I received a number of interesting questions about my last post on using HeroQuest to run D&D-style campaigns, and so this post is going to outline how I would run a Pathfinder Adventure Path with HQ.
As I mentioned in my previous post, D&D encompasses many different styles of play, and so two D&D campaigns can look and feel very different, depending upon the rules edition used and the focus of the players and the DM.
Even using published adventures, there is quite a difference between, say, Keep on the Borderlands and Rise of the Runelords in play-style assumptions. The first expects that PCs are extremely fragile, that combat is not the goal, that most of the XP comes from treasure recovered, and that no encounter is necessarily designed to be defeated by the party. The second expects that most of the XP comes from defeating monsters, that the encounters are designed to be balanced to the party’s level, and that PCs are tougher and have more abilities, even at first level.
I identified four major campaign types in my last post: the Dungeon Crawl Campaign, the Hex Crawl Campaign, the Adventure Campaign, and the Running Combat Campaign.
This week, I’m going to talk about using adventure material published for D&D in your HeroQuest game.
Note: I’m not going to focus on the pure dungeon crawl adventure in this post. As I explained last week, I don’t see a huge amount of value in using HeroQuest for straight dungeon crawling. While HQ streamlines a lot of the individual rules, the very early editions of D&D were not particularly complicated, and were designed specifically with this kind of campaign in mind.
Currently, the most popular alternate to the official D&D game is Pathfinder. And Paizo puts out some great Adventure Paths. They can be a gold mine for busy DMs trying to run a campaign. But, of course, the Adventure Paths are designed specifically for a particular type of play that requires a fair amount of combat. But HeroQuest GMs can make use of those adventures easily and end up with some really memorable campaigns, without needing to use the far more complicated rules.
Emulation, Not Conversion
One idea that regularly comes up in conversions that I see for other systems to use for D&D, is that often the person doing the conversion tries to make the mechanics of the alternate game emulate all the D&D-isms, whether necessary or not.
For example, D&D is both a class-based and level-based game. The classes provide niche protection and ready archetypes for players to quickly build a character (at least, that was the original idea, though more modern editions require far more time and effort in character creation). Levels provide a pacing mechanism (e.g. monsters that are too tough to fight until you are high enough level), a balancing mechanism (e.g. a starting wizard is less powerful than a starting fighter, for example, but becomes vastly more powerful than the fighter at higher levels), and a reward mechanism (e.g. the characters get new abilities at higher levels, and there is an continuous sense of “progress” as they go up in level).
So one would think that Classes and Levels are something that would need to be brought over to HeroQuest, right?
Well, I don’t really agree with that. Certainly, it makes sense to put together some archetypes for players as examples of the kinds of abilities they can take during character creation. But other than that, there is little benefit in keeping characters constrained to only those abilities as they progress. With the near infinite range of possible abilities a character may choose, niche protection becomes less of an issue. And since all contests use the same mechanics, it becomes even less of a problem, as players are encouraged to be creative with their solutions to challenges.
Levels, on the other hand, are completely unnecessary in a HeroQuest conversion. HQ already contains a mechanism by which characters get more powerful, and trying to shoehorn that advancement into a system that replicates D&D levels is a pointless exercise that ignores the strength of using HQ as the system.
Now some people do enjoy the idea that certain monsters, like orcs, might be a challenge at low levels and become easier as the characters progress. And other monsters that are far too tough for new characters, like drow, eventually become adequate challenges as the characters gain levels.
So how do we emulate that in HQ?
One suggestion I’ve seen is that the GM use an element from the previous edition of HQ (known as Hero Wars), in that the Resistance was based on how tough something was irrespective of the characters. An ancient dragon, for example, would have multiple masteries in its abilities, and would stay that way throughout the campaign. So once the characters had gained multiple masteries in their own abilities, the dragon would be a suitable challenge.
But masteries cancel each other out—there’s no reason to roll 5W3 against 10W3 when you can just roll 5 vs. 10, as the results are the same. So why spend all that time going through the various Monster Manual books and noting all the resistances based on whatever combination of Hit Dice, Armour Class, and creature abilities you choose to use?
