Heroes of the Hearth
Designed by Stiainín Jackson and Published by Pelgrane Press as part of the 7 Wonders Anthology Available at the Pelgrane Press site.
Pelgrane Press has recently published a fantastic anthology of story games, titled “Seven Wonders”. I will be preparing short reviews of all seven games within the book as part of my “Indie Gems” series. The third of these is a game by Stiainín Jackson, titled “Heroes of the Hearth Rise and Fall”.
The introduction begins as follows.
Today, we do not sing of the adventurers. Today, we sing of the people behind the adventurers. We sing of their stories. We sing of their struggles. We sing of how they themselves deal with the threat that holds their lands in thrall – the threat that dragged their loved ones from their sized. The Heroes of the Hearth.
This is a complex and well-crafted game that focusses on the loved ones whom the adventurers left behind. Each person portrays one of the various individuals from the village who are related to one of the mighty adventurers: the spouse of the Barbarian, sibling of the Paladin, Child of the Bard, or the Rogue’s betrothed. Each of the player characters are defined by a key question you aim to answer in play, such as “What are you afraid of” or “Do you really believe in the gods?”. They also have a list of potential bonds with the other player characters, such as “You idolise this person and want to be just like them” or “This person is a threat to your business”. These few elements bring enough richness and characterization that a robust community drama can emerge.
Drama does indeed emerge out of this relationship web. Play proceeds through a series of acts, corresponding to interactions with the great darkness. Act 1 involves the characters writing letters to the adventurers, while Act 2 involves hearing rumours and news from the front. Act 3 includes letters from the adventurers, which is then followed by an attack from the threat. In each of the first three acts, players declare if their characters appear strong or weak, in the face of the difficult situation. Those strength and weakness checks will inform how the village will respond to the threat’s attack.
The game builds these beautiful tragedies, offering player all of the tools for safety (X-card), improvisation (Yes-and), and vulnerability (playing to lose). The game reminds me in many ways to Montsegur 1244 or Witch: Road to Lindisfarne, with the pre-generated characters doomed to an inevitability tragic situation. The system is streamlined and clean, while offering ample tools for storytelling.
I thought quite highly of this game, and then I discovered the additional scenario at the back. This additional scenario changes the context of play, from Tolkeinesque fantasy to French villagers in World War II. This thoughtful, additional scenario is excellent, and has seduced me even more than the original one. The game is perfectly calibrated to tell human stories, and it’s an excellent reference for future designs.