Why HeroQuest Doesn't Work

Copyright 2006 Simon E. Phipp
Created On 8 October 2006
Last Updated On 8 October 2006

HeroQuest is a fairly good system in many respects. It is scalable, it is easy to use and easy to understand, it fits the Gloranthan model very nicely and it uses similar game mechanics to resolve dissimilar contests. However, there are places and times where HeroQuest just does not work how I think it was meant to work.

I joined our gaming group part-way through their HeroQuest campaign. The campaign started with Hero Wars, then moved to HeroQuest. The Heroes had been working their way up to trying the Lightbringers' Quest to bring back their old clan chief. During the 18 months or so that I played HeroQuest with them, I probably spent 8 months Narrating and the rest playing. Some 5 months of that was spent on the LBQ, either preparing for the quest or actually taking part in the quest.

We could see that HQ was struggling to cope towards the end of the LBQ, when people were spending 15 minutes working out their augments for a simple contest. After the LBQ, we had even more problems as the Heroes had become quite powerful and were used to super-augmenting each other. This meant that the Narrator could not work out how strong the Heroes were likely to be in a contest, so he introduced a limit on the number of augments that could be used, in order to limit the adds. He also asked us to narrate the augments, so a Simple Contest was taking something like 30 minutes to work out and describe the augments. It seemed like HQ was turning into an exercise in mathematics.

At this stage, the three Narrators were taking it in turns of 1-2 months Narrating, to ease the workload, but we were all becoming disillusioned with HQ. I remember Nick, the founder of our group, looking at his character sheet in despair, and I don't use the word lightly, saying he had too many skills and could not understand the character any more. He dropped out for a while to work on his house and never came back. One of the reasons was that he didn't want to play HQ any more - and this was someone who had play-tested Hero Wars.

Finally, the Heroes defeated many of the local enemies and went to the Grazelands to hide out and take stock. There, they healed a Wyter of a hobbling injury caused by the Lunars and, in the process, destroyed a cadre of Yara Aranis priests. The Lunars were forced to act by this and sent Yara Aranis herself after the Heroes, with a contingent of demons, priests and cultists. However, Yaran Aranis herself could not match the Heroes for innovation and might, so succumbed to their awesome fighting machine.

The players decided that there wasn't much point carrying on if all they could be expected to do was to attack and destroy Lunar deities. So we started playing RQ for a while, with the intention of picking up the campaign again once we had sorted out some of the problems we had encountered.

Talking through the problems, there were several points that were commonly agreed to be severe:

  1. Heroes had far too many low and unimportant skills
  2. Heroes could augment themselves and each other, adding perhaps 3-4 levels of Mastery
  3. Augmenting took a very long time and used a hell of a lot of arithmetic to work out
  4. Narrators could not work out how powerful a group of Heroes was likely to be
  5. There was a vast skill difference between different Heroes

Now, some of these points were a result of game play. Having differences between Heroes' skill levels was partly because some heroes focussed on certain key abilities and partly because some players joined later than others. Also, we shouldn't have a system where heroes cannot augment each other, as that is the core of a game - helping your comrades.

However, points 1, 3 and 4 could possibly be solved and this might help points 2 and 5.

We discussed at length the problems and the character sheets and came up with a potential solution which we are about to start playtesting (October 2006). I will be calling this HeroQuest Lite, for want of a better title.v Basically, I went back to the beginning, character generation, and thought about what I liked about HQ and what I didn't like about HQ. I found that I liked the fact that it generalised things to an extent, by using keywords, and rolled up a lot of skills into one roll for combat/skill resolution. That sped the game up quite a bit. What I didn't like was that HQ then specialised everything, by splitting keywords into individual skills/abilities and allowed Extended Contests and Group Extended Contests which slowed things down again.

Starting characters take certain keywords to describe their character. These keywords could be a homeland keyword (Heortling), a Profession keyword (Warrior), a magic keyword (Orlanth pantheon, Devotee of Varanorlanth) and so on. So, I could describe my character as a Heortling Warrior of the Blue Storm Dancers, a Devotee of Varanorlanth, master of the Wild Winds, member of the Wild Ones and so on. All of these are different types of keyword and all shape my character to a certain extent.