In HQ, an obstacle only matters as it pertains to its relationship with the characters. It doesn’t matter mechanically that a dragon is too tough for the average village peasant, because the characters aren’t village peasants. What matters is whether the dragon is a Moderate or Nearly Impossible challenge for the characters at the moment they encounter each other.
So instead of trying to hard code resistances ahead of time for everything the characters could possibly meet in the campaign, the GM can merely jot down some rough guidelines for encounters.
- Very Easy monsters (uses Very Low Resistance): Kobolds, domesticated animals, etc.
- Easy monsters (uses Low Resistance): Goblins
- Average monsters (uses Moderate Resistance): Orcs, hobgoblins, bugbears and other goblinoids up to ogres and similar creatures.
- Tough monsters (uses High Resistance): Minotaurs, drow, and similar monsters up to hill giants and young dragons.
- Very tough monsters (uses Very High Resistance): Most giants (stone, fire, frost), mid-age dragons, mind flayers, etc.
- Legendary monsters (uses Nearly Impossible Resistance): Ancient dragons, beholders, titans, etc.
During the game, the GM can easily estimate a monster based on what feels right at the time, using similar monsters as a guidelines. It doesn’t matter if occasionally a monster is slotted in at the wrong category, because this system isn’t granular enough to make that really matter. So the characters face a minotaur and you mistakenly use a Moderate Resistance? Maybe this minotaur was small for his species, or had an old injury that weakened it. What matters is that the adventure remains exciting and keeps moving.
Once the campaign gets underway, the GM simply bumps down each resistance at certain rough breakpoints. For example, when the PCs have played enough sessions that the Base Resistance has gone up by 6 points (e.g. after 13-14 sessions, the Base Resistance is 20), then the monsters’ Resistances all drop by one level (e.g. Average monsters use Low Resistance, Tough monsters use Moderate Resistance, etc.).
The bookkeeping becomes much easier, and it gives the players the feeling of advancement while keeping the mechanics simple.
So How Does All This Work?
I’m going to take the first adventure of the Rise of the Runelords Adventure Path and demonstrate the key concepts here. I’ll demonstrate that we’re after emulation, not conversion, and show how easy it is to “prep” a Pathfinder adventure for use with HQ.
SPOILER ALERT – THIS SECTION REVEALS PLOT ELEMENTS FOR BURNT OFFERINGS
The first adventure is named Burnt Offerings, and it is a nice opening adventure for the Rise of the Runelords adventure path.
The adventure begins with the PCs arrival in Sandpoint, a town located on a rocky shoreline in a sparsely-settled region on Golarion. The town is a friendly place, and the PCs have a chance to settle in and hear about the Swallowtail Festival that will take place in a day (or two) and celebrates the first day of Autumn.
Unfortunately, during the festival, a horde of goblins attacks the town.
Part One: Festival and Fire
In the adventure as published, there are three distinct “encounters” during the goblin raid. First is the initial assault, as the PCs face a fight with 3 goblins. Next, the PCs see a group of goblins setting fire to a cart full of fuel for the festival bonfire. Those goblins also attack the PCs. Finally, the characters encounter a group of goblins, one of whom is mounted on a large dog, who are trying to murder a cowering nobleman.
Now the expectation in the adventure is that the PCs beat all three of these encounters, setting them up to be seen as heroes by the people of Sandpoint. But the nature of challenges in HQ means that success is never guaranteed. A failure doesn’t automatically result in the death of the characters (like it usually does in Pathfinder), but if the PCs fail all three of these challenges (which is always a possibility), it doesn’t make sense that they will be seen as heroes in Sandpoint.
HeroQuest already has a mechanic to represent this kind of situation, however. On page 81 of the HQ rulebook, the rules describe “Difficulty Without Failure” and provide two options based on the goal of the current challenge.
In this case, the option for a “Costly Success” is perfect for the goal of these fights. The idea is that, a success in the contest is treated as normal. However, a failure in the contest means that the PCs still accomplish their goal, but suffer an appropriate state of adversity, as per the Consequences of Defeat Table.
Personally, I would run the first fight as a Group Simple Contest with the Costly Success option. Each player describes what his or her character is doing, and rolls a Simple Contest against the opposition. The GM tallies up all the results from the characters and narrates the outcome. If the PCs fail the contest, the GM describes them taking appropriate injuries, but still succeeding at beating the goblins.
