Thursday, July 30, 2015

Playtest Findings: Escape Hatch Frequency

This week's playtesting conversations have all revolved around a mechanic called Divine Intervention, and the weighty issues of character death and its impact on both players and the story. So obviously, that's all easy to solve, right?

Playtesting Issue: It is difficult to tell if the frequency of "escape hatches" for characters is balanced over a long period of play.

This is going to need a little explanation, so bear with me. Divine Intervention is a mechanic that rescues characters from death; it can be used by any Hero if they have just died, are about to die, or are otherwise about to be completely unable to escape from some form of certain doom. Each Hero may call a Divine Intervention for themself whenever necessary, after which a god (usually their divine patron, but you never know) or some other divine phenomenon rescues them; but they may only do so once per tier.

And since I can't remember if we explained that previously, there are three tiers of heroic power! Each Hero starts at the bottom as a Mortal, and if they successfully survive and thrive for long enough, they can evenutally reach the Immortal tier, and finally the Divine, at which point they are deities in their own rights. Tiers usually take a long time to progress through - they're each a third of a given Hero's lifetime, after all, so they're multiple Sagas long and nothing to sneeze at - so while having the ability to call down certain rescue immediately is very powerful, it's also nothing that should be expended carelessly, and once it's happened, it won't be replaced for a very long time.

This week, the Thursday playtest game used their third Divine Intervention out of five Heroes, which, as you might imagine, is significantly faster than we had planned or anticipated them being used. So, while Hermes dragged a pile of half-dead Heroes out of police custody and expressed his extreme disappointment in their life choices, John and I discussed whether or not the balance of Divine Interventions was too low for the needs of these players, who seem likely to need more help before they're through.

This is a very difficult question, because frankly we just don't have the sample size we need to get good data on it. Ideally, we'd need to look at, like, one hundred different games over the course of an entire tier to see if Divine Interventions are either too liberal or too scarce to do tehir job effectively, and we're just not going to get that much testing before the game goes to press. Clearly, this particular game would mostly likely have lost the entire party to death or permanent destruction multiple times without being able to call for a Divine Intervention, so they obviously need them a lot. But then again, their first Saga has (as lovingly described in a previous post, you guys are great!) lasted a lot longer than planned and they've managed to not only create additional problems of their own but also allow the original problems to spiral out of control, so they may not be a great example of an average Saga's worth of danger. The Wednesday morning playtest, on the other hand, has never used even one, but they also played a shorter Saga with shorter Chapters, and thus had fewer dangerous times when they ran out of resources or got into protracted trouble.

It's also worth noting while considering this issue that each Hero's per-tier Divine Intervention aren't the only "escape hatches" in the game. Some Heroes have extra Divine Interventions from having a divine patron who is a minor god (and thus more available to come bail their sorry butts out when they're in trouble, as opposed to the major gods who are too busy for that) or getting a particular Divine Favor, and changing how many of these a Hero gets automatically will change the worth of those bonuses. Heroes who invest in the Trickster Aspect also get access to the Gambit system, which is vastly more unreliable than the Divine Intervention system but still has a decent chance of getting them out of the frying pan, and may be able to help other Heroes around them if it goes well. And while there aren't any larger systems for saving Heroes who are about to fall over, there are several Blessings that can be individually used as escape hatches to save Heroes from imminent mortal peril under some circumstances or with certain resource expenditures.

So, the question is: how often is too often? Without any extra benefits, every Hero will have the chance of getting a Divine Intervention to save them from death free of charge twice in their lifetime (Divine Heroes no longer get Divine Interventions, since they themselves are... well, divine). If they want more than that, they have to invest in powers or systems that give them more escape hatches, if they think they might need them. Avoiding death completely for free twice just for existing is more than a lot of games would provide to a player character, but is it good enough for Hero's Journey? Would giving them more be way too much? What about Heroes who, by stacking as much escape hatchery as possible, have three Divine Interventions, twenty-plus Gambits, and three Blessings in an attempt to make themselves unkillable? If we make survival easier for the less inclined to min-max, are we letting that person make themself unfairly eternal?

