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THIS IS A BLOG ABOUT STORIES AND STORYTELLING; some are true, some are false, and some are a matter of perspective. Herein the brave traveller shall find dark musings on horror, explorations of the occult, and wild flights of fantasy.

Monday, March 18, 2019

HEROQUEST GLORANTHA: A VERY BELATED REVIEW

AUTHOR'S NOTE (or, "How To Read This Mess")

UNLESS YOU ARE a diehard Glorantha nerd (and if you aren't, why the hell not?) you can probably skip the first three sections, "Glorantha Rising," "Torchbearer," and "Moon Design."  These simply give the rest of the review context.  Those new to this setting should start with the fourth section, "The World of Glorantha." 



GLORANTHA RISING

THE GLORANTHAN "RENAISSANCE" is now arguably on the edge of becoming an actual "Golden Age."  With three table top RPGs (RuneQuest, 13th Age Glorantha, HeroQuest), two mobile platform games (King of Dragon Pass, Six Ages), board games (Khan of Khans, The Gods War), resources like The Guide to Glorantha and The Glorantha Sourcebook, "Classic" RuneQuest back in print, and now the announcement of a video game from Irish studio Black Shamrock, Greg Stafford's legendary world has never been more accessible.  I like to think that Stafford (1948-2018) left our "Middle World" last year on a high note; when he started the process of creating Glorantha more than fifty years ago, he decided not to bind the world into short fiction and novels, but rather to present it to the rest of us in the form of games.  He gave us the world, but it was up to us to tell the stories in it.  Now, very soon, no matter what kind of gamer you are there will be a path for you leading into Glorantha, and a way for you to experience your own stories there.  It's a stunning achievement.

Stafford didn't do this alone.  The list of talent involved in the Glorantha project over the years goes on and on.  Steve Perrin, Ray Turney, Ken Rolston, Charlie Krank, Lynn Willis, and Sandy Petersen are just the tip of this iceberg.  Crucial to this astounding resurgence of Gloranthan gaming however is a whole new team under the aegis first of Moon Design Publications and more recently Chaosium.  Jeff Richard, Rick Meints, Michael O'Brien, Simon Bray, Ian Cooper, and dozens of others quietly started the revolution a decade ago, and though it hit an explosive high water mark with the 2014 publication of the 800+ page masterpiece The Guide to Glorantha, we need to go back five years earlier to chart its real beginnings.  Though last year I had the opportunity to review both 13th Age Glorantha and RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha, I never did get around to reviewing the game that actually spearheaded the new Gloranthan Golden Age--the game that remains my preferred vehicle to explore Glorantha these days--HeroQuest.

It's time to rectify that omission.

TORCHBEARER

LONG BEFORE Kickstarter was a thing, there was the Glorantha Trading Association.  This was in the late 90s, when the fate of Glorantha was an open question.  Both RuneQuest and Dragon Pass (originally White Bear and Red Moon), the two games that had been delivering Glorantha to the rest of us for two decades, were out of print.  Not content to let his creation perish, Stafford started looking for ways to save it.

Getting the rights back from his original company, Chaosium, Stafford founded a second firm, Issaries, to bring Glorantha back to our world.  In the summer of 1997, he turned directly to the fans.  Offering shares for $100 each, what came to be known as the Glorantha Trading Association raised enough capital for Stafford to enlist the talents of game designer Robin D. Laws (Feng Shui, Rune, The Dying Earth, GUMSHOE, etc) for a new Gloranthan RPG.  Originally conceived of--and even advertised--back in the days of classic RuneQuest, this successor game was to be more epic, more mythic.  Called HeroQuest back in late 70s, the Robin Laws game was retitled Hero Wars as Hasbro held the rights to both the names HeroQuest and RuneQuest in the 90s.  It hit the shelves in 2000.

(We would be remiss here to omit mention of A Sharp's King of Dragon Pass, which also appeared at this time.  Published in 1999, David Dunham's brilliant storytelling computer game--the first Gloranthan game of this kind--was initially a commercial failure.  As perhaps another example of "the world just wasn't ready for Glorantha yet" the game was reborn in 2011 as an iOS game, later available on Android and then back to personal computers.  This time, it was a smash success, spawning a spiritual successor game, Six Ages, in 2018.)

