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Setting Narrative Difficulty

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I was reading HeroQuest Glorantha (2e) and it had a section about how important it was to set difficulty based on how interesting success/failure would be for the narrative. Lets leave aside the pass/fail cycle AND any attempt to simulate realistic difficulty.

I'm confused about how this guideline helps me set the difficulty. I get it for the extremes - if it's something that MUST happen to move the story forward, then use a low difficulty, if it would short-circuit the story, then use a high difficulty (e.g., the player's one-shotting the campaign's antagonist in the first scene). But what about everything else? In general, what's interesting is for the players most of the time to "kind of" succeed (with some consequences, often a setback or a failure to achieve the primary goal) - if you look at most cool movies that's what happens. But how does that help me set the difficulty. Do I just always set it at some slightly high difficulty to get this effect? This can't possibly be how HeroQuest 2e works. I'm pretty sure I'm misunderstanding something here. 

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It is how HQ2 and HQG works, because the difficulty levels are purely based on narrative pacing.

If you think a scene feels more dramatic if the audience is 'nail-biting', then that's a high difficulty. If you think the story doesn't benefit one way or the other then it's a moderate or easy difficulty, so it doesn't slow the pacing down.  That's one way to play it.

The other way is to have ascending difficulty with each major scene, leading up to edge-of-the-seat climactic scenes.

It's a very GM subjective 'narrative' mechanic, rather than traditional GM objective 'simulation'.

You could easily play it more objectively, although that's not really the point of HQ.

If you're crossing the floor from RQ to HQG then I suggest to try it RAW first,.The games have two very different approaches to gameplay, with the only overlap being Glorantha as a setting. So it's not like preferring BRP for Glorantha as opposed to D&D in Glorantha. It's more about how the story is told, rather than what rules are preferred.

 

Edited by Mankcam
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So lets assume I'm playing it RAW (which I'm fine with). Aren't most scenes more interesting if they're nail-biting, so shouldn't I always make it more difficult. I'm not clear on how I know when to make a scene more exciting or not (unless it's trivial). I'm not arguing that HeroQuest is wrong, what I'm confused about is how I, the GM, know not to *ALWAYS* make it more difficult because 99.9% of scenes are always more interesting if they're nail-biting. You know, and other HeroQuest GM's know, i'm just not sure how I (gary) knows.

Edited by Archivist

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Well yeah I see what you mean, if it's not dramatic then there is no point rolling. Good point.

I guess it's more about whether you want a scene to be moderately challenging or highly challenging, that's pretty much about it.

Although perhaps in some genres you might actually want to portray things as being a walk-in-the-park for certain situations. I can see that happening if playing a pulp adventure like Indy Jones, or a light-hearted contemporary action game, like portraying Burn Notice, Magnum PI, James Bond 007 etc. Just a hand-wave saying 'you do this' may not feel very rewarding to the PCs, so at least an easy roll reminds them how pulpy they are. You'ld probably only do this in the earlier scenes, then increase the difficultly as you pace the story into more challenging scenes later on.

 

For the record, I'm not a big fan of HQG, I just feel that RQ suits the way I present Gloranthan characters better than how it is portrayed with HQG. I realy like down-and-dusty dirt-crawling, gladiatorial style melee combat, tactile hit locations, loot gathering and such. Challenges are objective and gritty.  Although they are central to the storyline, the PCs aren't the major heroes yet, they have to survive to get there. More like characters from the novels of Fritz Leiber, Joe Acrombie, Bernard Cornwall, or George Martin. They are not Achilles or Hercules yet, not even Conan, but have potential to be like them if they survive. So RQ ticks these boxes for me (well RQ2, RQ3, BGB certainly do - I'm unsure if RQG will capture this flavour. I may have to tweak it if the PCs start too powerful)

However if I want a highly pulpy and cinematic game like the ones I suggested earlier (Pulp Adventure, Action Flick, etc); then games with a more GM subjective/narrative focus like FATE or HQ2 certainly help portray these genres much better in my opinion.

These days I GM both styles, depending upon the troupe and genre.

Edited by Mankcam

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12 hours ago, Archivist said:

I was reading HeroQuest Glorantha (2e) and it had a section about how important it was to set difficulty based on how interesting success/failure would be for the narrative. Lets leave aside the pass/fail cycle AND any attempt to simulate realistic difficulty.

Personally, I rarely use the pass/fail cycle...

