Review: ‘Heroine’

heroineHeroine is a story game for 3-6 players in which a young female character undertakes a magical journey and fights through obstacles to confront the antagonist…and herself. Inspired by Labyrinth, Spirited Away, MirrorMask, The Wizard of Oz and many similar stories of human girls in fantastical worlds, one player in Heroine takes on the role of the Heroine, one the Narrator and any others the Heroine’s quirky Companions who help her through her journey.

There is something very likeable about Heroine. The production for the book is stunning, with photos of heroines and monsters, companions and crumbling halls. The idea of a tabletop game that focuses on what is for the most part a female archetype* (see also Princess: the Hopeful) is unusual: the young woman who must learn who she truly is and face her own dark side before achieving self-actualisation has been drawing people into fantasy worlds for a very long time.

Heroine has a set of mechanics that enforce a particular pattern to scenes, but this is partly to reflect the way that these kinds of stories follow a very distinctive narrative, beginning with the dissatisfaction of the heroine with her mundane life and culminating with her self-actualisation and return to her world, armed to face the challenges real life brings. Without this structure, the story lacks the emotional punch that makes films like Labyrinth and MirrorMask so compelling. It does mean that the scenes players go through are mandated quite strictly – while this might not have crunchy combat mechanics, it is far from rules-light.

There is a random element – you roll 2d6 to see if you succeed at challenges, but as with many other story games, failure changes the narrative rather than stopping the party in their tracks. Failure in this context is an obstacle or a complication, and as such it becomes a powerful narrative tool rather than a disappointment. As with a game like Monsterhearts, however, I suspect it is probably important to let the story move on its own and not hold on too tightly, which can be a challenge. In a game with such a strong narrative, it can be tempting to plan it out in advance and try to decide where it’s going next, but the beauty of gaming is that the narrative is shaped by a number of factors, and your headcanon is only one of them.

It is a no- or minimum-prep game, which means the structure is actually very helpful. Despite being rooted in such a strong genre, the variations within that genre are wide, so you can easily play a fantastical game with tones of whimsy, horror or humour. I have to say that, while the game is relatively well explained, the mechanics are a bit difficult to get your head around while reading them, but I imagine that working through them as a group will improve as people become more familiar with the style. If used as an introductory game for someone less experienced at roleplaying, at least one person who was more fluent in the mechanics of Heroine and more confident at framing scenes would be helpful. The game also suggests that the group plays multiple games, with a different Heroine player each time, which is a good way of easing someone into the different demands a roleplaying game can make on players and GMs.

Heroine is an excellent game set in a genre that is often referenced in other games but is rarely fully emulated. The narrative structure means that even people who are less experienced with the genre won’t struggle with the template. While I would hesitate to recommend this to someone new to roleplaying (like, say, Polaris, it can have a challenging difficulty curve in terms of the concepts behind it), if you’re interested in story games with heart and wonder, this is a great pick.

* On gender: I don’t think there is anything wrong with the idea of playing the Heroine as any gender. The genre almost exclusively uses a female protagonist, and that is a valuable and interesting side of the narrative (as it is one of the few ways that female characters have been well represented in the ‘coming of age’ story – perhaps there is something interesting to consider in why this is such a female-dominated story form, but I digress…). However, I’m generally of the opinion that gender restrictions in anything are pretty arbitrary. Do what’s best for the narrative. It’s worth considering whether you’re comfortable with defaulting to the female protagonist – so many of our narratives default to male protagonists that it can be a good chance to break out of the kind of character you usually play, if you mainly play cis-gendered male characters.

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