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.


  1. I always tend to lean toward making these sorts of things the responsibility of the GM. You can give guidelines, but every GM has to figure out for themselves what works in their games.

    1. Yeah, one of our goals is to try to make sure we give a lot of advice for GMs, but fewer hard rules unless they're really needed to make sure the game runs correctly. It's a balancing act - rules need to exist to support the game and make sure GMs who are new or a little unsure have a framework to help them, but it's also important to keep flexibility to allow GMs and their players to tell different kinds of stories and play in whatever style is best for them.