Breaking it down further, it's about how much the players are invested in what's going on, what their stake is. Look at the example on page 68. The examples weren't structured and the rolls fixed, they were all done spur of the moment so everything was fluid. The players really wanted to go and visit Cragspider so their stake was high. so it was definitely going to be a contest roll of some sort. Had they said "it would be cool to visit Cragspider, but if we can't we'll go to the Lhankor Why temple to do the research", i'd of let them talk it through. The visit to Cragspider was to do with a prophesy and Cragspider was the obvious choice. As soon as they involved the Queen, the story stakes increased. So now the story stake and the player stakes are high. Kris's Noble and Ambitious increased the tension of the meeting. If it had been any other character things would have been nowhere near so bad. I decided that the outcome that served the story best was for Samastina to fail with a public humiliation and leave with her tail between her legs. So the difficulty had to be a high, setting it at nearly impossible also had the desired effect of when it was revealed, the players were shocked - 14W2 (note that there's a small error in the example). I really did wonder if I'd overstepped the mark here after the dice were rolled. I though a simple marginal victory for myself would suffice. With the stakes high and the result dramatic, it really drove the players in the next scene (page 71&72).

The players themselves threw in all the obstacles - I just used them. Franziska threw in that they were going to be killed, Rick threw in Blue Moon Assassins. It was always going to be a contest, like all good TV shows the escape scene is played out no-one just leaves. I wanted to make the contest a little challenging, they had assassins after them, but didn't need to encounter them, the threat was enough to drive the scene. Escaping the city was a moderate group task (14). Obviously the players should escape, but to what degree of success was important, hence the moderate. Simple would have been too easy - there were assassins!

-----

Another simple example would be if the players needed to catch some rabbits to eat whist on the road having made camp. Is it a contest:

No. they just need to eat and it's an everyday thing. 

Yes. There is a search party after them and I want them to be aware of this. Simple contest, low difficulty.

Yes. There is a search party after them and I want one captured or wounded. Simple contest, moderate difficulty

Yes. Assassins are closing in on them, I want them scared, but to escape with some kind of loss. Simple contest, High difficulty.

 

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22 hours ago, Archivist said:

I'm confused about how this guideline helps me set the difficulty. I get it for the extremes - if it's something that MUST happen to move the story forward, then use a low difficulty, if it would short-circuit the story, then use a high difficulty (e.g., the player's one-shotting the campaign's antagonist in the first scene). But what about everything else? In general, what's interesting is for the players most of the time to "kind of" succeed (with some consequences, often a setback or a failure to achieve the primary goal) - if you look at most cool movies that's what happens. But how does that help me set the difficulty. Do I just always set it at some slightly high difficulty to get this effect? This can't possibly be how HeroQuest 2e works. I'm pretty sure I'm misunderstanding something here. 

I start from two critical points which are common to most narratives, whether novels or movies:  there's a Climax somewhere about half-way through and there's a final Resolution at the end.  Those are the points of critical action and they have to be challenging to be memorable and satisfy the narrative.  They need to be set at level that there is a way for the characters to win, and yet there is the chance that they will lose.  In all likelihood they will have to burn Hero Points (some or all) to win.  For me, these are always Extended Contests, and they will be tough.  And I have to understand what the heroes can likely do in the way of abilities with specific ability bonuses and augments so that I can put those two contests at the right difficulty.

Everything else works around those two points.  There should be obstacles beforehand that are too tough for them to deal with directly and they need to find another way.  There are events or incidents that tie in that are less dramatic and should be easier for the heroes to get through.  There may be interesting events or encounters before the Climax or Resolution, but if the goal is to move the story along, then there should be a good chance of success.  Or if the goal is to bring in a new twist, or new lead, then perhaps those are difficult but simple contests.

I don't find it most interesting for the players to always "kind of" succeed.  Those points do occur, but likely you never pay attention to the things they easily succeed at (because those go by quickly) or the things that present obstacles because they can't succeed at them.  Tension increases when these intermediary points vary and the characters feel like they are working towards those significant points of the story arc.

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21 hours ago, Mankcam said:

I just feel that RQ suits the way I present Gloranthan characters better than how it is portrayed with HQG. I realy like down-and-dusty dirt-crawling, gladiatorial style melee combat, tactile hit locations, loot gathering and such.

But even there, we as GM's are gauging difficulty levels and how to narrate the story.  We just do it in different ways.  For instance, I finished running the new RQG Broken Tower scenario recently.  In RQ, we use # of foes, their ability levels, and their frequency of arrival/interaction to set difficulty instead of abstracted levels.  It's a bit fuzzier though to get the right balance.  Go to too many foes, even with low ability levels, and you're likely to end up in a TPK situation.  Yes, that's a resolution, but not necessarily one that will keep a campaign going or give the players a feeling that they had a chance to win.

