Thursday, August 18, 2016

Friday, June 17, 2016

June Update

Hello Everyone!

It has been a while, but we are still here and John & Anne are working hard in the game mines, but I will let the updated list speak to that.


As you can see, from the last update the Hunter, Creator, and Elemental augments are all set and locked in. For Game Systems: Divine Favor, the Magic Item Table, Odyssey Events, Prophecy Effects, Volatile Item Tables, and the XP System are also set. Much of this was Anne setting down and making a ton of tables.

But the good news is that we are down to five items left! We continue to circle... the finish line? OK, it's not a perfect analogy, but we are closer than we were before.

Anne wanted to apologize for the delay of Spoiler Request II: Revenge of the Archetypes. It is waiting in the wings, but stopping to talk is hard. Any work on a post, is time not spent working on the book. The scene ends up looking something like this...


... and then they get back to work.

That's it for the update. Have a great June!

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Spoilers as Requested: Archetypes!

Since our last post about building characters and motivations on their Aspects and Archetypes resulted in a request for more information about Archetypes, I'm here to provide! Here's what's up with Archetypes: what they do in the game and what they're for.

Archetypes in HJ are based on (but not identical to) the Jungian heroic archetypes, which are a popular theory of mythological archetypes and personality types that describe characters in myths. Jung was the dude whose work Campbell, author of the theory of the Hero's Journey, based his own work on, and if you don't really care about reading a bunch of psychological mythology articles today, all you really need to know about it is that a lot of western study of mythology is based on Jung and Campbell and their ideas about universal themes and characters that can be found in different cultures and time periods around the world, and while they're certainly not the be-all and end-all of mythology ideas (and have plenty of detractors with good things to say about where their theories' failings are!), they're useful for big sweeping ideas and classifications.

So the Archetypes in HJ look like this:


The four categories at the edges (Self vs. Community and Freedom vs. Order) don't really mean anything in terms of gameplay, they're just to sort of show where the spectrum of character types is here. Some Archetypes are more about the Hero focusing on themself and their own goals (Self), while others are more about their services to others (Community); and some Archetypes are about the chaotic possibilities of having few restrictions (Freedom) while others are more about control and organization (Order).

Mechanically, your Archetypes do two things: they control your "leveling" process, and they control how much access you have to your Endowments.

Heroes have two Archetypes which combine to make a single total score, and they can't purchase dots of stats past that score. The idea behind this is that a Hero has to actually be working toward their heroic mission - the reasons they became and act as a Hero in the first place - in order to increase in power and skill. If they're living up to their own heroic motivations and giving it their all, they get to level a lot faster than someone else who doesn't. The total score from their Archetypes also controls how many Reserves they have to spend to activate their Endowments, meaning that someone who is seriously working to fulfill heir heroic calling is able to call in reinforcements with Sway or recover resources with Persistence or kick off a Gambit when needed more often than someone who isn't. Because you have two Archetypes in a combined score, you can control how much or little you focus on either of them, allowing you to have a more nuanced motivation set; while it's mathematically easier to try to keep them even and take facets of both into your character, you can theoretically favor one above the other and still succeed, or even let one drop completely to zero as long as you dive into the other one feet first.

So how do you get more dots of your Archetypes? Well, through roleplaying - performing actions and making choices that support your archetypal motivations. Saviors who save people, Preservers who preserve things, and Explorers who explore stuff are all likely to get a chance at gaining Archetypes; and conversely, Heroes who act against their archetypal motivations, essentially failing in their self-imposed mission, can actually lose dots of their Archetype and set themselves back a little ways (don't worry, you don't lose stats you already have if your Archetypes go down, you just might be slow being able to get any more new ones).

Archetypes have a lot of information about what each one means as a character type and when a Hero could be considered to be fulfilling them - for example, no one's particularly impressed when you go out and get easily accessible information you might already have known as a Scholar, and no one's going to applaud you as a Savior if you're saving someone from danger you just put them in yourself. It's too much for a single blog post to go through all of them, but we're happy to talk about individual Archetypes in the comments, if you like!

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Aspects & Archetypes: What Makes You a Hero

We talk a lot about playing different "kinds" or "types" of Heroes, when we talk about HJ, usually because we want it to be possible to do all kinds of different heroic stuff without being pigeonholed. But although we say that you can be different kinds of Heroes, we haven't really gone in-depth about what that means, so today seems like a good time for that!

Obviously, Heroes are people, so there's all the nuance of every possibility for a person involved here, but they also have large commonalities in mythology, folklore, modern storytelling, and everyday life. HJ models heroic "types" with two major systems: the Aspects and the Archetypes. (And if you were confusing the two you weren't the first, so hopefully this post will help with that!)

Basically, Archetypes are about motivation and purpose, and Aspects are about skills and actions.

You've all heard plenty about Aspects already, since they're the main stats that Heroes use to do things. The point of Aspects is that they let a Hero do things that kind of Hero should be able to do - if a Hero wants to be a fighter, they take points in Warrior to illustrate that they're embodying that concept, and if they want to be a wise scholar who helps out their group with secret knowledge, they take points in Sage so that they'll be good at that. Nothing is stopping anyone from calling themselves a "warrior" without buying any dots, or even from sometimes doing warrior-style feats (like Striving for Glory to punch a guy, for example), but it would be exceptionally hard to have a character really be a Warrior if they are not actually good at anything the Warrior Aspect allows them to do. Heroes can have any number of the seven Aspects at various levels, although most will have two or three that really define their heroic role. (Also, obviously, there are Talents within Aspects that further specialize them, so even if you and your buddy are both Leaders, one of you may be all about the Diplomacy and Purpose and the other all about the Sovereignty and Tactics and see a pretty small amount of overlap.)

On the other hand, a Hero's Archetypes - of which they have two, the better to illustrate that Heroes are very rarely just one thing, although they do have the option of functionally abandoning one of them if they want to - are about why they're a Hero in the first place. The Archetype tells everyone why a Hero does what they do and what pushes them to go out and try to affect the world instead of staying home and never becoming the focus of a story, and the mechanic rewards them with progression when they fulfill this role they chose for themselves. Someone with the Ruler Archetype is a Hero because they want to impose their will on people and create new systems or order, and someone with the Artisan Archetype is a Hero because they want to create new things and feelings that have a lasting impact on society. They don't necessarily need to be good at those things, because unlike Aspects, Archetypes are about motivation - an Artisan might actually not be a very good artist or inventor, but as long as they keep trying and they work toward affecting the world in that way, they are still fulfilling that role.

For most characters, you end up with a pretty nuanced character description just from the Aspects plus the Archetypes: a character probably has three of one and two of the other that matter, which gives you a lot of information about who they are, what they do, and why they do it in a handful of stats. To use long-suffering playtest character Bernard as an example, he's a Sage/Creator/Hunter with Citizen/Savior Archetypes, and that's a pretty good portrait of what he actually is in action: a smart, somewhat vaguely goofy magician who heals his friends and talks to animals, and who is doing all these things because he thinks it's important to help people in need and keep his community safe and healthy. One of those things being different would change his character focus, which means that it's totally possible to have multiple Heroes who have the same skills (Aspects and Talents) but who do radically different things with them because they have those skills for different reasons (Archetypes).

So, for example: Odysseus and Horus are both broadly Tricksters, and probably have a lot of investment in the Trickster Aspect. If you specialized them further, you might say that Odysseus is a Trickster/Sage/Warrior, and that Horus is a Trickster/Warrior/Leader, so that now you have one Aspect's difference between the two but still some similar stats in play. But then if you add in Archetypes, you might say Odysseus is a Trickster/Sage/Warrior with the Citizen/Explorer Archetypes, and that Horus is a Trickster/Warrior/Leader with the Rebel/Ruler Archetypes, and now we have two very different characters: one guy who uses his Trickster & Warrior skills to do whatever it takes to explore new vistas but also take care of his followers and community at home, and one who uses them to fight against an unjust authority and seize power for himself instead.

