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.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Have you considered making it possible to call on Divine Intervention multiple times but making it permanently crippling in some way? One idea I had is that every time you invoke Divine Intervention beyond the first, your Saga Labour Pool goes down by one until you advance in tier, when you start all over. To make it even more punishing, one could rule that each time this cost goes up, so that a Hero constantly needing to have his arse saved will find himself unable to call upon his Saga powers; in a sense, he no longer deserves to have that kind of power. I think it also carries a nice tinge of "You must pay the Reaper" that is a constant part of myth. Sure, you may not be DEAD, but part of your Heroic potential has been snuffed out, only to be relit when you properly prove yourself by completing this leg of your journey (aka, go up a tier).

    1. I'd worry that runs the risk of being too punishing, and spiraling into the ultimate death of the character. Although that approach could make for an interesting interaction between the player and the character... when do you, as a player let your hero die?

    2. I agree with Cameron: having fewer Saga labors means you're more likely to run into yet another situation where you need to call DI, and the spiral continues.

      Another option would be to use DI however it is written in the book, but add on additional consequence via story and setting. I remember in the Gangs game when Poseidon came to save Alan it caused a tsunami that took out east Manhattan and killed thousands of people. That was on Alan, and though he was "saved", it was an intense moral hardship for the character.

  3. It feels to me like a set number of rescues seems a bit...samish. Like a bunch of gods got together, formed a committee and said "OK, then. We're all agreed. They get three free passes. Then we leave them to die, OK? No. No, Zeus. You can turn into as many swans as you want, man, but we agreed on three and it's staying three. Stop pouting. It's unbecoming.".

    Why not leave it a more intangible thing? Like maybe they might get a free pass in the early days because "they're just kids, learning the ropes, and we've put a lot of time and effort into them" and at later saves it becomes...negotiable. Like in the middle of an inferno that seems likely to engulf the bound and helpless character Loki steps in and smiles and says "Well, you're in a pickle and no doubt about it. I *could* get you out of this, but in return...". Or he just does it and a mark shows up on the character's body, a note that Loki just pulled them out of the (literal) fire and now they owe him.

    It's still not a sure thing, so there's a feeling of danger because you never know when the price is too big to pay or the "price" more or less makes you an NPC as you have to become Loki's cup bearer for the next fifty years (thus taking you out of gameplay even though you are alive) but it's not a hard set limit that feels artificial.

    1. It's not really about the gods making a decision to rescue the Heroes only so much as it is about the structure of the story. There's a set number partly based on how often Heroes can be rescued without breaking the game, and how often makes "sense" for a story in a general storytelling way - sort of the way we can swallow Luke Skywalker falling at the end of Empire Strikes Back and being miraculously rescued one time, but would be pretty tired of it if it happened six more times. The gods (or other appropriate divine phenomena) are just the story's vehicle for the occasional rescue - if they only show up X number of times, that's because they're doing other things or just because that's not how the story is going, not because they're somewhere shaking their heads and wishing they weren't over their cap. :)

      Some of the things you're describing are covered by the Gambit system Tricksters get - they can roll the dice to cause a random thing to happen, which might rescue them sometimes thanks to surprising circumstances or sudden appearances by NPCs, but might sometimes instead only make the situation worse, or help them but also come with side circumstances. (One of the playtest groups just had that happen recently, actually - a Gambit rolled a double-edged result and managed to both rescue them from an overwhelming horde of monster bugs, but also cause the house belonging to one of the Heroes to literally get sucked into a sinkhole and destroyed.)

      I'm not sure about adding too many double-edged effects to DI because Gambits are already doing that, but it is reminiscent of the kind of systems we've done in other games and houserules we've written, and it is usually pretty interesting. :) Thanks for the suggestion!

  4. I'm solidly in the camp that once save from death even once per tier is generous. Honestly, if you are losing more characters than that, you have a particularly lethal game. If you want that, great - two "extra lives" is generous. And if those extra lives aren't enough for you, because you don't want death to play such a major part in the Saga, then you need to ease up on the lethality of the game - and that, once again, is a GM issue, not a rules issue. GURPS, which I play, is a very lethal game, if played RAW. But I have had several very cinematic Fantasy, Monster-hunter, and Demigod games that have had virtually no death, because that's what how I play it. I would agree that you should keep it to "one save per tier" [and maybe not even that, if Hades/Anubis/Mictlantecuhtli get involved], and not remove the sting from death in the game.

    1. I'd argue that player style also factors into the need for escape hatches - a GM can actually be fairly lenient when it comes to lethality, and still have players who do ridiculously foolish things and kill themselves completely on their own. (I've actually been in some games where I think the two issues fed each other, actually - the GM didn't want to let players die so he was very lenient, players sensed this and took much more ridiculous risks than they otherwise would have because they expected him to save them, if players died GM felt bad and got even MORE lenient which led to players being even MORE wacky, and so on.)

