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Monday, 17 July 2017

HeroQuest in Glorantha

HeroQuest Glorantha reunites Glorantha—the Bronze Age setting in which the player characters aspired to join the great religious cults of the Lightbringers and other gods and become heroes in the war to come against the invading Lunar Empire, with HeroQuest—the narrative, drama driven roleplaying system first seen in Hero Wars. Published in 2000 by Issaries, Inc., Hero Wars would be developed into HeroQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha into 2003, with a third edition, simply called HeroQuest, being released in by Moon Design Publications in 2009. This version of HeroQuest presented the rules as a generic set of mechanics with relatively little reference to Glorantha.

Published in 2015, HeroQuest Glorantha integrates the mechanics of the third edition of HeroQuest with the setting of Glorantha to present a roleplaying game in which the faithful worshippers of the Lightbringers and other gods and demi-gods in the area known as Dragon Pass campaign against the occupying forces from the Lunar Empire to the north. The Lunar Empire is regarded as aberrant because it worships Chaos and because it wants bring all lands under the glare of the Red Moon. Whilst it is possible to play Lunar characters—and play them as the heroes rather than the villains—this is not focus of player characters in HeroQuest Glorantha. Rather, the player characters are of heroes to be in the uprising against the Lunar Empire, who in worshiping the gods are allowed to wield part of the power granted to the gods by the Runes, the underlying elements of the universe. Each Rune grants power over a particular aspect of the universe—Air and Fire, Movement and Truth, Man and Spirit, Luck and Mastery, and so on—to bring about great effects and power great changes and so help achieve their objectives. In doing so, they will come to embody the very gods themselves!

HeroQuest Glorantha is supported by the narrativist, storytelling driven mechanics of HeroQuest created by Robin D. Laws, under which the possible outcomes of any action—sneaking past the palace guard, seducing the governor's daughter, rifling the governor’s safe, persuading the governor to support your cause, and so on—are explicitly framed and set before any dice are rolled. Both the player undertaking the action and the Game Master will be rolling the dice. The player will be rolling against one of his character’s abilities, which can be an ability, his homeland or culture, an object, an occupation, a relationship, a Rune, and so on. Each ability is a rated by a number between one and twenty. For example, The Gift of Tongues 17, Esrolian 16, The Glittering Eye 13, Gruff Farmer 17, Loyal to the Chief 18, Air 19, and so on.

Although the Game Master might be rolling against similar abilities for an NPC—especially if he is an important NPC that the Game Master has created—the likelihood is that he will be rolling against a Difficulty Level representing an obstacle or abstract force, for example, a great height that needs scaling, a community’s unwillingness to go to war, or a raiding party from a rival tribe. The value of the Difficulty Level is determined not by some pre-set value, but by the needs of the story and whether it is dramatically appropriate for the character to succeed or fail at that point. The Difficulty Level begins at a base of fourteen and will rise as a campaign proceeds, but will constantly be adjusted up or down according to the needs of the story.

The GM and player will each roll a twenty-sided die and compare the results to their respective abilities, results of twenty being a fumble and one being a critical success. In some contests, a simple success/failure outcome will suffice. 
For example, Farnan, son of Venharl, is a Sartar rebel who has sworn vengeance against Hurbios Crestfallen, a Lunar commander with a reputation for the harsh treatment of the Sartarite peoples under his control, including Farnan’s parents. Farnan has heard rumours that Hurbios is hiding in a nearby villa until he can make his escape north. Farnan decides that he wants to get into the villa and find out if the rumours are true. The GM decides that it would be easy for Farnan to get into the villa, the dramatic challenge should be whether he gets noticed or not. He decides to set the Difficulty Level at moderate or equal to the current base, which is 14. They frame the contest that if Farnan succeeds, he enters the villa unnoticed and finds Hurbios, but if he fails, Farnan will be found by some guards before finding Hurbios. Farnan’s player decides that he will use Farnan’s ability of Clan Huntsmen 17. The GM rolls 15 and fails, but Farnan rolls 12 and succeeds. This enough for Farnan to get into the villa and locate the rooms where his quarry is hiding. 
For other contests, though, it will be important to know what the margin of success will be—Marginal, Minor, Major, or Complete Victory. So, in the previous example, Farnan’s Success would be compared to the GM’s Failure to give a margin of success of Minor Victory. This would be narrated as Farnan succeeding, but noting that the guards will find signs of his entry into the villa. Just not yet though…

