HeroQuest (HQ hereafter) is a generic narrativist rule-system for RPGs. It is mostly fairly simple and rules-light (even at its crunchiest it'll be a fair bit less so than e.g. D&D 5e).
The key way its story focus manifests is that HQ's resolution mechanics don't determine the outcome of some specific task or action, but instead whether the character succeeds or fails at overcoming a story obstacle. Sometimes this doesn't make too much of an obvious difference. If you're resolving the story obstacle of some guards being in the way of you getting into this fort you're raiding with an extended contest in HQ versus the combat system in D&D, the specific rules vary a fair bit but it won't seem that fundamentally different; similarly, if you're resolving sneaking past those same guards with a HQ simple contest versus a D&D skill/ability check, they both feel fairly similar.
The thing that turns it into a more fundamental difference is that in most games, you choose between resolution mechanisms based mostly on what the thing being done is (fights are resolved using the combat system, sneaking around using sneak checks, convincing people of things using talk checks, etc.), but in HQ all the resolution mechanics are abstract and can equally be used with any sort of action or obstacle and are instead chosen between based on concerns of pacing, emphasis, and suspense.
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of the different resolution mechanics, we'll first cover the abilities that you use to overcome story obstacles. You'll have a few more specially defined abilities, but for the most part, abilities are free-form things your character can use to overcome story obstacles. They might be some area of expertise, some physical skill, a relationship to a person, a possession, or really absolutely anything that the character might call upon to resolve a problem.
Each ability has a rating between 1 and 20, which is equal to the target number you are aiming to roll under during contests. They can scale above that using masteries, which are represented using the Mastery Rune (or, for ease of typing, W or M). When an ability increases past 20, it goes on not to 21, 22, 23, etc. but to 1, 2, 3. Going past 20 further continues on to 12, 22, 33, and so on. A mastery is a big advantage: all else equal adding a full mastery (going from, say 10 to 10) turns any given roll from a failure to a success, a success to a critical, etc.
There are a few special mechanical categories of abilities. Keywords represent sort of a broad umbrella of abilities. For example, your character will have a keyword for their occupation. A character with the Farmer keyword could use their rating in the keyword to do all the things that any farmer in that society would likely have learned to do. Breakout abilities are more specific abilities within a keyword that your character has specialized in and can use at a particular bonus relative to your keyword's rating. If you have Farmer 17 with Handle Plowteam +4, then you'd have an effective 1W rating for keeping your plow oxen under control from 17 for the keyword + 4 for the breakout ability.
You can often get a small bonus for using a more specific ability against a less specific one, which often lines up with breakout abilities versus keywords, but can happen in other situations and won't always fit in those cases.
When none of your abilities are applicable whatsoever, you have a default rating of 6 that you can use. This usually doesn't happen unless you're completely out of your element, what with your keywords covering a lot of stuff.
That's really all there is about abilities, so we can move on to contests, which is how we actually resolve things and determine characters' success at overcome story obstacles.
There are three main resolution methods:
Both simple and extended contests can handle one or more characters on either side of the conflicts. With any sort of contest, the contest represents all of your attempts to overcome the obstacle: you can generally only try again with a different ability.
Before we get into the specifics of each kind of contest, there's a few common features worth covering.
Since contests determine whether or not your achieved your entire goal rather than just whether or not succeeded at some specific task, it's important to clearly establish at the start what that goal is, so at the beginning of a contest, the GM and the participating players need to agree on what the specific price of the contest is and what specific tactics the characters are using to try to get it. The GM determines this for any opposition in secret as well. This process is called framing the contest.
The prize is whatever you're trying to get or whatever goal you're trying to achieve. It might be a literal prize, or it might be some information or object, or it might be causing something to happen or preventing something from happening. In a fight, it might be the capture or killing of your opponents, but chances are it's actually something else that you just need to take out the opponents in order to get, in which case beating your opponents is really just the tactic you're using to achieve that other prize.
The tactics in a contest are how the characters are trying to get the prize; it includes both the abilities being used and how you mean to use them. For example, if the players are being chased by enemies near a herd of cattle, then the prize might be getting away, and one possible tactic might be for the farmer to use their Farmer ability to rile up the cattle into a stampede that the pursuers won't be able to get through to keep up the chase. If the proposed tactic seems inapplicable, then the GM may need to describe the circumstances more clearly to explain why the tactic doesn't fit the situation.
Once we've figured out the prize and an appropriate tactic, then the GM figures out the same in secret for the opposition and we've framed the contest.