Now, traditionally, I would then take the skills and abilities from each keyword and expand them, setting each at a certain starting value (17) and then assign points to increase some skills. But why? What do I care that Saltan Stormrunner can Make a Camp or Walk With Snowshoes? Such skills are irrelevant to him, and they can be subsumed under the relevant keywords. What is important to me is how good a warrior he is, how strong a Devotee of Varanorlanth, how well has he mastered the Wild Winds and so on. He has certain skills that are important to him, he has a high Endurance, is skilled in Club Combat, is good in the wilderness and so on. So, he would have several abilities that are not contained in keywords, these are key abilities. When I increase my abilities, I don't want to increase individual abilities, I just want to be able to increase a keyword and be done with it. If I want to focus on key abilities, then they are separate from keywords.

This has several advantages:

  1. A hero can be described with a small number of key abilities and keywords.
  2. Each keyword can only be used to augment an ability once, so reducing the number of augments available.
  3. Skills can be lumped together in logical or similar groups.
  4. Character sheets become less cluttered and easier to read.
  5. Minor skills can be ignored or put in a keyword.
  6. Heroes can be as simple or as complex as required.
  7. Augmenting is quicker as only keywords and key abilities can augment, fewer augments = faster resolution.
  8. Narrators could work out easier how powerful heroes are likely to be and can plan accordingly.

HeroQuest Lite Summary

  1. Rather than expanding each Keyword into multiple skills, keep Keywords listed on character sheets
  2. Each Keyword has a Name, Type (unlabelled), Rating and Ability List
  3. The Type of Keyword is a code showing what type the keyword is. This is simply to help people remember how their keywords are organised. Sample types are K - Keyword, CM - Common Magic, A - Affinity, HB - Hero Band, R - Relationship, F - Follower, I - Item, but there's no reason why you can't have more or different types.
  4. Keywords should be specific, where possible, so Keywords with shared abilities should be split into separate Keywords. So Cavalry Soldier and Infantry Soldier split into Soldier, Cavalryman and Infantryman
  5. Important Abilities can be taken out of Keywords at a cost of 1HP
  6. Abilities can be put into Keywords at a cost of 1 HP
  7. Moving Abilities in and out of Keywords SHOULD NOT BE ABUSED
  8. Keywords can be increased during play at a cost of 3 HPs per point (where keywords have a lot of abilities, either split them into 2 keywords or maybe increase the cost, perhaps 2HPs + 1 HP per 7 abilities or part thereof)
  9. Where more than one Keyword contains an Ability, those Keywords can automatically augment that Ability, or a Keyword containing that Ability
  10. Abilities can be improvised from Keywords with a -5 Penalty
  11. Keywords can only be used to augment, to lead with the keyword, you must use a skill within the keyword, that skill may be specified or improvised.
  12. Most Personality Traits would be found within Keywords, unless they are very important to the character
  13. Each type of Common magic is treated as a separate Keyword
  14. Status is treated as a Keyword
  15. Affinities can augment abilities that are directly connected to the Affinity
  16. Feats can augment abilities that are connected to the Feat

So, some examples.

Saltan tries to enter a cave to face a dragon and must roll his Brave Trait. Saltan is not especially Brave but he is a Heortling and a Warrior, both of which are brave by nature. He uses his Heortling 17 and augments with his Warrior 17 to give a target of 19.

Saltan tries to trick the dragon into chasing him and runs away. Since he is running a long way, he must make an Endurance check. He has Endurance 7W2 and has Endurance as part of his Warrior 17, so he gets a +2 augment, bringing his target to 9W2. Of course, he would actually augment with Avoid Enemies (Live in Wilderness 1W2), Run Like the Wind (Movement 18W), Run on the Wind (Wild Storms 17) and Second Wind (Wild Winds 17) to give him a +12, bringing his target to 1W3.

Saltan wants to use a warcry to frighten away a potential foe. He doesn't have a warcry ability, so improvises one from his Warrior keyword, his Warcry is 12, not very good, but he can always augment with his Large, Strong, Distinctive Appearance, Wild Man and Cloak of Many Skins to make himself more impressive. He can then spend a Hero Point to add Warcry to his abilities under the Warrior keyword. What he couldn't do is say "I am a warrior, so that will scare people away", as Warrior is a keyword and can only be used to augment.