The idea here is to give players lots of different ways to express the ideas behind the Hero they create and play, and to be able to tell stories that have resonating common themes without falling into the problems of "this group doesn't need two Lovers, we're just doing the same thing all the time" if they don't want to double down on having more than one person take on the same specialties. Good for the story, good for the game!

By the way, there is actually a third layer of this in play if you have a Mysticism-heavy Sage in your group: they have a Blessing that lets them determine the "role" a hero is destined to play in the current Saga and help push them into it, so that you might end up with even more specificity and complexity added to what you're doing at the moment. This Blessing lets Sages assign one of six common mythological hero classifications - for example, the "action Hero" (Beowulf) or "folk Hero" (Johnny Appleseed) or "sacrificial Hero" (King Arthur) - that gives the Hero who takes on that role additional benefits and responsibilities in a more short-term kind of way.

A fun game we sometimes play, when we're hours into working on something and need the break, is to grab a few famous Heroes from either mythology or pop culture and try to figure out their Aspect/Talent/Archetype/role setup, which ends up with some fun details where you can see characters becoming different from one another in spite of having similar overall themes. Our pick the other night was Neo from The Matrix, who after a little discussion we decided was probably a Creator/Sage/Trickster with the Magician/Rebel Archetypes, who depending on the movie was first the Action Hero, then the Culture Hero, and finally the Sacrificial Hero in each of his three stories.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Monthly(ish) Update 4.29

Hello Everyone!

So I will start with an apology, last month was a rough for John, Anne, and myself. Without dwelling on it both John and I had deaths in our respective family's, so our focus has not been on updates. Anne has picked up our slack and been sending out updates, but she is now in the final stretch of finishing her Masters. So I am back with the updates, and with a graphic (provided by Alex) showing the current progress.



Not a huge leap from last month, the only change is that Leader is now all set. The goal was to finish the XP system tweaks last night, but Anne's last paper got in the way, so that is close, but not quite there yet.

Also being actively worked on is the Hero's Journey Structure and the Hunter Augments. The Hero's Journey Structure is a GM resource for adapting Joseph Campbell's steps of the hero's journey to your games. The Hunter Augments are just being the Hunter Augments, which is to say they're being difficult. But the wrestling match with them continues.

But those are your quick updates for the end of April / beginning of May. I'll be back in another month to update you on the continued progress.

Have a great May!

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Playtest Update: Character Sheet Peeks!

Holy smokes. I'm not sure how old this request is, because for some reason it didn't ping a notification to my email, but I just found it!

Could we see some updated character sheets? Maybe examples from the playtesters?

Sounds great, and sure! Since they just passed their one-year anniversary as testers, here are the sheets for our fabulous ongoing Mortal-level playtest, featuring some folks you may know from other blog posts. These are Mortals who have finished a complete Saga and played for a solid year, so they're pretty far into their development, and you'll see them looking a lot more filled out and specialized than the starting-level ones that we've been spoiling over at Kickstarter!


Alas, we don't have artwork for these characters, so their portraits are blank, and you may also notice that these are just the first pages, which is because the full sheets are elsewhere this week for storage. (Also, our graphics expert is on a job, so I put these together, so please pardon the smudges of my less professional skills.)

This set of characters is a really neat one, because you can see where this particular group decided to gravitate toward roles within the whole. While any Hero can have any set of Aspects, and there's definitely overlap between different characters who share skillsets, these are a good example of how we sometimes talk about a character as an Aspect type - for example, a Creator or a Sage, even though they clearly have other Aspects as well.

For example, these six characters clearly claimed one of the Aspects as their own and made it their home. Even though every single character clearly has some dots of Sage, it's also obvious that Bernard is THE Sage, and that while some characters have utility there and can contribute, he's the go-to guy for matters of the mysterious universe of the mind. It's equally obvious that Jennifer is the Warrior, Nate is the Trickster, Annie was the Lover, Emilia is the Hunter, and Ruby is the Leader. We didn't ask them to take on those roles or push them to develop into them; they did it on their own, responding to niches where they realized the group could use someone who was really good in a certain area, and spreading out to make sure the team had a balance of possibilities when together. That's not the only way to set up a group - you can definitely have multiple people being the Warrior or the Lover, trading in having someone who can handle any situation with the most appropriate stat for having everyone be able to absolutely demolish certain areas of expertise instead, or the ever-popular and hilarious "every problem looks like a nail" approach, where everyone goes hard into a couple of the same Aspects and become a roving band of hunter-wizards who solve all their problems with tracking skills and animal husbandry.

The only Aspect lacking a specific dedicated person in this group is the Creator (well, and the Lover now, since Annie met an unfortunate yet heroic end attempting to save her companions from being eaten by tigers), which the players consider Bernard's "job" because he has the most direct skills in it, but which is really not super focused on by anyone. That's okay - Creator powers and skills are awesome and the group could definitely use them, but they also get by fine with several people dabbling in it and pinch-hitting when necessary, and who knows, maybe someday someone will decide to invest. Or, maybe not, and then they'll either avoid creation-based stories or figure out creative (ha) solutions to those they encounter.

These folks may head on up to another tier soonish (although I say that knowing full well that their first Saga took a scientifically measured One Trillion Years, so who actually knows), but in the meantime, they're in a sweet spot where they're well-established and developed as Mortal Heroes, but not quite ready to go on to leave the fields of their human problems behind.

I'll leave you with this snapshot from Jennifer Clarke's character sheet, because she may not have a character portrait but her player does know exactly what she's about:


A true hero of our times.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Progress Update: The Votes Are In!

Okay, everyone! It's been a few weeks, so we're officially going to call the Kickstarter voting. (If you're not a KS backer, sorry, this post will be less exciting to you, but we will hopefully make up for it in the near future!

The final tally looked something like this:

A Votes B Votes C Votes
22 2 9


Those following along from afar may notice that there's an option C on that table, which didn't actually exist in the original KS post, where we offered options A and B. That's because a startling number of people over at Kickstarter (but very few here) suggested "option C", which was essentially "just keep doing what you're doing and let us know when it's done, we're not bothered about it", which was very excellent of them. (Salutes, you folks.) Not represented on this table are also a large number of votes of "C, but A I guess if that isn't an option," which started popping up around the same time as well.

So, without getting into it too greatly: you're all fantastic, but when we offered options A and B, it was because we were hearing from various backers and followers of the project that they really needed to see something concrete sooner rather than later, and since we agree that this project has gone on much longer than anticipated and you folks deserve to see some return on that investment, we came up with a few ideas for how to do that. Option C, nice though it would be for us because we wouldn't have to do anything extra, wouldn't help those folks whose voices we were responding to in the first place, so we're going to have to decide not to go with it.

But of the original two options, A clearly won by a landslide (even more so if you could the "C, but I guess A" votes, which jump that 22 up to a 35), so A it is! We will be working toward fulfilling that plan!

First Important Thing: Everything we're working on to implement Option A is stuff that had to be done before the book was finished, anyway. That means that those of you who voted C, or who aren't voting at all but were worried about delays, can mostly rest easy that we're not stopping to do things that make it take longer for you to get the final product. What we are doing is mostly redirecting the specific things we're working on so that the things Option A needs done get done first, and everything else will be done later after it's out the door. There will still be a small delay, I won't lie to you - at the end we'll have to stop to proofread everything and then put it into a form we can release to backers - but it won't be a very big one.

Second Important Things: As we have all discovered together on this winding journey, date estimates have been difficult to come up with and often don't reflect the actual final completion date. So, instead of taking a guess (educated, but still a guess) at when Option A will be finished and ready to rock, we've put together a checklist of all the things that need to get done before that, so you can follow along as they get completed.



There's a more thorough run-down of what each of those things on this list means and what we're doing with it on the Kickstarter update for backers, but suffice it to say they're all Good Stuff and they all have to be finished for the final game anyway, so hopefully even those of you not on KS will be able to follow some progress that way, too.

That's it for today's announcement! We'll let you know as things progress, and Cameron will of course continue to update while we move forward!

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Mechanics Talk: Divine Intervention

Anne the Dev: Informal poll: I'm working on new blog posts, anyone have any ideas for topics?
Amy the Playtester: Maybe a post about what it looks like when a divine intervention happens SINCE WE HAVE USED ALL OF OURS

Ah, Divine Intervention. A mechanic that everyone loves, yet always uses with keen regret. No one ever wants to call for a Divine Intervention, but man, is it nice when they're there.

