Recently, one of the readers of this blog made a comment about using the HeroQuest RPG for a game set in Tomino’s Universal Century setting (from Mobile Suit Gundam). He asked about using HQ2 and how to make certain themes the focus of his game:
“For Tomino’s UC, I want to make combat between mechas important, but definitely not the focus of the game: themes like proto-transhumanism implied by the New Type concept; the social and political tensions between the Colonies and the Earth government; the horror and futility of full-scale war; should be at the forefront.”
Personally, I’m completely unfamiliar with Mobile Suit Gundam, so my answers here are going to be fairly generic. Having said that, I think that will have value from the perspective of adapting whatever setting you are interested in playing within.
I also wanted to talk about this as it definitely got my mind churning in regards to this element of HQ2 campaigns. After all, a narrative game like HeroQuest seems like an ideal set of rules to highlight certain campaign issues and bring them to the forefront—to have them be a direct influence on what happens in the game.
The Purely Narrative Outlook
Of course, most campaigns have some kind of focus, even if it’s just “dungeon-crawling for profit.” From a purely narrative outlook, focusing a campaign on a specific set of issues can be as simple as ensuring that NPCs and adventures have those issues as their core elements.
For example, if I want to have “avoid things man was not meant to know” as a core theme of a modern-day investigative campaign, then I’m going to create adventures that are about people searching for secrets and the inherent dangers in finding those secrets out. NPCs will include occult specialists, rare book dealers, cultists, and so forth. An adventure could be about the search for a missing person, only to discover that they unearthed an ancient ritual and summoned something that was hostile to them, and they are now on the run trying to keep one step ahead of that being while it relentlessly hunts them.
This is fairly easy to do from that purely narrative perspective.
Using the example provided in the original comment, this approach means that the adventures and storylines you provide to the players will be focused on those themes. For example, if you want to highlight “the horror and futility of full-scale war” then you could present the players with adventures where they have to accomplish a goal in the aftermath of a large battle, where they experience that aftermath first-hand. Put them in a situation where they are in a position to help the survivors, but have a mission objective that means they cannot spare the time/resources to do so. Have them make the choice between rescuing survivors and obeying orders, and then offer scenes where the choices the PCs made come back to haunt them.
For the social and political tensions between the Colonies and the Earth government, is there a way to have the PCs travel incognito between those two societies? If so, let them see the stereotypes and insults that each group applies to the other, and also show them that those stereotypes are gross exaggerations and (in many cases) completely false or based on a lack of understanding of the other group’s situation.
The Mechanic-Based Outlook
Sometimes, though, it’s nice to have the mechanics reflect the same issues. If done poorly, this can bog down the game with extraneous modifiers or sub-systems that don’t add anything to the play experience. If done well, it adds another layer that reinforces the themes of the game.
The Fate Core RPG, for example, does this with “Campaign Issues.” When setting up a campaign, the group is encouraged to “decide what threats and pressures inherent to the setting will spur the protagonists to action.” These are listed as two issues that become aspects and “will be available to invoke or compel throughout the entirety of the game.”
This is a nice way to reinforce the themes of the game and give it mechanical weight. Using the example above about war, the campaign aspect could be “The horror and futility of full-scale war.” During a mission, when those PCs see the aftermath of a large battle while on a mission, the GM can offer the players a fate point to render aid to the survivors even though that’s outside of their mission parameters.
Further, NPCs can have relevant aspects reflecting their prejudices against the colonies or the Earth government that make it easier or more difficult for the PCs to influence, intimidate, or otherwise interact with them.
HeroQuest 2E doesn’t have aspects, though, and lacks an immediate mechanical “hook” upon which to hang this kind of campaign focus. That doesn’t mean that there are no ways to reflect it in the game with the existing rules, however.
The easiest way to do this is to adjust Resistances to reflect the themes of the campaign. Bumping a Resistance by one “level” (e.g. from Moderate to High) when engaging in a contest that directly relates to a campaign theme will definitely reinforce those themes.
For example, if you want to reinforce the tensions between two societies, you could increase the Resistance any time the PCs attempt any kind of social contest with members of the alternate society. Brokering a peace between the two factions is going to be more difficult than normal, and the Resistance should reflect that.
Another way to do it to use different methods of determining consequences at the end of contests. For example, if you’re trying to show the horror and futility of full-scale war, whenever the PCs take part in a large battle, you can use the Climactic Scene Consequence Table, which increases the punishment taken by the PCs at the end of a contest. Even if they succeed, they are going to be hurt.
(This works just as well in social interactions when reinforcing the themes tensions between two societies.)
If you really want to the PCs to feel the effects of a battle regardless of the outcome, you can use the Pyrrhic Victory Results Table. In order to make the campaign not come to a screeching halt at the first defeat, however, you may want to treat “Dead” results as “Dying” so that the PCs have a chance to survive long enough to understand the dangers of war.
If you want to be really brutal, you can combine the increase of the Resistance method with the increased consequences of the Climactic Scene or Pyrrhic Victory tables.
But of course I recommend using those methods only when it comes to reinforcing those particular negative themes.
But that’s the stick method. If you’ve got more positive themes that you want to reinforce, then you can do the reverse. A theme of “Friendships are more valuable than gold” can be reflected by a reduction in Resistance when the PCs are acting in the spirit of true friendship, or when they are supported by their friends. You can also lower the consequences from a failed contest when the PCs are acting in the spirit of the campaign themes.
(I know that there is no specific rules for this in HQ2, that provide a reverse version of the Pyrrhic Victory Results Table, for example, but it’s easy to extrapolate or simply bump down the level of consequence from a contest to reflect this.)
The final method you can use is Flaws. These reflect very specific elements, though, so they can’t necessarily reflect every campaign theme you might want to incorporate.
But if, for example, you are trying to ensure that the tension between two societies cause difficulties during the campaign, giving every PC a “Prejudice against [society]” Flaw is one way to do it. This way, characters need to overcome their own prejudices in order to accomplish their goals when working with people from that other society. You can even allow the players to spend Hero Points to buy down their Flaws over time to reflect their better understanding of the other society and their changing attitudes toward those people.
HQ2, at first glance, seems to lack specific mechanics for reinforcing campaign themes in the game. However, as with so much in the HeroQuest RPG, the tools are already there—it’s just a matter of applying them to accomplish what you need for your particular game.
I’d love to hear about other people’s efforts with HQ2 and how they adapted the rules to reflect campaign themes or other similar elements to make the game sing for them. Tell us about it here in the comments.