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Improving Your GamesMastering of AHQ


By Dominic Camus, December 1998.


The Best Game Ever ?

It might be a controversial statement, but I think I would happily go on record
as saying that Advanced Heroquest is the best fantasy roleplaying game ever
published. Many distinguished fellow members of the roleplaying world would no
doubt raise their eyebrows at this point and inquire politely as to why ( well,
OK, no they wouldn't, most of them would shout 'rubbish' or something similar
but less polite ).

The reasons for the statement are simple : The game is set in GW's Warhammer
world background which is a rich and detailed setting. Secondly, the game has
a combat system which is simple and fast, yet also interesting and varied. In
fact all of the game's rules meet that description. It has a colourful magic
system ( no pun intended... well maybe just slightly intended ) which is well
balanced relative to the other aspects of the game. On top of all this, AHQ
can also be quite strategic at times which is a great asset even for those
with no interest in wargames because it gives the combat sequences a tension
they might otherwise lack.

In fact none of these things are the focus of the arguments. What AHQ's critics
care about is what the game is *missing*... or at least what they think it is
missing. The sections that follow are my attempt to prove these people wrong !

 

Interaction
There are a lot of different aspects to any good roleplaying game, but many
experienced roleplayers agree that interaction between characters is amongst
the most important, both GM controlled characters and other heroes. This kind
of thing is what is missing from computer 'roleplaying' games ( which are
actually nothing of the sort ).

It's easy to see why people would get the impression that there is none of this
sort of thing in AHQ. Take a look at 'The Shattered Amulet', the starting
scenario that appears in the AHQ rulebook... The episode in the magic maze ends
with the heroes being asked a very difficult riddle by Gragoth. However the
scenario states that Gragoth is 'tired of his disembodied existence and wishes
to cast his soul into oblivion' and so he will allow the heroes as many chances
to guess the riddle as they wish. Instead of this tedious process it might be
far better to let the heroes persuade Gragoth if they cannot solve his riddle !
Imagine the possible conversation :

 

Magnus: "A child's riddle such as this will not prove us worthy. Besides, you
serve the forces of chaos, I would never trust one such as you to
keep a promise - you have already betrayed all of humanity !"

Sven: "Where are you hiding you coward ? Show yourself !"

Gragoth: <laughs> "I cannot. My body has long since been eaten by worms. All I
am now is a spirit, bound within this maze."

Magnus: "If your dark gods have bound you here then why do you continue to serve
them ? Is your will so weak that you submit to this torture ?"

Gragoth: "My servitude lasts only until the amulet is claimed by those who are
worthy, then I will have earned my rest."

Heinrich: "We have fought our way through your maze, sorceror ! We have already
proven ourselves worthy. Give us the amulet and rest now."

Gragoth: "I tire of this. Very well, you may have the amulet. How little you
understand the consequences of your actions." <laughs and is gone>

 

Much better, I'm sure you'll agree. And, of course, 'the Shattered Amulet' is a
scenario designed to be run by novice GMs and so is mostly just simple combat.
Once you are an expert with the basics of the game you can create your own
adventures with far more scope for interesting and varied characters.

Conversation with 'monsters' is only half of it ( I keep putting that word in
quotes to remind you that not all 'monsters' are monstrous, more about this
later ). The players should be encouraged to talk amongst themselves as though
they were their characters. This is something players of other games will be
familiar with and is often called 'roleplaying in character'. In the rulebook
( it's on page 6 in my copy ) there's a conversation between the heroes in one
of the story sections - Torallion and Sven trading insults, perhaps to keep
their minds from the terrible dangers ahead as they approach the first dungeon.
As a GM you should encourage your players in this by requiring them to resolve
things like division of treasure and exploration strategy entirely in character.

To start with all this may seem like a lot of hard work, but believe me it's
worth it. Also it's a great excuse to get more of the feel of the Warhammer
world into your games, not just the bits of it miles under the ground !