The point of the Divine Intervention mechanic is literally what it says on the box: it's a deus ex machina that a player can call down when they're in terrible trouble and no amount of effort on their own part can save them anymore. The universe itself swoops in to save them - probably via their great and terrible divine patron, but also possibly through some other divine supernatural force, or through events set in motion by a deity who isn't actually going to show up in person this time.

In playtesting, all of the following have occurred as Divine Interventions:

  • A Hero dies and has a post-death experience wherein she is informed by the powers of the universe that it is not time for her to die and she should do better next time, before being forcibly catapulted back to life.
  • All the Heroes are grabbed and whisked away from danger by the speedy intervention of the Greek psychopompus Hermes, who leaves them squatting in a nearby condo with instructions to succeed more and annoy him less.
  • A very angry Norse goddess arrives, reams the group's Sage out for not preventing this problem before it occured, then hurls half the party members across the city to find their friends.
  • An alfar warrior rushes in just in the nick of time, gets shot in a Hero's place, and rescues her before returning her to her group and informing them that her divine patron would like to see this Not Happen Again.
  • A powerful, overwhelming storm occurs, completely obscuring the Heroes from their foes and sweeping them away to end up elsewhere in safety.
  • Two of the Heroes die and end up in Duat, where they are rejected from the heart-weighing ritual and sent back upstairs by a very tired ibis.

(Honestly, we look forward to hearing about peoples' creative DIs in the future, because almost anything could happen and it's always an impressive moment!)

Divine Interventions are pretty rare, which isn't surprising - if the players could just escape doom all the time easily, consequences in the game wouldn't mean much and the whole focus of the game would shift. Heroes only get a couple of Divine Interventions over the course of their careers, and they usually only use them when a Hero has died or is about to inescapably die, and there's no other possible way of saving them. A big group of Heroes by nature has more Divine Interventions at their disposal than a small one, but considering that this also means there are way more of them to get in trouble and that healing or protection powers are stretched thinner across them, we haven't seen much of a difference between the rate of use in smaller or larger groups.

This is all pretty much what you could all have guessed, but the bigger question is: do Divine Interventions work? Are they as useful as they're supposed to be? Do they change the game's landscape for the better?

As we talked about back in an old discussion on escape hatches in games, one of the concerns with Divine Interventions is that they might make players feel they can screw around with impunity since they know they can scream for help if things get too bad. In playtesting, happily, this has not seemed to be the case; the DIs are infrequent and valuable enough that players hate using them up and, like Amy the Playtester above, never use them unless they can't help it and sadly wish for the days of yore when they still had them once they have.

They definitely work, but depending on the GM, how well is a matter up for debate. In a game with lots of potential lethality, DIs are more necessary and at a higher premium; in a game where the players are more cautious or the GM doesn't introduce as many possible lethal threads, they're easier to save up and therefore might prolong Heroes' lives more. We can't really control that other than to provide guidelines for how we think heroic adventures should ideally proceed, so there'll be some variation between games, but hopefully the phenomenon, cool though it is, is rare enough that it should be balanceable on the fly by individual games.

In playtests, it took a group about one year of weekly sessions to use up six DIs, so obviously they weren't going off everywhere all willy-nilly. (Of course, this doesn't mollify them much because it also took them that long to finish their first Saga, but honest, folks, it was a reasonable time-frame in real-life time, anyway!)

The goal with this mechanic is to give Heroes that little bit of extra "story insurance"; as Heroes, they're the main characters of the story and more likely to survive than random other characters would be, and as we all know, myths (and the high-octane stories that are their descendents, too) often feature a moment or two where the Heroes get a lucky break or help from on high that arrives just at the best possible moment. It's not often, and it's not easy, but it's still possible - and sometimes that's all a Hero in a tight spot needs.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Mechanics Spoilers: Persistence Returns!

We've still got some folks trickling in to weigh in on our Kickstarter questions from last week, so stay tuned to hear more about that soon. In the meantime, how about that last Endowment, eh?

Last time we talked about Endowments and unveiled the re-designed versions for Creator and Warrior, we mentioned that Hunter was still fighting us. The old Endowment was decent and tested well from a mechanical standpoint, but it was very specific to only a single facet of the things Hunters could do, and it was the sort of power that John likes to refer to as a "win-more": people who didn't have it wanted it, but the Hunters who did didn't really need it all that much since they were already good at those things.

So back to the drawing board, where for the past several weeks Hunter's Endowment has been the last outstanding part of the base system that still needed to be fixed. Happily, we have a new version finally, heading into testing this very day, and hopefully we'll be able to call that bad boy done!

The new Endowment is still called Persistence, just like the old one, and still plays on the idea of Hunters as being able to find hidden reserves of strength and fortitude even when they've been surviving on a shoestring or tracking a trail for who knows how long. Now, it allows Heroes to choose a complementary resource that they also use, and occasionally suddenly regenerate a whole bunch of it when by all rights they should be exhausted and incapable of using them. The Hunter gets to choose which other resource to pair with their Persistence, and although they do have a very infrequent option to change that choice, for the most part they're making a choice about what they expect to use and invest in the most as they move forward.

This sounds a little like the Warrior Endowment, Innervation, but it affects different resources and is more flexible, as well as giving them cross-Aspect utility where the Warrior is pretty much focused on only their Warriorly shenanigans.

What we're looking for here is a way for Hunters, who are great at soldiering on when the going gets touch (already represented by their having Mettle, among other things), to be able to expand that to keep soldiering on even when they're doing something that isn't itself strictly Hunter. No Hero is only one thing, so Hunters are also Creators or Lovers or Tricksters, etc., and should still be able to bring their formidable ability to keep going to bear when they're embodying those roles as well.

To use a recent pop culture example, Aragorn, from Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings cycle, is a great example of a multi-faceted Hunter character; we'd probably say he's a Hunter/Leader/Warrior, as the Ranger who stalks the wilderness, the king who reunites his people, and the warrior who does a great deal of swording on his way to these objectives. And, since he's trying to Leader and Warrior just as hard as he is Huntering, he might choose to pair his Persistence with, say, Purpose, allowing him to continue leading and pushing his followers long after anyone else would have given up. His abilities to persist as a Hunter complement his abilities to motivate as a Leader, making him capable of soldiering on whenever (and however) necessary.

This isn't the fanciest of Endowments - like Innervation and Empowerment, it's a personal power rather than a big story-affecting one, so it's a little shorter on frills and more focused on sound mechanics. But the playtesters so far seem enthusiastic about it, so we're hoping after a little testing we'll be able to cross it off our list for good!

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Calling All Kickstarter Backers!

All right, everybody, today we're skipping a full post discussing the game, because instead we're doing Big Things and hoping you'll be doing them with us!


These Hesperides are dancing and excited about it and we are, too!

If you are a Hero's Journey Kickstarter backer, we're choosing a strategy for getting you this game faster today, and we'd love for you to vote on which way you want us to do it. Head on over to the most recent KS update to see the options, and feel free to send us your thoughts whatever way makes you most comfortable (here, there, in emails, whatever!).

If you're not a backer, you won't be able to give input on that particular situation, but I'll leave you with the teaser that a new Hunter Endowment (still called Persistence, but now more encompassing for different types of Hunters!) has been tentatively approved and is in testing, so you can look forward to hearing about that in a post soon!

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Setting Talk: Myths and Machines

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." - Clarke's Third Law

After surveying our playtesters for what they'd like to see talked about on the blog again, and wading through the humorous bog of suggestions like "when do we allow the meathead player to punch everything" and "you could feature all our failures in an eighties-style montage", we also got a suggestion to talk about how HJ handles mythology and technology, and the weird liminal plane where the two meet. It can be weird to figure out how technology should interact with a game where so much is based on myths and legends that, by definition, predate that technology - so what does that look like?

