The role of NPCs in QuestWorlds

NPCs, Non-Player Characters, Supporting Characters, Those Who Are Controlled by the Game Master, you name it. They are a crucial part of any world the players are playing in. Players will interact or ignore them, sometimes help or are helped by them. They are the antagonists and quest-givers. Sometimes they might have close relationships with the main characters, be it spouse or sidekick or just a person the PCs know.

QuestWorlds, as a roleplaying system, doesn’t give NPCs any special rules. They are part of the world, and narration, as are other aspects of the world. They might cause contests the characters have to solve, just like landscape barriers, or cause the characters to embark on a quest. Their agenda and actions are not determined with the dice unless it is the player characters who are influencing them. They are an active part of the story and the environment the player characters navigate in. I will now present a couple of viewpoints on how you can deal with NPCs when playing a game of QuestWorlds.

Attack On Titan
Attack On Titan by hifarry (CC-BY-NC-ND-3.0)

NPC as a participant of a contest

It would be tempting to take Game Master or player control of an NPC that has been with the group for the better part of the scenario when our heroes finally meet the final boss. (Remember, in QuestWorlds combat is no more special contest than any other.) The GM could throw dice for the NPC and then for the resistance the NPC is facing. This would, essentially, turn the NPC into a GM-PC. And that is generally considered a bad idea. Having the NPC as an active contest participant also adds more crunch, especially if there are multiple NPCs, and takes the spotlight away from the actual stars, the player characters.

The participating NPCs are a great narrative tool, trump card even, and should be treated as such. Are the characters facing a hard time due to bad dice rolls? Maybe the NPC is doing badly as well and suffers the same consequences with the characters requiring assistance from the player characters. Or maybe the one-degree defeat is interpreted so that the NPC just saves the PC and they won’t get hauled by the bad guy. Bumping a one success roll to two roll success with a story point can be narrated as help from the NPC with a shared background. You can tilt the contest narration in many directions with an NPC. If the NPC is just another participant these kinds of narrative maneuvers become harder to execute.

Example of using NPC as a narrative tool
The heroes have taken Dooley, the young inexperienced member of the clan, with them to the bar. They are looking for information to get into the headquarters of a rival clan. They grab drinks when they spot Sotho, the henchman from the rival clan, arriving. Sotho didn’t spot them and the heroes decide to tail him to find out why did he came here. The heroes engage in a group contest. The goal of the contest is to find out why Sotho is here and not to get seen by him. The contest results in a three-degree defeat! They lose track of Sotho and after searching for him for a good while they return to their table. And there Sotho is having a relaxed conversation with Dooley, who is soaked in booze and spilling all their secrets to their rival.

Retainers, sidekicks and other followers

I have to note retainers and sidekicks. The difference between these is that sidekick is an individual, with a name and personality. Retainers are more anonymous, and replaceable, servants and helpers. In QuestWorlds terminology they are called followers.

A follower is under the control of the player for a reason. The follower is part of the hero, in the story sense. The followers get screen time with the hero and don’t really turn their back to the heroes. If the player rolls really bad with the follower’s ability the GM and the player might rule that the follower, for example, briefly gets angry at the hero. Remember, the GM shouldn’t make the followers do unexpected things like this unless it is approved by the player.

As a follower isn’t an NPC, the player can use their abilities directly to resolve contests. They also have an effect on the contests rules-wise. The follower can act as a contestant in the contest and thwart multiple opponent penalties.

Example of using followers
Arlyn and her sidekick (follower), who is also her brother, Geeko are finally facing the titan they have spent a good time hunting. The goal of this climactic long contest is none other than destroying the titan for good. The player gets to roll and decide for both characters increasing the player’s possibility to defeat the titan.

Glory charge by gtanoofa (CC-BY-3.0)

NPCs as a crowd the PCs command

Sometimes the NPCs are somewhat directly commanded by the PC but they are not retainers. Remember, retainers are part of the character and should be noted on the sheet. For example, an army squad leader might have ten NPCs under their command. But the squad is a bunch of individual NPCs with their own agendas and ideas controlled by the GM. Now, to get the NPCs to do what their leader wants might be a contest. For example, getting the squad to charge against an overwhelming enemy might require a contest. In this case, you should roll with the leader’s ability, probably some kind of squad leader keyword. Succeeding in this gets the squad to charge. The GM might even interpret the outcome of the fight from this roll. Or the group might still lose but they still trust their leader. It’s all about the framing of the contest. Remember, an assured contest can be quite valid in these cases, too.

NPCs as relationships

The PC might also have a relationship with an NPC. Again, the NPCs, and their agenda, are controlled by the GM. But the relationship to the NPC might help the PC to solve an obstacle. Relationships, like other abilities, are just abilities: ways to solve story obstacles. Succeeding with the ability means the NPC is willing to help. Any consequences can be narrated as wrinkles in the relationship.

Example
Dooley is now a player character. He has a special relationship with the clan leader’s daughter, Jarleena. As a result of him spilling the secrets, he is commanded to this very dangerous mission. To avoid going to the mission the player decides to use the relationship with the daughter. Dooley succeeds with zero degrees. The GM interprets this as Jarleena using her charm to get his dad to retract the decision. But Jarleena does not like cowards and the GM gives a -5 penalty to Dooley’s relationship ability.

Implied relationship through a keyword or an ability

It might be feasible to argue that a keyword (or an ability) also includes contacts. For example, the squad leader keyword might imply that the squad leader has contacts inside the army organization even though the contacts are not specified.

According to QuestWorlds rules this kind of implied contact would always be a stretch (QW SRD 6.4).

Example of implied contact
The group of squad leaders is in Paris drinking heavily while on their holiday. They would need to check in tomorrow morning but they don’t really have any idea how they get themselves at the barracks at that time. The player character tries to use his squad leader keyword to, unofficially, call in a driver from the barracks. He surely has had many drivers under his command and treated them well. The GM rules this as a stretch. Still, the player succeeds with two degrees. The driver is happy to make the ride and gets some of their personal chores handled during the same trip. They avoid any patrols and are present the next morning on the call.