Somebody with a Movement Affinity could use that to augment Move Quietly, but not Climbing. He could use the Run up Cliffs Feat from his Movement Affinity to augment Climbing when climbing a cliff but not when climbing a tree. Why would he use Climbing rather than Run Up Cliffs? Well, he could have a much higher Climbing than Movement Affinity or he might be an initiate and have to improvise Run Up Cliffs.

When converting existing HeroQuest characters, try not to squeeze every point out of a Keyword. If most of the skills are at 17 and a couple are at 19, keep the Keyword at 17 and the extra at +2. If they are a mixture of 17s and 19s, take the Keyword at 18.

If you want to make up a new keyword, then do so, as long as it is realistic. Saltan's Warrior Keyword contained a lot of abilities, so I split some into the Fyrdman Keyword, representing the fact that he is fyrd-trained.

The following should be in separate Keywords:

Character Sheet

There is a sample Character Sheet (hql01.doc) in the same directory as this file. This is just a guideline and should be altered or changed as you see fit.

There are spaces at the top for your 100-word essay, a picture and general information.

Below that, there are spaces for 24 Key Abilities. 24 abilities is quite a lot, considering that most abilities will be part of Keywords. If you need more then just add more rows to the table. You might need to adjust the column widths - press ALT, click and drag the column separator to correctly size the table (pressing ALT allows for finer movement).

Finally, there is a table for Keywords. I have put in some general keyword types, these will need to be changed for your character. So, if you are playing a Varanorlanthi Heortling from the Greydog Clan, then change Homeland to Heortling, Clan to Geydog, Pantheon to Orlanth, Main Deity to Orlanth Adventurous, and Minor Deity to Varanorlanth. You might have profession of Warrior and a Specialisation of Clan Champion, so change those as well. You might even have two professions, Warrior and Hunter perhaps, to show that you have been both. "But," I hear you say, "you can't have two professions, it says so in the rules!" Well, I say "Pah!" to that, rules are just guidelines and you can do what you want with your character.

I have included 3 Descriptive Keywords, they can be any abilities clumped together. So, Saltan has Abandoned 13 (Abandoned as a Child, Loner, Foul Temper, Lack's Soldier's Discipline) to reflect some of the reasons for his sunny personality. If you want more, add more, if you want less then delete them.

There is one line for Common Magic and a Hero Band, if you want more then just add more lines.

I have included the standard three Affinities, but add more if needed.

Relationships have been split into four lines, Allies, Contact, Enemies and Relationships. Many Relationships would naturally fall in other Keywords, but these are for other relationships. So, Saltan is a member of the Varanorlanth Temple in the Wilds, but he lists this under his Varanorlanth Keyword.

I haven't included Flaws or Personality Traits as specific Keyword Lines, as many of them are part of other Keywords. So, Saltan is Brave because he is a Warrior, Hates Chaos because he is a Heortling, Determined because he is a Fyrdman and Grim because he is a Warrior. He doesn't Fear Dragons, because the Wild Men didn't take part in the Dragonkill and were one of the very few clans allowed to live in Dragon Pass after the Dragonkill (together with the Marshers in the Upland Marsh, storm worshippers at Old Wind Temple and Grazers in the Grazelands).

If you want lines just to reflect minor skills/traits, then don't put anything in the rating and leave the type blank. So, Saltan has a list of equipment with ratings beside each item and a list of Likes/Dislikes with people liked and disliked with their ratings. I suppose these would count as individual abilities, but are listed together to save space.

You might need several different Keywords to cover membership of various tribes/clans/cults.

So, heroes from the Greydog Clan might have the following Keywords: Heortling, Lismelder, Greydog, Individual Bloodline

Each of us would have profession keywords, based on our chosen professions, with specialisations if required, so you might have: Healer and Herbalist, Raider and Herder, Warrior and Fyrdsman.

You might have religious Keywords: Earth Pantheon, Ernalda, Bevara; Earth Pantheon, Babeester Gor; Orlanth Pantheon, Orlanth Adventurous, Varanorlanth; Orlanth Pantheon, Orlanth Adventurous, Finovan; Orlanth Pantheon, Orlanth Allfather, Harst.