Thursday, August 13, 2015

Playtest Findings: The Endowment Olympics

This week, we enjoyed some spirited player discussion about What Is Best and How To Get It, which is always an interesting exercise in perspective. The topic of conversation was Endowments, those fancy powers for those fancy Aspects, and there was much discussion of which Endowments were the best, whether everyone should get some of them and leave others alone, and whether or not this was fair in light of the fact that they can only be gotten by having points in certain Aspects. (That is, if you want Focus, you have to be significantly invested in Sage for your current power level; you can't just grab the Sage Endowment and not actually bother with any brainy stuff.)

Since they only get three Endowments at any given time, tough choices sometimes have to be made. There were no firm conclusions from the players - some loved some of the Endowments, others loved others, and no one could agree on which ones were "best", which is a tentatively good thing to hear for those of us trying to make sure they're balanced. But there was certainly a lot to talk about!

Playtesting Issue: Players suspect that one Endowment is objectively "better" than the others, and are on a mission to figure out which one it is an invest in it as soon as possible.

As issues go, this isn't really all that bad of one to have. Players are always looking for the "best" stat, the "optimal" build, the "most useful" powers, and so on; it's what players as a generality do, from the gentle basic level of "I want to be good enough at this thing that I don't have to sweat my rolls so much" to the committed and passionate level of "I WANT TO BE THE BEST IN THE ENTIRE UNIVERSE EVEN IF ONLY BY ONE POINT." We're used to them looking for the "best" way to do something, and as designers, we spend a lot of time tweaking and tuning so that, while there are certainly a lot of things that are best for certain situations or heroic career paths, there hopefully aren't any things that are objectively best all around for everyone forever.

Since this is less of a problem-solution issue this week and more of a discussion roundtable, I'm going to just share with you the notes our players (from various different playtests, not just the one discussing it this week) had and the pros and cons they mentioned seeing in each Endowment.

  • Empowerment (Creator): This one is the hardest to talk about, because it's the most "unfinished" of the lot. Although we know exactly what it does - it gives Creators the ability to use supercharged versions of their Creator Blessings in times of need - this involves a lot of balancing and comparing Blessings against one another and whatnot, and so it's been an ongoing process throughout the playtests (one which our Creators have been very patient about, thank you, y'all). As a result, it usually gets the least conversation about its pros and cons, because it's hard to tell until finalization exactly how it stacks up against everything else.

    What players do know and tell us is that Empowerment makes a good panic button for ye olde Creator-healer character archetype; it has several times been used by a frazzled healer who needed to save too many people or had too few resources, and was able to become a brief supernova of wellness for those around them. We've also seen some excitement over using it to repair damaged or broken items (for example, the Warrior's weapon, which she realllly needs right about now) much more quickly and efficiently than otherwise possible, which is another Energy application. We have not seen a ton of use of Empowerment for the other Creator Talents yet, though; our last several games have not featured anyone who really invested in Vision heavily enough to get Empowerment for it, and while we do have characters with Art, most of them are in the playtest that is having trouble keeping its head above water, so there's been a bit too much running and crying and hiding under overpasses to get a lot of makin' stuff done.

    I've heard there are some Creators afoot in the new playtest that just started up north, though, so this is one we're definitely looking forward to hearing more feedback about as it firms up.

  • Faithful Allies (Lover): Faithful Allies are what they sound like: people who love and cherish the Hero and show up to help them at various times, usually bringing with them resources, benefits, or game mechanic bonuses from the sheer force of their adoration. (For example, money, or an item they needed right now, or their arrival triggers a free Lull Episode.) There is still an element of randomness in the Faithful Allies system, in that how well it works affects how useful the ally's help actually is to the Hero, and that there is a small chance that the ally may instead get in trouble on their way to the Hero and need rescuing.

