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Best Practices for Resolving Hero Wars/quest Contests

I have been using HW to run a fantastical & high-powered Glorantha game. I have been ruminating about how to treat failures. I tried to start a discussion about Simple Contests for HW/HQ but ended up doing a lot of reflection on a play episode and set out some best practices for myself. Hopefully others will find these useful for their own play.

  • Be clear when a Contest is over, HW/HQ is not a series of tasks just following one after the other. They are the rule-goverend resolution of conflicts inherent in a situation.
    • be clear on the location, the characters participating in this situation, their spatial relationship, and the actions that they are doing and the Ability used to carry out that action
    • knowing the character's intention for the whole contest or desired outcome is helpful only for establishing what the person is doing and how they are doing that -- we can interpret the results of the dice an see what has happened and THEN judge if the current disposition of forces resembles that declared intention or if some other conclusion to the Contest is possible
  • Consider what the Contest Results mean with reference to the actions the characters described, not the semantics of the Ability's names or the character's statements about how they wanted the Contest to end
    • Say: "This Marginal Defeat means that my Javelins barely touched you guys, and that you have my left arm caught in your net." Concrete! Made with reference to stated actions about the use of Abilities.
    • Don't Say: "Marginal Defeat means nothing happened on my side, and you guys have like maybe hurt me a little so I keep doing what I was doing before with just a -1 penalty."
  • Before rolling dice for the next Contest, clarify the new situation
    • all the characters from the previous Contest may still be there
    • but a new situation has arisen, the characters might have shifted locations and relative positions, they are in different states of mind and body and magic than they were, and we cant re-use the Ability to re-litigate the Contest that has just ended

The Episode

I handled a Simple Contest in a very bland way. The heroes won a Marginal Victory using a magical javelins Ability in pursuit of the aim “Kill the squad of foes,” and against the foes’ use of a mundane tactical Ability in pursuit of the aim “Capture the hero we’ve been pursuing for days.” The heroes imposed a +1 penalty for all future physical activity because they were hurt by lightning. And I had nothing in mind for the contingency where the foes achieved a result short of Complete Victory.


I work on a Scene-by-Scene basis in this game, inspired by Trollbabe. There no comparable unit of play in HW/HQ. Here was the fictional situation in that Scene. Four player characters are facing off against a detachment of 8 Lunar Antelope riders. Couric elects to stay some 100 meters away and use his elemental power over Water to aid the storm magic of Freja the Vingan. Elenya the Healer rushes to stand between the Vingan and the Lunars, knocking their crescent-bladed arrows out of the air with her enchanted staff. Rutgar the Paragon of Darkness launches a barrage of lead-tipped shadow arrows to cut the Lunars’ connection to the lambence of the full Red Moon. Freja is in her Hero Light and launching lightning javelins at the Lunars. The Lunar leader readies a throwing net and charges the Vingan to capture her while his subordinates wound her with arrows. This is a practiced tactic of theirs.

Declared Aims

The Vingan’s aim is to slay all the Lunars who killed her brother. The Lunar commander’s aim is to capture The Vingan. NB: The declaration was helpful to understand what was going on. But I should not have taken it as dispositive. This is NOT Burning Empires where you specify an Intent (that game's very specific rules term) and a Task. The description of what the characters are going and what abilities are involved needs to be in place before resolving a Contest (HW's specific rules term). Resolution I ruled that this was a Simple Contest. Couric, Rutgar, and Elenya provided Augmenting Bonuses to Freja, whose “Javelins of Fluminating Vengeance” was the main Ability used to resolve the contest. The subordinates Augmented their leader’s “Capture the Renegade” Ability.

The rules give almost no guidance on how to assess penalties or bonuses that the situation would impose on the resolution.

* I have 4 people on Freja’s side, and 8 foes she is trying to impose a uniform condition on: dead. That means 4 un-matched foes, and so I imposed a penalty of -3 x 4 to Freja’s rating, or -12.

* These are the Ability ratings after all Bonuses, penalties, etc. had been calculated

  • Freja’s 70 or 10w3 vs. Lunars’ 76 or 16w3
  • Freja rolls 18, a Failure vs. Lunar’s 19, a Failure
  • Freja spends a Hero point, Bumping her up to a Success.
  • Success vs. Failure = a Minor Victory for Freja, -1 penalty for Lunars Immediate Consequences
  • I ruled that the physical conflict had ground down to a near draw, that Freja had only wounded her foes.
  • The Lunars had to give up their attempt to capture Freja and do something else. So they elected to flee.
  • The established fiction included the fact that Freja had been pushing herself to near exhaustion, and that she would be capable of no physical action after her Heroforming had run out.

Subsequent Conflict and Consequences

Rutgar then went after one of the Lunars to capture him. The -1 penalty eased that capture somewhat. He won a Major Victory, which means the Lunar was reduced to 50% of some Ability or Abilities. I never really thought about the consequences of that. Like -50% to any Ability used to escape from Rutgar’s control [1]?