 

Atmosphere
You know that feeling when you've been watching a really good movie and then it
finishes and you feel your thoughts and emotions slowly returning to the real
world ? That's how you know the story had strong atmosphere. This kind of thing
is hard to achieve in games because you don't have millions of dollars to spend
on special effects. However it's surprising what can be achieved with a bit of
practise. I've played in some roleplaying games run by some truly outstanding
GMs - mostly not AHQ, but there are a few tricks they use which work just as
well in an AHQ game and can really bring it to life.

The first important trick is good description. No matter how well painted your
miniatures are and no matter how much you like the board pieces that came with
your AHQ set, they just aren't all that evocative. Even if you're not a great
writer, just make a few notes about what different areas of your dungeon are
like. It's best to try to be original without being too over the top... so
"the thick wooden boards of the floor are badly rotted making the footing
treacherous and giving the air a heavy dank smell" is OK, but "the floor of the
hall is entirely covered with discarded beer tankards" is probably too silly to
be atmospheric even if the room was supposed to be an old dwarf feasting hall.

Incidentally, as far as your miniatures go, don't worry too much if you aren't
a skilled painter. The important thing is to paint all your miniatures - bare
plastic or metal looks much worse. Try to paint them all to the same standard or
the worse ones will stand out.

The next trick is pace. Contrary to what some GMs ( and some movie directors )
seem to think, fast pacing all the time is usually not good. Exciting action
scenes work best when the heroes have been through a lot of calm and quiet just
beforehand... or maybe peaceful encounters, which are often highly underused in
AHQ ( a chance for some interaction - see the previous section ). Once the
action starts, though, don't let the players pause for breath. It helps if you
have plenty of dice so that players don't have to pass things around too much.
Adding description to combats is good too, but keep it short. Also, avoid
describing every kill - "you smash through the skaven's shield and break its
arm, then knock it to the floor" might sound cool the first time ( if you like
that sort of thing ) but the heroes will be killing dozens of foes and it gets
silly after a while. The best use for commentary in combat is to explain
random quirks of the dice : "you hear Magnus cry out and as you look round your
opponent seizes its chance and cuts past your guard". Above all, try to keep
the 'out of character' aspects of combat such as rules details and calculating
damage and things to a minimum. This is quite easy once all your players know
the game well and in the last AHQ game I ran I even ran most of the fights
without wound counters ( remembering hits scored or noting them on a pad of
paper ).

The distinction between exploration turns and combat turns in AHQ gives the GM
a natural way to handle pace. Things like traps and ambush counters help too,
so make the most of them - don't always play them when they'll hurt the heroes
the most, play them when it seems appropriate.

If you're feeling ambitious then another worthwhile thing to do is to use
background music. A lot of gamers seem to play games with their favourite band
blasting out of their stereo system in the background, which isn't what I mean
at all. Music shops these days have loads of stuff which works a lot better
for atmosphere. Movie soundtracks are often good, because that's what they were
written for in the first place. Some kinds of classical music are ideal if you
know what to look for ( particularly the more military-sounding pieces ). Often
best of all is if you can get hold of modern music with no lyrics at all, some
of which is designed to be used as background music anyway. Once you've got
the music you need the trick is to make sure you use it appropriately. Match
specific tracks to specific dungeons or locations. Make sure you can control
the music easily ( a CD player with programmable tracks is ideal ) and don't
mess around with it in the middle of a tense scene. Lastly, make sure it's quiet
enough that it's easy to talk and be heard !

The last atmosphere tip is so important I think it needs a section of its own...

 

Variety
One of the nice things about AHQ is that a group of beginners can open up the
box and find everything they need to play a really good adventure. The problem
starts a few weeks later when the heroes are still battling away against hordes
of - you guessed it - skaven.

Investing in more miniatures will solve this immediate problem, but the
challenge of maintaining variety is something that never goes away. In fact, it
actually becomes harder the more games you run with the same players ! In
movies, books and even comics the same problem exists - and doesn't always get
dealt with either. The only thing you can do is to at least make the effort to
try new things.