QuestWorlds report from Impromptu Con 2

Chaosium arranged its second Impromptu Con on Feb 27, 2021. The “con” here is more of a series of chat sessions on different Chaosium-related topics held in Discord. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make it but Andrew Jones posted his (and Ian Cooper’s) notes in the forums. Here’s a recap, sourced from those notes, of what is happening with the QuestWorlds as of Feb 27.

At the time of writing the official QuestWorlds site is seriously behind the work-in-progress version in Github. Nevertheless, the official statement from Chaosium is that “SRD is close to final, please promote the SRD in appropriate forums so that we can begin to slowly build buzz around the engine again.”

But, a little bit of history of how the current state of the SRD came to life starting from HQ.

  • We started with a goal to extract just the rules text from HQ Core for the SRD
  • Once done, the pared-down text revealed issues around the use of game terminology (failure and defeat) that we needed to correct.
  • Marginal, minor, major, and complete have always been an issue because they implied you only get the prize on complete. Should be you always get the prize but price, or what else you get varies.
  • We wanted to offer consequences (penalties) on a partial success (marginal) as an option to the GM (exhaustion etc.)
  • Masteries remain difficult to explain and it takes time for folks to ‘get it’ if they don’t have the option to play with someone who has mastered them.
  • We moved to “counting successes” over “bumps”. A mastery is a success, a success on your roll is a success. Most successes win, and the highest roll wins if tied. The difference in successes is the degree of victory and used to determine tally in a sequence, a hint as to consequences and benefits, etc. Zero degrees of victory is a partial success – you get the prize, but there is often a cost.
  • We factored out the common part of all ‘long’ contest types – a sequence of contests and just note the different methods of tallying relative position: First to Five, APs, Penalties. Long Contests became Sequences and Simple Contests just Contests.

I have been following the process of how the rules changed for the best of the time sometimes reporting in this blog. For example, there was my, I’ll admit it to be a little too scandalous sounding, news on removing the degrees of the outcome. I am happy to see the degrees are now back as ranks. The “counting successes” is also a really good change. It introduced the “success on target number roll” rule that removes the frustration especially in the target number of 20.

The first book they will release is the Core Rules book. It will have lots of advice on how to be a player or a GM in a storytelling game (including ideas like scene framing etc for the GM). Their hope is to keep rules clean for easy reference and have an extensive amount of examples. I will review the Core Rules book in this blog as soon as it is out.

The second book will be about writing genre packs and adventures. There has been already some information about genre packs in the HeroQuest: Core Rules (affiliate link) book but the new book should go beyond that and deepen the art of writing genre packs for QuestWorlds. This is something you don’t find in the SRD. The book will include three example genre packs:

  • Pioneer Space: Patrolmen and Free Traders on the frontiers of space, rooted in 50 and early 60s S, Heinlein, Norton, etc (think valve powered machines, fixed phones in retro ’50s style)
  • Age of Miracles: 70s NYC Superheroes. Disco and Vigilantes (much lower power level than Cosmic Slop)
  • Brave New World: Renaissance Fantasy, exploring a Hollow Earth

The advice on writing adventures will include, for example, advice on relationship maps and excerpts from Robin Laws’ Sharper Adventures in HeroQuest, which is an absolutely essential read for QuestWorlds Narrators. The plan is also to introduce “templates” to let players create characters with more ease into specific genres. This is something that ought to help players get into the genre. A topic I have posted in this blog, also. I am looking forward to reading what advice they can collect into this book and will definitely go through them in this blog then.

As part of the first release, or at least timed with it, three genre packs will be released.

  • Doc Vandal:  1930s Pulp from Dave Robinson (who has written a few novels starting the title character}
  • Cosmic Zap: Cosmic level superheroes from Ron Edwards (think Jack Kirby’s 4th World work for DC and the Eternals}
  • After Thought: Slower-than-light Science Fiction from Sean Hillman

There was also discussion about what QuestWorlds Glorantha might look like but the ideas on that were in so preliminary state I don’t go through them here.

Overall, it is exciting to see QuestWorlds finally come to life. Follow my blog to get the latest news surrounding QuestWorlds and advice on using the system in your games.

Assured contests drive the story forward

Have you ever encountered a situation where a player is rolling dice for a check and you sense everyone on the table is thinking “please don’t fail now, let’s just move on”? The failure would just make things unnecessarily complex or the GM calls for another try or makes other players roll until someone succeeds and the group, finally, gets forward. The whole encounter, or contest, was probably good for the story, but not for the game.

In QuestWorlds, you are supposed to only have contests on interesting obstacles, where failure introduces some meaningful story branch. But sometimes certain contests brew from the players, or the GM, and they really want to contest about something that really isn’t a story obstacle. Sometimes the situation calls for a contest.

Introducing: Assured contest

The abovementioned are handled in QuestWorlds with a rule named Assured contest (QW SRD 2.4.4.2). In all its simplicity assured contest is resolved with the following steps:

  1. Agree on the terms of the contest (prize, tactic)
  2. The GM decides the player gets a victory and the prize

Well, there’s a little more into that, but the key point is that the players get their prize. So, there’s no chance that the player characters would not get what they were seeking.

Is that a joke?

Okay, it might sound like this is just a way to say “Yes” to players but there is a reason why QuestWorlds has this rule in it. It is one of the most important tools the GM has in their toolbox for establishing character competence and driving the story forward.

Some contests are coming from the GM and some are initiated by the players. When the contest is introduced it should be framed just like a normal contest. What is at stake? What is the tactic? Then, the GM can decide that failure in this contest does not really make sense for the player’s character or for the story. The GM should be careful how they present the assured contest so that the player is not disappointed as the tension of the contest is suddenly waning away. This is mainly a communication and narrative challenge. I would avoid fudging the GM die roll (more about that in this post) and more openly tell about using an assured contest. Nothing prevents from narrating the contest as something the character struggles with but, finally, overcomes it.

