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Hero Wars
Author: Issaries Inc.
Cost: $19.95+
Website: http://www.herowars.com/
Reviewed by: Ron Edwards, 2000-11-01


In the back of Cults of Terror, a RuneQuest supplement published by the Chaosium in 1981, I find the following "upcoming products" announcement: HeroQuest. A new FRP game compatible with but distinct from RuneQuest. The mighty of Glorantha enter the lands of myth and legend, penetrating the immortal stories to fight in the Gods War, to crusade against Chaos, or to aid the Lightbringers. A revolutionary concept and approach to myth, magic, and gaming. By Greg Stafford.

That was published 19 years ago, and to my knowledge, this game never appeared. We see its realization only now.

A review of Stafford's new role-playing game, Hero Wars, must take role-playing history into account. Stafford began to write and develop a mythic fantasy world called Glorantha back in the 1960s, and over the next decade his material was well-represented in wargaming products by the company called Chaosium. In 1975 or so, role-playing appeared on the hobby scene and the Chaosium crew lost no time in publishing RuneQuest, a fantasy RPG set in Glorantha.

The system, like almost all written during that time, was highly Simulationist. "Realism" ruled; no event could occur without a roll, and no roll could be interpreted without reams of tables and highly specific modifiers. Reading RuneQuest, and especially the intensely colorful and fascinating Glorantha-based supplements, was always a schizophrenic experience: on the one hand you have this great, weird, exciting setting, and on the other you have these squinty Strike Ranks and Magic Points and really, really picky rules.

(Side note: the system developed for RuneQuest was applied across several RPG genres; the only early one to survive today is Call of Cthulhu, with later-born notables including Pendragon, Elric!, and Nephilim. All of these stripped down the highly detailed system considerably.)

Over the next decade (bringing us up through the early 90s), the Chaosium joined the mondo-big game company Avalon Hill and a new RuneQuest was published, in which the rules were even more highly detailed. Glorantha played a decidedly smaller role in its little chapter in the back, although a whole slew of new and old Glorantha-based supplements were published as well.

(Another side note: in reading up on Glorantha, you'll notice a certain resemblance to WarHammer and Earthdawn - complex fantasy world, at least one cataclysm in the past and another approaching, encroaching chaos, combining politics and myth - that's because, in my opinion, both of these games frankly ripped off Glorantha in the first place.)

Now, everything's changed. I know nothing about any business or personal decisions or issues of the time, but the upshot is that Stafford now owns the Glorantha setting specifically through his new indie company, Issaries Inc., and enlisted the immensely talented and thoughtful Robin Laws (Feng Shui) to write the system - this new package is the new RPG, Hero Wars. It represents the full spectrum of epic fantasy, from young heroes struggling to find their place in the world, to near demi-gods questing into myth itself and even changing it.

Now, finally, for the review.

Part One: mainly for readers with no previous familiarity with this material
Hero Wars has a specific setting, the utterly non-historical fantasy world of Glorantha, which is highly influenced by Scandinavian epics, mid 20th-century fantasy fiction, and classical myth. It is nothing like the pseudo-Tolkien faux fantasy in AD&D and similar products. For the new reader, Glorantha is fascinating and original (in gaming terms; in literary terms its roots are highly recognizable), but it can also be overwhelming, especially since this massive background is implied and referred to in many places across the books. Questions abound: "What's a Lightbringer?" or "What's all this about broos?" or "Where the hell is Dragon Pass, anyway?" All of these are answered, in spots, but assimilating it might take a certain amount of note-taking on scratch paper as you read.
There is an economic crunch here that a Glorantha-newbie may find it impossible to avoid. There are the Hero Wars game book, the Narrator's Guide, the Guide to Glorantha, and Gloranthan Visions, a book of myths and stories. Then there are the Playbooks, each specific to a given culture. Although theoretically a group can get going with the one basic book alone, if the aspirant GM wants to "do it right," or even get enough to feel really grounded in the game-world at all, he or she might have to lay out about $85. I think this material is far superior to that presented by other games with similar outlay costs, but it's still a substantial investment.

The other big concern is, what to do? There are two basic kinds of play: human-level powers and problems, and mythic-heroic-level ones. In older fantasy RPGs, less-powerful characters have very explicit instructions and problems, and advanced or powerful characters find themselves flailing around (the usual solution is just to create bigger and badder foes). Hero Wars reverses this pattern, as a powerful character knows exactly what to do: Heroquest to the Other Side, joining and even influencing the stuff of myth. As I implied above, Hero Wars realizes Stafford's original intent to introduce the classic, mystic HeroQuest into role-playing. It takes myth and literature very seriously and utterly ignores the whole leveling-up paradigm. If you want to play at that demigod level, never mind the advancement and just start in directly. Rules and ideas for this mode of play are presented in some detail.