The first step, which most experienced AHQ GMs do already, is to invent your
own new traps, magic items, monsters and things of that kind. When making up
magic items and monsters, try to fit them into your existing game world as much
as possible. If your adventure has a skeleton champion in it, why not make him
the undead form of the lost Tilean knight whose statue was in the castle the
heroes visited in the previous episode ? Perhaps the champion is wielding a
crude club, which leads the heroes to wonder where his legendary magical sword
is...

Another thing well worth doing is to sometimes tweak the rules a little bit. Do
your players ignore everything in their relentless search for the stairs down ?
Try having a dungeon level where there are no stairs down. The only way down is
to climb down the well in the North hall. The well in the South hall leads down
too, but it's very heavily guarded. The well in the East hall is blocked with
rubble and the one in the West hall leads to a dead end dungeon level which was
walled off to prevent the ghouls that live there from escaping. How can the
heroes find the way down ? The scribe who accompanied the Tilean knight made a
map. Unfortunately he was killed in the pit trap beyond the false gateway. The
body is still there, though and his knapsack can be seen from the top of the pit
if anyone feels brave enough to climb down.

Once these sorts of straightforward things are second nature to you, try being
a bit more ambitious. Get some thick card from an art shop and make a few new
board sections of your own. If any of the rooms you make are interesting shapes
then they may sometimes be hard to connect to the map, so make a few small
connector pieces for that purpose. Once you start doing your own boards there
is no reason to set every adventure in a dungeon. Try a large castle next, which
are quite similar. Next, have a go at a village - you'll need to draw a grid on
a few really big card rectangles to represent open space, then place the normal
AHQ board sections on top to represent buildings. The only thing to avoid is
really huge open spaces since you have to explain away the fact that the heroes
cannot see beyond the edge of your playing area.

Oh yeah, and then there's the whole 'monsters' thing. The heroes' opponents
really don't have to be monsters at all. The generic term for roles taken by the
GM is not 'monsters' but 'NPCs'. NPC stands for 'Non-Player Character'. NPCs
are actually mentioned in the rulebook under 'Hazards', but there is plenty of
scope for whole scenarios based around NPCs ( and no I don't just mean maidens,
witches, rogues and so on like in the rulebook ). After all, the Empire and
Brettonia fight wars all the time in Warhammer Fantasy Battle, so that could
make an interesting theme for an adventure or even a campaign.

 

Tricks of Style
Oops, almost lost the plot there, let's get back to what I was originally
talking about. Are there really any major weaknesses of AHQ compared to other
roleplaying games ? I think it should be clear by now that all the things you
need for a good adventure can either be found in AHQ already or can be easily
added. What this still leaves is the question of style. To put it another way
( perhaps more provocatively ) is AHQ just a game for kids ? The answer is
that it isn't, all that is needed is for GMs to adapt the style of their games
to the preferences of their players.

Style in any artistic medium ( and I'm one of those people who classes true
roleplaying as art ) is a matter of personal preference. On the other hand if
I sit here trying to be too general then none of you will be able to work out
what on earth I'm talking about. So, I'm going to do it via examples and if you
don't like them then make up your own... which is something well worth doing
anyway.

Cut Scenes : These are a way of giving the feel of events happening all the
time rather than only when the heroes are around. Playing a cut scene involves
you ( the GM ) describing a scene and events somewhere that the heroes are not.
You may not need to use miniatures and a board, but if you decide to do so you
should time the cut scenes to coincide with times when the gaming surface is
fairly empty such as between dungeon levels. The following example of a purely
verbal cut scene is from the second part of a three part adventure in which
one of the PCs enemies hears of their exploits in the first part... "The
Grand Master broke the hard wax seal and unrolled the parchment. It was a
letter from the Duc de Mousillon. As the leader of the Templars read the
letter he scowled. A small band of hired swords from the Empire had stumbled
upon the cult base outside Gisoreux and fought their way into the shrine.
Several of the artifacts had been stolen and, worst of all, the Adept's map
of the secret valley. There was no longer any choice. The Grand Master gave
orders for the wagons to be prepared to take the prisoners North into the
wastes. If these adventurers had indeed merely been sent after Mademoiselle
Alysse by her father they would surely not follow her there."