      But yeah, it's massively linked to individual players' and GMs' styles, whether they like lethality or want to encourage it or not, how much risk-taking they like and how severe they want potential consequences to be, and so on. We do want the possibility of death to be real and important in HJ, because it's an important part of heroic canon, but we also want players to be able to be happy with their play environment and have the chance for against-all-odds saves once in a while, too. (To say nothing of mixed play styles where some players lean different directions from one another!)

      Since we can't possibly make EVERYONE happy, we have to try to find the sweet spot for what we want HJ to be, play-wise and in the spirit of the game, which is why we're at the current "twice in your life unless rare bonuses" model, which has a nice balance of rare and special but not so rare and special it stops being relevant to the game one Saga into each tier. But it bears talking about since it's hard to get the wide breadth of data to be sure that doesn't have hidden problems when applied to the wider world of different players.

    2. If players insist on killing themselves, then I always let them have what they want. You can't always save them from the consequences of their actions, and sometimes that means PC death, and I don't feel that they should get a DI for deliberate foolishness/suicidal bravado. Just my thoughts, of course. :-)

  5. This sounds less about a balance of Divine Intervention and more a commentary on just how lethal John runs games as a GM.

    Has a playtest of the mechanic been run in a game that's decidedly less lethal? If you're balancing to one extreme of the experiences instead of the average, you're going to have horribly skewed results.

    1. Yeah, that's part of that whole needing a bigger sample size thing - there are definitely going to be games out there that are both more and less lethal than the ones John generally runs, and that's a very wide spectrum. Even John's games have variation in how lethal they are, often created by the players themselves (generally, the better players are doing at succeeding in their mission in ANY game, the better their chances of survival).

      We've had GMs playtest that definitely run less lethal games, although most of them to date have been shorter chronicles so it's harder to gauge how needful escape hatches are (if you're only playing a few sessions, you don't feel the need to save that stuff as much, and you don't always necessarily need it to make it through your Saga). I believe two different games with GMs I would say are less lethal than John generally tends to be ended up using one DI for 5-6 players over shorter periods of time, along with multiple Gambit uses for purposes of trying to survive serious problems.

      One GM who did some testing is actually more lethal than John as an average, and also used only one DI... but only ran a three-session game, so again there's only minimal data for this problem there. (Although good stuff for other issues.)

      We're definitely running playtests with different folks GMing, as well as running playtests with John where we tinker with different mechanics and lethality levels, so rest assured we're looking into different ways it might be used. Our concern is that we don't have and probably won't have the ability to test it with every kind of lethality level that might be in play, which means that we still have to do a certain amount of projection from the data we do get.

      Some of the suggestions above about providing alternative options for GM might be good optional rules, but we want the base system to be sound, and this is an area that is hard to balance even with a lot of testing, just due to its subjectivity.

    2. What could work is that Divine Interventions can't be used back-to-back Chapter-wise, so that it brings up a player-focused limitation.

      They could use one now, but then next Chapter they'll have to rely on their own luck. It doesn't completely wipe away the issue, but it should curb a player's knee-jerk reaction to DI?

  6. Sample size of playtesting could definitely be a major factor.
    How many different games are being run by different storytellers?

    1. Let's see!

      We've had five different GM run various playtests of different lengths that have concluded, starting around ten months ago. We currently have John running two playtests at different power levels, and a rotating "pickup" playtest at a local game store (which is nice for getting info about new players and different styles, especially people who haven't played this kind of game before). Since the last non-John playtest wrapped up last month, we'll be having another GM starting a new one imminently (we have a meeting to make sure he's set to start this week, actually!).

      For what it's worth, these have been GMs at very different levels of lethality, both above and below John; and also players at vastly different levels of experience, in an effort to find wide ranges of different issues. The new one starting up soon I would say is a GM who tends to be considerably less lethal than John, but who also has more risk-taking players, so we'll see how they shake out when it comes to avoiding accidental death.

  7. Well, since the games seem to be somewhat similar, I will draw from my Scion experience.

    Scion itself has no system comparable to the discribed DIs, but the characters can create escape hatches for themselves if they want to and think they need them.
    We have a group of six players and are at god level, respectively tier 3 in HJ, right now. We never lost one of us, we came close to death more than once and with more than one character, but we always managed to pull through and it was really epic.
    On the other hand, we had a fw times were gods bailed us out of some shit that happened. They didn't do that because we asked them to, they did so because they had their own objectives and hidden agendas. The thing is, we felt more or less cheated when things like that happened. Essentially, some god snatched the victory we worked and nearly died for away.

    Even though I think the DI is a nice mechanic to show that a god might happen to bail you out once or twice, I don't think it shold be more than that. How much of a hero would one be if there is constantly some unknown force babysitting you?
    It's far more epic, and infinitely more satisfying, if you drag yourself to victory on your last legs. And at the end you can proudly say "I may look like I'm about to die, but you should see the other motherfucker."