What if you want to play at a more human level? Here the goal is laid out in the Narrator's Guide: to form a Hero Band, a group of individuals and their followers who represent a unique solution to the controversies and battles that wrack the land, up to and including bringing an actual godling or god into reality. Again, this is so different from the usual run-around-kill-monsters model that it will leave traditional players baffled (which is good, frankly); what I wonder is how a GM unfamiliar with Glorantha will get this going. He or she must start with the geography, culture, and relationships of a given area of Glorantha (assumed in the rules to be Dragon Pass). The most important raw material is present in the various relationships, communities, and social roles represented by each player-character. If you're thinking in terms of old-style fantasy gaming, though, with "my guy" being "run through" a "dungeon," Hero Wars scenarios will be almost impossible for you. They occur within communities and are concerned with facing moral crises that arise from societal change.

As a newcomer to this stuff, what do you need to know? Characters are created using keywords, terms that carry with them baskets of skills and relationships and flaws. The most important are Culture, Occupation, and Magic, so that I might create a character as a Heortling Spirit-talker Kolati. Just by saying this, the guy has 15-20 skills and scores popped right onto the sheet. Using either a list or essay method, you (the player) just pile on a bunch more skills and attributes as you see fit. The character is highly "set" by his or her background, but you add whatever you like, making up what you'd like (there is no set skill list), up to and including followers, wealth, and nifty items. The numbers are added very simply later and are very easy - one number to one term (attribute, skill, item, or anything). No points, no math, no rolls, no allocation. A character is magic. Everything on Glorantha is magical and mystical. No one is a grunting, surly, atheistic sword-dude. There's no getting around it; your character has a personal, cultural, sincere tie to the beings that Give Life Meaning. Setting up these starting details is important and takes some thought: is the character a Theist, an Animist, a Sorcerer, or a Mystic? Given that, what sort? And given that, to what extent? And given that, how do you want to alter this situation during play? Answering these questions is the essence of Hero Wars role-playng at either level.

So much for the basic content; now for the system. I do not exaggerate to call Laws' new system a Great Leap Forward for role-playing Narrativism, perhaps as significant as Over the Edge was. It is a Fortune system, but utterly abandons Simulation as the goal. Historically, most new Fortune-based games follow the Fudge model, in which drama is welcomed but has no structure, and the Fortune is both very simple and very blind/mechanistic (Over the Edge, The Window, Risus). Here, the Fortune system is structured to maximize narrativism. This notion has been explored in Everway, Maelstrom, Sorcerer, and Swashbuckler (for combat), but here Laws has brought in powerful, original concepts. Most of them, not surprisingly, arise from his careful attention to how conflict is resolved in cinema.

The raw basics are deceptively familiar: roll d20, check against a target value; compare with the opponent's roll. There's no further rolling or checking, you and/or the opponent simply did really well, did OK, missed by an inch, or screwed the pooch. Same-old thing? No - because of two things.

First are the rather surprising modifiers that apply to any contest, including the simple method described above, which is called a Simple Contest in the rules. These modifiers include: bumping: shifting one's success upward by a category, either by expending Hero Points (experience points) or by having a high enough Mastery (rating) to be allowed augmentation: success on one roll (skill) leads to a positive bonus on the next (this is more profound than it looks, but I'll hold off on discussing it) carryover: the same concept as above, but applied to whole scenes rather than just sequential actions relationships and community: if you are carrying out a socially important act, that in and of itself provides both positive and negative modifiers (again, no one is an island in Glorantha.)

Second is the really shocking innovation, reserved for Extended (that is, really important) Contests. They are called Action Points, and they have NO mechanical role during combat at all. You bid them before acting, and that one roll's outcome might forfeit the bid, get you a big return, or even transfer them to the opponent. That is ALL the rolls do, just subtract Action Points or move them around.

What are these things? As long as they stay positive on both sides, they're just atmosphere; you basically "turn up the music" or "hog the camera" by bidding lots of points. Advantage during combat ebbs, flows, and shifts, based on who's got more Action Points at the moment. But when one or both sides go below zero, now you know who wins and who loses. Then, and only then, are the events of the combat interpreted, in retrospect. If you end up on top, that big loss in Action Points two rounds back turns out to have been just a scratch. But if you lost out in the end, wow, that wound you took two rounds back really did you in. (So! No hit points, no fatigue, no endurance, no magic points; all these are subsumed in this retrospective definition of what happened over four or five rounds of combat.)

Again, not all contests use this system. Many are resolved with the Simple method, in a single roll. But any conflict, whether physical, social, intellectual, or whatever, may be declared an Extended Contest if the GM or player feels it to be sufficiently important to the story. I was reminded of the movie Gladiator while trying this out, and I think there are only two Extended Contests in that movie: the ongoing social intrigue between the emperor and his sister, and the big one-on-one duel at the end. Everything else was a Simple Contest, resolved with one or two rolls.

