And while they certainly have many elements in common, the differences can be huge. So I’m going to tackle this topic based on the various “types” of D&D games.

(Note this is how I personally break down the different types of D&D – which is somewhat separate from edition – and others may have their own opinions, of course. Also keep in mind that I make no value judgments on any of these categories – I’ve had fun playing to each one of these, but they do highlight different aspects of a D&D campaign.)

The Dungeon Crawl Campaign

The first D&D campaigns were all about the dungeon. In fact, in many cases—including those early campaigns run by Gary Gygax himself, as reported by those who were actually there in the early days—each session would begin with the characters at the entrance to the dungeon and end when the characters emerged back into daylight. This was a requirement considering the large number of players that participated in the campaign, and the varying availability of any particular individuals on any given day.

Early editions of D&D also had a reward system that was based not on fighting monsters, but on recovering treasure. Characters received one experience point for each gold piece they recovered from the dungeon. In those early games, combat was considered a fail state—if your characters got into a battle with a monster, it meant they had made a mistake somewhere along the way.

Those early D&D campaigns were focused on delving into a dungeon, recovering treasure by the most efficient means possible, and getting out alive. Low-level characters were extremely fragile, and any fight could result in the death of a character from a single unlucky roll. And there was absolutely no guarantee that any creature found in a dungeon would be “level-appropriate” for the characters. Encounters locations could be easy or overwhelming, depending on the design of the dungeon and what “made sense” for that area.

In HeroQuest

HeroQuest can, of course, do this kind of game. However, it doesn’t really play to the strengths of the system. There tends to be few communities and very simple NPCs in a campaign with this tight of a focus, and the players may find that characters end up being very similar due to the nature of the challenges they are going to be facing.

Overall, I would say this kind of game gets the least mileage out of using the HeroQuest rules.

The Hex Crawl Campaign

The first major “expansion” to many D&D campaigns in those early years was expanding the focus to be on a geographical region, not just a large dungeon complex. Hex paper was commonly used to map out this region, which was often some kind of borderland on the edge of more settled areas.

The focus on this type of campaign was exploration. Characters would set out from their home base—usually a small settlement on the frontier—and explore the surrounding lands. In addition to dungeon and cave complexes, they might find isolated villages, wizards’ towers, primitive tribes, strange ruins, and other interesting locations.

In addition, as the characters grew in power (level), they were expected to build their own strongholds in areas they had “cleared” of threats, so as to extend the reach of civilization. Extended campaigns moved from an “adventuring” phase to a “domain management” phase as the characters became movers and shakers in the region.

Depending on the edition of D&D used (or other OSR games that focus on this kind of play, like the Adventure, Conqueror, King System), there may still be XP for Gold in place. And combat may or may not be considered a fail state.

In HeroQuest

The HeroQuest system is ideally suited to this kind of game. The wide range of situations in which the characters can find themselves means that there can be great differentiation among them, and the possibilities for NPC interaction, both at the home base and at locations out in the wilderness, provides good fodder for establishing relationships, which are a key part of HeroQuest characters.

The Adventure Campaign

Around the release of AD&D Second Edition, the focus widened out and started trying to reflect the high fantasy novels that were being published at the time. TSR also branched out into publishing their own novels, based off new settings they were developing for the game. This era gave rise to the Dragonlance series by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, for example.

This kind of campaign is more about the “story” than the acquisition of gold pieces. Experience points were rewarded for performing “character” actions rather than just getting more money. Adventures like the Dragonlance series had big plots and the encounters were design to tie into those directly.

(Some people might put the various Pathfinder Adventure Path series in this category. However, I feel they more properly belong in the next category for a number of key reasons.)

In HeroQuest

Once again, HeroQuest is perfect for this kind of campaign. Great heroics, epic battles, dramatic confrontations and deep mysteries flow so naturally through the HeroQuest lens that it’s easy for players to feel like they are protagonists in big-budget fantasy movie, or best-selling fantasy book series.

The Running Combat Campaign

The third edition of Dungeons & Dragons established this type of campaign, and it persisted through 4th edition and is core part of gameplay in the Pathfinder RPG as well. The system moved to granting Experience Points for overcoming challenges, primarily in the form of monsters and/or NPCs to fight and kill. It was also balanced (carefully or not) around the idea of a “standard” encounter, which was a fight that was designed to expend about 20% of a party’s resources (hit points, spells, ammunition, etc.).

