Thursday, September 24, 2015

Playtest Findings: Striving for Glory

In response to our playtesters' very serious and totally not humorous suggestions from last week, today we'll talk about Striving for Glory!

Playtesting Issue: The Strive for Glory mechanic has met with mixed emotions from some players.

First, the quick and dirty explanation: in HJ, Heroes make rolls based on their stats in order to perform tasks and succeed at things. If they have no stats relevant to something they want to do, however, they cannot roll, and pretty much automatically fail at it (except when there are mitigating circumstances, such as outside bonuses from other sources). This means that players can be very, very good at what they like to do... but if they happen to come upon an area outside their skillset, they may not be able to be very effective, much as those of us who live comfortable suburban lives would not be very effective if suddenly informed we needed to track a panther through the jungle using only our wits. These things happen to Heroes sometimes.

(Please note that Heroes don't have to make rolls to do normal, everyday things that don't require expertise, so not having any dots of Art does not mean that you can't microwave a burrito for lunch. HJ only makes you roll for things that are important to the story or more difficult than a casual amble around your home.)

However, all Heroes have the option to Strive for Glory, if they so wish, which means that if something is really important to them or they really don't want to fail at it, they can pay a Labor in order to roll a pre-set number of dice in spite of being terrible at whatever they're trying to do. In essence, they spend a resource in order to illustrate that, as heroic figures of modern legend, sometimes they can even succeed at something they weren't meant to or aren't great at, because darn it, they're the Hero. Heroes who Strive for Glory on a roll are generally not going to be as good at it as Heroes who actually invest dots into those stats, but they have a fighting chance at success (or at least, at failing less spectacularly).

We had an interesting mixed bag of reactions to this setup, and they mostly fell along divided lines based on whether or not the playtester had played other RPGs of certain types before.

Players who had played a lot of other games before in a number of different systems were a little put off by the idea of having no chance at succeeding at something if they didn't purchase dots in it. Some felt that they should still be given the chance to try at whatever it was they had no skill in, or that they should get a crack at a mechanic that modeled "unreasonable luck" that could strike once in a while. They didn't have a problem with Strive, per se, but rather with the idea that there could be situations where Strive was their only option; they felt that the base system should let them roll regardless of their skill, and that Strive was a band-aid for that problem rather than a compelling mechanic in its own right.

Players who had not played a lot of games before (either they were new players or they had only played, say, a little D&D here and there), on the other hand, took to Strive immediately. It made sense to them that they could not do anything difficult or noteworthy in an area that they didn't take dots, and therefore they were eager to figure out how to use Strive most effectively and incorporate its possibility into their resource economy. Of course, plenty of them still bemoan the cost of Striving once in a while - ah, the sweet sound of a Sage forlornly crying, "This is my THIRD Persuasion roll, why am I the one doing this?!" - but in more of a generalized "spending resources means I might not have them later" sort of normal game-economy way.

We got the same split reaction from GMs working with the playtests, too. Some immediately pushed back against the idea of scenarios in which a player might not be able to attempt something due to their lack of dots, saying that in their experience their players would feel this was unfair or unnecessarily limiting. Others loved it, and praised the fact that this prevented games from being bogged down in endless rolls by people that the GM already knew couldn't roll high enough to succeed anyway, and that it encouraged more management of resources on the part of the players.

A less complained-about but also notable Strive issue is that, since Strive provides a flat, pre-set roll based on the Hero's tier, it is technically "better" at lower levels of power within that tier and "worse" at higher ones. Mortal Heroes at four dots of everything get less out of a Strive than do Heroes with only two dots, simply because the GM is likely to set difficulties that a Strive may have a hard time hitting in order to challenge those in the group who have a good number of dots in that Talent.

Overall, the Strive mechanic has been solid in playtesting, regardless of whether the players liked it or not, but it becomes substantially more important for groups in which all the Heroes have the same skills (and therefore no one has other skills), while groups with a more wide spread of character abilities had a little more breathing room as long as they stayed together and let the person who was good at a task be the one to perform it.

Possible Solutions:

Striving for Glory works well for its intended purpose, and Heroes have a pretty even track record as far as whether or not their desperate Strive got them what they needed, which strikes a nice balance between making sure they aren't competing with those who actually bought stats and preventing them from being utterly helpless if they get suddenly hung off the side of a cliff with no dots of Athleticism. Resource-wise, it's been a good thing as far as making sure players choose whether they really want to do something or not more wisely. All this business isn't really a problem!