We definitely don't want death to be something that players don't have cause to fear, or that is supremely unlikely ever to happen. For one thing, knowing you could lose a Hero is an important motivator for players to do a good job and use their resources and skills wisely; if there's no pressure from the possibility of losing a character and no urgency making them want to avoid messing up, they don't have a good reason to take anything in the game particularly seriously. On the other hand, we don't want them dropping like flies, and since we know losing a character sucks, we want to avoid making it likely for players to have to go through that all the time.

And, of course, death is also a very common and important motif in heroic myth, and it can and should be part of HJ sometimes. Death is part of some Heroes' stories - in fact, especially at the Mortal level, it's the end of a lot of Heroes' stories - so it should sometimes be part of the stories of Heroes controlled by players. Other Heroes also often deal with the death of a fellow as part of their stories; completely apart from the mechanical considerations of accidentally-immortal characters, we also don't want death to be completely absent from the game so that its mythic impact can never be used in anyone's Sagas.

Possible Solutions:

We have totally not solved this one yet, so we're looking at a sort of grab bag of ideas, and running a lot of possibility math in order to try to guess the curve on that fictional "one hundred games" sample size we mentioned above. We like the Divine Intervention mechanic overall, since it h as a good place in mythic stories and we like Heroes to have a better-than-average chance of survival to go with their better-than-average chance of getting murdered, but how to go about using it is still up in the air.

If we end up running with the idea that Heroes need more escape hatches, we've discussed these possibilities:

  • Heroes get one Divine Intervention per Saga instead of per tier, making it much less likely that they'll immediately blow them all at the beginning and never have an option again. On the other hand, this might cause that whole "immortal PCs" problem we were talking about.
  • The Heroes as a group get a communal pool of Divine Interventions, which allows us to set an appropriate number of them, and also allows them to be used for whomever needs them instead of being just one shot per individual Hero.

If we end up going with the idea that Heroes need fewer escape hatches, we've discussed these possibilities:

  • Rather than each Hero having a Divine Intervention to blow, each entire group of Heroes has one, most likely per Saga instead of per tier, which they decide to use via consensus. This would allow the DI to refresh more frequently, but not give the group a never-ending font of them so that they never actually get into trouble.
  • Hero's get only one Divine Intervention ever, barring whatever bonuses we keep in play, rather than multiples existing.

Right now, we're really not sure which direction we're leaning; we're pretty sure Heroes don't need a lot more escape hatches, regardless of the difficulties the playtest game is having right now, but we're also not sure that means they need a bunch fewer, either, or that the current configuration of them is at its optimal setup right now. It's probably going to be an ongoing conversation for a while, since it doesn't have an easy answer and we probably won't be able to get that information out of the small pool of playtests we have.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Playtest Findings: Narrative Time and Resources

It's time for things we've learned from the playtest groups again! This week, we're looking at issues of time management in Hero's Journey's resource systems.

Playtesting Issue: Resources based on narrative time may be overly variable based on a particular group's Chapter and Saga lengths.

So, first of all, Hero's Journey measures things happening in the lives and times of Heroes in narrative chunks, rather than exclusively in real-time (although some parts of the game use that, too). We already mentioned Chapters and Sagas in our last playtesting post, but Heroes also experience Episodes, which are single events or situations that are contained within Chapters, and Epics, which describe multiple Sagas over the entire course of their heroic career.

Heroes have a lot of neat resources they can spend to do neat things, as I'm sure you're all aware. One of those resources is referred to as Labors (yes, as in Of Herakles!), and Heroes use Labors for most of their special skills, magical powers, and when they need to struggle to try to achieve something that might normally be outside their grasp. They have three pools of Labors, which refresh based on narrative time; some Labors come back at the end of each Episode, some each Chapter, and some only at the end of an entire Saga.

Obviously, these create different levels of scarcity in a given Hero's Labor economy; Episode Labors come back multiple times per game session, so they're much easier to spend without worrying about running out, while Chapter Labors are more precious and require more conservation to make sure a Hero doesn't run out with too much of the Chapter left to go, and Saga Labors return so seldom that they are generally only spent when a Hero really feels that it's worth it (or they have no choice).

However, since narrative time is variable - how long a Chapter or Saga is depends on what's happening, when players can meet in Real Life Time, and how long a GM likes their stories to run, to give some examples - it's a little harder to make sure that it remains consistent enough to be balanced, at least as far as making sure resources behave properly goes.