Circumstances can modify your rating to determine your actual target number for the rolls. These will normally only be relevant for things that are somewhat under your control, as unusual circumstances not under player control can be incorporated in the difficulty rolled by the GM.
Since abilities are free-form, there can be a bit of an imbalance between broad abilities that cover a wide variety of action and more specialized and often more interesting specific abilities. To balance that out, when you contest against an opponent whose ability is less specific to the situation at hand than yours, you get either a +3 or a +6 bonus to your target number.
This is less about balancing PCs versus the world as balancing PC choices of abilities, so when a player is contesting against some abstract force rather than oanother character, the GM uses the other heroes' abilities as the benchmark of specificity. If another player has a more specifically relevant ability, your character might take a -3 or a -6 penalty instead.
These modifiers only really apply if they're pretty obviously applicable, though, so the GM will tend to default to smaller or no modifier if it feels iffy.
When you propose using an ability that seems completely inappropriate, the GM will rule it impossible. If you tried anyway you'd just always fail. Sometimes the ability is only somewhat implausible to what you're trying to do with it. In that case, the GM may opt to treat it as a stretch. You suffer a -6 penalty to the target number, and any major or complete victory you score will be reduced to a minor victory instead.
Whether something is impossible or a stretch might vary from situation to situation, and a good explanation can turn it from impossible to a mere stretch.
That said, stretch penalties don't apply when it comes to implausible-seeming description of actions that are already within the scope of your ability.
An augment is a bonus a hero gets to a target number based on a previous contest, whether performed by themself or by somebody else. Unlike benefits of victory, augments come from contests that were conducted specifically to grant the augment. These contests are simple contests against a fixed difficulty that will increase gradually as the campaign continues.
In order to work, augments must be entertaining and memorable, as assessed by the GM, although they should try to help you turn uninteresting augments into more interesting ones.
On a victory, the augment will provide a bonus; on a sufficiently bad failure it may provide a small penalty. The table below shows the amount for each victory level:
There can only be one attempt to augment any given contest, but augments can combine with other modifiers. Rolls to augment cannot themselves be augmented. An augment will last for the duration of a single contest, whether that contest is simple or extended.
Plot augments are bonuses the GM can award for overcoming story obstacles that range from +3 to +W. The GM can introduce them so that it's obvious that overcoming one obstacle will provide a longer-run advantage. Unlike normal augments, they stack with other augments, including other plot augments.
Die rolls are always opposed (with the GM generally rolling for either an NPC or an abstract level of difficulty), and they generate a degree of success or failure, although the specifics will depend on the type of contest and how your degree of success/failure compares to the opposition's.
You roll a d20 and compare the result to your target number (based on your rating and modifiers), ignoring any masteries for now, and get a result:
Ties within each category will always go to the higher roll (e.g. a failure on a 19 is better than rolling a 15 and failing). This makes higher abilities even more likely to win ties and will make bumps up from masteries, as described below, even more helpful.
Once we've got the degree of success for both sides, that's when we account for masteries. First, if both sides have one or more masteries, they cancel out one-for-one until only one or neither participiant has any masteries. So 15W2 vs. 12W2 cancels out until it works the same as if it were plain old 15 vs. 12, while 15W vs. 12W2 becomes 15 vs. 12W.
If you still have any masteries left over after they cancelled out, your result gets bumped up a level of success per mastery until it's a crit or you run out of masteries: a fumble becomes a failure becomes a success becomes a critical. This makes masteries very good at winning ties: versus an opponent with no mastery, even a 1W will mean you succeed on any roll short of 20, and only fail rather than fumble on a 20, so you're able to roll higher possible successes and failures than most opponents.
If your result is a critical (whether from rolling a 1 or from bumps up) and you still have masteries left over, then any remaining masteries bumps the opponent's result down one level of success per mastery: critical to success to failure to fumble. If you have any leftover after you have a critical versus their fumble then they go to waste, but chances are it really will not matter with that kind of victory.
You may also spend 1 hero point for a bump up, at most once per roll (or, during an extended contest, once per exchange). This functions like a mastery, but unlike mastery it won't bump down your opponent's result if you already have a crit. Narratively spending a hero point for a bump up tends to represent those moments where a character pushes themself to the limit, draws on previously untapped reserves, or pulls off something extraordinary.
Sometimes you just need to know whether you won or not, but for when you need to know how much the victor won by or how badly the loser was defeated, each resolution method also produces a degree of victory/defeat, ranging through the following options (the degree of victory for the winner parallels the degree of defeat for the loser).