One of the aspects of HeroQuest is that it is scalable, so ability ratings can go above twenty. This is expressed as degrees of Mastery or W—the W representing both the Mastery Rune and the ability rating above twenty. So 3W is the equivalent of 23. Masteries are important, because along with Hero Points, they can be used to affect, or ‘bump’, the results of a die roll up or down—bump up to improve a die roll and bump down to weaken an opponent’s die roll. This can be done with Masteries or Hero Points. 
Continuing the previous example, Farnan, son of Venharl has sneaked into a villa where the man he has sworn vengeance against for killing his parents, Hurbios Crestfallen, is hiding. Farnan confronts Hurbios and Farnan’s player declares that he will attempt to capture Hurbios and bring him before the tribe for judgement. Looking over Farnan’s abilities, his player can see that he has Air Rune 1W and Sartarite Rebel Warrior 3W, having fought several battles against the Lunar invaders. The GM knows that capturing the killer of his parents and bringing him before the tribe would be a major achievement for Farnan. Therefore, the Difficulty Level should be dramatically appropriate. The GM sets the Difficulty Level for capturing Hurbios at a Hard resistance, which is equal to the base +6. Since the base is currently fourteen, this sets the Target Number at twenty. Both Farnan’s player and the Game Master rolls a twenty-sided die. As Farnan has a Mastery of 3W in Sartarite Rebel Warrior, his player is rolling against 3. He rolls 2, which is a Success. The GM rolls for Hurbios and gets a 19. This is under 20 and is also a Success. Because Hurbios has the higher roll and both contestants have the same level of success, Hurbios would win, but Farnan’s Mastery grants him an advantage. Farnan has 3W and Hurbios has 20, so Farnan has one level Mastery over Hurbios, which enables his player to bump Farnan’s Success up to a Critical Success. Comparing Farnan’s Critical Success versus Hurbios’ Success gives the result of a Minor Victory. The Game Master Farnan gets the stakes as framed—defeating his opponent—and no more. (Had the outcome given a better Margin of Victory, Farnan might have been able to force a confession from Hurbios at spear point.) Farnan’s player narrates how Farnan confronts his parents’ killer, shouting that the Lunars have lost in Sartar and demanding that Hurbios Crestfallen give himself up. The Lunar soldier at first refuses, but he cannot defend himself against the flurry of blows that Farnan delivers before they drive him to the floor. 
At its heart, HeroQuest is a simple enough system and its core mechanic covers physical actions, tests of knowledge, social interaction between player character and NPCs, as well as combat. Mechanically, the rules do get more complex with group and extended tests, both used in key, dramatically appropriate scenes. These might include negotiation between an Issaries merchant and a Praxian tribal chief for trading rights, a major clash between Sartarite militia and an uppity Trollkin raiding party, or participating in a heroquest to both prove your worthiness to your god and to reinforce the validity of his mythology. For the most part though, simple contests are used unless it is dramatically appropriate, in climatic confrontation, for example.

Further mechanics define the creation and handling of communities in HeroQuest Glorantha. This can be a tribe, kingdom, temple, mercenary company, clan, guild, and so on, and represents the organisation that the heroes belong to or have ties to. Each community possesses five types of resource—wealth, communication, morale, war, and magic—that the heroes can draw upon, but other times bolster and support. At other times, they are great sources of roleplaying. As is the guide to heroquesting, in some ways the eponymous point of the game in which the heroes journey into myth and after facing a number of great challenges and tests, bring back magic of the Gods Age, the period before Time was imposed on the world.

HeroQuest Glorantha supports and explains these mechanics with some very nicely done examples, many of them drawn from the ongoing backstory of the HeroQuest period as detailed in Prince of Sartar. These examples also show how HeroQuest can handle certain situations and scales, so there is not only a negotiation, but also political manoeuvring on a city scale, a heroquest, and a military battle. These examples are also entertaining as well as showcasing how the rules work.