Unlike a lot of playtesting issues, this isn't a surprise that came out of watching people play; we knew this was a potential issue, and were instead waiting to see how it might shake out when it actually came to the playtests. As expected, there are serious effects based on time spent; while we found that Episode Labors generally keep their economy together pretty well since Episodes are about things happening and give Heroes a generally good opportunity to spend them as needed, and Saga Labors can become less valuable in shorter Sagas but generally still remain more valuable than the other two... Chapter Labors have some issues.

Since a Chapter is a single game session, during which real-life people spend real-life time playing, its duration depends completely on the players and how much time they have, not to mention how much of that time they like spending on a single activity in one shot. For reference, when playing in the style and timeframe we like, our Chapters generally tend to be about six hours long - we like to settle in for a whole evening. But we've also run Chapters that were much longer - I think our record still sits with several all-day marathon weekend sessions that were in the neighborhood of 12-14 hours long - and much shorter.

For two of our playtest games, we've been experimenting with shorter Chapter durations - one run around midday at only about three hours long, and this past week we ran our usual Thursday playtest game at a shortened duration of only four hours. What we've been seeing is that the balance of the game does tilt when its duration is shortened - Chapter Labors become "cheaper", since they don't have to be saved for events in a later few hours that may not be happening, and therefore powers that use Chapter Labors (which are usually more potent than those run by Episode Labors) are more commonly thrown around.

Possible Solutions:

The number of Chapter Labors a Hero has is generally static and depends on various factors at character creation as well as the Hero's current power level, so it doesn't vary very much. We could suggest that GMs put a Chapter Labor "tax" on their characters if they play particularly short Chapters... but to be honest, we don't much like that idea. No players like to be told that they have to lose their resources and do less cool heroic stuff because they need sleep/had to go to class/couldn't get a babysitter for more than three hours or anything else, and since there are things and powers Heroes can do to get more Chapter Labors within the game itself, these measures would just make those feel "mandatory" and still not fix the balance issue very well.

We're still discussing a few ideas, but at the moment, we're leaning toward saying this issue doesn't directly have a "fix", but rather should be addressed by some advice for GMs in the Saga-crafting chapter of the book. If you're the GM for a particular game, you're the only one who will be able to tell if the Heroes are overpowered by being able to use Chapter Labors for more things in a short game, or if they're being held back by long Chapters preventing them from using resources as often as they should; we can't guess that, since every game will have its own duration. Even if these things are happening, some groups may be fine with them - some may like the high-octane action of being able to use Chapter Labors all the time, and others may appreciate that need for careful conservation of Labors in long game sessions and the planning challenge of deciding when to use them.

To provide some helpful options, we can tell GMs that if they are feeling like this is a problem, they can adjust their Chapters' events to suit. In short Chapters, where the Heroes might be spending their Labors more freely than the GM would like since they want to use them on something, adding more challenges or enemies to those short spans of time can help make sure the players still have to consider the best time to use their Labors. In long Chapters, where the Heroes are grimly apportioning their Labors out over perhaps too much time to be comfortable, the GM can give them a little more leisurely freedom to decide when the crisis moments are, or possibly provide them with options to succeed that either don't require Chaper Labor expenditure or allow them the possibility to regain or use other resources instead.

At the end of the day, this is something we can't directly control within our realm as developers and writers; gamers play in their own way and their own time, and we would never want to make something that tried to stop them from doing so. So this will likely be a place where we provide possibilities and suggestions for GMs, but no firm rules, in the hopes of giving individual games the tools they need to address it if it's an issue for them, and let any other games that don't care continue on their merry way.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Playtest Findings: Advancement for the Leisurely Character

Hey, y'all! Since we have a lot of late-stage (as in, pretty much the final form of the game) playtests going on right now and will be adding one more soon, we spend a lot of our non-editing time in playtesting and taking notes about what's happening and what interesting or useful things we're learning from the process. And here we are to share that info with you (along with hefty helpings of spoilers)!

This week, our playtesting notes have revolved how long games and chronicles run, and how that affects character advancement in the long run.

Playtesting Issue: Games that run for significantly longer periods of time than intended are "rewarded" with greater XP gains.