HJ is set in a modern world mostly like our own, except that Heroes are about to explode onto the scene and start getting magic chocolate into its technological peanut butter. That means there are plenty of technology issues that a game could involve or address: characters may have cell phones and GPS trackers, enemies could be using highly advanced technological weapons, the internet is invisibly everywhere, the government is probably developing all kinds of secret genetic engineering and machine-based tech, and so on and so forth. This is all pretty intuitive for us because, well, we live in it; but how does the story of the Heroes representing the ancient powers of wind and storm and sorcery get in there without dissonance?

This isn't a new idea; science fiction, realistic fantasy, and magic realism are genres that way predate any of us, and you could probably throw a rock in any given month and hit a new movie or book that does this. HJ takes the approach that technology is and always has been part of mythology anyway, and there's no need for the two to be unharmonious unless a story specifically wants them to be.

Technology is all over mythology and folklore, which is no surprise; as Clarke told us at the beginning of this post, there really isn't that hard a line between it and magic anyway, especially for people who don't have intimate knowledge of a technology. For example, your Sage may know perfectly well how the inside of a cell phone is put together and works, but for the Warrior using it who doesn't have that knowledge, it might as well be a magic box that casts distance-scrying spells, since it works pretty much identically. Even if the Warrior knows, intellectually, that there's some kind of complicated mechanical thing going on in there, they still have no idea what it is and pretty much expect it to work on blind faith, and if it broke, they would be just as helpless to do anything about it as they would be to grab a bowl of water and magically call Asgard on it.

This isn't new stuff. Technologies of the past include things like discovering how to reliably create fire, metal-working and stone-cutting, creating simple machines like levers and pulleys, the wheel, animal husbandry, sewing and textile crafts, figuring out aqueducts and irrigation systems, and so on. These were all the newest technology available at one point, and because they were new and people who hadn't done them didn't know how they worked, they were often considered sort of semi-magical, or described in mythic terms for those who didn't know the technical jargon. If you have no idea how an irrigation system works, well, it's pretty much just as magical when the fields are watered and grow as it is now for us to put raw food in a microwave and thirty seconds later have a ready-to-eat pizza.

Usually, in myth, technology is under the control of the Creator and Sage Aspects; they're the ones who make the stuff, or who at least understand the stuff enough to use it efficiently. These are usually really, really obviously Technology Wizards, too; you have figures like Hephaestos in Greece, who is directly in charge of inventing new WMDs and mechanical traps that no one else has any idea how to operate, or like Thoth in Egypt, whose invention of theoretical concepts like mathematics and time cycles allowed the development of agriculture. Often, if a technology becomes widespread or especially important to a culture, the people are directly "granted" it by such a figure - for example, Ogun in Nigeria, who invents the technology to create and refine iron and gives it to his people so that they can become metalworkers themselves. At a lower level away from actual deities, trickster and magician figures are frequently creators and users of technology, again because it looks pretty much like wizardry to the untrained eye.

So what we're saying here is that technology is part of mythology, and so the two should hopefully play nice most of the time.

In HJ, you have two sets of sources for "powers" out of the ordinary - the Aspects, which are concerned with human ideas and concepts and the Hero's embodiment of them, and the Domains, which are more about big fat universal concepts that may or may not care about human beings very much. Understandably, because technology is all about human advancement, discovery, and creation, you'll see most things having to do with technology in the Aspects, especially in Creator, Sage, and Trickster (although you can usually find a smattering of things elsewhere, too). Creators can and do invent new technologies, or at least build or repair things using existing technology, if they need to, while Tricksters, as the premier Doers of Stuff in Human Civilization, are masters of manipulating technology that exists now to suit their own goals. Sages don't necessarily always do technology (especially if they lean more toward the Mysticism side of things), but they have a much better chance of understanding it if it's unfamiliar than most others, so they usually end up in charge of identifying weird new tech on the fly, or figuring out how to parse a computer code or complex encryption.

The Domains, well, they're a little weirder. You'll find considerably less to do with technology in the Domains - at least directly, but indirectly, the natural forces of the universe are at the bottom of many technologies, so things like Thunder's control over electricity or Fire's control over its namesake may still be directly or indirectly useful to your technological shenanigans.

In the world of HJ itself, you, as a Hero really get to choose how much or little you want to go into technology. Maybe it helps comfort you to know that you can make super-tech or duplicate the effects of some super-tech, because it means magic isn't that weird or scary. Maybe you follow in the footsteps of inventors like Maui or Daedalus and start adding to the world's shared technologies yourself, contributing to the active pace of technological development. Maybe you feel like you don't need technology anymore, because who needs planes when you can fly? All are valid approaches. In the world around you, some folks will think the only real religion involves ceremonies away from all this modern nonsense, some will be avid followers of the local Norse Religion Radio Station whenever they have a second to listen to it, and some will be actively working on the ability to create holographic projections of the core stories of Hinduism so that they can share their stories in a whole new way.

As far as belief in religions versus belief in technology goes, there are certainly some people in HJ's world - as in ours - who can't reconcile the two, but there are also plenty of folks who use both together to do some very neat things, and no one should feel limited one way or the other.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Monthly Update 3.4

Hello all, and welcome back to the monthly update!

I to catch up with John and Anne last night just after John had wrapped the 5th cross Atlantic game. You can catch up with their status on the twitter feed, it seems at the moment they are having some issues with Fire...

There are minor tweaks to the game from the testing games, but most of the feedback has been positive. The Hunter Aspect remains a problem child and is still is a work in progress, the challenge not having it double up on things other aspects already do and not making them boring. More to come as we get closer to finalizing Hunter.

John has been traveling a bit this past month but has been working on what will either be an additional chapter or section of the book. This section will be advice as to how to run a game of Hero's Journey, as well as discussing the themes and spirit of the game.

On to more concrete progress, the talent augments are done. Spheres augments are still a work in progress. The bulk of the work right now lay with the Sphere augments.

This month Anne will have a few weeks off due to the Easter holiday, so she will have the ability to focus more on working on augments.

Thank you all for your patience, and I will be back next month!


Saturday, February 27, 2016

Character Creation Playtests: The Well-Rounded Character

We're going to take a quick philosophical detour into some of the ideas behind character creation in HJ today, specifically into the concepts behind what your beginning Hero looks like, and how playtesters have responded to that. It's been an interesting area to delve into, because of course everyone has a different opinion on what starting characters should do and have, and of course testers who haven't played HJ before are coming in blind to a certain extent when it comes to knowing what they're going to need or want to do.

Playtesting Issue: Players want to create "well-rounded characters" at the beginning of that game, but disagree about what that means and whether or not the game allows them to do it.

A phrase we often hear, both at character creation and in gaming in general, is that people want or seek to make a "well-rounded character". This sounds like a fine and lofty goal, but it tends to mean different things depending on who said it and in what context. Just a few of the definitions of "well-rounded character" we've run into include:

  • A character that has all the skills a player considers "realistic"
  • A character that can contribute or perform actions in every situation
  • A character that has what a player considers "reasonable" specialties (that is, they aren't min-maxed)
  • A character that has at least one point in every stat the player considers "important"
  • A character that has lots of options available to them for specialization later

And probably a few more. And as you can see, a lot of those things depend on player tastes, so they can be hard to judge; what does "realistic" skills mean, what powers are "reasonable", and what things are "important" to the game?

In general, the players who are looking for things that are "important" to the game are those players who are looking for tactical advantage. They've read the book and the system, they've decided on which stats they think are the most critical for succeeding at whatever they want to do and which stats they think are a waste of time, and they want to make sure they get all the "good" ones, even if that's a wide spread of things. (If you remember our post about playstyles from a while back, this is usually Pat's approach.) These are the players who have figured out exactly which powers and stats they think will be used the highest percentage of the time, and which other powers can be backdoor "cheats" for moments when they need them, and their version of "well-rounded" is getting all of those most important things as soon as they possibly can.