Assured contest examples
Sir Richard, a knight of the king, arrives in the small town of Bagnot with his intimidating entourage. He is running short of rations and goes to the first peasant he finds. “In the name of the king provide us enough bread for three days”, he demands from the peasant. The goal of the contest is to get enough bread that can be used as a bargain in their next encounter. As this encounter builds up Sir Richard’s attitude against peasants and should be quite common in the setting, the GM decides that no roll is required. The peasant is not happy but does not oppose and provides the bread. Dissatisfaction against the king and his knights rises…
The investigators decide to visit the library to find more information about the unknown disease plaguing the city. Their goal is to gather the next clue. Preventing the information from the players would halt the story so the GM decides the investigators, after spending most of the night in the library, finally find the crucial piece of information. They follow the lead.

Library by mr-nick (CC-BY-NC-3.0)

Adding some tension

There is a way to add more tension into the assured contest, though. You can roll the die for the consequences of the contest. The player and the GM roll the die just like they would in a normal contest. The rank of the outcome then guides the GM in coming up with a benefit or a consequence. Remember, the player character still gets the prize, but at what price.

This ruling is also a way to stealthy apply the assured contest rule. The player is thinking they are rolling for a normal contest. If they are victorious, fine, they got the prize and the game goes on. If they fail, the GM can say something like: “Say, I will now rule that you still got the prize, but you get this and this consequence.” So, the GM does not have to downplay the resistance and, in the best case, they don’t have to even tell they were going with the assured contest. But only do this if there are some meaningful consequences to be had from the contest.

Example
Let’s revisit the investigators visiting the library. Again, the GM decides they find the piece of information. But on top of that, the GM makes the players roll the dice. They get a rank 1 defeat. They spent the whole night flipping through the books and finally when the sun is rising, they find the clue. The search was tasking and they get a -10 sleep deprivation penalty for their actions during the day.

Somewhere in the West by Ferigato (CC-BY-NC-ND-3.0)

Assured augments

In the rule, augments are assured contests (see QW SRD 2.6.1). This means the player gets the +5 bonus (or +10 if the augment was dramatic or entertaining) without rolling. In earlier versions augmenting was a contest that could result in no bonus. This ruling will make augmenting a little more straightforward.

But, again, if you want to add tension to the augmenting you can do the same thing described above. Roll the die for the consequences of the augment. On a victory, it is just +5 and that’s it. But, on a defeat, the player gets the +5 augment but the GM gets to come up with the penalty that affects the augmenting ability later. The penalty should follow the degree of the defeat.

Augmenting example
Hodgson, the sheriff of the Pearl’s End, and the local hat maker, McIntyre, are chasing the bandit Rick in the streets. Hodgson’s goal is to capture Rick, dead or, preferably, alive. McIntyre will augment Hodgson’s attempt as he is not really a gunslinger but just a puny hat maker. Hodgson gets a +5 augment to his die roll in this contest. The GM wants to see if there are any consequences for McIntyre being part of the intensive chase. They roll dice and McIntyre gets a result of rank 2 defeat. Ouch, that is bad. On the other hand, the overall outcome of the chase is a rank 3 victory! They narrate the chase so that Hodgson and McIntyre split and McIntyre manages to spot Rick. He notifies Hodgson just before Rick hits him in the left leg with a shovel. Luckily Hodgson stops and detains Rick before anything worse happens. McIntyre will suffer a -10 penalty for some time.

Different player types in QuestWorlds

Different roleplaying systems enforce different play styles. Similarly, players are different and certain aspects of a game give the kicks to different individuals. Now, the principal work of this theory is Robin’s Laws of Good Gamemastering, by Robin D. Laws. In his book, Robin defines seven different player types. Now, this book is written in 2002 and there might be more modern ways of viewing these theories but I am going now to analyze what aspects of QuestWorlds would work for these six archetypes listed by Robin.

The Power Gamer

The power gamer wants to game the system. They read the rules and try to find ways to get the most out of them. I don’t know if it’s fair to say but power gamers might want to win in the game.

This is probably, of these seven, the most unsuitable one for QuestWorlds. QuestWorlds is quite rules-light and as such does not offer too much “gotcha” moments for the players to use. Even if the player tries to min-max their character and acquires an all-encompassing ability the game master always has the final say in the resistance number. On top of that QuestWorlds embraces losing some of the contests. This can be hard for a player that tries to march from victory to victory, even if the victories would be costly.

Dwarf Rhinox by gilanthegrey (CC-BY-3.0)

The Butt-Kicker

The butt-kicker is looking for a good fight after a boring day at their job. They probably concentrate on the combat seeing all other play as just something that leads to the next bashing.

QuestWorlds does not have combat rules, which can be a good or a bad thing for the butt-kicker. Of course, the number of combats is adjustable just by presenting them to the story. You can play dungeon-delving monster hunts with QuestWorlds, hands down. You might even get more monster bashing as every combat is just one roll! The one roll also lets the player to describe as much detail as they want and different ways to kill the monster. But is the one roll combat enough for the butt-kicker? Do they feel that their character really did the deeds if it doesn’t even include a single parry roll?

The Tactician

The tactician gets their kicks from thinking and planning their way through realistic problems. They should get to solve the obstacles with cunning plans and not so much with dice. They might get annoyed with other players “playing their characters” and being tactically unsound.

QuestWorlds, in a sense, should answer this player type quite well. The GM will present the players with the problem or the story obstacle. The GM doesn’t have the correct answer to how the obstacle should be resolved. Now, the tactician can devise a solution as complicated or simple they want preferably using the abilities listed in their character sheet. And then dice are rolled to see if they succeed or not. Now, the dice rolling might be the issue here but every plan should have the possibility of going wrong. The GM might also shift the framing according to the tactician’s ideas so that the GM acknowledges the work the tactician did.

The Specialist

The specialist picks the same character type every time and knows all the ins and outs of it. They want the rules to support their choice.

Well, this is a pickle. QuestWorlds does not have character classes, per se. If someone wants to be a ninja then they will take the keyword ninja and play with it. Robin’s instructions are that the GM should create scenes in which the specialist’s character can look and do cool things. But that should apply to all the other player characters, too. And making your character look cool is as much of the player’s responsibility when they tell how their character resolves the story obstacles.

The Method Actor

The method actor bases their decisions on their character’s psychology and personality traits. Deviating from these, be it a rules reason or other group member needs, may cause stress. They are the most in their character when playing. Dice are seen as a necessary evil and are better left in the bag.