So, in Hero's Journey, each game is referred to as a Chapter, and a full arc of a heroic story is referred to as a Saga (so you have a number of Chapters inside your Saga). Characters progress by earning points of Renown, representing their increasing heroism and recognition in the world, which they receive some of at the end of each Chapter that they play.

Renown in HJ is flat - you always get the same amount of it for a Chapter of play, and all things you can purchase with it have flat costs that do not scale or change over time or as you get higher "levels" of things, which makes it very easy to know what everything costs and how to plan your character's progression. However, while this is not a problem on the drawing board (when is it ever?), we're noticing it becoming an issue in one of the live playtests.

Now, I have to tell you, we love this playtest game. It's a lot of fun, it has a good group of players (some who have played a lot of other RPGs, others who have only ever dipped their toes in D&D), and they have a blast both in and out of character. So when I say the following things about this game, understand, players, if you're out there, that it's out of love.

Basically, this game is full of characters that are terrible at doing their jobs.

When John designed the playtest game, he created the story for the Saga and set up the general shape of it and what kinds of challenges might await the players, like you do; and as part of this, he estimated about how many Chapters he figured would be needed, and how far this would allow the characters to progress at their flat rate of Renown. Obviously, there's some wiggle room built in - you'll never know exactly how many Chapters a given Saga will require, and there's always a chance your players will be surprisingly efficient and finish well before you thought that they would, or drag things on and finish after your projection. As a GM building the game, John might say, "Okay, I estimate this Saga should take somewhere between 8-10 Chapters to complete its goal," and plan accordingly.

Alas, the characters in this game had other ideas. Between heroically avoiding danger, dramatically discovering red herrings that grab their attention away from the main task set to them by their divine patrons, mystically getting lost in magical worlds they weren't even scheduled to visit yet, and bravely spending perhaps more time in the hospital and/or jail than is healthy, they have already spent more Chapters attempting to complete their mission than originally expected, and they're still not likely to finish without several more to go.

It's important to note that this is totally all right. Games don't have rigid demands on their timelines, after all; as long as everyone is having fun and getting to tell interesting stories, by all means, let them do so as long as they want to. Nobody's mad at these players, and they're not doing anything wrong; the only thing that's causing an issue is that because they've gone so far over the original planned timeline, they're starting to "level up", so to speak, in spite of not being out of their training wheels Saga yet.

This causes various auxiliary problems - the GM now has to do more complicated and difficult balancing of challenges and encounters because some of the characters have had room to "out-level" the others, at least for the time being (for example, combat situations that challenge the character who has stacked herself to wreak mayhem are likely to smash the non-combat-focused characters flat, because enemies who are powerful enough to fight the fighter are too dangerous for the non-coms to defend themselves against). Some enemies planned for later stages fo the Saga are simply not competitive against the Heroes anymore the longer time goes on as well, since while the GM can adjust their stats to try to make them feasible as enemies for the Heroes, sometimes they hit a certain wall where that character or creature can no longer be souped up and has to be completely replaced or thrown away. There are also issues revolving around certain mechanics that are available only a certain number of times per Saga, making them by default more precious in this long-running Saga than in one of the originally expected length. And, while it's a distant possibility, it is technically possible that if they chug onward this way for long enough, they'll eventually start running out of things to spend their Renown on in the first place, since there are some progression gating mechanics in place that won't allow them to go from zero to Olympian in a single Saga.

This is all good stuff for us to look at, and the exact point of a playtesting game - we didn't anticipate this issue in theory, and now that it's happening in practice, we have to discuss what to do about it!

Possible Solutions:

Part of the conversation here is whether there's a problem at all, in the first place. After all, some groups will have games run long sometimes - is that truly a problem? Are we worried about them getting to play too much and get "too rewarded" for it?

Although we don't have any problem with that in general, and we think players should play as long as they want to, we do need to make sure that our mechanics don't suddenly bust if a Saga decides to run longer than expected. While we decided that issues with per-Saga resources running out didn't need an additional fix - essentially, if the Heroes want to take a long time going about their mission, they're creating that scarcity themselves, which is a reasonable part of them planning their resources - we do need to address problems of early stories that last longer being oversaturated with Renown. One of the cardinal rules of playtesting is to try to figure out what would happen if someone intentionally tried to break the game, and here we have to look at the possibility (deeply unlikely, but still a possibility) that a group of players might intentionally delay and refuse to participate in a Saga in order to get enough Renown to be able to overcome it without effort or danger.