Other players say that they want their powers to be "realistic" when they make a well-rounded character, which could mean pretty much anything, considering that the idea of what's realistic for a given character exists completely in that person's head (back with the playerstyles, we're especially looking at you, Robin!). Around the mechanics balancing playpen, we affectionately refer to this as the "Navy SEAL Problem" or the "Usain Bolt Effect"; at some point, there's always some player who says, "look, it's realistic/reasonable for me to have all these different skills - Navy SEALS have to train to have them and they're just all regular people!", and therefore get cranky that even if they make a character who is a Navy SEAL, they can't have all the skills they think they should have. The Usain Bolt Effect is even more hilarious, because it usually involves a player saying, "Okay, I researched it and this is exactly how fast the fastest human being can be, so I should be able to be that without getting needing any 'extra points' and if you don't let me it's unrealistic," which of course they don't mean to sound silly, but here we all are.

Other players just mean that they don't want to be "locked" into any particular specialty right out of the gate, which we think is a pretty reasonable request, or that they don't like the idea of making characters that end up useless a lot of the time. These are easier issues to address, since they're more under our control and less ephemeral.

Solutions:

Since what's "reasonable" and "realistic" and "important" is a sliding scale known only to the internal processes of each individual player, we can't exactly cater to all of its possible iterations at the same time. What we can do, though, is make character creation clear - not just in where you put the points, but what it's trying to do and what the eventual character is meant to look like.

Like a lot of things in HJ, character creation isn't necessarily intended to be realistic; it's intended to be mythic, which might overlap but then again might now. Starting Heroes have a lot of Aspects to choose from, but they're really only going to be skilled in a few of them. This isn't so much because we think real-life people and heroes are only skilled at a few things, but because from the perspective of a mythic tale, Heroes tend to roll in good at some specific stuff - you know, being a Trickster and getting what they need through shenanigans, or being a Hunter who travels the perilous woods - rather than being pragmatically good at everything. That means that a brand-new, freshly-created out-of-the-box Hero won't necessarily conform to many folks' definition of "well-rounded" - and that they aren't supposed to.

This doesn't mean, however, that they are doomed to live and die in a tiny box and won't be able to do useful things on their adventures that fall outside their realm of expertise.

A large part of this is the Strive for Glory system we talked about a while ago: Heroes can and do sometimes do things out of their comfort zone and even do them impressively and well, so that option is always open to them, regardless of how they're statted, from the second they're created. It's not a good backup for someone who wants to do those things all the time, but it absolutely covers those who want to be well-rounded in the sense that they aren't by default helpless infants when it comes to a situation they might have to contribute to. Like most "realistic" Heroes, they have a shot at helping through luck, effort, and being the star of the story.

Another important thing that we haven't talked about yet is the existence of Insignificant Actions, which are exactly what they sound like: actions that are small or inconsequential and don't matter to the game. Everyone can successfully take Insignificant Actions whenever they want to, which means you don't need to have any dots of Creator to make lunch or any dots of Lover to say hi to someone without accidentally cussing them out. HJ's system doesn't automatically cause failures of normal, everyday actions that don't affect the story, whether you have dots in them or not, so players who were worried about being "well-rounded" because they'd been in games where a low Ath/Dex/Agi score meant they couldn't walk from the couch to the TV without falling flat on their faces were relieved to discover that this wasn't a problem.

And finally, of course, those who want to become more well-rounded - whatever that means to them - always have that ability immediately through the advancement system as soon as they're created and start doing things. There are no skills or stats that have to be "unlocked" before players can start getting them; they can go for it from day one, which means if they want dots in seventy different stats, they can do that, or if they want to go make a run for the magical effects of the Spheres, they can, or if they want to just min-max away at the inner workings of a few things, they have that option, too. (There are restrictions on how much of a stat they can get at one time, based on their progress, but not on which ones they can get.)

We're looking forward to seeing how players end up rounding out their characters as they move into higher tiers of the game, especially those who have expanded since their humble beginnings. We've been seeing more interest in buying different stats than in specializing through the Web of Fate than we were expecting for a lot of players, so we'll see if that trend continues at higher levels, or if the "well-rounded" effect tapers off as more specialized superpowers become available!

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

A Guide to Spending All Your Resources on Your Horrible Group (Part 1)

This is another one of those posts suggested by the playtest groups, who like to playfully complain about how many resources they spend on each other. This goes along with our discussion of the cooperative nature of HJ from a few weeks ago, but here we'll talk about some more of the specific mechanics involved in making the team better together than they are apart. Let's take a look at some of the players and their real-life cooperative adventures!

We're going to make it a series of posts about the Spending Resources on Your Friends' Bad Decisions facet of the playtest games, so the first one will focus on the Leader and Lover resource-generators, and we'll talk about some other Endowment options next time!

Leaders and Lovers: The Resource Factories

Leaders and Lovers, by virtue of their Aspect specialties, have direct special abilities to support other players, which makes them pretty darn important to overall group success. You can get by without them, of course, but as several players said with horrified looks on their faces when this was suggested, why would you want to?

Lovers use a Talent called Inspiration to help encourage their companions to do their best at all times, even under pressure or when the forces of bad luck strike. They spend their Inspiration to allow others to reroll a poor die roll - a very important skill, considering that it can mean the difference between success and failure, or prevent a tragic mistake even if it doesn't make its way all the way up to a success.

Our most long-running playtest had one dedicated Lover character, Ananda, who provided the major wellspring of Inspiration; she was constantly encouraging her companions, telling them that she believed in them, and suggesting that they could do better and try harder, for her, of course. She regularly exhausted her Inspiration on others' rolls, leading to other characters starting to invest in some Lover to help her out, and for a few games it was a sort of communal love-fest, with Annie leading the "we can all do it, guys!" charge.

Unfortunately, Ananda was killed in action a few Chapters ago, and the effects on the group were immediate and distressing. Without a steady source of Inspiration, the group continued to run into situations wherein they had run completely out, and every die roll was left up to the whims of chance. The players expressed that they've never felt quite so close to death as when they had to handle a giant combat against supernatural foes, and every poor roll resulted in them throwing up their hands and saying, "WELL, sorry everyone, I have wasted my round," or in one memorable case, "I JUST STABBED BERNARD IN THE ARM, SORRY ABOUT THAT."

In Ananda's absence, the other characters are jumping in to fill the void; Nate, the heavy Trickster of the group, was already interested in Lover for its powers of Persuasion, so he's begun to grab some Inspiration, too, and Bernard, the Sageliest of mages, is also trying to encourage success in his companions, although he has further to go. Regardless, the group definitely did not want to go on without enough Inspiration to help them out of jams, and even those who aren't going into the Lover Aspect are still taking advantage of the ability to get a few points of Inspiration here and there throughout the Web of fate.

Leaders, similarly, use a Talent called Purpose to directly motivate their followers and give them the ability to succeed when they might otherwise be exhausted. They spend their Purpose to restore resources to companions who have run out, so that they can literally do more things than they otherwise could have, including using powers when they would normally be out of juice, or enabling them to Strive for Glory when they might otherwise be too tired to step outside their normal wheelhouses.

The ongoing playtest game has long been plagued by a shortage of Purpose; while Ananda and Jennifer both had a little bit, it wasn't enough to do more than provide an occasional quick pick-me-up in an emergency, and so running out of resources (or being forced to spend more precious/higher-level resources in place of lesser ones) was commonplace for them. Several times, they found themselves having trouble winning battles against enemies or ending up being put in jail by the authorities because they just didn't have the remaining juice they needed to successfully use their powers to handle something.

When Ananda died, however, a new character - Ruby, a no-nonsense soldier woman who had been brought to the area as part of the National Guard but had since gone AWOL after realizing that martial law was making the situation worse for the local people, not better - arrived, bringing with her a big old bucket of Purpose and a willingness to tell other Heroes to get up off their butts and do things at her instruction. Since her arrival, she's given driving Purpose to her fellows somewhere in the neighborhood of five to eight times per Chapter, although she's starting, like Annie, to find that the diminishing returns on this heavy use is going to run her dry at a crucial moment in the future.

In both cases, the group has decided pretty definitively that they definitely want Inspiration and Purpose in play as much as possible, even if they have to get them sideways rather than as a primary focus for the players, and that they love their Lovers and respect their Leaders - which is, of course, exactly what they should do. The new European playtest is only a few sessions in and hasn't quite settled down to having enough experience to start bothering them for overall statements, but we look forward to hearing their thoughts on the systems in the future.