This is an interesting conundrum, because it's not so much that a mechanic isn't working as it is a mechanic that is working that some of the players just don't like very much. As we said, a lot of the dissenters were longtime players of multiple game systems, but although it's tempting to just assume that they've been spoiled by the "everyone's basically decent at everything" mentality of FATE or the "there are a few stats involved here so why not give it a try" approach of old World of Darkness games, they do have a point: players don't like being told there is no chance for them to do a thing, especially if it seems to them to be within their character's grasp.

We're wondering if we may not have approached describing or explaining the Strive system very well, in either the written chapter or our in-person playtesting; the whole idea of Striving for Glory is that lots of things you don't do every day are within your grasp, but you have to put forth more effort if it's something that you just aren't very good at. We're going back to re-edit the section, and looking to stress that the Strive system means you can do things, rather than the base system meaning you can't. It may also be worth discussing Labors and how to get and manage more of them in the same chapter - after all, there are plenty of ways to up your number of Labors, both at character creation and later, and those who foresee needing to be jacks of all trades should know about them up front in order to prepare themselves. (Hint: make friends with a Leader. Leaders are great.)

We're also doing some poking around at the specific tier-bounded numbers for Strive rolls, in the hopes of addressing the second issue. While it doesn't come up often, it could be that Heroes end up wasting their Labors on failing Strives at the top end of a tier more than they do at the bottom. We're looking at how to keep Strive reasonably even; we did discuss changing its amount to be based on Archetype dot instead of tier, but for the moment have pushed that idea to the back, since it's a big old pain in the butt and no one wants to memorize ten different levels of pre-set rolls. The current roll is equivalent to a Hero having an average, middling-dots roll in that Talent for that tier, but more specific tweaking may be in order.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

They Claim They're Having Fun, Though

Today, I asked the players in one of the playtest games what playtesting issues I should write about in the blog next week.

Their suggestions included:

  • John's Mean: The Post
  • Why Maging is the Hardest
  • What to Do When Your Group Keeps Ruining Everything
  • The No Mettle Blues: a Story of Regret
  • How to Deal With Horribad Dice Rolls: a Guide to Spending All Your Resources on Your Terrible Group
  • I Strive, You Strive, We All Strive and Then Cry About Our Resources

Meanwhile, with one of the other groups...

Yep, just another day on the farm over here.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Devotional Domains: The Missing Links

All right, we're taking a break from playtesting updates for some promised discussion of the Devotional Domain! (Now with Norse and Hindu spoilers!)

Back when we first introduced the Devotionals, we knew that there would be three Spheres - Divinity, Ritual, and Theology - but we only talked about the first one. This was because we initially only planned to release Divinity in the core rulebook; we were worried that it would take too long and be too complicated to do all three from the get-go, and planned to have Ritual and Theology follow quickly in expansions. But, during the process of working on Divinity, we realized that doing a more combined and interlocked design for the Devotionals would solve all sorts of problems that they were having, and since we wanted people to be able to use all their powers from day one anyway... well, here we are, with the new setup we spoiled a few weeks ago.

So, what are these other two Spheres (using the term loosely since they aren't identical in function to the other Domain Spheres anymore)?

Ritual refers to powers revolving around religious practices associated with a Hero's patron god and their pantheon and religion; they might include things like specific rites, festivals, ritual magic, enchantments and so forth. Heroes use them to practice these rituals, drawing power from them as centuries of other worshipers have done before them, and in order to provide power and respect to their patron and the other gods.

Theology, on the other hand, is big-picture stuff; it contains powers that have to do with the worldview of the Hero's patron pantheon, their religion's concepts of things like how the universe is put together and functions, what forces dictate events and what place mortals, gods, and the Hero themself have in the grand scheme of things. These powers are likely to be about harnessing universal forces and respecting a given religion and pantheon's understanding of and interaction with the cosmos.