Our current proposed fix for this, which we're still discussing, is giving GMs the option to place a Renown cap on a Saga, if they so choose (and if they do, we would heavily recommend letting the other players know what it is up front, so no one is unpleasantly surprised). This would allow them to set the level of power the Heroes would be at during the planned Saga, preventing them from accidentally outleveling planned foes or creating balance problems between different characters in the same group. An additional optional rule might be that if the Heroes finish their mission early, they get any Renown that was still "left" before the cap as a bonus, in effect rewarding them for being proactive, heroic, and successful. Together, these things should both incentivize players to go out and have adventures, and prevent the game from beginning to have problems if it runs longer than expected. (And also handle our fictional "let's go to the gas station for no reason each Chapter" group that was trying to stretch time out in order to get more rewards.)

We're currently leaning toward this being an optional rule; for many groups, it may not be necessary, or it might only be necessary for certain Sagas that need to stay in certain power ranges, or some play groups might just not like the idea and not want to implement it. We're not here to tell players that their playstyle is or isn't valid, so we're hoping a solution like this will allow each group to tailor their Saga so that it works for the kind of pace and storytelling they prefer.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Game Recap: Playtest Group Busts Crime

Hey, everybody! It's been a while since we had a minute to update you on the progress and actions of the playtest games, but I have an hour now, so one update, coming at you! This will be just a game update, since we have some other posts queued about mechanics waiting in the wings; if you're looking for information about the gameplay itself, don't worry, it's on its way, too.

This particular game has started comparatively recently, and is being run by John, with two players who are old hands at multiple RPGs, two players who have only ever played D&D before, and me as a control/helper. Allow me to introduce you to Team God-Touched, who I have informally named just now. (I know you have briefly heard about them in long-ago posts when they started up, but it's been a while, so the refresher will do us all good.)

The characters are as follows:

Jennifer Clarke: Jennifer is a high-powered lawyer working both corporate and criminal cases, doing her best to live up to the legacy of her intensely successful and judgmental lawyer mother, since passed away. In addition to being a partner in her own law firm, a respected advisor to the police, and a highly skilled marksman, she discovered that she had also been chosen to serve the goddess Athena - told to her by her dead mother, of all people, who began speaking to her through old pictures in albums and explaining her divine mission, not to mention expressing her intense disappointment in all of Jennifer's inadequacies. Jennifer is affectionately referred to as "Action Lawyer" by most of her companions, who are somewhat starstruck by her take-charge attitude and great skill at leaping tall buildings and shooting monsters that would otherwise be eating them.

Bernard Fitzroy X: Bernard is an amateur scholar and archaeologist from a long line of them; having discovered that his ancestors defaced important relics in Egypt with the equivalent of nineteenth-century name graffiti (as many nineteenth-century British dudes did), he is on something of a low-key crusade to redress this wrong by trying to advance and preserve knowledge and relics in the modern age. He's somewhat timid and bookish, and was introduced to the world of the divine when a gigantic ibis, sent by his divine patron Thoth, physically kidnapped him, flew him around the area in a dizzying journey while conversationally explaining that he needed to work for a god now and oh, by the way, there's a prophecy that he's going to die horribly, and then literally dropped him on a car on the freeway. He is accordingly deeply suspicious of pretty much all birds.

Ananda (Annie) Harper: Annie is a semi-famous jazz musician, born in the United States to immigrant parents and now supporting them in comfortable style on her touring and award earnings. She spends most of her time in general relaxation, working part-time as an artist-in-residence for a local college's music department and composing and touring with her concert in her professional life, and spending lazy hours in the garden and craft fairs with her wife Victoria, a local artist and eccentric. Her call to the divine came when she heard enchanting music from the college auditorium and found Sarasvati playing music there, and was told (after an awestruck time appreciating the song) that she had a mission and that a number of other divinely chosen people would be coming to act as helpers and bodyguards to make sure she achieved it.