Next time: the Aspect Endowments and how they spend resources on their companions and overall group success, including Leaders leading people to get things done, Lovers calling upon the support network of their loved ones, and Tricksters tricking their way to something approximating success (hopefully with other companions in tow).

Friday, February 5, 2016

Monthly(ish) Update

Hello Everyone!

Long time no write! I am back with the monthly update, after a month away, and a quick recap of what's been happening in the development for Hero's Journey. Anne took over at the end of December to give you an update direct from the development team, if you haven't checked it out, I highly recommend reading the Year End Wrap-up which explains where John and Anne were at the end of last year and their goals for this year.

This update will be following along on the Year End Wrap-up, to let you know where we currently stand.

Finishing the Augments - Augments are a work in progress and is unfortunately difficult to talk about thus far numbered lists of "what's left" don't really get us any closer to a timeline, and we're bad at timelines. They're still working through them, but as of today this box hasn't been checked complete.

The Hunter Subsystem - Continues to be tested for its inherent Hunter-ey-able-ness. Right now, the process goes something along the lines of: Figure out potential solution, test, gets notes, tear apart potential solution, keep pieces that work, put together new solution. Eventually it be better, stronger, faster, more hunter-ey. They will do it, they have the technology. It's a work in progress

Outstanding Appendix Tables - This is in waiting for the other two to be completed.

There is still the finalizing process, but at the moment the goal line is on these three items.

In other news testing is continuing with multiple groups on both sides of the Atlantic! Hopefully there will be some recaps from them coming next month.

Until then I'll see you March 4th!

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Devotional Domains: The Last Holdout!

You've all seen a semi-spoiler for the Devotional Domains before, right? You've seen some teasers about the Hindu and Norse powersets in one post, and the Greek powers in another. But it has been rightly pointed out that we've been lacking a peek at the powers available to the Egyptians among us... sooooo...


Lots of adventures in orthography when it comes to ancient Egyptian concepts, considering the questionable different vowels and transcriptions to choose from. (For those of you worrying about the difference between "Heka" and "Heqa", there is one, but we're considering going with the alternative "Heku" for the first because really, demanding that y'all are familiar with the slight uvular differences of a dead language seems possibly like asking too much for people just trying to enjoy a game without confusion.)

For those of you making guesses about the Theology branch of this tree including powers based on the ancient Egyptian religious concept of the manifold soul... good call! Ritual has a lot to do with traditional ancient Egyptian magic, spell-casting, and protective amulets, while the Divinity section has to do with the heavy emphasis among Egyptian heroes and gods on symbolic representation and the power of different images and names to affect their natures.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Mechanics Spoiler: Travel Episodes

All right, how about we do a mechanics spoiler today? Basically I love this mechanic and I've been dying to share it forever anyway. It's one of my favorite things to do in HJ, and generally gets us about the mix of "hey, neat!" and "oh god not again" we're always looking for from players.

As we've mentioned before, there are several units of narrative time in HJ, and the smallest one of these is the Episode, which usually describes a specific event or situation that the Heroes are managing. But there are several different kinds of Episodes, and different Episode types have their own specific rules about what can happen inside them and how they affect the Heroes' adventures.

One of these is the Travel Episode, which is designed to allow games to model mythic journeys and pilgrimages. Long journeys are super important to a lot of mythic stories; traveling toward a specific goal or other important destination is a frequent hallmark of a Hero's story, and whether it's Rama journeying to Lanka to rescue his wife Sita, Isis' wanderings in the wilderness as she avoids Set's search for her, or Odysseus' famous decades-long attempt to successfully get back to the kingdom of Ithaca, the journey itself and the things that happen on it are at least as important to the story (if not more important!) than the final destination and success or failure of the Hero when they get there. Fairy tales especially love the journey or travel narrative; we've all read the repeated pattern of "someone's son goes on a journey to retrieve something lost/find the love of their life/escape an evil antagonist" or "someone goes on a journey to find knowledge or happiness somewhere that they couldn't in their home location or state". Some mythologies almost exclusively tell stories about journeys and travels; others include travel as one mythic part of a larger cycle.

Anyway, journeys are super important to a great deal of mythology, which presents us with an interesting problem in an RPG. For most games, travel tends to get dropped by the wayside, becoming a sort of non-thing that gets handwaved away. Players say, "Okay, so I'll just drive to the neighboring city to grab that missing part we need for our machine," and often the GM says, "Okay, that'll take five hours, so five hours later..." and the story completely skips the travel as unimportant. Or, the GM may have specific events planned somewhere, but not for the players getting to those events, leading to descriptions like, "So five hours of fruitlessly wandering the jungle later, you finally arrive at the thing I've planned..."

Of course, there's nothing wrong with this. Every moment of time or unimportant wandering around doesn't need to be thoroughly documented and played through, and sometimes it's dramatically appropriate to say that a lot of time full of nothing went by before anything happened, or to skip ahead to more interesting stuff instead of making the players trudge through unimportant trips that would interfere with the narrative. But the tendency to handwave away travel, especially if it's unexpected or the players are very goal-focused, can sometimes make it hard for a game to do any of those mythically important travel things that lots of Heroes in other stories do. How much neat stuff would we have missed out on if, say, the story of Theseus had said, "and then Theseus journeyed to Athens" and skipped all the encounters with characters like Periphetes and Procrustes that showed his prowess as a Hero? How much would the story of Ishtar's journey into the underworld have changed if it had just skipped straight to "so Ishtar went to the underworld and confronted Ereshkigal" without the journey in between giving the story the opportunity to carry information to Ereshkigal and strip Ishtar gradually of her powers?

So: Travel Episodes. The idea is that when Heroes decide to start traveling anywhere for a non-negligible period of time or reason (going to the store for a snack is not a Travel Episode; going a town over in search of an informant might be!), a Travel Episode is triggered, which has its own rules. Travel Episodes are "longer", in terms of in-game time, than most other Episodes, and they contain a number of odyssey events, which are the sorts of mythic encounters that you see in travel stories here and there. Odyssey events could be anything appropriate to the current story; they definitely could be "a wandering monster appears", a la traditional dungeon crawls, but they could also be "you discover an important clue", "an NPC is encountered who could be important to the rest of the story", "a storm occurs and everyone has to deal with environmental problems and dangers", or even "you stumble across a cache of useful items that will help you continue". Travel Episodes essentially "contain" or trigger other Episodes, so that travel itself becomes a part of the story that can affect other events.

The exact list of odyssey events is chosen by the GM based on where the Heroes are and what sort of tale they're involved in, and is rolled on randomly as they head out onto the open road (don't worry, there are sample odyssey events in the book, too, so you can pull from those if you're GMing but not sure you can always come up with ten useful possibilities if the players suddenly strike out through the woods without warning). Some events might be good, some bad; some might delay the Heroes or force them to overcome obstacles, others might give them helpful new tools and allies. Some might do nothing at all except give the Heroes a chance to test their relationships with each other and their responses to stress. Others might drastically affect how the story ahead plays out.

Obviously, there's a lot of room to tailor this mechanic to make it work for your story. GMs have full ability to decide that a given instance of travel isn't important enough to cause a Travel Episode - maybe because the Heroes aren't going far, are covering very familiar territory, or because other things are already happening and it would be redundant or interfere too much. GMs also get to decide what odyssey events are in play for any given Travel Episode, so they can insert NPCs that they already wanted the players to possibly encounter, make sure obstacles match the theme of the overall story, and so on and so forth. They're supposed to make the Saga more coherent and mythic, not more of a pain in the butt, so hopefully they have the flexibility needed to make that work out.