Simulationists, accustomed to constructing an imaginary reality step by sequential step, may howl with rage at this idea. Does winning mean you took no damage at all? How about movement modifiers? Pre-empting a faster opponent by a desperate move? Wearing down or annoying the opponent? Weapons and armor differences? Teaming up? And, and, and? Laws' system does in fact take all this into account, but by modifying Action Points, NOT by adding new steps and rules to the system.

Yet another weird and wild innovation introduces the idea of followers, in that "extras" are treated basically as advantages to the "main guy's" rolls; they are not treated as characters in their own right with actions and rolls of their own. Does your merchant guy travel about with three brawny helpers? You roll only for your merchant guy in a fight, but he sure gets some kick-butt Action Point add-ons when these guys are around, perhaps far better than the fighter dude all on his lonesome. Obviously this technique cuts way down on play time in general, as a troll and his attendant trollkin are rolled for as a unit rather than as seven or eight individuals. It also creates kind of an interesting mini-GM effect for the players, as each may be controlling a band, rather than just one character. This idea is new enough for me to be unsure about its ultimate effects over long-term play - how much development of a follower is appropriate for a player? For a GM? Is it worth it, and if not, does having this little faceless "shadow extras" band diminish the individuality of the player-character? Interesting stuff.

I am only worried about one aspect of this system: its handling time (that is, given that the dice have hit the table, how long it takes to figure out what happens in the game). Laws' RPG design philosophy has never concentrated on minimizing handling time, and actually figuring the Action Points and their modifiers during play might be high-maintenance. Still, that follower business simplifies things considerably, and at least one is spending time on story rather than initiative modifiers, hit location, resisting shock, or any of that 80s-style stuff. (See below in Part Three about solutions to save time during play.)

A certain re-write of a certain well-known RPG has as its advertisement plug, "rediscover fantasy role-playing." I consider this phrase to apply far, far better to Everway, Maelstrom, and now to Hero Wars. If you think such a rediscovery is long overdue, and if (like me) you've found that most efforts have been unable to extricate themselves from the priorities dating back to 1975, then Stafford's game should be well worth your time.

Part Two: mainly for RuneQuest veterans
This game presents an amazing 180-turn in the basic philosophy of character design. In RuneQuest, you knew everything physical about your character to the most painstaking quantitative detail, but nothing in terms of his personality or status as a protagonist. In Hero Wars, you start with precisely those elements and let the other details simply spring from there. The best example of this is comparing the magic system: in RQ, spells were intensely detailed and codified into list after list, god after god, rule after rule. You had so many Magic Points to cast spells, so much POW to match them against targets, so much INT to store them, and each was categorized according to two or three parameters. Here, Theistic magic (the stuff most familiar to most of us veterans) is largely improvisational. Given the Runes and a few examples for each god, the player must actually explain how that desired effect fits with the mythology of the presiding deity. The Hero Wars rules for magic match the themes of Glorantha far better than the mechanistic RuneQuest system could ever hope to.

(One might say, "Hey, that's like Everway magic in some ways " but then recall that Jonathan Tweet, author of Everway, cut his role-playing teeth on Glorantha material in the first place.)

Also, the RuneQuest material kept player-characters in the wastelands, hellholes, and outskirts of Glorantha, doing dungeon-style stuff like killing Chaos things, collecting Clacks, and building one's skills up to Rune level. This theme (or value-system) is utterly absent in Hero Wars. Instead, the "level" of play is up to you from the beginning, and the focus is strictly on resolving mystically and politically significant problems in and within human communities. The general arena for suggested play has moved out of Prax and into Dragon Pass. Chaos per se is not presented as the central villain, as most of the violence around Glorantha is presented as arising from the conflict of interests in each place.

Given this focus, local and general cultures must be highly emphasized, and the books (once you get them all) really deliver. Not only are the wonderful old essays from, say, Cults of Terror presented again, but also much new stuff, and at long last much is revealed about the Lunar Empire (the Red Goddess turns out to be a daughter of Yelm - yikes!) and the sorcerous cultures of western Genertela. Many areas are partly left to be developed during play, up to and including highly medieval stories of nobles and crusades in the west, to mystic martial-arts wuxia in the east.

Getting a look at the religious panoply across the whole of Genertela yields some insights that never did get well expressed in the detail-heavy, pattern-light RuneQuest material. For instance, to the Orlanthi of Dragon Pass, Ernalda is the wife of Orlanth; to the Esrolians, she's the Great Goddess and Orlanth is one of her many paramours; to the Praxians, she's the wife of the King of Beasts; and to the Lunars, she's not only another daughter of Yelm but also one of the Seven Mothers of the Red Goddess! Another example is that the term "Gbaji" is applied to Nysalor by some peoples, but to his foe Arkat by others. Stafford has been especially clever in making each religious system use the same or similar bits and pieces, reflecting the historical contacts and re-castings of the old stories by the various cultures.