Dream Sequences : A good way of giving your players a fright... and very
atmospheric if done well. At the start of a new dungeon, have the heroes begin
as usual. When they enter the first room then instead of the usual monsters
stands an old enemy of theirs who they killed ( or something else totally
unexpected, seemingly impossible or just slightly surreal ). The situation
should degenerate rapidly with hugely powerful monsters appearing through
the walls and attacks against the players doing huge damage. Their henchmen
will start dying horrible deaths. Then just as the players are really worried
( but before it starts to annoy or upset them ) their characters wake up. It
was all a dream the night before and now the sun is rising and they must soon
prepare to set out for the dungeon... ( This is a good example, but can't
really be used more than once unfortunately ).

Flashbacks : Similar to dream sequences but can be used more often. The idea
behind a flashback is to set a scene in a particularly evocative way. Again,
you need to pick a time when you have playing space available. Often the
players will be given different charcaters to play in the flashback - maybe
characters which are normally NPCs or perhaps are actually dead in the time
in which the main adventure is set. An example - the heroes descend the stairs
to the lowest level of the dungeon where a fearsome demon lord makes its lair.
One of the heroes possesses a diary which belonged to the only person ever to
escape from the place alive. Rather than read directly from the diary, the GM
plays out the scenes described as a flashback. The players take on the roles
of the heroes in the ill-fated earlier expedition. The GM plays the monsters
as normal and also controls Olaf, the Norse henchman who managed to escape
the slaughter. It is in the players interests to do as well as possible as the
heroes in the flashback because the further they get the more they will find
out from the diary for their own expedition !

Non-localised Plots : One of the weaknesses with a lot of the AHQ games that
are run ( including some of mine, I must confess ) is a tendency for each
expedition to be independent of all others. This need not be the case and a
lot can be added to games by means of foreshadowing and reminding of events.
Foreshadowing means that before something happens to the heroes they see
various signs and related events. These need not be clues, just things where
they can look back and say "Aha, so that's what that strange thing was !".
For example, the weapons carried by a certain band of chaos maurauders slain
by the heroes have a symbol on them depicting a burning tower with three
turrets. Rather than resolving the question of what this symbol is during
the quest, leave it as a mystery. Then, several adventures later, the heroes
cross swords with a chaos sorceror whose symbol it is. The feeling of
recognition will add interest to the adventure. Then, many adventures beyond
that the heroes actually find the tower depicted in the design - what secrets
does it hold ? ( No, I'm not going to tell you ! ) The same principle applies
to encounters within a single dungeon; don't let every room be self contained.

Improvisation : Unlike some roleplaying games, AHQ has a pretty good set of
rules. That said, there are still times when to get the perfect dramatic effect
you just have to ignore the rules. This is not something to try with novice
players since it requires a trust on the part of the players that the GM is not
simply abusing his or her position of power. For example, a particularly skilled
swordsman who is not wearing armour will not last very long in an AHQ fight. In
special circumstances the GM might decide that as long as the swordsman is
fighting only one opponent then his enemy's number required to hit might rise
above 10 to 11 or even 12. Similarly if a master assassin was going to shoot
his quarry with his deadly crossbow he could be allowed a modification to his
damage dice based on the time spent aiming, otherwise there's no way he would
succeed. After all, if his victim has many guards he isn't going to get a
chance for two shots !

 

One Tiny Problem
There, I think that's about enough to prove my point. Having proved my point
do I expect AHQ to sweep all other fantasy roleplaying games from the face
of the planet ? Well, actually, no. You see there is one tiny problem with
Advanced Heroquest that I neglected to mention. It requires a large, flat
playing surface and a collection of miniatures. This may seem like a small
thing, but it's more than enough to put many gamers off, unfortunately.

If you have the miniatures already and somewhere to play then I only have one
further recommendation - go and get on with it !

 

Don

Kindly sent to us by Dominic Camus.




 

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