Travel Episodes in playtests have been a lot of fun. Sometimes they're hilarious, on account of the players somehow thinking that running off into the wilderness will solve/reset their problems and not being ready for there to be things happening there, too. Sometimes they're super neat and helpful, such as in the case when a group managed to stumble across a hidden oracular shrine and get some predictions about their coming future problems while they were still on their way to them. Either way, though, they've made expending effort to get from point A to point B much more interesting than it might otherwise have been.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Mechanics Talk: Ghosts of Mechanics Past

So, we were going to have a post this week about the Egyptian version of the Devotional Domain, but then we got a giant winter storm slam-dunked on our area and lost power for a bit and a bunch of other semi-exciting messes, and it fell by the wayside. I'll get that post to you folks later, but while I still have laptop battery, how about a quick look into some past failures during the design process? These are things that we realized weren't working in a large, major enough way that we had to totally redo some of the system itself, and they might shed a little light on the process while we're at it.

Failure #1: Combat Episodes.

We mentioned in last week's post that there are different types of Episodes in HJ, and that they have different mechanical frameworks and effects. You'll hear some more about at least one of them next week, but one of them, back in the day, was the Combat Episode, which was automatically triggered as soon as hostilities broke out during the Heroes' adventures. Combat Episodes had specific rules about how to get out of or end them, as well as about character movements and actions within them, all of which were designed to help make sure that combat was streamlined and clear, and that rules from other types of Episodes that might have gotten in the way were replaced with better ones.

This all sounds totally great... except that it completely did not work. Not because the ideas of all that weren't sound, but because combat triggering a new Episode in the midst of whatever else was going on didn't work in the larger context of the game's resource system. HJ uses resources based on narrative chunks of time, including the Episode... which meant that all the Heroes immediately regained all their Episode-based resources the second combat started. Which sounded great if you were a fighter, because you were always completely topped off and ready to rumble the second things got rough, but wasn't fair to all the other character types possible. Characters that were about, say, social interactions, or intelligence-based puzzle solving, had to be vigilant about their resources and spend them wisely, knowing that they might overspend them and run out at a crucial moment, but fighters knew that they could pretty much screw around constantly since anything they really needed their resources for would come with a fresh new helping of them right away.

Also, and most glaringly, if people ran out of resources, they could just go punch someone in the face, especially someone they knew they could take out easily, and then get all their resources back immediately. And then as soon as the fight was over, a new Episode would start again, and again everyone would be at full, even if they spent resources on the combat itself. Complete design failure.

We turned them around and upside down for a while, but in the end, we just ended up writing Combat Episodes completely out of the game. Combat now occurs as an event within Episodes, not as a separate Episode in and of itself, which makes combat-oriented characters need to manage their resources just as carefully as everyone else, and removes the instant-refill button of starting a bar brawl from the equation. A combat situation still triggers a lot of the old specialized rules from the Combat Episodes of old - movement works differently when you're in combat, for example - but now nested within the greater Episode architecture.

Failure #2: Sphere Roll Bonuses.

As you've seen in the webs, there are a lot of bonuses to be picked up to various Talent rolls. A savvy web-traveler can find some bonus successes to, say, Streetwise or Art, to add to their rolls, making it possible to super-specialize in their favorite stats. Spheres don't have these bonuses the way Talents do, mostly because you don't roll Spheres in order to take actions over the normal course of your adventures, just when you use their specific powers.

Unfortunately, awesome though this is, we realized partway through the process that this caused a fundamental mechanical imbalance: you couldn't get a bonus to your Sphere rolls, but the people you wanted to use your Sphere powers on could get bonuses to their resistance stats. This meant that if other PCs stacked their resists, they could become literally completely immune to their fellows trying to use any Sphere powers on them that involved a resist, which was not exactly the balanced universe we were hoping for. (Being really good at resisting stuff because you invested in it, sure! Being literally unstoppable, not quite as great in a big-picture sense.)

We talked about fixing this problem by reworking the Talent webs to add Sphere bonuses... but oh my god, that was so much potential work, and so many numbers that had to be updated and changed and redone and rebalanced. John almost cried a little at the idea - not that he couldn't do it, but that the current setup had been so carefully calibrated for mathematical balance that starting over felt super bad. So instead, we looked at what Spheres were even doing, and how they could be balanced without the problem of heads-up roll vs. resist imbalances making them sub-par. Sphere powers were rewritten to have effects that didn't rely on resistance rolls (although they still do rely on various other stats and attributes of other characters, so they don't go back the other way into being unbalanced).

This actually turned out to be a good thing overall, because it helped us develop a distinct difference in the flavor of Talent Blessings vs. Sphere Blessings, without making resistances any less important to the average character. So a silver lining on that one!

Failure #3: Pain Penalties.

This one was an example of design realities not living up to the conceptual ideas that we wanted them to be based on. We're a big fan of interesting consequences and effects in combat, and one of those is the idea that being in severe pain and/or heavily injured takes its toll on a character. To that end, we designed a system of pain penalties, in which how much damage a character had taken could affect them, levying penalties on them when they began to sustain serious injury.

This was a neat idea in theory, but it broke down completely in practice. Based on the amount of health a character could get, the averages for each level of character, and the damage amounts and types that they could or might sustain in combat, John worked out that the correct distribution would be for a Hero to sustain a one-success penalty to their rolls for approximately every four damage that they suffered. I'm sure everyone reading that sentence immediately sees the flaw in that plan; making players keep track of their current damage divided by four to get a penalty number, and then watching that penalty number constantly change based on damage taken or healed, was a complete nightmare. We tested it out for good measure, even after realizing this, but it was exactly as obnoxious and unwieldy in practice as we thought it would be. No one could ever remember to do it, it slowed everything down to a hellaciously pitiful pace, and anything we might have gained in terms of a feeling of mythic desperation in combat was way overwhelmed by the difficulty and frustration it caused.

Obviously, that got scrapped pretty early on, and we replaced it with various other more simplified system to play with the idea of injuries affecting combatants, the current iteration of which (a single injury penalty that kicks in when the Hero is below half their total amount of health) is still in testing. But jeez, what a total garbage mechanic that was. The best-laid plans.

These aren't the only times we've designed something only to realize later that it totally didn't work; a whole game system is a big thing, and sometimes something that we built that made sense in a self-contained context didn't work in the larger game framework, or something that sounded brilliant in a certain situation was totally torpedoed by another one. But these are some of the most memorable failures - just, the WOW, these were designed by CLOWNS failures. We've had less hilarious or important ones that get noticed and fixed along the way, but I think I've shared enough to embarrass us for now.

Next time, we'll talk about things that do work. In the meantime, stay warm, everybody!

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Army of the Gods: Cooperative Gameplay in Hero's Journey

Today at the Hero's Journey nerve center, we're going to do a detour from all the mechanics and powers and dice-rolling real quick to talk about some of the bones on the other side of the game's skeleton. That is, the playstyle of the game: how it's designed to work at the table, what the players do, and how the game encourages behavior to model mythic stories.

At its heart, Hero's Journey is a cooperative game. Most RPGs are, to a certain extent - you expect multiple players to get together and at least nominally work together to handle problems they otherwise couldn't manage on their own - but there's definitely a spectrum of cooperation in different games, from games that require a carefully-knit group of players who all constantly support each other to games that encourage the players to actively fight one another as much as they do outside dangers. Some games are like the FATE system, where players are actively trying to make one another look good and contribute to each others' characters and deeds (in some games based on FATE, even character creation is done cooperatively, such as in Spirit of the Century). Other games are like Paranoia or Vampire: The Requiem, where characters are encouraged or even required to be suspicious of each other and/or backstab each other for personal gain. Most of the "big" games are somewhere in between, or leave enough room for players to make that call themselves - games like Dungeons & Dragons or Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, for example, present challenges where players will have an easier time if they work together, but nothing stops them from being buttheads to each other, either.

So where on this spectrum does Hero's Journey fall? The quick answer is that it leans toward co-op play, although it still has room for players to make their own calls when it comes to cooperation. Let's go through what that means!

What's the mythological basis for co-op RPG play?

Mythology is full of cooperative groups of Heroes, fighting enemies, solving crimes, and harassing one another all simultaneously. In the first place, there are lots of classic heroic bands running around in the great mythic past, including (but not limited to) big groups like the Argonauts, the Pandavas, or the Aesir army facing Ragnarok, or smaller groups like Gilgamesh & Enkidu or the adventures of the Egyptian deity royal family. There are solo heroes, of course, but there are also plenty of heroes who need their groups to function, or who can do things on their own but work better with friends.