To be blunt, Hero Wars was divisive.  A radical departure from RuneQuest, a game legendary for its gritty realism, detailed combat system, and simulationist approach, Hero Wars was narrative, abstract, and geared more towards the mythic battles of Harrek the Berserk and Jar-eel the Razoress than Rurik Runespear's battle at Troll Bridge.  Though I had been playing RuneQuest for nearly twenty years at that point, I loved Hero Wars and considered my investment in the GTA money well spent.  On the other hand, Hero Wars was an organizational nightmare, and its second 2003 edition, retitled HeroQuest after Stafford got the rights back, was a far better incarnation (my 2003 review of it is here).

Whether you prefer RQ or HQ, we have to acknowledge that the latter kept the Glorantha flame alive through the first decade of the 21st century, and was crucial in igniting the rebirth we are experiencing now.  HQ brought the game back from the wastelands of Prax (where much of RQ's focus had been) to Dragon Pass, the setting of the war-game that started it all.  Products like Thunder Rebels, Storm Tribe, Barbarian Adventures, and Orlanth is Dead! advanced the timeline further than RQ ever had, and revealed more about the storm-worshipping Orlanthi barbarians than we had ever seen.  At the same time, both Hero Wars and HeroQuest pulled back the veil on the Lunar Empire, the imperial force these barbarians were rebelling against.  These two opposing forces have always been the heart of the conflict that eventually brings the Third Age of Glorantha crashing down, but were never so clearly detailed.  HQ didn't just keep Glorantha in print, it explored the setting further.

MOON DESIGN

Parallel to all of this, fellow American expat Rick Meints and Colin Phillips founded Moon Design Publications to collect and republish--under license from Issaries--classic out-of-print RQ materials.  From Pavis & The Big Rubble (1999) to Borderlands & Beyond (2005) Moon Design returned to print some of the most fabled Golden Age RQ products, keeping the past alive while HQ concentrated on pushing forward.  In 2006 Stafford decided to move the HQ product line to Moon Design as well, beginning the process of consolidating Glorantha under one roof.  Progress was initially slow, until an unstoppable force known as Jeff Richard came on board as co-owner of Moon Design.  

Then all Glorantha broke loose.

By the summer of 2009 there was no indication of the tidal wave that was coming; in fact, things looked depressingly bad. Moon Design jumped into the HeroQuest arena by issuing a brand new edition. A generic edition. Once again, a game that had been expressly created as a way to experience Glorantha was divorced from the setting (as Avalon Hill had done to RuneQuest in 1983). While I liked the mechanical updates to the system, and the decision to jettison the incongruous bits of simulationist gaming from a system that was overwhelmingly narrative in design and purpose, I recall being livid that Glorantha was being sidelined. I braced myself for the HQ equivalents of Vikings, Lands of the Ninja, and (grrrrr) Griffin Island.




I hadn't figured Jeff Richard into my calculations though.  While HQ2 contained less than fourteen pages of Glorantha material, the autumn of that year unleashed a tsunami of it.  Richard, working with Greg Stafford, wrote Sartar: Kingdom of Heroes, delivering on a three-decade-old promise for a "Sartar Campaign."  The duo followed the next autumn with a companion book that brought the full Sartar Campaign material to about 700 pages.  Pavis: Gateway to Adventure followed in 2012, another Richard/Stafford collaboration. That same short years later Richard, Meints, and Moon Design were Kickstarting their Guide to Glorantha (of which Richard was both a lead author and editor-in-chief), which was published in 2014.  Finally, the year after that, Richard rewrote HeroQuest with Robin Laws and returned the system, firmly, to its Gloranthan setting.  HeroQuest Glorantha was that product, and will be the book the rest of this review is dedicated to.

The same year HeroQuest Glorantha appeared, Greg Stafford and Sandy Petersen returned to Chaosium, along with Richard, Meints, Michael O'Brien, and Neil Robinson, the principals from Moon Design.  HeroQuest had been created to carry on in the place of RuneQuest; now it was taking its place beside it.    

