The following is a "rethink" on the previous blog post and how I plan on going forward in my campaign.
PROBABLY THE SINGLE most important rule in HeroQuest is the "credibility test" (HQ p. 74, HQG p. 113). On this subject, author Robin Laws writes;
In works of fiction, it is the author’s job to maintain the illusion of fictional reality by presenting the reader only with events that seem credible within the rules of reality they’ve established for their world. ...(a)s Narrator, you are never obligated to allow a contest just because two characters have abilities that can be brought into conflict. If the character’s proposed result would seem absurd, you disallow the contest, period...(d)on’t make the mistake of assigning a high resistance to avoid an impossible outcome—lucky rolls and hero points can make your world seem suddenly ridiculous. (HQ, p. 74)
The credibility test is vital because of the essential relativity of the system. Assume two characters both operate in the same four-color comic book city of Metropolis. There is no way that the first one, a "Professional Bodybuilder 7W2,” could use his Ability to stop a runaway locomotive, but the Daily Planet’s newest reporter could use his “Last Son of Krypton 17” to try. It doesn’t matter that the bodybuilder’s Ability is far higher than the reporter’s; what matters is that by the rules of the setting Kryptonians are superhumanly strong. Their comparative strength ratings have nothing to do with it.
The importance of the credibility test cannot be overstated, because it is often the only tool the rules give you to define your game.
I ran afoul of this recently in my current HeroQuest Glorantha campaign. I’ve been running Gloranthan games for 37 years, including three editions of RuneQuest, Hero Wars, HeroQuest, and even a GURPS conversion, but this was my first lengthy HeroQuest Glorantha campaign. The error I made was in assuming it operated more or less along the same lines as Hero Wars and first edition HeroQuest, which of course it does not.
The first six sessions of the campaign featured the player characters as un-initiated youths, without magic of any kind. The next few sessions after that, they were using Basic Magic to augment their abilities. The trouble began only after they started getting initiated, and getting access to Rune Magic. This is how I learned the value of the credibility test.
As the rules are written, once your HeroQuest Glorantha character becomes a cult initiate;
You may now use all the Runes you share with your god directly, as you would any other ability…you may describe actions and contest results as overtly supernatural…credibility tests do not apply to them as long as your use is within the scope of the Rune…
(HQG p. 144)
Now, in other Gloranthan games, two central themes defined Rune magic; its immense power and its scarcity. Everyone used magic in Glorantha, but Rune Magic was your Big Gun, the thing you held on to and unleashed only at your most desperate moment. In the days of RQ2, cult initiates paid dearly for Rune magic with permanent sacrifices of personal Power, and once they used it, it was gone for good. Even then, “(m)ost cults restrict this to initiates going on cult missions, or as a rewards to trusted and long-standing members” (RQ2 p. 59). Even Rune Priests—masters of this sort of magic and the emissaries of the gods—had to spend entire days in worship at a temple or shrine before they could use any Rune magic again, deterring them “from casting Rune magic frivolously (RQ2 p. 64). The latest edition of the game, RuneQuest Roleplaying in Glorantha, was considerably more generous with Rune magic, but still the rules required you to replenish your magic in worship and sacrifice on holy days.
There is no mechanic for scarcity in HQG, however. While RuneQuest counts every hit point lost, every coin spent, every arrow fired, in HQG you don’t run out of these things unless you are defeated in a Contest and the Narrator decides the consequence of defeat is losing one of these resources. The same applies for Rune magic. There really is no reason for an Orlanth initiate to ever use a spear, when he can hurl lightning bolts instead. There is no reason to walk home after a day of farming out in the fields when he can just teleport. Mechanically, the only risk is that his player might fail the roll and the Ability is compromised.
Most players—even those drawn to more narrative-driven games like HQG—love to game the system. It’s a natural instinct. Given the way Difficulty works in HQG, the higher an Ability the increasingly less likely the character will fail and ever lose it…even for Nearly Impossible tasks. So what I began to see in my campaign then was other Abilities languishing while the players poured all their Hero Points into improving their Runes. Rune magic increasingly became the answer to every problem. All this might have been fine—resorting to powerful magic might have made perfect sense if these characters were Heroes or even Rune masters—but these were brand new initiates. The internal logic of the setting began to fall apart.
What constitutes a credible action may vary from one campaign to the next. A campaign centered around a group of desperate treasure hunters in the Big Rubble may have a very different definition of credible than a campaign centered on the eschatological conflicts of the Hero Wars… (HQG, p. 114)
It was this single passage above that provided the answer I was looking for. Unlike most game systems, the solution wasn’t in what the rules allow, but what is credible for your campaign. The Rune magic rules are a generalization meant to model how this type of magic works for all levels of play—from new initiates to Heroes like Argrath. The only way to create a distinction between a Hero and an initiate then is the credibility test.
As a Game Master though I was still needed the conceptual architecture to justify this distinction. How much magic could an initiate use before credibility comes into play? What is the limiting factor within the setting itself? In RuneQuest, the question had always been “how much have you sacrificed?” It is a very transactional relationship between the worshipper and the god; you give this much and get that much in return. Yet in HeroQuest there was no way to effectively model this, you don’t acquire the spell first and then use it, you are asking for the spell right then and there. So it occurred to me the new question the god had to be asking was “is this a worthy use of my power?”
In English, the word “worship” comes from the Old English weorð and -scipe, meaning together “the condition of being worthy.” This struck me as the credibility test that I needed. When attempting to perform Rune magic, if the deity finds the character unworthy of the magic, or doesn’t find this particular use of its power worthy, it doesn’t have to happen. The deity can simply say “no.”
To determine if a use of Rune magic is worthy, then, we needed some criteria. After some thought, I boiled it down to three;
- Does this use of magic further the aims of the deity, expand its influence, or protect its cult in the world? Remember always that the character serves the deity, not the other way around.
- Is there another way for the same effect to be accomplished that doesn’t involve the deity expending its power? Keep in mind that gods are “fueled” by worship and sacrifice, and that every expenditure of power diminishes them.
- Is the worshipper worthy of this magic; i.e. does the character behave consistently according to its divine Rune affinity, does the character regularly worship and sacrifice, does the character hold any position in the cult (priest? Rune master? Devotee?)? The more important an instrument the character is, the more likely a deity will be to act.
If the answer to one or more of these questions is “no,” GMs are well within their rights to impose a stretch penalty or to simply say the magic does not work.
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