Now on to the specific resolution methods, starting with automatic successes. Automatic successes are the quickest and most straightforward way of resolving a story obstacle. The GM just decides they succeed, and they do. It's also generally not very exciting, so it mostly gets used for things that don't seem very important. They're never used in player-versus-player conflicts.
When the degree of success matters, it's a Minor Victory. If that seems insufficient, the player can get a Complete Victory instead by spending a Hero Point (this probably means the GM misjudged things and should have used at least a simple contest, but mistakes do happen).
Simple contests are the quicker way of resolving things. They go like this:
|Critical||High roll = marginal victory, else tie||Minor victory||Majory victory||Complete victory|
|Success||Minor victory||High roll = marginal victory, else tie||Minor victory||Major victory|
|Failure||Major victory||Minor victory||High roll = marginal victory, else tie||Minor victory|
|Fumble||Complete victory||Major victory||Minor victory||Tie|
(In a group contest, the GM may rule that a fumble vs. fumble result will be treated as a Marginal Defeat for both sides to represent how the two fumblers' situations worsen relative to the other contestants.)
In addition to the overall victory or failure, contests often result in negative (on defeat) or positive (on victory) side effects.
Consequences of defeat tend to make it harder to use related abilities. Their scope will depend on the situation in which you lost:
Consequences of defeat are categorized as, in order of increasing severity, Hurt, Impaired, Injured, Dying, and Dead. You only end up Dead as a result of not receiving intervention when Dying or after an extended contest that went extremely badly. Which one you get in a simple contest will be determined by the level of defeat, as described in the chart below.
|Defeat level||Consequence of defeat||Penalty|
|Marginal||Hurt||-3 penalty to appropriate abilities|
|Minor||Impaired||-6 penalty to appropriate abilities|
|Major||Injured||Automatic bump down on uses of appropriate ability|
|Complete||Dying||No actions allowed|
In all cases, these terms "Hurt", etc. can be metaphorical. A complete defeat in a social conflict is more likely to lead to your exile or other metaphorical "social death" than your literal murder, at least directly.
Hurts usually vanish at the end of a session, after one day of rest per accumulated hurt, or when in-game events justify their removal. An impairment usually goes away after one week of rest or an appropriate in-game event (such as miraculous or extraordinary medical treatment). Injuries take a long time to recover from, potentially weeks, seasons, or may even become permanent without treatment.
The penalties from hurts, impairments, and injuries all stack. In addition, if you're injured, you'll need to succeed at a contest of motivation against a Moderate diffculty (during which you don't face the automatic bump down) to push through the injury and participate in any other contest.
Dying doesn't last long, because without intervention you'll die (possibly metaphorically). You usuall can hold on long enough for an attempt to save you. How long it takes you to actually die after that will vary depending on circumstance, but you probably won't be able to manage anything more complex than a dramatic deathbed speech in the meantime.
Death is quite bad. Even if your death is metaphorical, the GM may still rule that the changes were sufficient to render your character not playable. If your character is still playable, you might well permanently lose entire suites of abilities.
In happier news, when you win a contest, you might get benefits of victory. They generally last until you suffer a defeat in a contest using either the bonus or the ability that earned it. You can't refrain from using a bonus for fear of losing it; you apply the bonus whenever the GM thinks it applies. Like consequences of defeat, multiple applicable benefits of victory stack.
Group simple contests can handle situations with multiple participating heroes without the complication and length of an extended contest. They usually have each hero facing off against either a separate opponent or a single difficulty in the case of a shared obstacle.
Either way, each player rolls once, and the GM rolls for the difficulty once per player. The two results get compared to the Resolution Point table below to determine how many points that matchup earned for the winning side. The Resolution Points for each side are totalled up, and the side with the higher total wins thhe overall contest. A tied result leads to an inconclusive or mutually unsatisfactory outcome.
The rolls all happen at the start and only after all of them have been accounted for does the GM describe what happened. The participants who earned more resolution points are described as having contributed more to the overall victory.
|Difference between results||Winning group's victory level||Negative consequences for winner|
Group simple contests tend to flatten the results, producing less extreme victories and defeats. If the players would like to counterbalance this, they can spend Hero Points at the beginning of the contest to boost their potential victory: if they win, they'll get one degree of victory better than the table indicates. The points are spent regardless of whether they win, though.
A boost costs Hero Points based on the number of participating heroes: 1 for 1-3 heroes, 2 for 4-6 heroes, or 3 for 7-9. You can spend double for two degrees of victory worth of boosts. These Hero Points can come from any combination of players.
