HeroQuest and D&D – Magic, Part 2

Last week, I talked about how to represent wizards and arcane magic in a HeroQuest-based D&D or Pathfinder game.

This week, I want to touch on divine magic/spellcasters, and then talk about D&D-style magic items.

Divine Magic

In most ways, divine magic works just like arcane magic:

  1. There are many discrete, individual spells.
  2. The cleric (or other divine spellcaster) pre-selects the spells that they will be able to cast for that day.
  3. The divine spellcaster gets more spells per day, including spells of higher levels, as the character gains levels.
  4. And lower-level spells also, in some cases, get more powerful as the cleric gains levels.

So it’s mostly the fluff that’s different between the two types of magic. For example, the cleric prays for spells while the wizard prepares spells. But both require the character to be rested, both have a limit to how often it can be done (once per day), and both take about the same amount of time.

There are even many spells that are shared between arcane and divine casters (e.g. detect magic).

So the HeroQuest approach chosen for arcane spellcasters that I listed last week will work just as well for divine spellcasters. Unless you really want them to feel very different—in D&D they are really just two sides of the same coin—there isn’t really a good reason to use a completely different set of assumptions for each type.

Having said that, there is the opportunity to tie in the cleric’s relationship with his or her deity as an effect on the ability to cast spells in a very direct way, rather than just relying on alignment. Relationships in HeroQuest are given as much mechanical weight as any other ability, so it would almost be a shame to completely ignore that.

In fact, the relationship between a cleric and his or deity could be used both as an augment and as a flaw, depending on the situation.

For example, if the cleric has discovered a lost temple to her god, and is defending it against a horde of orcs bent on destruction, the cleric should be able to roll for an augment on her spellcasting ability using her relationship with her deity. After all, the deity in question has a vested interest in recovering this lost temple.

On the other hand, if a player wants her cleric to take an action that is directly opposed to the tenets of the god she worships, that relationship can be used as a flaw—if the cleric fails a Simple Contest against her relationship with her deity, she is unable to take that action out of fear (or whatever) of the consequences.

Turning undead can be treated as a form of spellcasting or can be its own ability. Either way, the attempt to turn undead could be used as a Simple Contest or as a tactic in an Extended Contest during a more important conflict.

Magic Items

A common element in D&D is the “Christmas Tree Effect” where a character acquires so many magic items that he or she is covered head-to-toe in magic. These include such items as:

  • Magic helms, hats or headbands
  • Magic glasses or eyes
  • Magic cloaks or robes
  • Magic armour
  • Magic belts
  • Magic boots
  • Magic bracers or armbands
  • Magic gloves
  • Magic rings
  • Magic melee weapons
  • Magic missile weapons
  • Magic rods, staves, and wands
  • Magic backpacks, bags, or sacks
  • Magic musical instruments
  • Magic tools of the trade (e.g. lockpicks)

In addition, many editions of D&D had early magic weapons being replaced later with more powerful magic. A low-level fighter might find a simple +1 sword, but it was quite likely that at higher levels the fighter might end up with a sword with a +2 or +3 magic bonus, perhaps with additional abilities (e.g. flame tongue, frost brand).

While some of those magic items provide special abilities that are in addition to what a character can normally do, many of them just provide static bonuses to specific attributes, like bonuses to hit, bonuses to damage, bonuses to AC, bonuses to saving throws, and bonuses to skills (for 3E and later).

This kind of magic item economy doesn’t work very well in a typical HeroQuest game, because all the various abilities and bonuses are abstracted into the Contest system. Sure, there are elements that provide bonuses—situational modifiers, lingering bonuses, individual ability augments, and plot augments—but those are very specific in their usage. They are not designed to be a shopping list of extra +1’s and +2’s to the character’s ability in every contest.

However, this is also an opportunity to do something that the actual D&D rules have never done particularly well—provide a magic item that grows in power along with the character. Sure, there was a single 3.5 supplement called Weapons of Legacy that talked about this option, but it required the sacrifice of abilities by the character to unlock additional abilities.