For example, the five players roll their various abilities against the goblins’ Resistance of 8 (base 14, but -6 because the Resistance for goblins is Low). Surprisingly, three of the players roll very poorly, and they fail their individual Simple Contests, and the other two succeed but not by enough. The final points tally is 4 for the players and 6 for the goblins. Normally, this would mean a Minor Victory for the goblins, but we’re using Costly Success. So the PCs do manage to slay the goblins, but they suffer an Impaired result (-6 to appropriate abilities) due to injuries sustained in the fight. As the GM, in this case I would not impose the Impaired result on the two characters who succeeded in their contests, only on the three who failed.
For the second battle, I would make things interesting by bringing in the burning wagon as something they need to handle. In the adventure as written, the burning wagon is nothing but flavor—it has no bearing on the encounter. However, I would use the same Group Simple Contest with the Costly Success option again, but I would also add Graduated Goals (HQ rules, pg. 85). This means that their primary goal is to slay the goblins, but they also have a secondary goal to move the burning wagon away from any buildings before the fire spreads. So I would rule that a Complete or Major Victory in the Group Simple Contest means that the PCs beat the goblins quickly enough that they can pull the wagon away from the closest building, a Minor or Marginal Victory means that they defeat the goblins but a building catches fire, and a failure on the contest means that they still defeat the goblins, but a building catches fire and they suffer an appropriate state of adversity from the Consequences of Defeat Table.
In order to keep things moving, I would state that there is enough of a gap between the buildings that the fire won’t spread further—but I would make a note that the owners of the destroyed building could show up later and introduce complications or ask for further aid of the PCs, thus providing additional adventure opportunities.
It’s important to keep in mind that, despite it sounding rather complicated, these two battles would only take about 2-3 minutes each to actually play out. There would be one roll for each player vs. the GM, and then the GM tallies the results and narrates the outcome. All the extra options simply affect whether the PCs take injuries or (in the case of the second battle), a building gets destroyed by fire.
Finally, for the third fight, I might again stick to the Group Simple Contest, or I might play this one out as a Group Extended Contest, just to highlight that this is the set-piece battle within the goblin raid. It would depend on the excitement level of the players, and what felt right at the table at the time. The great thing about HQ is that I can decide this on the fly, and it doesn’t require any additional preparation ahead of time.
Part Two: Local Heroes
The next section of the adventure can be played pretty much as it is written. A quick read-through of each event allows the GM to determine the goals and consequences of the challenge, and then (most likely) use a Simple Contest to determine the result (once the role-playing leads to the moment of decision).
Of course, the key part of this section is to send the PCs off to the Sandpoint Glassworks.
Part Three: Glass and Wrath
This section is where the PCs explore a “dungeon” in the form of the Sandpoint Glassworks. The key elements of this section are:
- Find out that goblins have murdered everyone in the factory
- Discover Tsuto is in league with the goblins, and that Lonjiku is dead
- Rescue Ameiko
- Discover Tsuto’s journal and the clues that point to Thistletop
- Optional: Explore the Catacombs of Wrath
Getting into the Glassworks quietly can be done with a Simple Contest—failure means the PCs have to break their way in and therefore alert the goblins inside.
The battle with the goblins can be handled as a Group Simple Contest. I would play it straight—defeat would result in the capture of the entire party with them being held for eventual sacrifice to Lamashtu. Of course, they would have at least a couple of good opportunities to escape, possibly with Ameiko.
Otherwise, this can be played as written in the adventure.
For the Catacombs of Wrath, there are five combat encounters in this area. The first three of these are small battles, and I would use Group Simple Contests with the Costly Success option, as defeat doesn’t add anything interesting to the adventure.
The battle with Koruvus and the zombies, however, I would run as a straight Group Simple Contest. This battle could definitely result in the defeat (and capture) of the PCs. If this was the result, the PCs would be brought to Erylium. A great role-playing encounter could result, rather than just a straight combat. I would then play things out based on what the PCs chose to do.
Finally, I would probably play out the battle with Erylium and her sinspawn as a Group Extended Contest. This one could get interesting, as the first PC eliminated by Elylium could be pushed into the runewell, and come back out raging and focused on attacking the other party members. I feel this battle is worth opening up the possibilities for exciting results.