    We found that a lot of players really like Faithful Allies... but had trouble figuring out when or how to use them. One player, for example, had chosen their NPC wife as a Faithful Ally; this was all well and good, but since the wife lived in town with the Hero, it didn't make much sense to use an Endowment to call on her for help when they could also just pick up the phone and call her in person, and they had just seen her ten minutes ago anyway. Players who invest in Lover often tend to want to roleplay and develop relationships with the NPCs who become their Faithful Allies, so some players expressed some concern that the more time they spent with a Faithful Ally, the less useful they seemed to be to the system, since it seemed like they could have just gotten those rewards through roleplaying. (The same players gave us some positive feedback about Lover Blessings that specifically allowed them to work with or save Faithful Allies, though; being able to designate a category of NPCs as ones that they could save with the power of their love appealed to the career roleplayers!)

    Obviously, this is an issue that would depend on the particular game, as well as the player's choices - if Heroes are globetrotting, it makes a lot more sense for a Faithful Ally showing up unexpectedly in their Manila hotel room to be a pleasant surprise, and if a player chooses to designate "my high school boyfriend who never got over me" as their Faithful Ally, there are fewer chances for that character to seem like they should be there helping all the time anyway. But nevertheless, since Lover can be very roleplaying-heavy, Faithful Allies need to find a way to fit into that a little better.

    Those players who did have and use Faithful Allies noted that a "backfire" (i.e., rolled a 1 and now my Faithful Ally has to be rescued from the bad guy) felt worse here than in Gambits below, because it meant that a request for help turned into a strain on their resources, and the whole system was not set up to be as randomly punishing as Gambits in the first place. The chance for something bad to happen is significantly lower with Faithful Allies than with Gambits, but that didn't make players feel any less soured when it did occur.

  • Focus (Sage): Focus is the most straightforward Endowment: it lets players use other Endowments more. That's all it does, and it does it well - Sages are swimming in Endowment usage opportunities, sacrificing having more options for just being able to do fewer options more often.

    Players generally don't have a lot to say about this, but they are pleased, low-key fans of it. If there are Endowments that they feel really suit them or that they love using a lot, taking Focus alongside them gives them all the more access to those. We also heard it mentioned that Focus feels especially good for those players who like to play "support"-style characters - healers, crafters, diplomats, intrepid leaders, or anyone else who spends the majority of their time using their skills and power to help or support others - because it gives them both a larger array of tools to keep helping people, and lessens the occasional sting that they sometimes feel when they spend most of their resources or time on people other than themselves. In particular, Focus + Empowerment, Focus + Gambits, and Focus + Sway were mentioned as popular combos that players would like to have.

  • Gambits: The Gambit system is the reigning champion of player polarization; either they love Gambits, want to see what will happen when they use Gambits, and encourage everyone else to use Gambits, too, or else they hate them, want them to stop happening, and tend to announce they're using them in a sort of hollow, doomsday grave-voice. This is basically what we designed them to do, so it's nice to see they're living up to their purpose.

    Gambits are random; sometimes they're great, save everyone from danger, win people prizes, and make everything awesome, and sometimes they're terrible, everything is destroyed, the plan is in tatters, and everyone is blaming everyone else. And, as a result, that means that whether or not players like Gambits completely depends on whether or not they like randomness in their games, so some always do, and some always don't, and a few put up with it but really wish there was a more dependable way of getting these things done.

    They're tricky to judge balance from, but for the most part, we've been pleased that they seem to function appropriately, and that players have exactly the kind of love-hate relationship with them that the entire universe has with Trickster stories. Those players who love them love them to death - conversations about the best Endowment almost always include one person yelling "OBVIOUSLY, GAMBITS" no matter what opposition they face, and even players who don't personally want to have and use Gambits often mentioned that they still enjoyed watching others do so. Gambits are also very powerful, since in spite of their randomness they can literally save Heroes from certain doom if they happen to go off just right, so some players said that they liked to take Gambits as an emergency precaution, even though they weren't necessarily normally huge fans of random effects.

  • Overextension (Warrior): After Focus, Overextension is probably the second most straightforward of the Endowments; its purpose is to allow Warriors to be even stronger than they normally could, to possibly ridiculous levels under the right circumstances. Brawn, one of the Warrior Talents, already governs feats of strength such as lifting elephants or crushing a car's hood with their bare hands, but Overextension lets Warriors be so strong for brief periods of time that they potentially do things that no one should be doing. Low-level Warriors essentially pretend to be higher-level Warriors, while high-level Warriors do things that probably shouldn't be allowed.

