Bitter Irony of HeroQuest

HeroQuest is a new version of Hero Wars, which in turn is based in the same world that RuneQuest was based in.

For many formative years, I adored RuneQuest. Way back in 1978, it featured rules for fantasy roleplaying that echo through modern game designs. The effect RuneQuest had on me is clear to see in the design of 3rd Ed. D&D. RQ was one of the very few games for which I bought supplements, adventures, and campaign settings because the game world, Glorantha, was as cool as the game system. I played a lot of RuneQuest, but one thing I never did was take my campaign to Sartar.

In RuneQuest, you started as a pretty regular person. Uniquely to gaming at the time, your character was part of a culture, with an ethnic, religious, and class background that gave you a place in the world. Empire of the Petal Throne, a contemporary RPG, had an amazing culture, but characters were foreign barbarians rather than people reared in that culture. In RuneQuest, despite a character's humble beginnings, one could hope to attain hero status some day and journey to the world of the gods (at least once the long-promised HeroQuest game was published), but you started as a member of the mundane community. In RQ, everyone could try just about every skill, and you could make checks against your basic ability scores to cover whatever situation might come along. You could mess around in town, the system handled your actions, and the setting gave you a sense of place.

But one place that was off-limits was Sartar. Ironically, this was also that place that was most talked about. It's where the great god Orlanth held sway and his brave people ruled. Or maybe they didn't rule, exactly, because the chaotic, moon-worshiping imperials had invaded. Or maybe there were about to invade. It wasn't all that clear. But Sartar was where the action was at. Like the game HeroQuest, the Sartar campaign setting was promised.

The Sartar campaign setting never came about. Instead, the supplements feature arid plains, frontier cities, ruins, borderlands, and troll lands, but no Sartar. There was an adventure set in Sartar, but it was in a tiny town that wasn't part of the big picture. Avalon Hill bought the game and did chaos kingdoms and cults across the world, but no Sartar campaign setting.

Then, years later, Greg Stafford got Robin D. Laws to do Hero Wars, an RPG much more focused on Glorantha, with free-form mechanics that would allow the imaginative supernatural elements of the world to come to life. What's more, tremendous details about life in Sartar were released to support the game: clan life, economy, marriage, class structure, etc. You even had stats for regular people in the clan, the folks with regular lives who take up spears and put on their helmets when Chaos and invaders threaten the homestead.

But those people are not what Hero Wars is about. It's about the near-heroes that roam about the land on mighty quests, people that fly or make rocks sing.

Finally, the Sartar campaign information is here, with details about the lives of regular people. But it's attached to a game that isn't built to work on that scale. I love the Hero Wars support material and have had fun playing the game, but it's sad to think that all this good stuff took so long to surface that it can no longer serve the purpose it once could have served.

December 2003