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22 hours ago, Archivist said:

Aren't most scenes more interesting if they're nail-biting, so shouldn't I always make it more difficult. I'm not clear on how I know when to make a scene more exciting or not (unless it's trivial).

No, they are not.  If everything is nail-biting, there's no climax, and no resolution.  It's just a constant set of difficult tasks.  They lose the story.  And that's really what the game (or a given session) is about:  they are part of a story.  A good story has a beginning, a middle, and an end.  How do you know you've achieved/finished the story?  How do you even know what the story is, if everything is the same?  

And it doesn't necessarily have to be you as GM setting the story.  @David Scott had a good example with the Samastina fleeing Nochet story.  The players set that story:  they wanted answers to a prophecy from Cragspider.  That part of the story turned into Escape from Nochet.  The resolution of that session was that they escaped and were on their way to visit Cragspider.  Just not in the way anticipated, so that formed merely the climax to a larger story.  In the larger story, they ended up visiting and overcoming Cragspider to gain the answers sought.  And there was a dramatic Resolution there.  But if the Queen was not an obstacle, but a difficult but feasible chance to succeed, then no dramatic tension in the escape.  Or they have to battle each and every step of the way.  There's a tough escape from Nochet.  Then there's a difficult passage through Beast Valley.  Then there's a difficult passage through the hostile Colymar lands.  Then they have to face a difficult Lunar mage or perhaps dragonewts who block their way.  Then they have to face Brangbane and his ghouls to move beyond.  And maybe there is a difficult battle with chaos to get through Snakepipe Hollow.  And then there's difficulty at Crabtown by Skyfall Lake to find someone to take them to Cragspider without being eaten...  And it's just a story about slogging your way through, if you even do.  What's interesting?  What's memorable?  Why does the meeting with Cragspider have any more meaning than encountering Brangbane or a Lunar mage?  

So, no, they don't become more interesting.  They actually get more boring because they all occur at the same level of tension and the broader story is lost.

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Loving this thread. Related to this, can I recommend Robin Laws' book Sharper Adventures in HeroQuest: Glorantha, one of the Kraken Chapbooks available from http://www.the-kraken.de/fundraiser.html

It's all about how to structure an adventure, and despite the title it's relevant to pretty much any rules system, since it's all about the storytelling and not about the rules.

 

 

Edited by Steve
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4 hours ago, Steve said:

Loving this thread. Related to this, can I recommend Robin Laws' book Sharper Adventures in HeroQuest: Glorantha, one of the Kraken Chapbooks available from http://www.the-kraken.de/fundraiser.html

It's all about how to structure an adventure, and despite the title it's relevant to pretty much any rules system, since it's all about the storytelling and not about the rules.

 

 

Thanks for the link.  Out of curiosity, why is the "Mother of Monsters' adventure the only one not available in pdf?  Or am I misreading it?

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3 hours ago, Revilo Divad Of Dyoll said:

Thanks for the link.  Out of curiosity, why is the "Mother of Monsters' adventure the only one not available in pdf?  Or am I misreading it?

As far as I can say, besides 'Mother of Monsters' the following chapbooks are also not (yet) available in PDF format:

  • No Way for a Lady to Behave
  • Meet the Parents
  • The Lady of Alone
  • A Brief Return to the Rubble

(all these are Griselda stories by Oliver Dickinson published as fund raiser chapbooks for this year's Kraken.)

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8 hours ago, Steve said:

I recommend Robin Laws' book Sharper Adventures in HeroQuest: Glorantha

From there it’s only a short step to Robin’s Hamlets hit points then Hill Folk and Drama System.

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Wow, I don't know why that link has shown up so huge, it's a bit disconcerting seeing Robin Laws face looming so large on this screen heh heh

Edited by Mankcam

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It also bears mention that resistance relatively close to the character's ability tends to pull the results towards Marginal or Minor contest results, while very low or very high resistance opens up greater chances of Major or Complete results. That can guide the choice as well, especially if you work "and/but" factors into the Marginals where appropriate.

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On 15/11/2017 at 11:11 PM, David Scott said:

From there it’s only a short step to Robin’s Hamlets hit points then Hill Folk and Drama System.

Thank you for reminding me (again!) about Hamlet's Hit Points, @David Scott. I bought that a while back and then forgot about it. I've started reading it now, very interesting.

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