But imagine the following…

Some time early on in the campaign, the fighter kills a humanoid monster and takes its magic sword. At this point, the fact that the fighter has a magic sword is just a narrative justification—the fighter can hit creatures only hit by magic weapons.

Soon after, the player of the fighter spends some Hero Points and takes “Magic Sword” as a keyword (with an initial rating of 13). Now, the fighter can—when appropriate—use the Magic Sword ability as an augment on his relevant combat ability. But since the sword is now an ability (and a keyword), the player can “unlock” additional abilities by spending Hero Points on it.

Magic Sword 13

It is up to the GM and the players where those additional abilities come from. The GM could make a short list of possible break-out abilities that the player can improve, or the GM can let the player suggest interesting break-out abilities. And there can certainly be campaign requirements to find out what those abilities are, such as requiring research into the history of the sword, or bathing it in the fires of a particular volcano, or having a particular wizard “release” the pent-up magic in the sword, or any number of other options.

So after playing for a while, the character discovers that the sword is the legendary Flame Tongue. But to unlock the fire within the blade, the character must slay a red dragon (or a fire elemental, or something else equally “flamey”). Once the character succeeds at this task, he may spend Hero Points to create the “Flaming Blade” break-out ability. Now he can continue to spend Hero Points to improve either the keyword, or the break-out ability.

Magic Sword 13
– Flaming Blade +1

In this way, as the campaign progresses, the weapon provides not only an incentive for the character to drive some of the action—researching the history of the sword, accomplishing specific tasks with it, etc.—but the sword becomes a key part of the character’s abilities and much more than another Sword +1.

For other kinds of magic items, I would recommend just ignoring the vast majority of those that provide static bonuses.  Part of the reason for bracers that improve armor class, for example, is that some character classes can’t wear armor. So it’s just another version of magical armor and does nothing to add flavor to the game. Bonuses should be specific and flavorful.

But I recommend looking to the actual description of the magic items in the rule books for potential cool ideas.

For example, in the Pathfinder RPG, the Bracers of Armor +3 have the following abilities:

These items appear to be wrist or arm guards, sometimes etched with symbols of protection or depictions of vigilant-looking animals.

Bracers of armor surround the wearer with an invisible but tangible field of force, granting him an armor bonus of +1 to +8, just as though he were wearing armor. Both bracers must be worn for the magic to be effective.

There’s more in the description about how bracers can also be enchanted with some of the special abilities available to magic armour, but that second paragraph above is key. In fact, if you take out the mechanical element, you get the following:

Bracers of armor surround the wearer with an invisible but tangible field of force, just as though he were wearing armor.

Now you’ve got the potential for the player to use the ability of the bracers in creative ways. It’s not just a flat +2 to his AC—he can use the description to potentially do things like augment his bluffing ability to convince someone he’s harmless, and it gives him narrative permission to think of other things he might do with invisible force armour.

Of course, he might just use it to augment his fighting ability in a melee combat contest, but at least the player has more options.

I think you’ll find that many of the descriptions of magic items in D&D/Pathfinder provide a more open framework to use the item as an ability in HeroQuest than the accompanying mechanics might allow in a more rules-heavy game.

So embrace the narrative part of the description and let the player come up with great ways to use that ability to do something cool. With great freedom often comes unexpected creativity.

Conclusion

That’s it for my focus on HeroQuest and D&D. There are so many other genres and specific settings that HeroQuest can do well, and I can’t wait to get to some of the others.

Next week, I talk about another setting that should be an obvious match for HeroQuest, and it begins a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

HeroQuest and D&D – What About Magic?

This continues my series of posts about using the HeroQuest RPG to run a D&D-style campaign. Previous posts in this series can be found here:

In the course of this post, I’m mostly going to be referencing terms, spells, and items from the Pathfinder RPG. This is because the Pathfinder Adventure Paths are a great source of published adventures, and Pathfinder is extremely well-known by the younger generation of fantasy gamers. In general, though, I’m going to refer to this style of gaming as “D&D” just to make things easier.