THE WORLD OF GLORANTHA 

GLORANTHA’s story begins in 1966, when a young college freshman named Greg Stafford started to create a world.  “Glorantha” was Stafford’s personal exploration of myth; not as we understand the term—synonymous with lies and falsehoods—but as traditional, pre-industrial societies did.  In an unstable, ever-changing world, myths provided definition and order.  They were timeless, transcendent truths that showed men and women how the world worked and how to live in it.  This was an age when cults and cultures—two words with the same etymological source—were one and the same.  Civilizations were defined by their gods.

As a setting, Glorantha embraced this mindset and never let go.  It was a flat world floating on a cosmic sea; a sky dome turned overhead and the black chasms of the underworld yawned below.  Her societies were Bronze Age, ruled by priest-kings and priestesses.  Beyond the borders of her empires and city-states monsters reigned.  

Glorantha was not defined by chemistry or physics but by the epic deeds of her gods, spirits, and heroes.  Their actions in the primordial history of the world established the patterns of nature, and set the model for how the mortal races should live.  The sun rises and sets in Glorantha not because of planetary rotation, but because the Solar Emperor Yelm was killed by the rebellious storm god Orlanth, falling from his throne above the world and plunging down into the underworld.  With the world subsequently plunged into darkness, all the gods began making war upon one another.  The world was cracked and Chaos, the stuff of raw entropy, bled in.  One by one the gods fell and creation came closer to ending.  Thus Orlanth later descended into Hell to bring the sun back, and with the surviving gods forged a compact known as Time.  The gods would exist outside of Time in the realm of myth, never able to war again.  From the mortal perspective, they eternally repeat their deeds.  The Sun rises, is slain, and rises again.  Not only does myth define physical reality like this, it shapes societies as well.  The Orlanth worshipping barbarians forever rebel against the Sun worshipping empires.    

At the heart of this world were the Runes, the building blocks of Gloranthan reality.  Darkness, Storm, Sky.  Fertility, Harmony, Death.  The two-dozen or so Great Runes defined the pantheons and powers of the gods, explained the nature of spirits, and contained the transcendent essences of existence.  The Runes form almost a kind of a language that once you get the hang of it becomes easy to read.  Plant and Sea might mean "seaweed."  Plant and Darkness might mean "fungi."  Fertility and Earth might mean fruits and vegetables.  Disorder and Earth might mean earthquake or avalanche.  The Runes are at the core of every god, every being, every player character.

“Magic” in Glorantha was how you related to these Runes, and this in turn shaped how you saw the world.  A Shaman would see the Runes as great primordial spirits to be bargained with, a Theist would see them as gods to be sacrificed to, and an atheistic Sorcerer would see them as impersonal essences to be studied and controlled.  Thus a shaman might tell you that rivers run to the sea because the river spirits are mediators between the spirits of the land and the spirits of the deep.  A sorcerer might say it is the nature of the Water Rune to always seek the lowest level.  A theist might teach that during the War of the Gods, when Chaos shattered the primordial cosmic mountain that was home to the first gods, the Ocean rushed in to fill the hole left in the center of the world, and called his daughters, the rivers, to come help him fill it.  Yet all would agree that the Runes of Motion and Water define what a river is.

HEROQUEST GLORANTHA
The easiest way to describe HQG is to look at it alongside its sister RPGs, RuneQuest and 13th Age Glorantha.  RQ is firmly simulationist; it is the game you play if you want gritty realism and a sense of what it would "really" feel like to live in Glorantha.  13G is gamist; this is your go-to if you want fair and balanced encounters and enjoy using rules to "win."  HQG is the narrativist system; if you like your games to have the flow and structure of novels or a television series, if you want character arcs and drama, this is the best choice for you.  

"In HeroQuest Glorantha," Richard writes...


...you start not with the physical details (of a given action, such as height, mass, or distance) but with the proposed action’s position in the storyline. You consider a range of narrative factors, from whether it would be Maximum Game Fun for (the character) to succeed, how much failure would slow the pacing of the current sequence, and how long it has been since (the character) last scored a thrilling victory...

