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.
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.