The ability system of QuestWorlds should give the method actor enough juice about their character. One sentence ability descriptions might work as the driving force when they think what their character might think or do in the situations. On the other hand, the abilities do not restrict how the method actor might interpret them. Rolling for the story obstacle is quickly done and the result is something that can be, again, used to build up the character’s personality.

Campfire Storyteller by Lagunis (CC-BY-NC-ND-3.0)

The Storyteller

The storyteller (this is my type, btw) is there for the story. Long dice-rolling combat or the story pace slowing down might annoy them. They are more after a story arc that might be from a book or a movie than playing their character.

Aren’t they for a treat then with QuestWorlds? There are none of these long combat sequences bogging down the story. Every dice roll is at an interesting story obstacle that will spin the story arc in some unexpected direction generating the story further. I could even argue that you tend to get more story forward during a QuestWorlds session than other systems. Some of the slower moments can be fast-forwarded by creative contest framing, possibly causing teeth-grinding amongst the other player types.

The Casual Gamer

The casual gamer is there for the company and usually taking the back seat. They don’t want to take the spotlight and jump in only when asked to. Even though it might look like they are not participating this is what they like to do.

Robin wrote that these players might be still important as they fill in some role in the group. And then they might be asked to chip in at that moment when their character is needed. In QuestWorlds there really isn’t that kind of party dynamic where the members fill in certain roles. That’s why you should be especially careful to include these casual gamers. Luckily, it is easy as they can be asked to roll for the current story obstacle now with that certain ability after briefly recapping what the group was trying to achieve.

News: Moon Design transfers HeroQuest trademark to Hasbro

Chaosium released news about the formal transfer of the HeroQuest trademark to Hasbro. Chaosium is the publisher of QuestWorlds SRD. The HeroQuest trademark was owned by Moon Design Publications, part-owner of Chaosium.

The HeroQuest name history is very well told multiple times. First, Greg Stafford developed an RPG called HeroWars, set in Glorantha. Then Milton Bradley let the HeroQuest boardgame brand lapse and Greg took control of it. Then he could (with Robin D. Laws) release the HeroQuest, Roleplaying in Glorantha RPG. The term heroquesting, in Glorantha, means traveling to the world of gods to re-enact and affect myths. Thus it was a suitable name for the RPG. And so followed the years of misunderstanding. The nostalgic value and the fact that there weren’t new versions of the board game has made the game quite iconic. Used copies are sold with a hefty price tag and board gamers all over the world have been drooling over a reprint of the game. Well, now their prayers have been answered by Hasbro and Avalon Hill.

Talking about the HeroQuest RPG always caused the other end of the conversation to wander to the memory lane with the barbarian and the wizard. In that sense, the announcement of rebranding the HeroQuest RPG system to QuestWorlds (although there was a QuestWorld RPG system, sigh) was a welcome development. The games built on top of QuestWorlds (not one released yet) will most certainly have their own brands and only showing the QuestWorlds logo on the cover to indicate that they use the QuestWorlds system.

The interesting thing is how the HeroQuest Glorantha line will be rebranded. In the news release Michael O’Brien, Chaosium head of licensing, said they are selling the HeroQuest branded products away, for good. Later, on Facebook, Michael confirmed that HeroQuest Glorantha will be re-branded with the name of QuestWorlds Glorantha. So, apparently, the QuestWorlds name is used both for the system but also for the game set in Glorantha.

Personally, I will miss the HeroQuest Glorantha name. It makes sense for a Glorantha game and is easy to say. What I don’t miss, is the clarifying I had to do every time I was talking about HeroQuest Glorantha. Or the players who think they are coming to play the board game in conventions.

Advice for QuestWorlds players

Most of the RPG blogs out there tend to give advice to the GMs. I have to admit that the same symptom is present in this blog, too. But here is a post that is targeted to the players! If you have been invited to a QuestWorlds game, or already attended a couple, here are three preparation tips and three pieces of advice to follow during the play.

The Sentinels: Heroes of Keywan by b-cesar (CC-BY-NC-ND-3.0)

No need for system mastery

The great thing about QuestWorlds is that you can come to the table without knowing anything about the rules. Running the contests, from a system perspective, is solely the GM’s task and players don’t really have lots of options they should know. You can’t screw your whole party because you didn’t know that you can, for example, cast the fireball twice if you move three steps right.

All you have to know is that the GM will present your group with story obstacles and you have to come up with an entertaining way, by using your characters’ abilities, how your characters will try to overcome them. Easy.

Prepare to lose some fights

As QuestWorlds emulates a story, your session will have its up-beats and down-beats. Just like a good story does. Marching from victory to victory gets dull, fast. A couple of failures here and there build up a nice story. So, don’t take it too hard if your character or the group fails a contest. The GM takes care that there will be interesting stories waiting behind failed story obstacles. And if there isn’t, the GM will take care you don’t end up in that kind of situation, at all. Embrace the failure and see what kind of personal story you can build up for your character from those failures.

Know the setting, even a little

As I wrote here in this blog before QuestWorlds doesn’t really hold hands when teaching the genre or the setting. You can, of course, go to the table without knowing anything but don’t expect to get a character sheet in front of you that tells you everything you how your character should act in the setting. Unless your GM has been really busy.

So, to prepare for a QuestWorlds game, familiarize yourself with the setting. at least a bit. Watch a movie, read a short story, or read the document about the world the GM sent you beforehand. Or, if the table is up for it, swing the setting your own way. That’s fun, too!

Bandit Camp by ThemeFinland (CC-BY-NC-SA-3.0)

Improvise!

During the play be ready to improvise. This might sound like a generic RPG advice but QuestWorlds really emphasizes player improvisation. The GM does not ask you to roll for a certain ability or say that this contest will be handled with, say, sword skills. The GM just presents your group with the story obstacle and frames the contest. It is the players’ job to come up with how they resolve the story obstacle using the abilities their characters have.

You have the possibility to act with other characters, also. There are group contests and then your character might end up augmenting the other character. This goes hand-in-hand with the most important improvisation rule: accept what the other player established and build on that (kind of “Yes, and”). You constantly have opportunities to bring your character on the frame (remember to give the spotlight to others, too) even if they are not the main character in this specific event.