Consequences of victory/defeat may go to everybody or to individuals who performed especially well or poorly, whichever makes more sense in the situation, usually going to everybody. Individualized consequences are usually based on the individual roll, treated as though it were a simple contest, rather than the overall result.
Extended contests break the resolution of a story obstacle down into a series of smaller actions, increasing the suspense. They're most appropriate for climactic or pivotal moments. They're also the most complicated rules-wise. Like simple contests, they start out by framing the contest and end with describing the contest's consequences, but, unlike a simple contest, in the middle you have one or more rounds repeated until the contest is won by one side or another.
The meat of an extended contest consists of a series of simple contest, with the winner of each scoring a number of Resolution Points (RPs), 1 for a marginal victory, 2 for a minor victory, 3 for a major victory, and 5 for a complete victory. A contestant who accumulates a total of 5 RPs knocks their opponent out of the contest. Other heroes can assist their allies, potentially reducing (or, on a failed assist) increasing the number of RPs scored against them if they lose; this is described in full below under Group Extended Contests.
The consequences of extended contests are assigned differently based on the position of the contest in the overall narrative: a climactic final battle will usually have more serious consequences than those leading up to it. Either way, the consequences of defeat are based on how many RPs were scored against you.
The round after knocking an opponent out of the contest, you may attempt a parting shot to increase the severity of the consequences they face. The ability used need not be the same as the one used to win the contest but must relate to the intended consequences. If you succeed, you add the RPs scored to the total used to determine the consequences suffered by your opponent. If you fail, the opponent gets to subtract the RPs they'd have scored in a normal exchange from the RPs you'd previously score against them. If that drops the total below 5, they return to the contest in a dramatic turn-around enabled by your overreach.
Unengaged characters may, if it makes sense in the fiction, attempt parting shots against enemies taken out by their allies as well. However, you can't use your weak abilities against a defeated ally to try to restore them by failing a parting shot.
You can temporarily stop trying to defeat your opponent in order to do something else. This is called an asymmetrical exchange. In this case, there's still the normal simple contest in the round, and if you lose, your opponent still scores RPs against you. If you win, you get some other advantage instead of earning RPs.
Among other things, you can do an asymmetrical exchange in order to grant augments (described below) to an ally or to disengage from the contest.
You can always abandon a contest at any time, but you'll lose the prize and may suffer negative consequences. If you want to get out of the contest without those consequences, you can attempt to disengage by performing an asymmetrical exchange using the ability relevant to the conflict you're trying to get out of. On a failure the effort is wasted and your opponent scores points normally. If you succeed, you get out without further consequences.
Your opponents can attempt to pursue you, but will have to succeed in chasing you down or otherwise forcing you back into the conflict. If they're able to re-engage you immediately, with no intervening events changing the balance of power, the original score of the conflict is restored.
In a rising action scene, contests you successfully disengaged from inflict no consequences at all; in climactic scenes, RPs scored against you in conflicts you disengaged from do still count when determining consequences, but it may at least spare you from getting further RPs scored against you.
Your Resolution Point score shows how well you're doing relative to your opponent, in the ebb and flow of a fluid, suspenseful conflict. If you're leading 4—0, you're really overwhelming them; if you're losing 0—4, you're on your last legs despite your opponent's being basically fresh.
However, the exact ultimate consequences of the conflict won't be clear until the contest ends; only then will the real effects of your victories or defeats become apparent.
Group extended contests happen like a series of extended contests between pairs of opponents, interleaved so that one exchange per pair happens per round. Usually it'll be the heroes versus a group of antagonists.
The initial pairings of opponents are determined at the beginning of the first round, and then each round there's an exchange for each match-up. The order of action doesn't matter much, so it can be resolved in whatever order seems most convenient.
As in a single extended contest, you want to beat your opponent to scoring 5 RPs. For getting knocked out, it only counts if a single opponent scores 5 or more points against you: one opponent scoring 3 and another scoring 2 won't defeat you, although in climactic scenes it may lead to more severe consequences. The group extended contest will end as soon as there are no active participants on one side. Then the other side wins, consequences are determined, and the winning side gets the prize.
When you eliminate you current opponent, you can go on to engage another opponent, adding a new sub-contest. Participants who are not currently engaged may also take unrelated actions that do not directly contribute to winning the contest in order to achieve some secondary objective or grant an augment to themselves or their teammates.
As in single extended contests, heroes may take unrelated actions to grant an assist to their engaged allies. Like augments, they must be both credible and interesting. Assists are risky and on a failure may make your ally more vulnerable instead.
