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.


  1. Another thought [I'm not sure how the Renown system works completely, so bear with me] - would it work to assign Renown as a reward for completing certain steps in the Saga? i.e. you negotiate peace with the Amazon Queen, gain X Renown; you slay the Lernaean Hydra Mark II, gain X Renown. And so on. That way, it is a reward for achieving the important steps of the Saga, not for the number of sessions played or Chapters told, or for time passage in general. And a GM could have bonus Renown set aside to give to the players if they did extra Heroic Feats on the way. This would tie progress to the Saga, but give a little wiggle room for extra cool stuff they do.

    1. It's a potential solution, but players need to be ok with potentially not getting renown for several sessions. I've been in situations where the group, despite their efforts are just unable to get out of their own way. It can get stressful, and not gaining renown can potentially compound player stress.

      I'm always a little bit leery of bonus experience situations, they are great in theory, but in my experience it either leads towards playing trying to go over the top with solutions to go for extra XP, or there are debates over what was and was not bonus renown-worthy.

    2. I think that could definitely be an interesting model, but I'm also wondering if it would actually be MORE restrictive for some games/players. Like... what if the players never complete steps X and Y because they find an alternative to solve the eventual end of the story? (Example: "slay the dragon" is a rewarded step, but the players try, fail, and then end up working on alternatives like convincing the dragon to move somewhere else or evacuating the countryside so this can just be Dragontown.) It definitely lends itself to a more linear story structure kind of a thing - the GM has to choose the rewarded steps, and so there might be more danger of the players being railroaded into certain actions or situations rather than getting to be creative, because they don't want to lose out on their Renown.

      (Of course, a lot of that is solved by things like GMs adjusting/adding reward steps on the fly or being on point to anticipate their players' possible deviations, but it's worth thinking about, since not every GM is great at that.)

      There might also be a potential issue with players feeling like they couldn't or shouldn't do anything off the GM's planned path or that might take up too much time without heading toward a reward step - for example, it would suck if a player wanted to do some meaningful roleplaying of social situations with NPCs/PCs/local important characters, but didn't because they were feeling pressured not to slow things down and delay their fellow players from getting Renown.

      It's an interesting model - it definitely puts a lot on the GM's shoulders to recognize things that are worthy of Renown and reward them in semi-real-time, so it could work really well for a group that has similar ideas of what things are Renown-worthy. There might be some friction with players/GM disagreeing on whether something they did was worthy Renown - at worst, a GM could be punitive by refusing to reward players if they did something that wasn't anticipated/part of their plan, and that would be unfortunate.

      Thanks for all the food for thought. :)

  2. I meant "bonus Renown" exactly as a possible consolation prize if the PCs were lost or derailed,so they didn't have a "Renown drought" through no fault of their own, and so the GM doesn't feel that they can only give Renown for achieving the major Saga goals. Honestly, if the players are so stuck that they are getting frustrated, then it's time for the GM to throw a hint brick to get things moving again, because that's part of the job description of GM. :-)

    1. lol fair enough. You've been or had more forgiving GMs than I. I've seen bricks thrown, but they usually don't have hints attached. :-P

  3. I actually had a styrofoam brick with "hint" painted on it for really bad days at the table...

  4. Out of curiosity, why go for the 'fixed renown per chapter' method and not one of the more traditional 'GM decides how much each player gets' method?

    1. Because it allows us to make the Renown system a lot more streamlined and clean, and cuts down on confusion. It lets all things have a fixed cost (a dot of Hunter always costs the same, for example, instead of higher dots of Hunter costing more), keeps progression on a smooth and even plane, and lets us make different stats have fixed costs relative to one another - so we can say a Devotional Blessing costs more than an Aspect dot costs more than a Talent dot, and so forth.

      Essentially, it cuts out the GM having to guess what Renown would be needed for different players, prevents the issue of some players being stuck feeling bad about getting "less" or at least relatively less Renown than others at the table, and makes it easier for everyone to know what and when they'll be able to buy.

      I don't think either model is inherently better - one's cleaner and more streamlined, the other is more flexible and customizable - but since we were already working with some neat narrative time structure stuff, the streamlining makes more sense for HJ's overall build.

      I hope that makes sense. :)