Take up the narration

Another improvisation possibility comes in when narrating out the result of the outcome. Now, this might differ from GM to GM. Some like to tell the player what happened in the contest. Others, like me, like to hear from the players what happens to their characters. In a sense, the GM has already handed over the narration to the player when they ask what ability the player wants to use. I think it is fair to let the player continue after the roll.

The contest outcome is not just a victory or a defeat. You have the used ability, possible augments and bonuses, and the two roll results. These aspects all should give you enough “creative juice” to come up with a narration that makes sense in the given context. Listen to the GM if they have some limitations for your narration.

Don’t just roll unexpectedly

This advice might go to any RPG out there but especially in QuestWorlds, it does not make sense for the player to roll on their own search or perception rolls. If you have an urge to roll the dice discuss with your GM. In your mind, you should try to frame your roll so that you can tell why a branch in the story at this point would make sense. If you don’t know, you should still tell the GM that you want to roll. The GM might give you an automatic success! There might be no tension in the automatic success but at least you contributed to the story with your character’s actions. The GM might have some other tools in their toolbox, also, so telling about your ideas are always worth to bring boldly to the table.

Have fun!

As is with every RPG out there, having fun is the main goal.

If you are a GM link this post to your players to read before your first session. There were no rules explanations in this post because, I will argue, the players don’t really need to know them beforehand. Rules are easily taught when the game starts.

Using QuestWorlds in GM-less play

One great interest of mine, for some time now, has been solo roleplaying. There are two definitions for this term, actually. It is either solo so that there are one GM and one player, meaning that the player plays solo. Then there is the meaning this post talks about: playing without a GM all by yourself. Just you and the dice. You should try it, it is fun. But, let’s expand from that a little and see how QuestWorlds can help to play roleplaying games without a GM. Either solo or with a group.

Why play without a GM then? There are multiple reasons. Some games are designed to play without a GM (like Fiasco). Sometimes no-one wants to GM or everyone wants to experience the game as a player. You might also be writing a scenario or a game system and would like to make test runs for it on your own before showing it to others. With solo gaming, you can also get yourself familiarized with a supplement and the scenarios beforehand.

When playing a game meant to be GM’d without a GM one concept is crucial: Game Master Emulator. It is a tool that acts as the GM for the players doing some (probably not all) of the GM’s tasks. The grand old king of game master emulators is, unquestionably, Mythic Game Master Emulator(affiliate link). Briefly, in Mythic GME the player can ask the emulator yes/no questions (also, check out Mythic Variations 2 for more complex cases) and get answers. The tool also introduces new threads and characters in the game. In the end, everything boils down to the players interpreting the answers from the emulator to the context of the situation. But, when the players want to check their success on a story obstacle they don’t ask the emulator. Then they will use the RPG system at hand.

Example of questions to ask from the emulator
Is there anyone in the room?
Is the door locked?
Is the tribal king supporting my cause?

Example of questions that cause the RPG system to kick in
Do I get out of the room unharmed?
Can I open the lock before someone catches me?
Can I get the tribe to support my cause before the king?

Syllabear, the Lone Druid by Halycon450 (CC-BY-NC-SA-3.0)

Using QuestWorlds with a game master emulator

QuestWorlds (free SRD available) is a great game system to use with a game master emulator. It stays away from the play when you don’t need it. There is no need to track fatigue points, rations, or the passing of time. Combats are fast as you don’t have to delve into the nitty-gritty details. This goes for all contests, not just combats. It guides your story just like the game emulator is doing, just from the contest resolution side. Just make sure you still frame the contests and use QuestWorlds properly to get the maximum use of the system.

QuestWorlds outcome for the contest tells you if you succeed or fail but also at which level. Mythic answer to a question can be yes or no but also an exceptional yes or no meaning there is something more on top of the asked thing. Likewise, the QuestWorlds contest outcome can be marginal, minor, major, or complete. These can be roughly translated as “Yes But”, “Yes”, “Yes And” and “Totally Yes And!” (and similar ones for No). This is great creative juice for the players to interpret and come up with new twists and turns for the story. And if the players are not sure what the Major Victory might mean they can always ask the emulator more about the outcome (“Does this Major Victory mean that the king gives us one of his personal bodyguards as a companion?”).

Setting the resistance

One challenge with QuestWorlds is the resistance number. QuestWorlds uses opposed roll and one task for the GM is to set the resistance target number during the roll. It is important that there is that opposing target number. You can read more about why to have the GM die in play from this blog.

Usually, the GM uses their gut feeling in setting the opposing target number to steer the story and make the contest look credible. But how to determine the resistance value when there is no GM with their gut feeling the correct value? Here are a couple of recommendations from me.

Use the players’ gut

It might be clear for the players to feel what is the correct resistance number in this contest. You can go with round-robin or who shouts first. Or you could use Planning Poker to come up with the resistance.

The downside is that the players might tend to steer the resistance lower to get more victories. That is the nature of players, sometimes. Of course, if the group (or you yourself) likes to see failures and feel they add to the story you probably will see good opposition values keeping the story fresh.

Ask the emulator

This is an extension of the gut-feeling. If you are unsure you can ask the emulator about the resistance. A positive (or exceptional yes) answer to the question “Does the troll have company?” will surely increase the resistance of a combat contest. The problem is that Mythic will answer more “yes” when the story has gone against the heroes. So, failing in contests and then asking more questions that would make contests harder might result in a spiral of failures.

Pass-Fail cycle

This is a resistance setting tool from the original HeroQuest(affiliate link) system. It didn’t make it to the QuestWorlds SRD but I will now present it, a little adapted, here. With this tool, you (the player) don’t need to do anything else but to look at the previous contests’ outcomes. Major and Complete outcomes are counted as two (so, previous Major Defeat and Minor Defeat is a total of three defeats). Read the table from up to down until you hit a row that matches your previous two results, even partially. The final target number is the base resistance (14) combined with the difficulty level modifier.