In comparison to HeroQuest, advice for the GM in HeroQuest Glorantha is actually quite light. Primarily, this consists of advice on handling conflicts and action in a dramatic effect, especially with a view to climatic resolution, and structuring scenarios and campaigns to that end using a pass/fail cycle. This is a chain of dramatic obstacles that the characters will have to overcome in the course of an adventure, with passes giving the heroes an advantage in facing the next obstacle and then again, with failures giving them a disadvantage and then. Ultimately, the chain of failures will be overcome and the player characters will be able to build back up with passes. There is also a good section on gaming in Glorantha and creating adventures that includes a scenario outline or two, but most of the advice pertains to HeroQuest rather than Glorantha specifically. Much of this advice is explored at greater length in HeroQuest—which is worth referencing for that reason—but ultimately, the advice for the GM (and sometimes the players) in HeroQuest Glorantha comes down to ‘Five Principles of Gaming’, one each from the luminaries of Chaosium, Greg Stafford, Sandy Petersen, Jeff Richard, Neil Robinson, and Rick Meints. In fact, there is very little in HeroQuest Glorantha that the players should not know because as players they will benefit from knowing the rules and because their characters will know about the world of Glorantha.

To create a Hero in HeroQuest Glorantha—and it is a Hero rather than a character—a player assigns a number of values to various keywords and abilities. These begin with a distinguishing characteristic and an occupational keyword before adding a cultural keyword, determining the hero’s community, adding some flaws, and so on. Three of them are the Runes which reflect the hero’s personality, how he does magic, the god he worships and the cult e belongs to. Some of these keywords can be ‘Breakout’ abilities, specialised abilities keyed off a broader ability. Whilst mechanically it is an easy enough process, conceptually, it is more challenging because of its freeform nature. That said, the process is helped by examination of the possible Cultural, Community, and Occupational Keywords, Runes and how they reflect a character’s personality, abilities, flaws, and so on. At each step, it presents one more aspect of the setting and how it relates to a character, so drawing the player and the character into Glorantha and preparing both for play. The process is helped by several examples of character generation, again drawn from Prince of Sartar.

Hero: Heidrik of Prax, Appraising Merchant
Trade Rune 2W
        Gift of Tongues +1
Movement Rune 1W
        Maps show the way +1
Air Rune 13

Keywords & Abilities

Merchant 2W
        Read & Write +1
        The Value of Everything +1

Heortling Culture 13

Distinguishing Characteristic
        Fair Minded 17

Reluctant Praxian Militiaman 13

Remaining Points: 2

As to Glorantha itself, a large amount of HeroQuest Glorantha is dedicated to the setting, specifically that of Dragon Pass during the period of the Lunar invasion and the Sartarite uprising. It starts off with an overview of Glorantha before explaining the nature of the various types of Runes—elemental, power, form, and condition—before delving into the geography and history of Dragon Pass. The importance of the Runes comes into play with a lengthy examination of magic and cults in Glorantha. The discussion looks at three types of magic—Spirit, Rune, and Sorcery, but tends to favour the first two, although it possible to play a Sorcerer. It is here that the importance of the Runes and Cults comes to the fore, an importance that cannot be underestimated since much of a hero’s fate and beliefs are strongly tied to both. Six allied cults—Ernalda, Issaries, Humakt, Lankor Mhy, Orlanth, and Waha—are presented in detail, examining in turn each cult’s Runes, its mythos and history, how it is organized, what it likes and dislikes, who its enemies are, the requirements to be a lay member, an initiate, a devotee, and so on, as well as the feats commonly associated with the cult. These feats replicate a god’s mythic deed, for example, ‘The Thunderer’, associated with Orlanth via the Air rune brings thunder and gales with each step as the devotee literally channels Orlanth.

A notable inclusion alongside the discussion of the six allied cults is that of Lunar magic employed by the Lunar Cults such as the Seven Mothers cult. It is reviled outside of the Lunar Provinces because of its willingness to use the powers of Chaos—the powers of entropy and the void. This enables the Game Master to present the enemy on a footing equal to that of the player characters, in both mechanical and narrative terms. It also allows a player to create a Lunar player character should he so desire and should a campaign allow for it, but both Lunar magic and Seven Mothers Cult are more complex than the other magical and cultic options presented in HeroQuest Glorantha. They are probably best played by more experienced players rather than someone coming to Glorantha for the first time.