NB: I should have established the new situation after Freja’s Minor Victory. We just loosely declared actions. I should have been a little more careful and made some things clear:

* We were still in the same Scene (in Trollbabe’s sense) and all of the characters involved in the previous Conflict were still there

* We had a new situation with characters in different states than they had been in the preceding Conflict, in different spatial relationships, with different activities underway

* We were able to establish what all parties were doing and a new Contest arose out of that.

* There was too much fumbling and confused gesturing and declaiming before we got there

Fixed principles on my part would’ve speeded up the establishment of a situation ready for conflicts and formal Contests.


Actual Play


"The situation and the actions taken to resolve a Contest in that situation should be used to determine consequences NOT the semantics of the Ability’s description, or the semantics of players’ statements about how they want the contest to end."
If anyone wants the exposition of how I reached that conclusion, feel free to comment on this document.

I would like to edit out:

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Ron Edwards's picture

Regretfully accomplished. It reminds me of the Sanskrit interjections in "The Wasteland."

Also, notify me about this sort of thing via Discord or the Contact button in the site menu.

Ron Edwards's picture

First, you may envision my excited agreement with your bulleted list. There's not much to say except "yes, yes, and yes," throughout them. I especially appreciate the point you broke out in the comment above, which is extremely important.

Second ... and keeping in mind several decades of working through rules of this kind including several games which preceded and influenced it ... I am re-framing the question into the form that's always made most sense to me. Not, "how can we teach and practice this way of playing," but rather, "why is it often difficult?" The savage and, as I see it, grossly immature response to the original Hero Wars is a good example, but I want to focus on the personal, single-table, let's-play context.

What I find is that it's not difficult ... for the games which are socially accepted by the people at the table. These very same questions, like, "how do we narrate a 'minor defeat,'" are exactly the same when playing RuneQuest, any D&D whatsover, Warhammer, Rolemaster, Fantasy Hero, Drakar och Demoner, et cetera, et cetera!

All of these games are not only silent, but outright deficient in their inability to travel from "the hostilities are over," in some violent confrontation, to "what does it look like, what are people doing, what's happening now," and, crucially, "is or is not some new kind of confrontation brewing."

In these games, and in most role-playing games derived from them regardless of nominal topic (Shadowrun, any and all White Wolf games, and many more), not only is there no system or terminology in place for it, there isn't even any method of talking in which any system could form. Play flails, or falls under one person's supra-system (anti-system) control, or, probably in a lot of cases, yields genuine game design at the table for this purpose, probably with no one realizing that they do it.

It's that latter case that I want to focus on. I say outright: every one of your bullets and sub-conclusions for each, is necessary for any play to proceed at all from what just happened and what happens next, regardless of any other details of the system being used. They have to be. Otherwise play cannot proceed. Putting aside the unfortunate case of groups who stay together and nominally play, groping past and through flailing and control, and focusing instead on play that maintains some kind of causality between what just happened and what happens next, a given group does do exactly what you said, and not only that, the way you said it.

But they're used to doing it tacitly, having created it themselves in the belief that it's inherent to the textual system although it very definitely is not. They also often do it in fits and starts, aware that "it works," "this is great," on and off, successfully and unsuccessfully, but unaware of why. And in that state of mind, to see it stated textually is horrifying. Almost like the concept of blasphemous nakedness. That's what makes a system like Hero Wars (HeroQuest) hard to teach and hard to get people to do. Not because it's what they can't do or don't already do, but because they are convinced that this "new" game must be weird and do something awful or meta or metagame or artificial or whatever monster hovers in their imagination when they say "narrative."

This is both a social and a cognitive problem. It's not that one must teach this group of people to do a new thing. In fact, the worst problem happens when they think it's a new thing instead of a good or explicit way to do what they in fact probably already do. Then, only bad outcomes occur. They either do some abominable thing (thinking they are doing the new thing) that's usually some sort of unpleasant negotiatory shared/competitive jockeying for control, or they reject the whole thing as anti-role-playing badness and call it names.

I had to do an extensive analysis because I resolved the episode in question very quickly, like under 3 seconds. And it was "OK." And people were declaring "I do this" and improvising dialogue, I was thinking aloud about that the resolution meant. And I pushed things in the direction of the next situation, where Rutgar wanted to grab a guy and beat some information out of him. And it all worked "OK."

Just a little more attention could have made it more than OK. And I didn't have to go through a series of sub-rules or even look at the table. All I had to do was executing a number of common story-telling and situation-describing abilities and saying a few carefully chosen words.

I spent a lot of time working out examples for the 7 possible resolutions of a single Round in an Extended Contest. That is where paying attention to the changes in the disposition of the characters really matters. Your pool of Action Points come from the first ability used. But within that Extended Contest all sorts of Abilities can come into play.

Ex. The Lunar leader starts the contest with his "Capture Fugitive" ability. He gets a Major Victory against the Vingan. The Contest is not over because the Vingan has considerable AP still. So we reach a situation where "Lunars have prey surrounded & netted / Vingan is capable of some movement but Herolight is a mere flicker." Perhaps the Vingan has an "Leap from Lunar Trap" Talent. Or some social ability. An unpenalized social ability might be a better choice to end this contest than the halved Heroforming ability.