(Furthermore, I can’t really speak to D&D 5E, as it’s the only edition of D&D that I haven’t bought, for reasons I’m not going to get into here.)

The Magic Conundrum

Magic is a major part of D&D. Some of the most iconic elements of D&D include magic: sleep, cure light wounds, +1 swords, staff of the magi, etc.

Magic in D&D is fully integrated with the class and level system, of course. The number of spells a wizard or cleric can cast each day is a function of level, and no other characters receive such blatantly powerful abilities in the course of the game.

In this post, I’m only going to talk about wizards (called magic-users or mages in earlier editions of D&D), as they are a) iconic and b) fairly complicated to emulate. I’ll cover clerics, magic items, and some other spellcasting classes in a future post.

D&D Wizards

The wizard is famous for being incredibly weak at early levels and assuming nearly god-like power at higher levels. These characters not only get more spells as they level up, but they get more powerful spells, and many of their early spells also get a power boost. This has led to the description of the class as a “quadratic wizard,” usually in reference to the fact that fighters get a linear progression of power, and wizards get more powerful on multiple axes.

The spells of a wizard can also be fairly complicated bits of rules in and of themselves. There are all kinds of parameters the player must keep in mind, such as casting time, range, duration, whether or not the spell grants a saving throw, how much damage it does (if any), and what special effects it may generate as part of the spell’s description.

And this is where the disconnect usually comes in for people trying to emulate magic using a simpler set of rules like HeroQuest. There is a tendency to try to recreate these bits of data in order to make it feel like D&D magic.

Further, spellcasting in D&D is “fire & forget.” When the magic-user casts the spell, he or she loses access to it. In earlier D&D, it meant the magic-user forgot the spell after it was cast. In later editions, the caster “prepared” rather than “memorized” spells, and casting the spell basically used up one instance of a preparation for that particular spell.

Regardless, the limit on spells per day has been an important part of D&D from the beginning. But it’s important to remember that the purpose of spells-per-day was a balancing mechanism. Even a 1st-level magic-user with a single sleep spell could decimate a dungeon if he or she was able to cast it over and over. The fighting characters would be unnecessary beyond the first round, and that only when the party lost the initiative roll.

So it was important for wizards to have a very limited ability to cast spells at early levels, and that gradually grew as they gained experience and leveled up. Other classes that didn’t cast spells would be expected to find magic items, which (in theory) would keep them balanced with those classes that had direct magic abilities.

But HeroQuest doesn’t work this way. In HQ, all abilities are essentially equal in capability (if not in scope). A fighter with a “fight with longsword” ability is just as useful in a contest as a magic-user with a “magic missile” ability. Now there are specific considerations that might affect that on a case-by-case basis—some creatures are resistant to magic, for example, and some can only be harmed by magic (spells or weapons), while a fighter with a sword is at a disadvantage fighting a creature that can fly where many spells can be cast at range.

But when you consider the reasons behind the way magic works in D&D, they don’t really hold water when using a set of rules like HeroQuest.

As I said last week, my goal is “emulation, not conversion.” A GM could come up with all kinds of mechanics in HQ that would take those specific bits of D&D and apply them to how HQ works. But, to me, that defeats the benefits of using a simpler and more flexible game like HQ in the first place.

There are few different ways one might emulate “Vancian” casting in HQ without adding a bunch of new rules.

Option 1:

The spells a wizard knows may be cast once and then are gone until he or rests for a specified amount of time. Usually this is a “per day” measurement. This means if a wizard knows disguise self, magic missile, protection from evil, read magic, shield, sleep and summon monster I, then he or she may cast each of those spells once. When the spell is cast, it is no longer available to the wizard until the rest/study period has been taken.

The benefit of this option is that it is simple, and it encourages wizards to be creative with their spell usage. The wizard can’t simple load up on magic missile spells and blast anything he or she encounters. It leads to—in my opinion—more interesting play. The downside, of course, is that it means the wizard is less flexible in his or her spell selection. If the same spell is expected to be useful in a couple of different situations that day, that’s too bad because the wizard gets one casting of the spell and that’s it.