Consider a party of player characters up against a mercenary band of Dark Trolls.  13G is going to make sure the odds are even and that it's a fair fight.  RQ is going to model the Trolls as realistically as possible, and let the battle play out with death or crippling injury a very real possibility.  HQG, meanwhile is going to ask where this battle fits in the overall storyline; are these Trolls major antagonists or minor characters?  Would it be more interesting for the player characters to lose or to win?  The GM will then assign a difficulty to the contest to reflect this.  To be blunt, the Dark Trolls don't even "exist" in game terms except as an obstacle to be overcome.  They don't have any stats.  if the GM feels they should be easy to beat they will be.  If he feels they should be a threat, he sets the Difficulty accordingly.



The logic here is one of pure storytelling.  Decades ago, a RuneQuest character of mine faced off against a giant in Snakepipe Hollow.  An archer, he got lucky, landing a critical shot against the giant's head.  It died instantly.  Now, that particular battle could have gone very differently if the character had missed.  What HQG does, however, is ask how the battle "should" go.  If the giant was an adversary encountered in the first act, the GM could set the difficulty so low that a single shot would dispatch him.  If facing the giant was the climax of the adventure, HQG gives the GM the tools to make sure the battle will be long, drawn-out, and hard won.  It's the same giant, but what matters is his role in the narrative.

THE MECHANICS AT A GLANCE


Abilities
Characters are defined by abilities.  An ability is any skill, talent, tool, resource, or power a character can call upon to overcome an obstacle.

Abilities are rated in tiers of 1 to 20.  Higher is better.  When an ability rises to 21 it enters the the next tier and is said to have a mastery.  It resets to a value of 1, but is written 1W (“mastery 1,” the "W" here being the Gloranthan Mastery Rune).  When it rises to 21W, it again enters the next higher tier and is now written as 1W2 (“2 masteries one”).  Just remember whatever number comes after the “W” indicates the number of 20s the ability has: 5W3 would be the equivalent of 65; 12W4 would be 92.

A starting character will have certain standard abilities, including a Distinguishing Characteristic (like "cynical," "brave," or "cunning"), an occupation (Warrior, Bandit, Farmer, etc), a culture (Heortling, Esrolian, Praxian, etc), a community (the Black Stag clan, Bison Riders, etc), and three Runes.  Additional characteristics are created by the player to flesh out the character and make it unique.   

Die Rolls
HeroQuest uses only a 20-sided die.  A roll of 1 is always a critical, the best possible result.  A roll equal to your ability value or less is a success.  A roll above your ability value is a failure.  A roll of 20 is always a fumble, the worst possible outcome.  Each mastery the value has, however, bumps the result down one step.  With one mastery, a fumble becomes a failure, a failure becomes a success, and a success becomes a critical.  Two masteries bumps the result down two steps, etc.

Contests
Every die roll in HeroQuest is an opposed roll.  In other words, you will always be rolling against another player or the game master.  The best result—critical, success, failure, fumble—always wins.  In other words you could “fail” your roll, but if you opponent fumbles you still succeed.  If both sides score the same level of result, the high roll wins.  It is important to remember, though, that masteries cancel.  If you have 5W and your opponent has 18, you keep your mastery.  If you have 5W and your opponent has 7W, they cancel and you are each rolling just 5 against 7.  If you have 5m2 and your opponent has 18W, his mastery is lost and you lose one of yours (effectively making it 5W versus 18 again).

Difficulties are based off how many sessions the characters have participated in.  This gives the GM a Base Value to work with.  1 to 4 sessions gives a Base Value of 14.  13 to 16 would be 17.  29 to 32 would be 21, and so on.  The Base Value is then modified by how difficult the GM thinks the contest should be.  Should it have a "Low" difficulty?  Subtract 6 from the Base Value.  Should it have a "High" difficulty?  Add 6 to the Base.  Is it nearly impossible?  Add two masteries (+W2) to the Base.  There is also an option of using a Pass/Fail Cycle, in which failing a few contests actually lowers the difficulties of subsequent contests, while winning contests causes the difficulties to continue to rise.     

