Because, seriously, HeroQuest.
It’s important to understand that I wouldn’t be a gamer today if it wasn’t for HeroQuest. And as I owe every major social (and thereby both romantic and professional) accomplishment past the age of about 10 to Dungeons and Dragons, I would literally not be here today if it wasn’t for HeroQuest.
Though if it weren’t for HeroQuest, it’s no surprise I wouldn’t be writing about HeroQuest.
Anyway, I got HeroQuest before I was a fantasy reader. At the time—and we’re talking maybe 7 or 8 years old here, at the oldest—I was a science fiction, particularly Ray Bradbury, man. And a Dave Barry man. I knew a lot of filthy, filthy jokes for a 7 year-old. But somehow, HeroQuest made it under my Christmas tree; I imagine…were there commercials? After a moment’s Google, the answer is yes. So it must have been due to the commercials, followed by me presumably begging for months to get the game.
I have to assume that there was begging because my parents had zero interest in the game; the same was true of my friends, and my brother (a valued guinea pig when I started DnD) was approximately one. That means, also, that HeroQuest was less a “game” and more a field of study. I’d read the booklet. I’d imagine how the game would play out. I’d set up the board and play by myself. I’d pack the pieces up for a few days or weeks, then start things over. Written out, that almost sounds sad…but shit if I didn’t love it at the time, and wouldn’t go back immediately and play through it solo if I could. If I hadn’t been mucking around with HeroQuest I would have been smashing action figures into one another; even then, I scripted such elaborate storylines for my Ninja Turtles that I might as well have been playing HeroQuest (Muckman: “How could you DO this?” General Traag: “Because I’m your brother.”)
Within perhaps a year of getting HeroQuest, I found a copy of The Sword of Shannara in my grandfather’s basement. Please note that when I say “a copy,” I mean that copy, the one there’s a picture of in the Wiki. I started reading it and basically strapped in for a complete personality overhaul. This is despite my never reading the next book in the Shannara series, nor any of the subsequent ones except for…Scions? And that was a purchase my mother made without really knowing what the book was, just knowing there was a dude with a scythe and a saddled reptile on the cover.
I still distinctly recall, too, that at about five chapters into Sword I started writing a HeroQuest conversion of the book. So the game is directly responsible for my penchant for homebrewing, tough I suppose if I’d read Shannara first it could have played out in reverse, with me getting HeroQuest and thinking it was just like the series. Once I realized it was possible to twist the game, though, I started writing and crafting all manner of things. By the time my family moved out of Casper—around 4th grade, this—I had folders full of alternate class and monster builds. As my context grew more sophisticated, the complexity of my builds increased. I still recall erasing an entire legal pad page of spells I’d painstakingly written out (they were the “heal” school of spells, one of maybe 20 different schools I was working on) after I started playing Final Fantasy. I erased them because I’d just found my first DnD PHB and realized that was the gold-standard to which all of my creations must henceforth conform.
The thing that got me thinking about HeroQuest, though, was my love song to Orcs. I was thinking about how much I enjoyed playing them, after the post went up, and I remembered that HeroQuest was actually a Warhammer property. I didn’t know what a Warhammer was at the time, and wouldn’t have been able to fathom the dark gothic fantasy setting even if I had. But I realized that part of why it feels so right to play a black orc is that this is what orcs look like, in my mind. And I’ll grant that it’s not an especially perfect rendering of a black orc; the proportions are a little off, and it doesn’t reek of size the way my WAR character does. He also looks pretty happy, but he still communicates the salient points: Green. Sword. Muscles.
Similarly, the undead figures in HeroQuest were so intricate that they opened my eyes to just how detailed a plastic figure could be. I had far more undead than other figures, because one of my few trips to a Toys “R” Us (They don’t really have those in Wyoming, and they sure as hell didn’t when I was a wee thing) netted me the Return of the Witch King expansion, which was understandably corpse-centric. This little bastard and his meat-cleaver polearm have been burned into my brain for two decades, and I cannot escape the fundamental coolness of a meat cleaver-style weapon. I also loved how he was a little pigeon-toed, which somehow communicated a shambling walk with incredible efficacy. He was a figure with so much personality that my imagination couldn’t help but be seized.
And, of course, the Chaos Knight was possibly the most badass plastic figure attached to a boardgame produced in the 90s (because, you know, Descent exists now). Full plate, the horned helm (but not a Viking-style horned helm). The way he couched his axe against his hip in order to suggest both that it was hells-of-heavy and that he couldn’t care less. That detailed, threatening fist. I put together a mod of a boardgame in 5th grade and drew up the evil knight to look like the Chaos Knight because he was so iconic it didn’t occur to me he was under copyright. I just thought that’s what badasses looked like. And, as true today as it was back then, that is what badasses look like.
Finally, I think that the Elf character is probably responsible for most of my character-building iconoclasty. Dude swung a mean sword. Dude could cast a few spells. Dude didn’t crumpled under a single harsh look (though two and he was pretty well sunk). He did everything, and that seemed infinitely better to me at seven than the idea of doing one thing especially well. I could never understand the dwarf’s appeal, even though he actually did something no one else was capable of. He was specialized, whereas the elf was a generalist. But more than just that, the elf felt infinitely more customizeable. If you picked Air spells, you were a tricky warrior. If you picked Earth you were durable and resilient. If you picked Water—or either of those other two—you obviously weren’t Seth at seven, because he picked Fire every damn time. It was free damage! Just…damage for free!
When I realized I was going to write about HeroQuest, I actually went back and re-read all of the spell cards, and realized that the Air spell summoned a genie who could make a five die swing at any monster on the board. I promise you that I had no comprehension of what that ability did when I was a wee child. It wasn’t fire, I couldn’t grasp it.
Anyway, I’m a gamer because of HeroQuest; this is a thing I can state with certainty. Is that unusual? Not so much the HeroQuest bit, but being able to point a finger directly at why this hobby that cobbles together imagination and oddly-marked and/or shaped dice is a part of one’s life? Do you know why you do it?