    We have gotten by far the least testing on Overextension, since we have had surprisingly few players go directly for Warrior like their lives depended on it (even though, you know, they often do), and it shows. Players felt like Overextension seemed fine in theory, but weren't using it much and so didn't have a strong opinion one way or the other. A few said that they could use it but preferred to conserve their points to be able to use other, more interesting Endowments like Gambits or Sway more often instead.

    It's hard to tell if this is a failing in Overextension itself or just an issue of non-Warrior characters not seeing much point in spending their points on shot-putting a tractor into a downtown bank. It's possible that more Warrior-heavy games would use it more often, since they would be more likely to be solving problems with muscle and moxy than sneakiness or diplomacy... but we need more Warrior testing to find out if that's true. Salutes up to the new group that just started this week; let's hope they have some more input for us soon!

  • Persistence (Hunter): Persistence is the sleeper hit of the Endowments; we didn't expect it to be quite as popular as it is now, and judging by how few players have it but how many made cranky faces when they said they wished they did, they also didn't expect it to be so good.

    Heroes normally use the Mettle Talent to survive deprivation; it helps them temporarily stave off penalties from failing to eat, sleep, or rest, or from doing strenuous activities for too long. This is its primary function and therefore the one players tend to look at most, so Persistence, which allows Heroes to permanently wipe any of those penalties clean without bothering to recharge, seemed to them at first to be nice and good in a pinch, but not applicable to their everyday lives as much as it could be. (Players getting lost in the woods and trying to survive on acorns, or spending the night in a graveyard mausoleum and realizing they were never going to be able to sleep around this much undead activity, notwithstanding.)

    But Mettle is also used for something else, which is that when a player is Mortally Wounded and likely to die soon, Mettle points can be spent to keep them on the brink of death long enough for someone to (hopefully) rescue them. Players were aware of this, of course, but it took several hard-fought combats and at least one Divine Intervention for them to realize exactly how valuable Mettle was to them in combat situations - which in turn slingshotted back around to make them realize that Persistence, which means spending much less Mettle and being able to hold onto it in case of Almost Certain Death, was a lot more useful than they had previously thought.

    Persistence is still somewhat incognito among the other Endowments; players who have been testing for a while have now said that they wish they had taken it or paid more attention to the system it underwrites, but it still tends to be glossed past pretty quickly by new players who come into a game that doesn't outright say things like "you will be crossing deserts on foot".

  • Sway (Leader): And finally Sway, which is probably our greatest designer headache, due to a combination of wanting it to do a lot of neat things but not wanting it to be too complicated a system and distract players from everything else they're doing. Sway allows Heroes to gain control over a specific area of influence - say, the criminal underworld, or the media - and influence it to get things done for them. They can pretty much ask for anything that their contacts could reasonably do, and if it works well enough, that thing will get done and they'll get to hang up the phone and tell their fellow Heroes that "their people" are on it in as snooty a tone of voice as they wish.

    Like some of the other Endowments, Sway is semi-random, but unlike Gambits (where the effect is completely random and everyone begs a deity for a good roll) or Faithful Allies (where the amount of help gotten from the system is random but usually above zero), Sway's randomness element is in the consequences of the Hero's request. What they wanted is going to get done, but if they roll poorly, they may end up getting the people who did it for them in trouble, or even lock themself off from being able to use their Sway in the area again for some time. (For example, one player recently rolled catastrophically poorly... so while her paralegal did indeed manage to steal the incriminating magical item from the police station and allow her to win her case, he also went to jail and she's not going to be able to call on him again for a long time, or possibly ever.)

    Sway was originally more punishing than this, with roll results where the Hero's task didn't get accomplished, so it's already been tweaked as a result of playtesting and realizing that this wasn't good enough and was causing undue amounts of player angst. Now that it's been updated, players are more optimistic about it, but still cautious - the spectre of that one time someone used it twice in a row and both times it just didn't work hasn't left their minds, and even though that isn't possible anymore, it's probably hard to shake. We're looking forward to increased data on that from the new groups starting up here in the near future, and the players at the in-house tell us that they'll probably do it again... you know, sometime soon. Probably.

Possible Solutions:

So, with all those players telling us things they did and didn't like, where do we go from there?