There are two types of contests; simple and extended.  A simple contest is handled by a single exchange; each side rolls once and the contest is over.  An extended contest ends when one side or the other reaches 5 result points or higher.  For example, if both sides roll a success, the winner gets only 1 result point and the contest goes on.  If one side had rolled a critical, and the other side a fumble, the winner would score 5 result points immediately and the contest would be over.

What determines is a contest is simple or extended?  Simply put, the dramatic stakes.  If a player character is fighting a nameless guard, the entire fight is a simple contest.  If he is fighting his lifelong adversary, the man who killed his family, it will be extended.  This has nothing to do with how long or complex the contest is in the story; a year-long siege could be a simple contest, while two Humakti warriors facing off in a duel could be extended (even if the fight lasts mere seconds).  

Augments and Modifiers
Both augments and modifiers can be used to bump up your value before a contest.  An augment is another ability that you call upon to support the main ability in the contest.  For example, if a character with the Warrior ability also has Lightning Fast, he could logically use Lightning Fast to boost Warrior when fighting a duel.  You can either roll for the augment—risking a penalty if you get a bad result but the chance to get a much high bonus if you augment goes well—or take a flat augment equal to its value divided by five.  You can only use one ability as an augment per contest.  On the other hand there are also plot augments.  These are bonuses you one in previous contests that apply to later ones.  You can stack plot augments with ability augments.   

Modifiers usually come in a range of -6, -3, +3, or +6 based on the situation.  Imagine a Super Spy fighting one of the villain’s minions.  If the minion is armed and the spy isn’t, the spy might suffer a -6 penalty.  Another special case is broad versus narrow abilities.  If two characters are trying to recall a historical fact about Second Age Heortlings, and one character has only a general "Heortling" cultural ability while the other actually has "Second Age History," the second gets a +6 bonus (his ability is narrow, the other’s is broad).  If the second character had a more general "History" ability, the GM might narrow his bonus to +3 instead.

Using an ability that the GM doesn’t think is applicable is called a stretch, and always receives a -6 penalty.

Results 
Contests always end in the same results; Complete Victory, Major Victory, Minor Victory, Marginal Victory, Marginal Defeat, Minor Defeat, Major Defeat, and Complete Defeat.  This is determined by whether or not you won and how much better your result was compare to an opponent’s.  Consequences are dealt out after the contest, never during.  Victory usually results in plot augments.  Defeat ends in penalties or even death.  In a combat situation, “death” might be literal.  In something like a poker game, “death” would be losing the shirt off your back.

The severity of consequences depends on where you are in the story.  Rising action results tend to be less punishing.  Climactic results are a bit more severe.  It is technically possible in the climax to defeat your opponent and then succumb to a deadly wound.

Hero Points

At the start of every session, each player gets three Hero Points.  These can be spent in game to “bump” a die result the same way a mastery does, or at the end of the session to raise an ability value by one point (or purchase a new ability at a starting value of 13).

WHY "HEROQUEST"

With the embarrassment of RPG riches that Chaosium now offers us to explore Glorantha, HQG probably remains my favorite.  Don't get me wrong; I love me some RuneQuest, and 13G is a wild ride.  But the kind of stories my players and I are interested in telling--sweeping sagas like the Iliad, Mahabharata, or even Game of Thrones--HQG delivers.  The rules allow the players to concentrate on role-play, focusing on personality, drive, and character "arc."  They allow me as the GM to tell sweeping stories that flow the way a novel would, to work on bringing to life the world and the NPCs (check out my posted scenarios for examples of the kind of stories HQG lets me tell).  To me, Glorantha is about stories, and HQG is the best tool I have to explore that.  Your Glorantha Will Vary, and if you like the gritty survival stories RQG excels at or the cinematic combats of 13G, those engines are perfect at what they do.  I've been a fan since Hero Wars, and for purposes of pure storytelling--Glorantha or otherwise--I have yet to find a gaming engine that works as well as HeroQuest does.   
         

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful. I hope the RQ revival is real and takes off, I am disgusted by D&D or pathfinder games of "kill them and take their stuff." Kep the light burning.

    ReplyDelete