Previous two resultsDifficulty level for the contest
three or more defeatsVery Low (-6)
two defeatsLow (-3)
three or more victories, no defeatsVery High (+9)
two victories, no defeatsHigh (+6)
two victories, max one defeatRaised (+3)
two tiesLow (-3)
one defeat or one victory or a tieModerate (+0)
Pass/Fail difficulty table adapted from HeroQuest Core Rules
Outsider by Vetrova (CC-BY-NC-ND-3.0)

Use the Chaos Factor

One integral part of Mythic GME is the Chaos Factor. Basically, the factor (from 1 to 10) tells you how “chaotic” the story is at the given scene. It affects a couple of things but you can expect more unexpected and more yes answers if the factor is higher. The chaos factor fluctuates based on how well the heroes have things under their control from scene to scene. Well, isn’t the QW contest check kind of testing this as well?

QuestWorlds has a resistance class table (SRD 2.3.3.1) with ten levels (the same amount that chaos factor levels, how convenient!) five being the Moderate (+0). Incidentally, the level 5 in chaos factor is also the situation where everything is in the beginning, kind of status quo.

Now, you can interpret the chaos factor to the resistance table in two ways. Either lower the resistance level when the chaos factor is low. This means that when the PCs get a grip of things it becomes also easier to hold that grip. In another way around (so, low chaos factor results in higher resistance) the chaos factor will fluctuate more as the resistance becomes harder when PCs get things their way. I would argue the latter results in more interesting stories.

Get help from a supplement

I won’t go to great details here but there are all kinds of supplements for GM-less roleplaying that might help with setting the resistance. For example UNE, The Universal NPC Emulator(affiliate link) has a tool to set the NPC power level compared to the PCs. This will guide setting the resistance number for that NPC. Of course, this does not help with abstract resistances.

Perilous Intersections (free pdf) has a concept of Danger Level that could work as a guide on setting the resistance for QuestWorlds contests.

For more solo-roleplaying tools, head no further than Dieheart Solo RPG Resources list. It is really extensive and last updated (at the time of writing this article) in June 2020.

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Breaking version changes: New version removes degrees of outcome

UPDATE: The degrees are back in the SRD as ranks. The following post still discusses the reasons behind the initial removal and is good to read to get a grasp at what parts cause confusion in, especially new, players.

The latest version of QuestWorlds SRD (0.20) was recently released. As of writing this post, the online SRD does not yet show the new version but the PDF in the QuestWorlds master branch is updated. The new version introduces a major change in the core of the contest resolution removing the concept of degree of the outcome in favor of highlighting more binary outcome and interpreting roll results. You can read more about how the degrees are interpreted from this blog.

The new version does not mention marginal, minor, major, or complete outcomes anymore. All the benefits (bonuses) and consequences (penalties), if the GM so desires, are calculated from a new concept called a rank. The rank is also used as a tool to clear up other things for the GM. For example, adjusting the resistance is tied to the rank number instead of using terms like Moderate, High, or Low. Augments are also changed so that a victory always yields a single +3 add to the target number. Or +6 if it was due to entertaining roleplaying.

One small adjustment, due to the missing degrees, is also that the player character can’t actually die (or be otherwise out of the game) in the new rules. The new rules encourage the player to decide if their character’s time has come.

The player and GM roll results are still compared to determine the rank but also to guide the narration instead of naming the outcome. So, by reading the SRD, the story obstacle should resolve differently if the rolls are success vs. failure rather than failure vs. fumble even if they both result in (using the old term) minor outcome. The previous version included guidance about wording the outcome as “Yes, and” or “No, but” etc. but the new version does not give any advice on that.

The reasoning behind this change is that the degree of outcome was the single hardest thing to grasp for new players. New GMs tend to not give the contested prize to the players in Marginal Victories (one of the common pitfalls) or were troubled by the difference between marginal and minor outcomes, to name a few problems. Removing the degrees steers the game system to be more about victory vs. defeat that ensures the GMs to concentrate, hopefully, more on the prize. The roll results work as a guide to the player and the GM to narrate the outcome.

Speaking of narration tools, the new version also includes a way for the GM to award bonuses on defeats and negative consequences on victories. So, the penalty is not anymore just an outcome of a defeat. This helps the GM to make the narration choices concrete for the players and makes sense in close call outcomes.

The old rules are in the appendix now for reference but they probably won’t get updated in the future changes. A list of all changes in the new version can be found in the SRD GitHub repository.

Genre emulation in QuestWorlds

© 2020 Chaosium Inc.

In one of their Chit chat episodes, Panda’s Talking Games was discussing genre emulation and the relevancy of PbtA in current game design. I don’t want to go into the PbtA fox hole here but it would be interesting to analyze a little bit how well does QuestWorlds handle said genre emulation.

And, as I am following their topic, maybe it would be good to first define what the term genre emulation means. In short, it means the game’s ability to play like the genre it is played in. The genre can be broad (fantasy, cyberpunk) or narrower (80’s action movies, Mexican drug cartels). I would add that it is the feel the players get that their game is helping them to bring the desired genre to life. And the word game here means the actual game that is based on a game system. For example, the HeroQuest Glorantha game is based on the QuestWorlds game system.

QuestWorlds is a really open-ended game system for simulating a story instead of simulating any specific genre. In QuestWorlds the system does not really change depending on the genre as it revolves around story obstacles. And every genre can have story obstacles as it is maybe the widest abstraction there can be. On top of that, the characters can have any abilities their players want. Yes, the player can come up with their own abilities and there are, usually, no lists to choose from. The ratings for the abilities just tell how likely are they going to resolve the story obstacle if they are using that ability to resolve it. “Anything you can imagine, you can play”, right? Well, at least anything with story obstacles that is. I wouldn’t use QuestWorlds for Phil and Senda’s (the hosts of the podcast) great Turning Point(affiliate link) game either. But Turning Point is more of a game system (as is QuestWorlds) than a specific game for a certain genre, in my opinion. I have had Turning Point games in the fantasy world of Glorantha as well as in our own world genres.

squaring it off
squaring it off by KurenJynxxPsychosis (CC-BY-3.0)

But it’s not all bad. QuestWorlds has something to help with genre emulation: keywords. All the other concepts of the game stay the same genre to genre but keywords give some room to fiddle inside it. I have written a little about keywords already in this blog. Basically, the keywords ask genre-specific questions from the players when they are creating their characters. For example in QuestWorlds based game HeroQuest Glorantha(affiliate link), that you could say emulates the “Glorantha genre”, the runes are the building blocks of the world. So much that the character has to define three runes to be the most prominent ones as keywords. Another example could be from a (hypothetical) wrestling game having a gimmick keyword telling, with just one word or phrase, how does that character resolve the story obstacles in the wrestling ring, or outside it. Other usual keywords are something like occupation, species, homeland, and such.