The Standard Encounter became the base line, with a few easier and tougher encounters thrown in for variety. But the core idea was that almost all encounters were “level-appropriate.” This meant that players expected that any battle was designed to provide a fair chance for them to win. Coupled with the experience for defeating monsters, the game system encouraged a great deal of combat.

The need for that balance also meant that adventures were designed for characters to gain an expected amount of XP as they progressed, so that later encounters would still be balanced correctly. This ultimately meant that adventures required a certain amount of railroading. Players who strayed from the path of the adventure could miss “necessary” combat encounters that would give them the needed XP to reach the appropriate level for later encounters.

The Pathfinder Adventure Paths are a great example of this kind of campaign. The ideas in most of these published campaigns are fantastic, but it’s a common complaint that the need for so many “filler” encounters—who’s only purpose is to provide XP—can certainly drag them down at times.

In HeroQuest

While the HeroQuest rules do not really shine the most in a primarily combat-focused game, a great deal of the published material out there for this kind of game actually works amazingly well when looked at through the lens of the HeroQuest rules .

The core ideas of well-known adventure paths like Rise of the Runelords are really solid—they provide some great campaign hooks and memorable locations and encounters. Using HeroQuest means that the GM and players can bypass those “filler” encounters that are a necessity of the native rule system and concentrate solely on the core ideas in each adventure. It also gives the players the freedom to go “off the rails” because the GM can more easily improvise. He or she is not tied to the need to balance encounters with the correct amount of XP to ensure the appropriate challenge later on, and new encounters can be easily created on-the-fly because of the mechanical simplicity of resistances.

Rise of the Runelords

[WARNING! SPOILERS AHEAD!]

Without going into a ton of detail, I’ll give an example from Rise of the Runelords. The first adventure in the path, Burnt Offerings, is a good adventure that sets the stage for the greater threats to come.

Here is the synopsis of the adventure:

The PCs arrive in Sandpoint to attend the Swallowtail Festival (a ritual to consecrate the town’s new cathedral) and end up defending the town from a goblin raid. In the days to follow, the PCs come to terms with their newfound local fame, making friends and contacts among Sandpoint’s citizens. As rumors of massing goblin armies build, the disappearance of a local tavern owner leads the PCs to uncover treachery within Sandpoint Glassworks and the existence of an ancient catacomb below the town. An investigation of these discoveries reveals two things; that monsters dwell below the city and that the goblin raid on the town is but the first.

In order to save Sandpoint, the PCs must travel to Thistletop, the lair of the most powerful goblin tribe in the region, where they can confront the woman whose madness and wrath presents such a menace, yet who is herself the tip of a much larger conspiracy that will soon threaten all of Varisia.

After the initial encounter, which is the aforementioned goblin raid, the adventure provides great opportunities for the PCs to develop relationships with NPCs in the town (which is perfect for HeroQuest).

Following that, there are two major “dungeons” in the adventure that the PCs will likely explore: the Catacombs of Wrath, and Thistletop.

In the adventure as written, each dungeon has some key encounters that really provide the “meat” for the location. But each also includes encounters that don’t really provide much beyond a fight. A great example is encounter C6. Tangletooth’s Den. Here is the explanation for this fight:

Creature: Tangletooth, Gogmurt’s fire pelt animal companion, spends the majority of her time sleeping here, periodically snarling at goblins that wander by the tunnel to the northwest. A fire pelt is a cougar native to the region, its silky fur a mix of red and black stripes.

And that’s it.

If you’re using HeroQuest to play through this adventure, you can safely bypass encounters like this, as they don’t really enhance the adventure. The core idea of Burnt Offerings is great, but this kind of fight just doesn’t add anything to the overall experience of the game. And if you really wanted to include this creature, a Simple Contest could take care of it in about 2 minutes or less. In fact, rather than it being nothing other than a fight, the stakes for the Simple Contest would be better focused on whether the PCs can kill the creature before it gets past them and raises a warning in the rest of the complex. It’s quick, and it provides a challenge that could have repercussions down the line.

The Ptolus Example

I couple of years ago, I ran a HeroQuest game set in Monte Cook’s setting of Ptolus with my wife (who is an experienced gamer), and two other players (one had AD&D experience only, and the other had never played an RPG before).

Now Ptolus was the campaign that Monte Cook used when he, Jonathan Tweet, and Skip Williams were designing the third edition of D&D. The setting itself was designed to reflect the assumptions of the rule set they were creating. So one might think that using a different set of rules wouldn’t work very well.