For Faithful Allies, our current fix to the system is to allow them a form of "do-over" if they roll poorly; that is, if they get a low roll and a Faithful Ally ends up in trouble and needing help instead of showing up and providing it, they can immediately use the Endowment again for free once they rescue their friend, ensuring that their point wasn't "wasted", just had its effects deterred for a while and required a little more work to get to. That way there still may be some rescuing of your loved one in distress in order, but once you find them they can still hand off the critical item you needed and no one needs to feel like they spent points on just making their life harder. (Of course, you also have the option to not go to the effort to rescue your loved one in peril and, if you have at least one other Faithful Ally, spend another point to use the system again to call them instead... if you're a heartless person, but then some Lover Heroes might be!)

The main concern we've been hearing about Gambits is a theoretical one - some players, usually the ones who wouldn't touch Gambits with a fifty-foot pole and like to know what's going to happen at all times, have raised concerns that it feels "unfair" if the Trickster uses a Gambit and they're caught in the often spectacular splash. Of course, most players aren't going to use Gambits except in an emergency or when they think they couldn't succeed doing something else, since they're costly and might backfire, so it's unlikely that anyone is going to torture their fellow players with random effects just for fun; but still, players who like predictability in their games have been a little unsure about the power Tricksters wield to make a mess of things. We're not sure if this is a problem we can fix mechanically; making a mess of things is as much what Tricksters are about as making order of them is what Leaders do, but more importantly, this seems like more an issue of communicating with fellow players and discussing what to do and why. We're talking about whether we need to add a "Gambits Etiquette" sidebar somewhere that says "sure, they're fun, but remember to only ruin the lives of other characters, not other real-life players."

As we noted above, we still need to see Overextension in action more to figure out how well it's playing alongside the other Endowments. If it turns out that it's too lackluster in comparison to the other systems, we may have to revisit it and see if it can be spiced up some and become more of a fun and enticing option for players. Stay tuned on that one.

Sway has already been updated during playtesting to make it less likely to ruin someone's day, but we're still going to do some more looking at its risk vs. reward ratio to make sure it's something worth investing in for the serious Hero on the go. Actually, we'll be doing that for all the random-roll Endowments, as a final sweep - for Gambits, we want to make sure that all the random effect results are at appropriate levels of awesomeness/danger/confusion and that there aren't any results that players might feel "don't matter", and for Faithful Allies, we want to do another balancing pass to make sure that different levels of rewards for different rolls are appropriately spaced out and relevant to the Hero.

In closing, I'll quickly mention a side topic of conversation that spun off about Endowments' attachment to Aspects. For the most part, players felt positively about this; Gambits, for example, feel like something Tricksters should be doing, and Sway makes sense as something a Leader Hero should be able to do when they want to. Some players said that they really liked the fact that deciding to be a certain kind of Hero came with its own type of special extra powers, just for being that person, and helped make the Hero feel like they were doing what they came to do even if they didn't have all the Blessings or rolls to back it up quite yet. On the other side, a few players expressed a longing for Endowments to be separate from Aspects, mostly because they could then choose which ones they wanted without having to be invested in that set of stats to begin with.

Since the point of Endowments is to give Heroes powers to match their Aspects, we probably aren't about to uncouple them any time soon... but it's still fun to listen to people spitballing what they'd do if they had that freedom.


  1. Not really a question, but more of an observation...iirc, Empowerment was only for nine specific Blessings, not all Creator Blessings. Which... strikes me as slightly unfair. I mean, a Trickster doesn't have to go down a particular path in Disguise to use Gambits. A Leader doesn't need a specific Blessing to use Sway. Why is the Creator different?

    Also, I love how each Endowment dies really speak to the mythic image of each Aspect. Leaders need to have followers, whether they're Caesar or Genghis or Obama. Lovers must leave strings of dedicated relationships in their wake, be they Mohini or Dorothy or the Baroness. Hunters, be they Mowgli or Holmes, never give up.

    I light of that however (you had to know a 'but' was coming), two of them feel a bit... off.