Personally, this is my favourite option. I feel that it provides the general feel of Vancian casting, encourages creative spell use, and is extremely simple to manage in the game.

Option 2:

The number of spells a wizard can cast is determined as in Option 1. However, when a wizard casts a spell, the roll determines whether or not the spell is “lost” after the casting. In this case, you can tie the spell loss determination to just the character’s ability roll, or to the final outcome of the contest. Additionally, you can also make it easier or harder to retain cast spells by changing which outcomes cause loss and which allow retention.

For example, you could decide that a spellcaster who rolls a critical on the ability check in a contest doesn’t lose the spell when it is cast. It means that about 5% of the time, the spell is cast successfully and retained (and I would definitely count a critical that was caused by Mastery bumps or Hero Point expenditures). This means if a wizard absolutely wanted to cast a spell but retain it afterward, he or she could spend the required Hero Points to bump the roll to a critical and ensure the spell wasn’t lost.

Alternately, you could make it easier by deciding that any critical or success resulted in the spell being retained. This would mean the wizard would keep the spell more often than he or she would lose it. It would be a definite bump to the wizard’s abilities.

Or you might decide that the final result of the contest determined whether or not the spell was retained, rather than just the ability roll. For example, you could rule that any contest that resulted in a Major or Complete Victory would mean the spell was not lost after casting.

The advantage of this method is that wizards have a bit more of a tactical decision to make—whether or not to spend Hero Points to bump their roll to ensure a spell isn’t lost if it is expected to be needed later. However, it still keeps the whole process fairly simple and doesn’t add any additional rolls or other mechanics.

Option 3:

If you wanted to get more complicated, you could tie the number of spells cast per day to the ability rating. As the ability is improved and passes certain thresholds, the wizard is able to cast more (and potentially more powerful) spells. In this case, you would need to determine at the beginning of the campaign where these thresholds were and how many spells were granted at each point.

The advantage of this is that it is definitely more like D&D spellcasting. The disadvantage is that it is more complicated. Further, it goes against the core concept in HQ that the ability rating is not related to how skilled you are, but rather how good you are at using that ability to solve problems.

Obviously, the best option is the one that works well for the GM and the players, where everyone has fun and enjoys the game. A more complicated option might be better if the group is transitioning over to HQ from a very traditional D&D mindset and would find it easier to deal with a more intermediate step between those two approaches to a game. Alternately, the simplest option would be better for a group who prefers to leave almost everything up to the narrative and is more familiar with only rolling to find out the overall result of a conflict.

Spell Levels

Another point of difficulty arises when one considers that D&D is a level-based game, and that all spells have levels, indicating their relative power to each other. In D&D, a magic missile spell (a first-level spell) does significantly less damage than lightning bolt (a third-level spell). As the wizard gains levels, he or she gains the ability to cast higher-level spells, thus producing greater effects.

But in HQ, this is actually easier to deal with than one might think. In fact, it’s pretty easy to drop spell levels entirely without greatly affecting how the wizard plays. Greater power comes not from higher-level spells, but from the wizard’s ability to use the magic more effectively. A magic missile spell cast by a wizard with an ability rating of 17 is going to be less effective overall than that cast by a wizard with an ability rating of 10M3.

The main advantage of this method is that you need to include far fewer spells in the game, as lower-level spells don’t necessarily get replaced by greater versions at higher-levels. A spell such as magic missile, which provides a ranged, magical attack against a single target, automatically gets more effective as the wizard improved his or her ability rating, and doesn’t always need to be replaced.

Where the excitement from discovery of new spells comes in is that there are many different possible variations on the spells. For example, the wizard may know the magic missile spell, but then may discover a variant that makes it an area attack. Or that makes it also cause fires (basically becoming the fireball spell), or that generates electricity (becoming lightning bolt), or generates cold, or whatever. This means that when the wizard faces a red dragon, he’s going to whip out his cold-based magic missile (hopefully giving a penalty to the Resistance roll because he’s targeting an opponent’s weakness).