On a mechanical level, the new interconnected Ritual and Theology are attached to Divinity, and their powers support and enhance its Blessings. Oh, there are certainly Ritual and Theology powers that do unique things on their own and don't require Divinity to be awesome, but having the whole suite is always better than having only one path; for example, Theology often includes powers that make it possible to use Divinity powers more often or more effectively, allowing those who have both to not only have more different Blessings but also allowing Theology to act as a "battery" for Divinity to make it better than it could be on its own. Ritual tends to provide alternative options - ways you could alter Divinity's powers for special circumstances, or Blessings that make Divinity's options have a wider range, again making the combination of the two give a Hero more neat stuff to do than having just one.

Of course, you can have just one, and that's totally good, too. Some players may not be interested in paying much attention to Devotionals beyond the ones they automatically get for gaining Archetypes, and they can still use a smaller selection to great effect for their preferred skills, or choose to invest their points in something totally different that they like using more. Mythological heroes run a wide gamut from the devoutly religious and prone to displays of holy power to the independently potent and unconcerned with matters more divine than themself, and Heroes created by players have the same option when it comes to involvement with their patron's religion.

Obviously, as you can see here and in the previous post on the subject, Divinity, Ritual, and Theology aren't really "Spheres" anymore the way things like Streetwise or Thunder are, since they aren't rolled and don't have a 1-10 dot rating, so they may not have that label in the final book. But they do have the same spiritual "feel" - each set of Blessings is intentionally designed around those three concepts and hopefully provides coherent paths of advancement, even if they don't have those names. Heroes who go up the Theology track on the right side of the trees should have powers that have more to do with religious concepts and ideals versus Heroes who go up the Ritual track having powers centered around rites and practices and Heroes going up the Divinity track having power based on becoming more potent and divine in their own right.

So, you know, mix and match according to your character's taste!

Friday, September 4, 2015

Monthly Update 9.4

Disclaimer: This is being written about a project that is in progress and is an attempt to give you a glimpse in the process of making the game. Abilities, powers, and mechanics discussed in this blog my not work as described here in the final product.

Hi Everybody!

This past month John and Anne have continued to work on Hero's Journey. Anne actually posted about their progress on Kickstarter towards the end of August, which you can read more about that here. Some of the information here is going to double up with what you may have read there so please bear with me.

The bulk of the work is now done, which is the hardest thing to say, but it's not the "We're finished! Initiate the Two Month Timeline!" that we all want to announce. The work now is in the fine tuning, the fiddly bits of tweaking based on playtesting feedback. This is probably the most frustrating thing to read about because it's, well, boring.

They would read like patch notes. For example:

"After internal testing we have decided that X will occur at a 4% chance, down from 5%."

These are powers that are "done" in that they're written down and usable, but haven't been balanced. All of these tweaks are coming from the result of playtesting. The Playtests are still happening on multiple fronts and power levels. Much of John and Anne's development time is spent meeting with players and poring over the information gained from these sessions.

So is there anything else new I can share? Starting in the next few weeks, most likely on Wednesdays, we're going to start revealing the NPC's created for Kickstarter backers. It might be a couple weeks, but that will be coming.

You haven't missed it, the streaming game, either. Character sheets are still coming in, but nothing has been scheduled. Stay tuned.

Have a great Month, and I'll be back here on October 2nd!

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Playtest Findings: High-Level Character Creation

All right, after a week off from playtesting (we moved - I'm writing this from our new apartment, where all the boxes of books and whiteboards are waiting to move into their new homes!), we're back with new notes! The Canadian playtesting group is breaking some new ground with higher-level characters, so they have some interesting things to talk about that the lower-level groups also running right now may not.

Playtesting Issue: Characters initially created at a higher tier may not be comparable to characters that progressed up to that tier from the beginning.

Honestly, this is kind of a no-brainer - a character created as an Immortal doesn't look like one that was created as a Mortal and grew upward through play. We expected that this would be true, and that expectation was amply fulfilled. But how different, and in what way, is still important to examine.

This test group created characters who were a little ways into their Immortal career, using our written rules for character creation at higher levels; that means that these are characters who have already had multiple adventures and experiences in their backstories, and are already firmly entrenched in their powers and roles prior to even starting. They had several issues related to the fact that this came with a lot of extra moving parts - they weren't worried about figuring out what their Heroes had done in their previous adventures, since creative stories about cool things they'd done came easily, but they did hit some snags when it came to starting their new careers smoothly.