Whatever the player chooses for their keyword it still doesn’t change the rules of the game. They don’t get bonuses to their rolls or situational modifiers nor can they combine the abilities in some specific way. They can come up with any keyword ability that the designer of the given game didn’t even think of and that is all fine. Then they just have to justify how that keyword can be used to resolve the story obstacle at hand. This is also the downside of this kind of freeform system as it might be hard to come up with the phrase or ability for the keyword. The game designer might provide a list of possible, and preferred, values for the keywords but these are mainly descriptions of the genre to give the players some creative juice on how to use their keywords. Coming up with the abilities and playing with them is especially hard if the player does not know about the genre. And this brings us to the topic of learning about a genre.

As Phil and Senda sain in the podcast episode, games with predefined playbooks that play well together and can have cross effects with each other are much more helpful to players new to the genre. It is quite nice to just read from the playbook what moves your character can do and how your character plays with that other character type (playbook) when they are doing their things. The player is handheld into the genre and taught, by highlighting certain tropes using the rules, how the genre works. Well, QuestWorlds does not hold hands. If the player wants to learn the genre they have to read or know about it so that they know what does a certain phrase means in that genre. For example, having an ability of “I clear standoffs” might mean totally different things in the Mexican cartel game and in the game based in the interesting world of poker.

It is true that QuestWorlds can be used, with just the SRD, without writing anything beforehand, to emulate any genre out there. Starting from scratch the players would just agree on the keywords and then use the rules as written. In the end, every genre is just stories and QuestWorlds handles stories well. But the other side of the coin is that you have to know the genre well beforehand. Or be willing to build your own version of the genre, bending the tropes to your liking. In the end, you can come up with more meaningful and fun abilities, and keywords, when you know what kind of stories are told in that specific genre.

Degree of the outcome helps in narration

The Pool of Blood – by Noxypia (CC-BY-NC-ND-3.0)

In QuestWorlds the story obstacles are resolved with contests. The main information we are looking for is if the heroes either gain a victory or a defeat (or a tie) in the obstacle and, based on the outcome, steer the story forward. Now, sometimes this binary outcome is enough, but the real meat of QuestWorlds is the Degree of Victory or Defeat.

There are multiple different contest types in QuestWorlds. There is the Simple Contest and the Group Simple Contest. From long contests, you can use either Extended Contests, Scored Contests, or Chained Contests. And these all with either a single participant or as a group activity. Any of these contests end in either victory or defeat (or a tie) and for all of these contests you can also determine the degree of the outcome.

A blunt yes/no answer to the framing of the contest tells if the heroes acquire the prize. The degree gives you more juice and surprise to include in the narration. Especially if your play style is more improvisational. This means that the GM is ready to be surprised by the players, and the dice, and ready to change the story to directions they didn’t envision at the beginning of the session. Saying things like “Yes, you acquire the prize, and there’s more. Tell me what it is.” or “You fail miserably. What does it mean that you failed so badly?” to improvisation minded player will surely stir totally new story aspects to the adventure you are having.

There are four levels for the outcome. They are described below. After the descriptions, there is a summary of how to determine the level in different contests.

Marginal outcome

This is the most common outcome in a simple contest with the Minor outcome (see more about QuestWorlds mathematics) depending a little bit on the target numbers. The heroes barely make it or lose it. You can use the “Yes, but” or “No, but” idea here. The prize of the contest is gained or lost but there is some extra aspect maybe giving them a little bit of trouble or open a new possibility. If there were any secondary objectives (more on that idea later in this blog) the player might choose if they acquire the main prize or the secondary prize.

Marginal victory can yield a +3 benefit or a -3 penalty. Depending on how the goal was set that bonus can be used (until a defeat occurs) next time using the ability or in some other contest where it makes sense. Try to narrate what the +3 bonus is. Is it just cleared mind or is it some kind of gadget or helping hand. Prepare to tell why the bonus didn’t help when it is lost.

Examples of Marginal Victories
Kallyr is trying to steal Jarkorl’s cow. She barely makes it and had to assault the unfortunate farmer feeding the cows. It is quite probable Jarkorl knows that she took the cow. At least she has the cow now.

Examples of Marginal Defeats
Kallyr sneaks into Jarkorl’s lands just to note that the cows are, for some reason, taken in. Did they know she was coming? Anyway, she has to return empty-handed.

Minor outcome

The minor outcome is the basic “you get what you wanted” or “no, not this time”. Look at the prize that was set in the framing. The heroes get it and they can continue their adventure as planned. Or they lose it and they have to come up with some new ideas. The minor outcome can still be narrated as tedious and hard. But, in the end, the outcome is clear.

As this degree might be a little bland compared to others with their “buts” and “ands” the penalties and bonuses could play a bigger role here. The minor outcome yields either a +6 bonus or -6 penalty (more about bonuses and penalties in the SRD and in this blog later). Narrate how achieving the goal gave them a boost or how they, on top of not getting the prize, took a beating and need to recover their wounds for a while. Or maybe the prize, if it was an item etc, can be described as this bonus.

Examples of Minor Victories
Kallyr sneaks into the field. The cows look at her with their stupid eyes. There is a person herding them but Kallyr passes them easily. She got a cow.

Examples of Minor Defeats
Kallyr sneaks into the field and is close to the cows. Unfortunately, the herder spots her and calls for help. She has to run. Since the wolves increased activity the herders have wielded bows too. The herder shoots her and she gets a bad bruise on her leg. That is gonna hurt for a while.

Major outcome

These are rarer but especially in contests with a mastery advance, they might happen more often. This can be interpreted as “Yes, And” or “No, And”. The goal, and the secondary goal, if any, was achieved clearly. Or both lost miserably. An expert would give an approving nod and a smile for the performance. Something cool should happen. Show that in the narration.