Anathasios (Nate) Prokopis: Nate's the youngest of the group, a seventeen-year-old from New Jersey who has spent most of his short career doing petty odd jobs for small-time mobsters and other no-good characters. He's out for number one, having come from a large family that made it hard for him to distinguish himself, and in spite of his tender age is pretty thoroughly cynical and self-serving. He discovered his divine calling through a good-old-fashioned trolling; Hermes decided to appear inside his van while he was doing a delivery down the east coast, filled his van with explosives/stolen money/dead bodies in rapid succession, and then blew up a gas station which caused Nate to immediately become wanted for terrorism. Add to that the fact that Nate shortly discovered he was actually transporting diseased corpses for his not-so-savory bosses, and his first week was not exactly a fun one.

Emilia Vinter: Emilia is something of a hippie - she just wants to eat superfoods, get harmlessly high once in a while, and enjoy communing with nature, but the world keeps getting in the way of that plan, so she works for an outdoors amusement/nature park area and tries to avoid everything that keeps making life a little less serene for her. Unfortunately, being called as a servant of the divine doesn't make that easy; she was visited by the great Skadi herself, who appeared in all her gigantic glory, boomed a bunch of instructions at her that she could not understand because she doesn't speak Old Norse, and then skiied away, leaving a freak blizzard to thoroughly ruin her place of employment for part of the season. It has since become apparent that she has some kind of prophesied destiny - but she's not doing great at achieving it, since she still hasn't been able to find out what it is.

The mission they've all been sent on has to do with a local gangster by the name of Ramsey Amon (a name causing Bernard intense symbolic suspicion), who appears to be selling drugs laced with material from dangerous underworld insects, and whose lieutenants, human-seeming creatures that only the God-Touched can see are actually hyena-like hybrid monsters, are spreading disease and filth to various food industries in the city. No one is sure why he's doing that, but they know they need to stop him before the entire city starts suffering from an unprecedented wave of disease and decay.

A lot has happened in the time that this group has been attempting to handle their sudden plunge into the world of magic and mayhem, so I'm going to present it in the form of a bulleted list of highlights, and next time we'll pick up with them where they currently are!

Friday, July 10, 2015

Weekly Update 7.10

Hello Everyone,

Today's post is a little bit different, it is an update post about update posts; very meta. My job on the team is been to maintain transparency between you, the current fans of John and Anne's work, and the (hopefully) future fans of Hero's Journey. As of late I have not been doing a very good job of that.

On that score, I am sorry.

So, kicking things off with an apology, great start! The updates have not been as informative as we would like. The final push to get through Blessings just doesn't afford much in the way of substantive updates. Anne and John spent hours debating on the implications of a blessing, doesn't make for much in the way of an update.

Our weekly update meetings have begun to suffer from diminishing returns and the posts have tended towards quantity over quality. At this point you, if you've been reading consistently, have the broad strokes of the mechanics of the game, I could keep giving teasers, but again we're in a diminishing returns scenario.

So, we have fallen into a cycle of "Anne and John are working on blessings, they made progress this week, but progress is slow." You know they're working, but I don't have much to say beyond that.

With this in mind Anne, John, and I have decided to change this blog into a monthly update, I'll be posting an update on the first Friday of every month, unless something major happens. At which point I will be back crying from the mountaintop, and Anne and John will probably have beat me to the punch by doing the same on Twitter.

That being said, I still check my inbox and the forums daily for questions, continue asking them. When I get them I'll will either gather it in the monthly post, or I will seek out an answer for a quick post.

We're not the end of news though! John and Anne will be starting a new blog series, starting next week. the still being scheduled but it's looking like it will be on Friday or Monday. This new post will will talk about the ongoing test game. It will be in two parts; first it will let you know what's happening in game, second it will give John and Anne an opportunity to talk through things they have found out about systems through play.

Finally, the first Kickstarter reward game will start up in the next few weeks (date pending). That crew has decided to live stream on Twitch. As the details get more clear I will post them.

So that's it for this week. Have a great weekend!

Friday, July 3, 2015

Weekly Update 7.3

The short story is...


The longer story is this week is a features holidays in both the US and Canada. My cross border celebrations have made it impossible to catch up with John and Anne. They are still working, there is a sweet visual for Devotional work being finished, but more updates will have to wait until next Friday.

Until then, have a great weekend!