The difference in actually playing combat is remarkable as well imagine an old RuneQuest game in which our band of heroes has finally tracked down a Theddite shaman and his scungy broo crew, engaged in some hideous Chaos ritual. Can you imagine playing this out? Easily three hours of table-scanning, strike rank counting, movement-unit adjusting, chart-checking, and adding and subtracting. I just reviewed those rules, and to resolve one single weapon swipe or spell-cast requires rolling upwards of four times, plus cross-referencing many of the values to something or other. Nearly all of this time is dedicated to resolving (1) the order of announced actions and (2) the effects of successful actions. In Hero Wars, these very issues are resolved nearly instantly without being arbitrary. There may be a bit of Action Point negotiation, but (as in Swashbuckler) the action flows and resolves much faster. The same combat might take under half an hour, and given the player's freedom to define the character's commitment to this fight as it plays, it's far more satisfying to all concerned in story terms.

Part Three: how it really runs
As I mentioned above, the very rich setting approaches overkill in terms of options and breadth, plus hints of detail. My players floundered at first, seeing way too many things to do and not enough about any of them. I went ahead and simply decreed the exact spot on Glorantha for play and precisely what cultures and concerns are going on at that moment. Magic presented the toughest part for them; since there are upwards of thirty deities to choose from to define one's magic in Dragon Pass alone (more like 100 across the northern continent of Glorantha), I found it was good for the player to begin with a culture and occupation, building an image of the person and his or her approach to life, and only then to choose the god or other magic path from that culture that fits the image best.

I spent a huge amount of time to set up an actual scenario, although whether that's in spite of or due to my knowledge of the setting, I don't know. I photocopied tons of maps from older versions of the game, I made up a bunch of local myths in Orlanthi-style prose, and I built an appalling history of the feuds and concerns of one little clan. It was work! I would much rather have had the Sartar scenario pack in the Deluxe Edition rather than the Gloranthan Visions book, which is all right but not practically very useful.

The only other concern is a warning about the system: use Extended Contests sparingly! The players, wanting to unload all their Action Point whup-ass at every turn, must be reined in. Use Simple Contests for just about everything, and save that bidding stuff for the real battles and heart-breaking intrigues. Augmenting and Bumping offer so much potential, just with Simple Contests, that you can really afford to save the Action Point method for very rare occasions.

On the plus side, I've been wanting to play Glorantha-stuff for twenty years, put off each time by the RuneQuest system, and therefore my enthusiasm about Hero Wars has communicated itself to the players. They've responded by making the most solid PCs I've seen from them yet, and I anticipate this session lasting well beyond my usual one-story run.

Part Four: final thoughts
(1) My most major concern is whether the story will be told for us over time, as in Vampire and L5R, in which case Glorantha will be something we can witness but not create. The scenario book enhances this concern, as the player-characters may participate in a pre-arranged plot event, specifically the appearance of a dragon during the armed conflict in Sartar. I really, really hope that 1620 or so, or whenever it is that the dragon unearths itself, remains the last year in the canon, so that working out the various issues remains with the individual play groups rather than with some official line of fiction. The rules do give some weight to this hope, based on how Heroquesting permits even the mythic canon to be altered somewhat, such that conceivably a play group might end up with a unique modification of the mythology.

(2) A fair amount of Glorantha material is, if not tongue-in-cheek, at least funny. I can see a tendency on my part to emphasize the serious, mythic, blood-and-passion side of it all, but that short-changes the humor. Examples include those silly Ducks, the Ernalda's priestess' magic feats like "Think-of-the children Cajole," some of the funkier cultures which are solid satires of other games or fiction, and a lot of the names. If your role-playing bent is toward the humorous, there's more working material for it in Hero Wars than I've implied in this review.

(3) The books don't say a word about it, but the general philosphies of play and especially magic might serve wonderfully for a Do It Yourself setting using the Hero Wars magic system. It lends itself very nicely to slicing out a specific bit and really delving into it. Personally I would like to try a modern setting using only Animism (this would parallel Sorcerer), or go for fantasy martial arts using the Mysticism rules.

(4) Glorantha is one of the only two settings to survive from the early days of this entire hobby (the other is Tekumel). Now, it is owned by its author. He owns the company. That setting is now joined with an innovative system, and Hero Wars stands in the ranks of independent role-playing games. For Greg Stafford, should he be reading this review, from a self-styled champion of indie-RPGs: WELCOME, FRIEND! WELCOME!

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