They are resolved as a simple contest against a Moderate Difficulty, although subsequent attempts to assist the same beneficiary face increasing difficult: high, then very high, then nearly impossible. The result of the assist modifies the score against your ally according to the table below:
|Contest outcome||Change to score against recipient|
Because scores only track the relative strength of the opponents' positions, even in a physical fight you don't necessarily have to describe your assists as actions that heal or help your comrade; you might instead describe an aggressive action against their opponent or something that will re-invigorate them for the contest.
If you're engaged against multiple opponents, you take part in an exchange with each of them in each round. For each contest past the first, you normally suffer a cumulative -3 penalty, although some magic or allies may allow you to mitigate some such penalties. A player engaged with multiple opponents can choose what order to resolve the exchanges each round. It usually works best to handle the toughest foe first. If an enemy engages you later in the round after you've already been engaged, then you face the penalty based on how many opponents you've engaged so far without a choice of ordering.
If more than one opponent is within (literal or metaphorical) striking range as the GM's described things, you can also choose for yourself to engage multiple of them. You still take the penalties as normal.
When you're facing multiple opponents and one tries to disengage, you suffer a -5 penalty when trying to prevent them from disengaging.
If a participiant in a group extended contest disengages and later rejoins, then if their previous opponents re-engage them the scores are retained from before the disengagement.
Followers can participate in group extended contests in several ways:
Followers acting in any of these capacities can be removed from the contest by otherwise unengaged opponents who win a simple contest against the follower. This inflicts RPs against the follower equal to 2 more than the usual number indicated by the Resolution Points table.
The consequences for an extended contest are assigned differently based on whether the contest is building up to a climax (rising action) or is the climax of a story arc itself.
Rising Action consequences are based on the difference between difference in RPs scored by the winner and loser of the contest, according to the table below. Winners may be slightly hurt in the closest of contests but take no more serious or lasting consequences.
|Difference between result||Negative consequences for loser||Negative consequences for winner||Winner's victory level/loser's defeat level|
Climactic extended contests use a more punishing method of assigning consequences. Each participants totals up all the resolution points scored against them, with losers adding an extra point to their totals. The result for each participant is then cross-referenced against the table below to determine what consequence they face.
|Total resolution points scored against hero||Consequence|
This can be quite brutal, even toward the victors. It's entirely possible to, after achieving your ultimate triumph, collapse, finally dying of your accumulated wounds.
The winning side's victory level for climactic scenes are determined by referring to the table below using the second-worst consequence (or only consequence in the case of a single opponent) among the defeated opponents.
|Dead or Dying||Complete|
There are a couple of additional rules for special tactical options in extended consequences. We won't use them initially, so I haven't included them here, but we might end up incorporating them once we have a firm handle on the basic extended contest rules.
It's already been mentioned how Hero Points can be used to bump up the result of a roll or boost the victory level of a group simple contest, but they're also the means by which you develop your character further.
Each player gets 3 of them at the start of each session. During or at the end of the session, they should all be spent. Any leftovers at the end you can go ahead and spend on improving your abilities. The GM will also sometimes award additional Hero Points at the end of a story arc or a particularly climactic session.
By spending 1 Hero Point at any time, you can improve an independent ability or breakout ability by 1 point. Keywords (including runic affinities) cost 2 points instead. You can also add a new ability for 1 hero point: it starts at 13 if it's an independent ability or at +1 if it's a breakout ability.
If a new ability seems out-of-character the GM may ask for a believable explanation for it; the easiest way to get such an ability is to do something in-game that justifies it. You can also go the other way around: something happens in play and you opt to spend a hero point to turn e.g. that relationship into an ability. That process is called cementing the experience and helps ensure the relationship, possession, etc. is more reliably available to you.
You can only improve any particular ability by 1 point per session.
The hero point rules do somewhat incentivize improving your best ability whenever your can. To balance that out somewhat, you get a bonus called a catch-up whenever you acquire a new mastery in a keyword or an independent ability (e.g. take something up to 1W or 1W2). The catch-up lets you increase three abilities or keywords of your choice that are at least 5 points less than the ability that's earning you the catch-up by 3 points each.
The catch-up bonus doesn't trigger on increasing breakout abilities and cannot be used to increase breakout abilities, just on keywords and independent abilities. Allowing that would enable some kind of ridiculous exploits.
Sometimes the GM will give you a new ability rated at 13 or increase an existing ability by one to three points, usually as an outgrowth of plot events. These directed improvements don't count against your limit of increasing the ability once per session.