Furthermore, you could decide that a wizard must succeed at a Simple Contest to learn a spell from a scroll or captured spellbook in the first place. And more powerful spells might be more difficult for the wizard to learn. Like the method I proposed last week for dealing with the varying power levels of monsters by moving monsters down in categories as the base Resistance rises during a campaign, you could do something similar with the spells.

For example, using the Pathfinder SRD, you could categorize the spells for a beginning wizard as follows:

  • 1st-level spells: Low Resistance to learn
  • 2nd-level spells: High Resistance to learn
  • 3rd-level spells: Nearly Impossible Resistance to learn

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 Resistance to learn spells all drop by two levels (e.g. 1st-level spells can be learned automatically, 2nd-level spells use Low Resistance, 3rd-level spells use High Resistance, and 4th-level spells use Nearly Impossible Resistance). The GM may allow a wizard who failed to learn a spell at a higher Resistance to try to learn the spell again. Alternately, the GM may rule that a wizard only gets one chance to learn a spell from a particular source, so there’s an incentive for the wizard to pile up some augments and perhaps spend Hero Points, or even just wait to learn a more powerful spell until his or her ability is higher.

Spells

So what about the spells themselves? Here’s an example of the text of a 1st-level spell in the Pathfinder SRE, the ubiquitous sleep spell.

Sleep

School: Enchantment (compulsion) [mind-affecting]
Level: 1
Casting Time: 1 round
Components: V, S, M (fine sand, rose petals, or a live cricket)
Range: medium (100 ft. + 10 ft./level)
Area: One or more living creatures within a 10-foot radius
Duration: 1 minute/level
Saving Throw: Will negates
Spell Resistance: Yes

Description: A sleep spell causes a magical slumber to come upon 4 HD of creatures. Creatures with the fewest HD are affected first. Among creatures with equal HD, those who are closest to the spell’s point of origin are affected first. HD that are not sufficient to affect a creature are wasted. Sleeping creatures are helpless. Slapping or wounding awakens an affected creature, but normal noise does not. Awakening a creature is a standard action (an application of the aid another action). Sleep does not target unconscious creatures, constructs, or undead creatures.

In HQ, most of that information is irrelevant when considering how the nature of conflicts work. A wizard could use a sleep spell in a simple or extended contest, and all that matters is the rating of the ability and the narrative impact of the spell.

In the Glorantha version of wizardry, spells have nothing more than their names to explain what they do. When planning out a D&D-style game using HQ, I would suggest that the GM prepare a little bit more than that—a 1-sentence explanation of the spell, to ensure that everyone is on the same page.

Sleep: This spell causes a small group of creatures to fall asleep.

That’s really all you need in HQ. Range, duration, casting time, and other elements are irrelevant. It does leave the spell up to some negotiation between the player and the GM (what is a “small group” of creatures?), but in the majority of cases this isn’t going to be an issue when considered in the context of a simple or extended contest.

For example, here’s how a typical encounter would likely play out with this spell:

GM: There are a half-dozen orcs waiting in the room, ready to attack anyone entering their fortress. They charge as soon as they see you. This is going to be a group simple contest—if you succeed, you slay or capture the orcs. If you fail, the orcs overwhelm you and take you prisoner so that you can be sacrificed to their god later.

Player1: I use my “Fight with sword & shield” ability and leap into combat.

Player2: I use my “Master archer” ability to stand back and pepper them with arrows from my longbow.

Player3: I use my “Arcane spellcaster” keyword to cast my sleep spell on them.

[After the dice rolling is complete, the GM tallies the scores and narrates the result.]

GM: Okay, the fighter cut down two of the orcs, the ranger filled a couple more with arrows, and the sleep spell dropped the last couple. You can decide whether the wounded orcs are dead or only incapacitated, and of course the sleeping orcs are at your mercy. Oh, since you rolled a critical on your “Arcane Spellcaster” check, you don’t need to mark off the sleep spell.

