Heroes of the Hearth is a GM-less, diceless story game by Stiainín Jackson. In Heroes of the Hearth, you tell the story of a group of villagers, the family and loved ones left behind by the fantasy adventurers who have left home to battle evil. It is included in Pelgrane Press’ Seven Wonders anthology.
I recently had a chance to play the game, and I ♥ it. (I “heart” it, you see, because the heart symbol stands for love and “heart” sounds like “hearth”… Visual wordplay is difficult, ok?)
Before playing it, I’d been worried whether I’d enjoy the game. The characters were all pre-generated and I was concerned they would be flat or hard to customise. The scene structure seemed paradoxically to be very rigid and yet offer little support.
Which just goes to show that you should never review roleplaying games without playing them, because my fears were unfounded and I had a great time. Let me tell you about it!
(This isn’t the first game from the Seven Wonders anthology that I have played, by the way. I was one of the playtesters for the game Rise and Fall by Elizabeth Lovegrove, and my name is included in the credits of that game. It’s not otherwise relevant to this blog post, but it’s the only place that my name is included in any published RPG so I’m quite proud of that.)
Creating the world
A game of Heroes of the Hearth starts with the players creating the world in which they’ll play. The default setting of the game is assumed to be a Dungeons & Dragons-style fantasy world of some description. It is, at the very least, a place where you’d expect to find adventurers like the Barbarian, Bard, Cleric, Paladin and Rogue. There is also implicitly a ruler, a capital, a threat, armies, soldiers, gods, and some sort of system for sending mail. It is the details beyond this that the players come up with.
Character creation is done by reading a scripted set of five paragraphs and five questions. This might seem restrictive, but we actually found that the script gave us a lot of scope for creativity, while at the same time focusing us on the most important things we needed to determine for the game.
In our game, we were a nomadic clan who lived in yurts and travelled by sled across a vast steppe. Culture revolved heavily around the dichotomy of Summer (when the steppe was arid and dusty) and Winter (when the steppe was beset by storms and thickly covered in snow). The two gods of the civilisation were twin deities, one of Summer and one of Winter, and the Emperor and Empress were thought to be the embodiments of these gods. Magically inclined and powerful people were said to be Children of Winter; those rooted in the mundane day-to-day were called Children of Summer. Sometimes a person could be a Child of both, but this was rare, and such people were treated as prophets in the local villages. All of this came out of the five scripted questions and the implications elsewhere in the book, e.g. on character sheets.
The last question of the script ties the broader setting back into the personal lives of the characters that we will be playing: “How did the village farewell its heroes?” This is one of the smartest and most important questions in the game. It says things about the world, but it also implies a lot about the sort of characters we’ll play and what they are going through when the game begins. The example in the book says that the village holds a mock funeral for their heroes, as they do not expect the heroes to return. In our game, we went in completely the opposite direction.
In our game, the farewell ceremony was a ritual intended to allow the heroes to find their home again (since the village was never in the same place twice). The ritual involved the heroes and their loved ones tying ribbons on each other’s bodies (arms, legs, fingers, etc.), magically linking them so that the heroes would be drawn home again once their quest was done.
Characters in Heroes of the Hearth are pre-generated. There are six to choose from, all related to one of the adventurers in specific ways, with fixed backstories and a question to be answered during the game. Even their names are fixed, although we used our own spelling for a couple of names to make them ours (and in retrospect it would be very easy to just use different names).
The only parts of the characters that are not pre-generated are their relationships with other characters, and even those are selected from lists of Bonds. The process of picking Bonds (every character has exactly 2) is similar in some ways to Bonds from Dungeon World (I wonder whether the name was chosen for this reason). The lists provided are excellent at encouraging drama and conflict during play, which is important because after character creation is done Heroes of the Hearth doesn’t have many levers to make the game more dramatic if players aren’t doing it themselves.
In our game, we had three players and therefore three characters:
- Adair, my character, husband of the Barbarian woman Kain (who was restless even by the standards of our nomadic clan);
- Kailan, the local healer, twin sister of Ranya (spelled “Rayna” in the book) the Cleric; and
- Aurou (spelled “Avron” in the book), the Child of Summer and Winter and local prophet.
Aurou is a weird character because they do not have a hero of their own. Instead, they are the secret lover of one of the other heroes. This adds a level of connection to other player characters in addition to the standard Bonds, which is great for driving even more drama but it also makes the community feel smaller by reducing the number of developed NPCs. This is already an issue with the game because there is no GM to play NPCs, and the group of player characters can feel tight and insular.
In our game, in fact, Aurou was connected to both of the heroes. They were the secret lover of Ranya, with an unhealthy and obsessive relationship that had driven a wedge between Ranya and Kailan. (Someone likened Aurou and Ranya’s relationship to the film Picnic at Hanging Rock, although at the time I was thinking of Heavenly Creatures, which I had forgotten the name of.)
Aurou was also Kain’s child, having been brought back to the village as a baby when Kain returned from one of her numerous trips. Maybe Adair was Aurou’s biological father, but Kain said nothing and nobody else really knew for sure. When growing up, Aurou was left with Adair when Kain went travelling. Adair refused to acknowledge the commitment of fatherhood (referring to Aurou as Kain’s child, not his own), but he nevertheless raised Aurou and was there for Aurou when needed.