But this is not a specialized decision-making routine like the conflict resolution in Burning Wheel. It's straightforward narrrating and describing.

The speed and facility with which I made the bland resolution is a result of a certain kind of training or an acquired habit. There is nothing in the HW/HQ rules that necessitated the bland. There was nothing "natural" about the bland. Trying to make Laws' game run like Crane's game is me crossing wires. But it's a type of wire crossing that happens often. 

Ron Edwards's picture

I really don't understand your reply. You've included some variable concerning blandness in it, and I don't know how it relates to anything I said or what you said before that. Can you provide any introductory concept or orientation toward the comment you're replying to, so I know what you're talking about?

I came up with situation-relevant alternative resolutions to the Contest presented in this post. I imagined the varying degrees of success the Lunars might have for each of the 7 types of Consequence an HW/HQ Contest can produce: 


Situation Change

Both Suffer Complete Defeat

Lunar loses power over troops, cannot capture fugitives 

Vingan loses Herolight

Both Suffer Marginal Defeat

Lunar’s net gets a small tear

Vingan’s right arm entangled

Marginal Victory

Lunars have their prey surrounded

Vingan has trouble fixing on targets

Minor Victory

Lunar surge toward surrounded prey

Vingan’s right arm entangled

Major Victory

Lunars have prey surrounded & netted

Vingan is capable of physical movement but Herolight is a mere flicker.

Complete Victory

Lunars have a secured prisoner who cannot physically harm troop or escape

Vingan’s Heroforming out of play, no physical attacks on captors

“Narrator Decides”

Lunars have net they can throw farther and harder then they could before

Vinga will bless her follower with brighter javelins

Plain peppered w. lightning strikes & hoofprints that glimmer w. blue light

Ron Edwards's picture

Since you titled the post using the phrase "best practices," I'll state one of my own here. This list you presented is very good to demonstrate what each of the possible outcomes might be, or arguably should be based on what was happening ... but it may also lead someone to conclude that a GM ("Narrator" in this game) must make them all up prior to the dice coming out.

I urge anyone reading this not to infer any such thing. There exists a state of mind, very strongly grounded in the first bullet point and its subsets in Erik's post, in which one sees the dice-based outcome and arrives at content similar to those he listed in this comment I'm replying to ... but only for the one which resulted. The others did not have to be conceived, articulated, listed, or stated at the table beforehand.

Don't interpret die results in reference to the imagined outcome

I should have made that clear. The player knew what the Vingan wanted. I knew what the Lunar wanted.  Both of us projected how the Contest was likely to end. But is was bad practice to interpret the die rolls as steps toward or away from that projected end.

Interpret Die Results in reference to the situation and activity that were established prior to the roll.

"Narrator Decides" is a cue for something extraordinary to happen. I wanted the contestants to be bigger and better as a result of this extrordinary demonstration of might from both participants. This fits the thematic drift of Stafford's world. Coming up against your rival or your shadow with the two of you at your highest pitch transforms both parties. We can have zero-sum "You get worse and worse as I wear you down" the other 95% of the time.

Marginal Defeat's statement for the Vingan should have been "Vingan's left arm entangled," as in "this is an inconvenience but my good arm is still free to fling javelins of lightning."

I don't change horses midstream. So I didn't use my modified tables for tonight's session.

However, I tried to bring in better relationship of consequences to die rolls. The heroes got a Fumble in their attempt to push a council to use a hostage the heroes had captured and reward the heroes by taking on one of their number as a trial member on their council. The council rolled a Failure, so a Minor Defeat for the heroes or a Minor Victory for the council. They weren't able to get their member on the council. The negotiator has a -1 to their negotiating ability. But the council is open to bargaining with the heroes IF they can bring some prisoner or other prize worth more than the Lunar antelope rider they tried to use as a bargaining chip. The Paragon of Darkness slit the throat of the hostage and dumped him in the harbour outside of Talar Hold, as a way of ticking off the pacifistic noble from Esrolia.

"* We were able to establish what all parties were doing and a new Contest arose out of that."

THIS time I made very clear what the different power blocs on the council thought of the outcome. And where they stood. And I asked the players for their reaction to what had happened.

The characters wanted to get out of there and move on. But I created a new scene after the council. A representative of the merchants came to speak to them. A new scene grew out of what happened during the council meeting -- but it wasn't a continuation of that meeting. New characters in new situation w. changed dispositions talking about future possibilities -- how the heroes will deal with the merchant families of God Forgot Island in the future.

Players will be in a new location next session. They will be exploring new relationships.

"You've included some variable concerning blandness in it, and I don't know how it relates to anything I said or what you said before that."

Bland = my immediate subjective impression that I had made a quick adjudication without really visualizing the situation before or after the resolution of the Contest. I didn't break game rules, I didn't ignore the established situation. I just didn't imagine it in detail before speaking.


Can you provide any introductory concept or orientation toward the comment you're replying to, so I know what you're talking about?

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