Ptolus is one of my favourite fantasy RPG setting products of all time. It’s a huge book, designed using the best tricks from professional travel guidebooks, and it includes a vast amount of information, adventure hooks, interesting NPCs, and opportunities for fun and excitement.

Ptolus-2 Ptolus-1

In fact, the biggest issue with Ptolus as a setting for D&D 3.5 is that there is so much that players can do, the characters end up leveling too quickly. In fact, two of the published adventures (The Banewarrens and Night of Dissolution) cross over in levels, making it a pain to use both in the same campaign.

This is not a problem in HeroQuest.

For the game, my three players played pretty standard D&D-style characters: what were essentially a fighter (Darrak), a rogue (Cassi), and a wizard (Sariel).

You can download the pre-generated characters that I created for the campaign here. You can see how I tried to keep it looking like a D&D character just for that familiar touch-point, though I didn’t absolutely need to do it this way. In my personal campaign, I also included character portraits that used images from the D&D rule books, though I can’t include them in this downloadable version, as I don’t have the rights to them for sharing.

Also note that there are two versions of each character in the document, one male and one female.

For the magic system, I decided that, rather than try to recreate the existing D&D magic system, I would use the basic structure for Wizardry in the chapter “Gaming in Glorantha” in the HeroQuest core rules. I created a half-dozen grimoires, gave one to the wizard as her starting spellbook, and went from there. For the spells, I provided her 1-2 sentences for each spell so she had a basic idea of what it did.

Here is the list of her starting spells, based on the Grimoire of Transmutation that she possessed at the start of play.

Note that I completely ignored many details of the spells for the sake of simplicity. For example, in the third edition rules, the effect of the colour spray spell is based on comparing the caster’s level to the target’s level/hit dice. But since spells in HeroQuest don’t need to be limited based on level, and all characters have the same ability to affect the environment—there is no caster/non-caster disparity—I don’t need all those extra rules.

And one of the best parts of using HeroQuest to run the game is that I was able to ignore all those long stat blocks.

Here’s an example of a “simple” stat block for a low-level NPC (from the very first adventure) in the Ptolus book:

Ortry Gannon, Pale Dog
Male human (Neutral Evil)
Warrior1          CR 1/2
HD 1d8+2       hp 10
Init +1              Speed 30 feet
AC 14, touch 11, flat-footed 13
BAB/Grapple +1/+4
Attack/Full Attack +4 melee (1d10+4, greatclub) or +2 ranged (1d10, heavy crossbow)
Fort +4, Ref +1, Will –1
Str 17, Dex 13, Con 14, Int 10, Wis 9, Cha 14
Crucial Skills: Hide +3.
Other Skills: Disguise +4, Knowledge (local) +1.
Crucial Feats: Blind-Fight, Point Blank Shot.
Other Feats: N/A
Possessions: Studded leather armor, greatclub, heavy crossbow, bolts (12), potion of cure light wounds, brass double-finger ring worth 3 gp, 10 gp, 8 sp, note (see next page).

For my purposes when running the game, all I needed to know was the Possessions (which give me a description of the NPC’s gear and how he fights). I also would sometimes look at the feats, because it told me what else was special about the NPC. For example, this stat block says that he isn’t hampered by fighting while in darkness (or if someone flings sand in his eyes), and that he’s a good shot with that crossbow. So if he was shooting bolts at the characters, I might bump the difficulty up one level to reflect that improved ability, but use the base difficulty for anything else he does.

And the game flowed perfectly. The adventures did lead to a fair number of physical conflicts, but the conflicts were always about something other than just trying to murder each other, so the standard HeroQuest conflict resolution system always worked fine. I used Simple Contests for fights that didn’t really matter so much, and Extended Contests when they were up against a villain that mattered to them.

In fact, I’m about to start a new Ptolus campaign with my son playing a solo thief based in that city. As a one-to-one game, HeroQuest works phenomenally well—something that would require a lot more work using D&D.

Conclusion

Depending on which edition of D&D is your favourite, and what type of campaign you prefer to play, HeroQuest can be a fantastic alternative set of rules that allow you to really highlight those elements of the game that you prefer, and quickly move through those elements that may be necessary to appear, but that don’t need any real focus in your preferred style of gamplay.

As the “grand-daddy” of roleplaying, D&D is a major touchstone for many players of RPGs. When you’re trying to introduce them to a system like HeroQuest, it may help to start with a campaign style with which they are familiar so as to reduce the cognitive dissonance.

From there, HeroQuest can do so many more types of campaigns. And I’ll explore another option next week.

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