As you can see, there just isn’t any reason to need all those other details that are necessary in D&D or Pathfinder, because HQ abstracts all that into the nature of a contest.

So here are a list of many 0-level spells in the Pathfinder SRD, with a one- or two-sentence description that could be used for HQ.

  • Acid Splash: You fire a small orb of acid at the target, up to the distance you could throw a baseball-sized object, that burns the target before disappearing.
  • Arcane Mark: This spell allows you to inscribe your personal rune or mark—which can consist of no more than six characters—on an object. The writing can be visible or invisible, though certain spells (e.g. detect magic) will reveal it.
  • Dancing Lights: You create up to four lights that resemble lanterns or torches (and cast that amount of light), which you can control as long as the lights remain within your sight.
  • Daze:  This spell clouds the mind of a humanoid creature so that it is unable to take action.
  • Detect Magic: This spells allows you to detect all active spells and magic items as long as it is close enough to see it unaided. A Major or Complete success tells you specific details about the magic you detect.
  • Detect Poison: This spell allows you to detect whether a creature, object or area that is close enough for you to see it unaided has been poisoned or is poisonous. A Major or Complete success tells you specific details about the poison.
  • Disrupt Undead: You direct a ray of positive energy from your pointing finger to strike an undead target within close range, dealing damage to it.
  • Flare: This spell creates a burst of light in front of a creature, blinding it temporarily—though it is of no effect against sightless creatures.
  • Ghost Sound: This spell allows you to create a volume of simple sound that rises, recedes, approaches, or remains at a fixed place. You choose what type of sound ghost sound creates when casting it and cannot thereafter change the sound’s basic character.
  • Haunted Fey Aspect: You surround yourself with disturbing illusions, making you look and sound like a bizarre, insane fey creature.
  • Light: This spell causes a touched object to glow like a torch, shedding normal light in a 20-foot radius from the point touched.
  • Mage Hand: You point your finger at an object up to 5 lbs. in weight and can lift it and move it at will within a short distance.
  • Mending: You can repair any broken item—magical items face higher Resistance—up to the size and weight of your own body, as long as all the pieces are present.
  • Message: You can point to up to three creatures you can see with your naked eye and whisper a message that they will hear clearly (though language may still be a barrier). The recipients may whisper a reply that you can hear.
  • Open/Close: You can open or close (your choice) a door, chest, box, window, bag, pouch, bottle, barrel, or other container up to 30 lbs. in weight. If anything resists this activity (such as a bar on a door or a lock on a chest), the spell fails.
  • Ray of Frost: A ray of freezing air and ice projects from your pointing finger to strike a target within close range, dealing damage to it.
  • Read Magic: You can decipher magical inscriptions on objects—books, scrolls, weapons, and the like—that would otherwise be unintelligible. This deciphering does not normally invoke the magic contained in the writing, although it may do so in the case of a cursed or trapped scroll.
  • Resistance: This spells provides an augment on the next ability used to resist any magical attacks or effects.
  • Spark: You can make an unattended flammable object catch on fire as if you were using flint and steel, except that it works in any sort of weather.
  • Touch of Fatigue: You channel negative energy through your touch, causing the target to become extremely fatigued.

As you can see, some spells—such as daze and flare—can both be used as an attack on a creature in a contest, but whether or not it works depends on the target being affected. For example, it would make sense to rule that daze won’t work on mindless undead, and flare won’t affect a sightless creature. But in all other ways, they are attack spells that could be used in either a Simple or Extended contest. The actual effect, however, is purely narrative.

Conclusion

I’ll talk a bit about clerics (and probably magic items) next week, which will most likely be the last of my posts about HeroQuest and D&D. From there, I’m planning to discuss using HeroQuest for some other kinds of games to show off the versatility of this great set of rules.

HeroQuest and D&D – Adventure Breakdown

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.

Campaign Styles

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).

Conclusion

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!