The bonus or penalty from a major outcome is +9 or -9. In system terms that is quite a change to the target number and should definitely be narrated as some kind of story device. Maybe having a follower or gaining an item.

Examples of Major Victories
Kallyr sneaks into the field. She can’t believe it. It is Jarkorl’s prize bull. Just standing there and eating the grass. She is careful but manages to snatch the bull. This is even better.

Examples of Major Defeats
Kallyr sneaks into the field and is close to the cows. Unfortunately, the herder spots her and calls for help. There is a fierce fight and Kallyr barely makes it out there killing some of the herders. This will be bought up later.

Fantasy Chest – by Dafne-1337art (CC-BY-NC-ND-3.0)

Complete outcome

This is the white whale (especially with no mastery difference). It only happens (roughly) once in every two hundred cases if you roll for a simple contest. You can think of the complete outcome as an extension of the major outcome. Only consider the effects permanent. The outcome should be grander and bigger and there should be new adventures to be had to thwart the consequences of having a complete defeat. Complete victory could solve the whole story arc in one go if that makes sense in the situation. In complete defeats, the consequences should be drastic. Companions or important NPCs might be lost for good.

There is no numeric penalty to the target numbers if a character suffers a complete defeat. Instead, the character really shouldn’t be contesting about anything at all until brought back. If they do, the penalty is an automatic bump down. After the complete victory, the bonus is an automatic bump up. That is a really strong bonus and you should think if that is only one-time use.

Examples of Complete Victories
Kallyr sneaks into the field. She can’t believe it. It is Jarkorl’s prize bull guarded by Jarkorl’s ten years old son. Cow-and-kidnapping, how convenient. The son will be ransomed later for good money.

Examples of Complete Defeats
Kallyr grabs the cow from the horns to walk it away. The moment she touches the horn someone, really close to her, says “Whats’ya doing?”. Soon, too soon, there are too many swords against her. They escort her to the barn for questioning.

Death of the player character

The outcome level should never kill the player character or otherwise remove them from the game permanently. That is something to be left for the player to decide. Even in most drastic situations you can, as we are simulating a story instead of the world, fade to black and come up with the group what happened between the “cliffhanger” moment and story getting again told. Or you, as a group, can decide that was the end of their story.

Plane Crash 5 by WeaponMassCreation (CC-BY-NC-ND-3.0)

Determining the level

For determining the degree you should familiarize yourself with the following table:

Roll resultsRankDegree of outcome
Both rolled exact same number and result0Tie
Both rolled the same result (critical-critical, success-success, failure-failure, fumble-fumble)1Marginal
One difference
(success-failure, critical-success, failure-fumble)
2Minor
Two difference (critical-failure, success-fumble)3Major
Three difference (critical-fumble)4Complete

The table is used in two ways. First, to determine a rank number from the opposed roll. Second, coming up with the degree of outcome from the rank number. All the logic of finding out the degree uses the table above.

Simple Contest

In single player participant (against an NPC or abstract force) simple contest the degree follows the rank. So rolling for example a success vs a failure (rank 2) would mean that the contest ends in Minor outcome.

Group Simple Contest

Every participant rolls their own opposed roll with the GM. Based on the rank they score either positive outcome points to themselves or the points go to the GM. The amount of points is the same as the rank of the roll.

In the end, calculate the difference between the points. That difference determines which side won (if the advance is for the players, the heroes won) and with what degree. The difference is the rank number to come up with the degree.

For example, with a group of mountain climbers trying to save their friend from the chasm they end up in points 4 for them and 1 for the GM. This means 3 point difference giving them a Major Victory. Maybe the climber they lifted up comes up with a clue where to find the airplane wreck they are looking for.

Extended Contest

In Extended Contest both the player and the GM bid APs (advantage points) and roll opposed rolls. The contest ends when either one is below zero. The outcome level is calculated from the loser’s AP total (it will be negative). Divide the absolute number (so, without the minus sign) by 10 and round up. That is the rank number that tells the outcome level.

The mountaineers find the plane wreck. Their leader, Jack, has to do a daring solo climbing to get them there before the storm renders their whole expedition useless. The climb has its ups and downs as Jack takes risks and safe moves. In the end Jack wins with the GM having -13 AP. The outcome is Minor Victory (13 / 10 = 1.3 rounded up to rank 2). Jack is at the ledge that leads them to the plane and others can follow him with the rope.

In a group extended contest the overall outcome level is determined by looking at the second-best (in the case of victory) or second-worst (in the case of defeat) outcome in the group.

Scored Contest

In Scored Contest, you roll once per round for every pairing scoring RP (Resolution Points) against the opponent. The number of scored RPs is determined by the rank of the opposed roll. Whichever side first scores 5 RP or more against them is out of the contest. To calculate the outcome level split the RP difference by two and round up. That is the final rank of the outcome and also the final degree.

The mountaineers have to fight a wolf pack at the plane wreck. Jack is fighting against the leader wolf with his pistol. After five rounds the leader wolf does its final attack scoring a 6-4 situation, for the wolf. Jack has 6 RP against him and is out of the contest. The difference is two points. Divided by two and rounding up means a rank of 1. So the outcome is a Marginal Defeat. Jack had to retreat to a crack in the mountain getting stuck there unable to help his team.

In a group extended contest the overall outcome level is determined by looking at the second-best (in the case of victory) or second-worst (in the case of defeat) outcome in the group. Luckily for Jack other players managed to render all the wolves out of the contest. Best of them made it with Major Victory and the other two with Marginal Victories. The second-best outcome is a Marginal Victory so the overall victory level is marginal. They killed the wolves except for the leader who managed to escape.

Chained contest

In a chained contest, the player and the GM roll simple contests until they are done with it. There really isn’t the final outcome in Chained Contests. The participants just gather penalties ending up in some bad shape before conceding from the contest.

You could use the final penalty tallied for the loser to determine the degree of the outcome. Read the final penalty from the table and determine the degree.

At least tallied penalty of the loserDegree of the outcome
-3Marginal
-6Minor
-9Major
-MComplete