Part Four: Thistletop
This section has the PCs going to Thistletop to eliminate the goblin menace. There are 23 combat encounters spread over three “dungeon” levels in this section, and some of them provide no benefit to the adventure other than needed experience points for Pathfinder characters.
Using HQ, the GM can streamline this area quite a bit. Obviously, how much it gets streamlined depends on the preferences of each individual playgroup. Those who want to explore a dungeon room-by-room and get into a large number of combats might keep most (or all) of the encounters as-is (and even run each one as a Group Extended Contest). Others might want to abstract most of the exploration and focus on the key encounters that matter to the adventure.
If you want to abstract most of the exploration of Thistletop, I would probably do it this way.
The core goal of exploring Thistletop is to wipe out the goblins. On the first level, the main adversary is Warchief Ripnugget. This is the key battle on this level, and almost everything else could be considered filler.
However, there is an opportunity in the form of Gogmurt, the former advisor to the warchief. The PCs may be able to broker a deal with Gogmurt and avoid having to murder every last goblin in Thistletop.
In this case, I would use the Arduous Auto-Success rule for exploring the dungeon. I would certainly use the descriptions of the rooms in the dungeons, and also allow the PCs to interact with some of the encounters (like the goblin refugees), but if it came down to combat, I would simply narrate that they managed to slaughter their opponents after a hard-fought battle.
I would then use the encounter with Gogmurt to provide information to the players, probably requiring a Simple Contest to parlay with him.
Finally, I would run the battle with Warchief Ripnugget as an Extended Contest, just to shake things up a bit.
And I might allow a Group Simple Contest to tame the warhorse if it didn’t totally break the pace of the adventure during the session.
For the first level of Thistletop’s dungeon, I would again stick with the Arduous Auto-Success approach, except for specific encounters:
- The encounter with Bruthazmus would be run as its own Group Simple Contest.
- The encounter with Orik Vancaskerkin provides an opportunity to get him to flip sides, or at least abandon Nualia. This would be primarily role-playing, with perhaps a Simple Contest if appropriate.
- The encounter with Lyrie Akenja would be run as its own Group Simple Contest.
For the second level of Thistletop’s dungeon, I would stick with the Arduous Auto-Success approach, and focus on these specific encounters:
- The encounter with Nualia would be run as a Group Extended Contest, as befits the major villain in the adventure.
- I might run the encounter with Malfeshnekor as a Group Simple Contest or a Group Extended Contest, depending on how the players are feeling after the battle with Nualia. If it would be an anti-climax, I would keep it simple (and add the sense of danger by using description rather than mechanics).
And that’s it. With HeroQuest as the underlying system, I could see this adventure being played through in a single 4-5 hour session. Obviously, heavy role-playing could stretch this out quite a bit longer. The great thing is, HQ provides a lot of options for role-playing out encounters that otherwise would almost automatically result in a fight.
When the players don’t always see an encounter as a way to get necessary experience points, the approach to the adventure changes. They have time to engage with the story, because it’s not a race to the top. I’ve seen this happen with multiple different players—they start to slow down and really explore the setting, and they are often far more willing to talk first rather than automatically draw their weapons and start swinging.
I know this is a long post, and it seems like a lot of work, but the reality is that after I read though the Burnt Offerings adventure, my decisions on how to apply the HQ rules to the encounters took me less than 20 minutes. I simple looked at the goals of each area, and selected the type of Contest based on what made for the most exciting option.
But what’s really great about HQ is that, once you become familiar with the four contests types (Simple Contest and Extended Contest, and the Group variations for both of those), then you can often do this on the fly. This means you can react to how your group is playing, and what you think will fit with the mood at the table. If your players are getting into the nitty-gritty of hunting down a villain, hit them with an Extended Contest when they finally meet up. If they are pushing through the dungeon because they want to hit the key parts, then use some of the contest options, like Arduous Auto-Success, or Costly Success, and keep it moving.
Next week, I’m going to talk a bit about magic (and magic items) and how one can keep the feel of D&D without trying to copy D&D’s specific systems.
Hope to see you here!