    The first and simplest in Overextension. While I don't doubt that it is eminently useful, I have to wonder if it doesn't... narrow the image of the warrior a bit into 'bam bam'? What about the graceful martial artist warriors? What about the Athlete that wants to break the land record... Maybe I'm reading Brawn and its Endowment a little narrowly, in which case please correct me, but wouldn't it be more... fitting, if Warriors could Overextend not just their strength, but also their grace and speed?

    The other is, once again, Empowerment. While the idea of drawing on your inner reserves of raw creative energy is something I've grown up with Gods doing, and something Sarasvati Brahma and Ptah will find right up their alley, what about more down to earth guys like Hephaesthus or Vishwakarma?

    The whole Creator Aspect sometimes has a tendency to come off as very mystical, with the focus on Energy and whatnot, and while I LOVE that image of the Creator, I'm wondering if maybe it's a little limited.

  2. Okay, now I'm getting more and more intrigued by all these tidbits. These Endowments sound exactly like what they are supposed to be; things strongly associated with certain mythological/heroic archetypes, which help/hinder them as they "do their thing", and which are immediately recognizable by anyone watching/chronicling the events at hand. The Hero of Artemis manages to survive alone in the wilds, subsisting on barely enough to feed a cockroach; the Chosen of Loki manages to set up a great prank on everyone - only to end up on "RuPaul's Drag Race" as a consequence; the Chosen of Hephaestus creates his very own living "RealDoll"[tm] as a side-kick...very nice. Story ideas flowing...hands rubbing together...

  3. Having been unable to get this post out of my head (not that I want it to :) ), I've been wondering about the extent of Faithful Allies? Are they preset? Can a Casanova Hero roll and declare that a random one of his broken hearts has turned up to help? And how powerful can they be? Draupadi regularly calls on Krishna to help her, for example.

    1. Quick answer!

      Faithful Allies are not preset - the player will choose them, but they will only get to do so at predetermined times, and they'll only get one per tier.

      The Faithful Allies system works pretty much exactly like that - Casanova will spend a resource and a random lover will show up ready to help. It's no such much that he's calling them as that they just happen to show up and be helpful, because they love him.

      Heroes usually have a Faithful Ally who is roughly as powerful as themselves, and may also have other allies who are less powerful, but still capable of showing up and helping in a pinch. So an Immortal Hero, for example, might be able to call on a powerful wizard or a demigod or a hill giant who has fallen in love with them, but they can't call down Ares (who, let's be real, is obviously Aphrodite's FA anyway).

      Depending on how you assign Krishna's power level during Mahabharata, he could indeed be Draupadi's Immortal Faithful Ally and bosom friend if you consider him around the same level as her; but if you consider him too powerful to be comparable to her, it would be better to just consider that they happen to have formed a strong friendship and he's willing to help her out now and then. (Certainly Draupadi would have a lot of Lover to endear her to others even if they aren't her FA!)

    2. "...but they can't call down Ares (who, let's be real, is obviously Aphrodite's FA anyway)..."

      Hmmm, so FAs are exclusive?

      "...(Certainly Draupadi would have a lot of Lover to endear her to others even if they aren't her FA!)..."

      Except when she's laughing at Princes who fall into pools on State visits. Really smart move there Draupadi.

  4. Incidentally, all this talk of Draupadi and Krishna's relationship reminds me of a story explaining why two people who have pretty much zero connection to each other had such a strong platonic bond:

    In the south of India, it is believed that Draupadi is an Avatara of Kali, born to help Krishna destroy the Kuru clan. Draupadi shares Kali's dark complexion and fiery temper. And since Vishnu is Kali's brother, Krishna considers himself Draupadi's brother.

    It also helps explain why the only other wife of Arjuna that doesn't make Draupadi go ballistic is Subhadra...since Subhadra is usually understood to be an Avatara of Parvati, and Parvati IS Kali, so Draupadi has no problem with Subhadra because Subhadra, in a sense, IS Draupadi :)

    To round out the wives of Shiva, Krishna's eldest 'sister', the baby girl who was swapped out with him shortly after birth, is pretty universally considered an Avatara of Durga.

    Video of Durga here:

    So, we have three Goddesses, who are the same Goddess (at least Parvati and Kali are, Durga sometimes is, sometimes isn't) taking Avatara into three different 'sisters' for their brother's Avatara simultaneously! I love this story!