Rounding out HeroQuest Glorantha is a short bestiary which covers the creatures of the setting, Dragon Pass in particular. These are primarily the Elder Races—the Aldryami (Elves), Dragonewts (Draconic Lizardmen), Mostali (Dwarves), and Uz or Men of Darkness (Trolls), but a number of the Lesser Elder Races and other creatures are also mentioned. The former include Baboons, Ducks, and Tusk Riders, the latter dinosaurs and dragons. None of these have stats since how the Game Master uses them is as obstacles that the player characters can overcome. Unfortunately, the level of detail accorded to each is light, so creating more interesting obstacles and NPCs will be a challenge for the Game Master.
The appendices cover goods, a glossary, a bibliography, amongst other things.

Physically, by contemporary standards, HeroQuest Glorantha is a slim rulebook. Its layout is clean and tidy if plain, but this is leavened by some lovely pieces of artwork, many of them in full colour, that help bring Glorantha and Dragon Pass to life, including several pages taken from Prince of Sartar. Initially, the book feels a bit ponderous, but it quickly settles down into a readable fashion. Physically—and conceptually—there is one aspect of HeroQuest Glorantha that does irk and that is the line on the back-cover blurb which states that “Glorantha is the most elegant, original, and imaginative fantasy setting since Middle Earth.” It is not that Glorantha is not elegant, is not original, is not imaginative. There is nothing wrong with these terms or with the description. Rather that it should be amended to “Glorantha is one of the most elegant, original, and imaginative fantasy settings since Middle Earth.” just as “Tékumel: The World of the Petal Throne is one of the most elegant, original, and imaginative fantasy settings since Middle Earth.” is also a reasonable claim.

What issues there are with HeroQuest Glorantha, are really only minor. The most obvious one is that it is very much a humancentric roleplaying game, both in terms of what you can play and what the NPCs will be. This is understandable because it ties the player characters into the magic and the cults, but some players will be disappointed that they cannot play Aldryami or Mostali, for example. Likewise, the Game Master’s options in terms of foes are limited by the lack of means for fleshing them out and detailing such creatures beyond obstacles. Another issue is the lack of information about Glorantha and Dragon Pass. What there is though, is broad in nature and does at least provide a more than serviceable introduction to the setting, especially when coupled with the background about the cults and the gods, but the reader cannot escape the feeling that there is much, much more to know and learn about the setting. Of course, HeroQuest Glorantha cannot equal the gargantuan and definitive The Guide to Glorantha, but there is no easy next step to learn more. This is not to say that there are no supplements for HeroQuest Glorantha. Both Sartar: Kingdom of Heroes and Pavis: Gateway to Adventure are available and are possible next steps, but they are both lengthy, daunting tomes. Hopefully, the release of The Coming Storm: The Red Cow, Volume 1 will serve as that next step, especially in support of the forthcoming The Eleven Lights campaign. Lastly, as a ‘Culture’ game, a roleplaying game where a player character’s background, upbringing, and attitudes play as much a role as his personality, HeroQuest Glorantha could have been stronger, especially in terms of providing the cues and attitudes for the cultures offered in its pages.

The HeroQuest rules are a solid set of narrative mechanics which given their origins have always felt as if they should be tied to Glorantha and in HeroQuest Glorantha, they are. Of course, HeroQuest included a chapter on Glorantha, but in HeroQuest Glorantha, the setting benefits from the greater space given to it, whilst the mechanics benefit from being applied to the one setting and from being supported by the numerous applied and well-executed examples. Best of all are the presentations of Glorantha’s Runes and cults, the latter in particular providing an accessible means of stepping into the Glorantha and its background. Above all, HeroQuest Glorantha brings together everything that a game set in Glorantha needs to get started, especially in terms of the cults—something that Glorantha has not always benefited from—and does so in one well written book.


With much thanks to Ian Cooper, Tim Ellis, and Dan Happens for their advice and input on this review.