Adair had unspoken feelings for Kailan, and Aurou also developed confusing feelings for Kailan, who looked identical to Ranya except for her eye colour and hairstyle (her braid hanging on the other side).
These relationships, especially Aurou’s parentage, were extrapolated somewhat from the Bonds on the character sheet, but didn’t contradict anything. We felt this was in the spirit of the game, since the Bonds are designed to inspire and encourage drama, not to limit creativity by being the only relationships that the characters have.
My only real issue with character creation is that none of the player characters is a parent or elder of one of the heroes. The game suggests that people left behind could include the old and infirm, but all of the player characters are implied to be the same age as the heroes or younger. It seems like a missed opportunity, but a minor one.
Playing the game
The game is divided into three Acts and an Epilogue, separated by short interludes in which time passes and letters are sent or received. Every player will frame one scene per Act, and the Epilogue is made up of snapshots during the attack on the village when the threat arrives.
Letters are an interesting way of keeping the adventurers involved in the ongoing story without them being present. Our adventurers felt well developed, and rumours like the Emperor’s demand that all soldiers must shave their heads (cutting off their village braids) and wear his uniform (removing their ceremonial ribbons) really hit home to the player characters.
In addition to the drama that arises from interpersonal relationships, the players are motivated to answer the personal questions that are written on their character sheets. For example, Adair’s asks “What are you afraid of?” We hit these answers quite regularly, answering Adair’s question in Act 2, Aurou’s in Act 3, and Kailan’s in the Epilogue.
Adair: “What are you afraid of?”
Adair most feared that Kain would not return from her travels this time. He put so much of himself into the Ribbon Ceremony that he was being magically drained of energy. Kailan noticed this and became determined to save him, but Adair brushed off her concern and compensated for his weakness by taking too much restorative potion, which were damaging with extended use. He finally kicked that habit after Kailan confronted him about his actions and made him acknowledge his fear, but their relationship was strained as a result. Eventually, Adair accepted his fatherhood responsibility for Aurou, and asked Kailan to remove his ribbon, knowing that Kain might never return home, so that he would be strong enough to join the fight against the threat when it came.
Aurou: “Do you really believe in the gods?”
Aurou coped badly after Ranya left, and formed an attachment to Kailan, whom they had previously had little dealing with. Although the village relied on Aurou to lead them to a safe place to settle, Aurou lied about this in order to please Kailan by settling down sooner. Shortly after this, when the two were alone together, Kailan put on a mask (hiding her eyes and increasing her resemblance to Ranya) and Aurou kissed Kailan, after which Kailan avoided being in Aurou’s presence. A month later, Aurou stole Ranya’s ribbon from Kailan’s finger (Aurou having no ribbon from any of the heroes) and burned it in a ritual designed to bring Ranya home. The failure of this ritual led to Aurou losing their faith in the gods (answering their question). After being accused of selfishness by Kailan, Aurou’s status in the community was reduced. Adair stepped in as Aurou’s father at this stage, insisting that what Aurou did was wrong, but he also hugged them and supported them during their crisis of faith.
Kailan: “What is your secret illness?”
When the threat arrived, all three attempted to hold off the attackers. In the midst of the fighting, Kailan’s heart skipped a beat. The ribbon that Aurou had stolen had anchored Kailan’s weak heartbeat to Ranya’s stronger heartbeat, and without the ribbon Kailan would soon die. She survived long enough to get most of the villagers to escape the attack, and was later honoured as one of the village fallen.
After the threat has gone, Adair helps set up the village in a new location, finally accepting responsibility and becoming a leader of the community. Aurou is never seen after the attack, but someone mysterious begins to pamphlet that the gods do not exist.
A few years later, Kain reappears out of the wilderness. Despite earlier rumours, she never cut off her braid or never condescended to wear the uniform of the ruler’s armies. She comes back holding the ribbon that Adair removed (she always said she didn’t need it), embraces Adair when they are reunited, and then introduces him to a young child that she has carried. Her child. As with Aurou, Adair does not know whether he is this baby’s father by blood (it’s possible), but this time he accepts fatherhood without reservation.
For the record, I ♥ Kain and Adair too.
I enjoyed Heroes of the Hearth. I would definitely play it again. I also think it might be interesting to try using it as preparation for a longer campaign, e.g. using it as the first session for its world creation and then picking up in subsequent sessions by playing the heroes. I think this would work, as long as everyone knew that this was the plan from the start.
I would totally play a Swords Without Master game starring Kain, for instance.
In the very long term, I do think that the script and pre-generated characters might make the game feel samey, but that would be only after many games and by then I think it will be clear enough to players that they can customise the script and characters to refresh it and make it interesting again. Fiasco has a huge selection of playsets that can provide inspiration for Bonds (see also my previous blog posts on group character creation), and the World War 2 French Resistance hack, also included in Seven Wonders, shows how easy it could be to just tweak and re-skin the game and make it feel completely new.
I’d love to hear other play reports, if you’ve had a chance to run this game. There was another group playing it at the same time I did, and we could hear laughter from their table almost constantly. We enjoyed it, they enjoyed it. I hope you enjoy it too. Let me know!