A repeated concern was that the players felt that they had an overwhelming number of powers to begin the game with. Although they thought the powers were cool and wanted to have neat magic spells and super feats to wield against enemies and challenges, they had difficulty trying to memorize so many possibilities off the bat, and some ended up having to take more notes about their powers and costs than they would have liked, or had to slow down play when they paused to look things up. This didn't cause them to try to take fewer powers - they were at an average just as likely to pick up extra Blessings as other playtesters - but did make them less confident in using the ones that they had at the right moment.

We also heard some concern over the Archetype system; although the players ended up agreeing that it made sense mathematically, starting at a higher level meant that the players were faced off the bat with gaining Archetype dots more slowly (without going into it too much, Archetype progression becomes slower as you increase in "level" - so Heroes who start as Mortals are moving comparatively much more quickly than Immortal or Divine ones). This is something that might not have been overly noticeable if they'd begun at the bottom, since the progression would have been likely to slow more gradually over time, but some players were nonplussed by the fact that, starting in the middle of the scale, they weren't likely to see it move very often going forward.

There was of course the question of numbers to be dealt with, too, which was one of the major things we wanted to see when this particular test game started. Are our guidelines for what stats to give starting Immortals useful and comparable to those of Heroes who would have progressed to that point from Mortals? Are new Immortals appropriately powerful, and are these guidelines useful for both players who want to start a new game at Immortal level and players who have a character die or be taken out of play, and have to replace them mid-stream? This is pretty subjective data, since the "right" level depends on a lot of factors and different players have different ideas of the power level they feel is appropriate there, but we're collecting information on it to compare to the lower-level tests that are growing toward this level, and doing some tweaking on the fly.

Finally, the testing GM let us know that there was something of a curve for running a game that started with Immortal as well. Without having grown upward with these characters, crafting enemies and challenges with appropriate difficulties was much more of a theoretical exercise, and with so many powers being slung around, there was also some trouble with knowing when to call for power use, when to call for rolls, and how to guess on the fly whether something a Hero was attempting would have been possible at lower levels and how it might have been done differently then versus now.

Possible Solutions:

A lot of these issues are problems inherent in essentially "starting in the middle" of the game, and we weren't super surprised to hear about all of them. While the core rulebook does provide guidelines for creating higher-level characters, it also recommends against doing so unless your play group is either really invested in the idea of starting at a higher power level, or has played through that territory before and won't be running into the new demands of Immortal and Divine games for the first time. That's not because we hate people playing at higher levels, but rather because when players get to spend time with their characters all the way through the game, many of these problems diminish or even disappear: players who buy their powers gradually over time instead of getting them all in a huge dump at once have much less trouble remembering what they do or what options are available to them, Archetypes don't feel like endless never-gaining time dumps since they've had a chance to experience the faster progression of Mortal Archetypes, and GMs have had a lot more time to observe their players in action and know where their skillsets and difficulty levels lie.

Of course, "don't do it" isn't a solution, though, and there are plenty of times that there might be great reasons to start Heroes at higher tiers of power - for example, a Hero on an Immortal or Divine team died and their player needs to replace them with a new character that can hit the ground running with the others, or a group might want to continue to progress upward in power level but try out new characters as they do, or the GM wants to tell a story that by nature doesn't touch on the mortal realm all that much. And as designers, it's our job to try to minimize difficulty in those cases - so what could we do?

The multiplicity of powers may be something we can't directly solve, since it's more a learning curve issue than anything else - some players will have trouble with it, others won't, and power options and choices is a major factor of the core game system that isn't going anywhere. It is nice, however, that the Web of Fate allows players to choose where their points go and what paths they take, so that players who don't want to start with a daunting array of powers can in many cases choose to take bonuses to rolls or stats instead. We're considering whether a quick note of advice reminding players of this would be worth the extra page space.

Our biggest challenge is ensuring that the guidelines for points, stats, and starting levels of various things are appropriate. While of course some GMs will be able to tweak numbers on the fly to make sure that new characters are where they want to be, others will want guidance from the book, and let's be real, it's not just nice for us to provide that, it's a basic necessity. We're still doing some mock character trials and tests to try to get more information on it, but this new live test game was definitely directly helpful for that.

So while there will always be some disparity between characters that went through the organic leveling process and characters that started as full-fledged Immortal or Divine Heroes, we'll be doing as much as we can to minimize it, and to provide GM and player advice in the appropriate places to help ease any remaining growing pains that might linger on.