These groups are fun to watch in action because they exist so that people with holes in their skillsets - in essence, their "character sheets" - can help cover for one another. Thor and Loki, for example, are a great example, since both of them are much less hilariously inept when they can fill in the gaps in each others' skillsets. Loki isn't great at murdering enemies or intimidating the crap out of potential problems, but Thor is there to do that for him; and likewise, Thor is hot garbage at cunning plans or approaches that don't involve breaking something, and he needs Loki whenever finesse is called for. On a larger scale over in Greek mythology, the many Heroes involved in the Trojan War are another great example of this, which explains why they went to such great lengths to get complainers like Odysseus and Achilles to show up whether they wanted to or not - every Hero has different skills, which means that everything doesn't grind to a shrieking halt as soon as a single tactic stymies them.

Mythological heroes also often function as community figures, meaning that they represent and fight for their communities (often their ethnic people, regional people, or religion's people). This gives a lot of Heroes an additional cooperative flavor and tone that helps bind them to other characters in their myths; they might fight alongside an army of their people, work with the finest minds of their fellow citizens to invent something important, or direct teams that accomplish great things. In these cases, those other people aren't important or singular enough to be characters in their own right, but the Hero still benefits directly and importantly from cooperating with others. Examples of this kind of cooperation might include Hephaestus marshaling the cyclopes to help him build the weapons of the gods, or the many vanara of Hindu mythology supporting and fighting with Rama and Hanuman, but not all being directly named or singled out in the process.

Not that there aren't solo heroes in mythology, of course, or that heroes who usually have a backup team don't go solo once in a while. But mythological stories often have a strong angle of teamwork, and in an RPG setting, it makes sense to play that up and make it work for the game!

What HJ mechanics are designed around co-op play?

Hero's Journey seeks to emphasize not just the ability for players to cooperate, but to provide them with extra tools that directly make cooperating beneficial. They don't have to use them, of course, but they make the whole group more effective and successful, hopefully, and make it useful that most RPG groups involve multiple players, instead of just a random accident that several PCs are all hanging out together.

Certain Aspects that Heroes can take automatically grant them powers that must be used on other players. Leaders and Lovers, especially, are already built around affecting other people as their core purpose, so they have special systems designed to get results by empowering others, either by inspiring and directing them or making them feel and experience things, so that they're helpful and effective on the Hero's behalf. These don't work on the Hero themself (at least not without very specialized help), since it's a lot harder to act as an authority figure or love interest for oneself than someone else, so players who take them are investing directly in their teammates, and making sure that they can help push each other to success just as much as strive on their own.

There are also larger mechanics that all players have a hand in that affect the team as a whole; the most major of these is a particular type of Episode, which can only happen when all the players decide together (out of character) by consensus that it should. This is one of our favorite things, because it basically allows the players to decide when beneficial things happen for them based on their own timetables, and lets them bypass the GM's usual control over the game's structure for a moment. This Episode has effects that make it usually a good thing, so players probably won't refuse a reasonable suggestion to do it unless they're literally terrible Spite Creatures from the Planet No, but it lets players have a conversation about when the best moment for it might be and whether or not everyone will be able to benefit from it if they do it. (Which encourages the players to work cooperatively as well as the characters, which we think is a fun part of the experience!)

And, of course, as in almost all RPGs, there are plenty of directed Blessings that specifically work on other people, which means that there are lots of tools for helping your friends out as well as for helping yourself. Either of them are good choices, and a mix of both will probably end up being the case for most Heroes!

So why do it this way from a player perspective?

There may be mythological reasons for lots of co-op play in HJ, but mythological reasons alone aren't enough to make the game good. So what are the reasons for this from a player perspective?

Partly, this is a direct design choice. We had to choose, way back at the beginning of the process, whether we wanted this to be a game that prioritizes teamwork, solo choices, or something in between, and each of those is a valid playstyle choice, so it was an interesting conversation. In the end, we wanted something that would model mythology pretty well (because that's what we're all here for, right?), and something that would hopefully be usable by the largest possible number of players. Let's face it - Paranoia is a great game, but constant stressful conflict with the other players isn't everyone's cup of tea, and neither is a game on the other end of the spectrum where other players have so much input into your character that they're basically community property. There's nothing wrong with those styles at all (in fact, we like playing them from time to time!), but we decided to make HJ sit in the middle where it would be as mythological as possible: cooperation is good for the players and the game, but there's room for individual skill and decision as well.

Cooperative play options are good, from a game perspective, because they allow for a lot of flexibility in different group makeups, which lets players explore more different characters and not have to choose certain makeups because they're the only ones that keep them alive. Co-op skills let the Heroes support one another when necessary and give everyone a chance to use the skills they enjoy without having to worry that doing so means they're letting down the team, and they let people be able to contribute even when they don't have the stats they might otherwise need to participate. One of the issues of a lot of RPGs is that they have what players refer to as "support classes", meaning character types that aren't good by themselves and are instead only useful to support the "essential" characters, and hopefully HJ's co-op powers and mechanics help every type of character support every other type.

(Of course, it's always possible for some character types to be "support" depending on what the Saga is about and what kinds of things the Heroes are trying to do, but we're hoping that none of them will be less than primary from a basic perspective. That's the design dream.)

Also, as we mentioned above, RPGs often have a bunch of players altogether as a matter of course... so mechanics that make that matter to the game get to add a neat new dimension beyond just "well, we're all doing the same thing so I guess we have to tolerate each other while we do". Mechanics that directly apply to, benefit, or target other characters (usually beneficially, although there are a few that are less friendly) make the presence of other players an active part of the game, and you get to interact mechanically with them (outside of the normal ways you can do that in a less co-op way, like punching them) while moving toward success.

Wait, what if I hate co-op play?

Obviously, cool though mechanics that apply only to other characters might be in the sense of encouraging player cooperation and giving you more options for rich game interaction, they won't always be the best for everyone. Some folks play single-player games, in which those mechanics don't have anyone to apply to and are no more interesting at best, useless at worst; and some people just don't like co-op that much, and might be looking for a more antagonistic gameplay experience with a like-minded group.

If you're not into the whole cooperative game scene, you can still play HJ without choosing those skills and mechanics for the most part, or by using them sparingly and only for your own benefit if you do. You aren't required to take any of the Blessings or specific stats that provide those co-op powers, and while there are a few things that remain in play whether you choose them or not, for the most part they don't require in-character cooperation unless you feel like it. We're not here to tell you what to play or how you like your games to go, so feel free to continue trying to stab your fellow players in the leg and take their things in the night, as some mythological heroes are wont to do.

For those who play single-player games, we're pondering other alternatives. While at the moment there aren't any extra rules for those who play those games and might not want certain areas locked off by virtue of not having multiple players, we're discussing whether or not we might include some optional rules for those folks, either in the core book or a future release. The vast majority of the game is still perfectly usable for a single player, so it's not like the whole thing falls to pieces or anything, but it would still be nice for single players not to feel like it was a waste to take Leader because they only got three useful Talents out of it instead of the four they could have gotten from Creator or Warrior or Sage.

In the end, Hero's Journey is a cooperative group game, which emphasizes Heroes working together to achieve things that would have been more difficult alone; you can go it alone, you can shine as a single player and have your moments, but the game wants you to work together for greater awesomeness. Think of your group like Marvel's Avengers, with a bunch of individually great superheroes being even better together. That's the idea here, and we hope when you see all the rest of the co-op mechanics, you'll have all the tools you need to make it work.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Mechanics Spoilers: New Aspect Endowments

Hey, everyone! As we mentioned in our end-of-the-year update, the Aspect Endowment subsystems have metamorphosed a little bit, and I'm here to tell you about some of them today! Hunter's replacement system still hasn't made it off the drawing board, but for those of you looking forward to being Creators and/or Warriors, I have a glimpse into your future.

Creator: Empowerment


Empowerment, back in the original spoilers post, was the most vaguely explained, which was probably a clue that even then we were starting to see that it wasn't working super well. The concept of Empowerment hasn't changed - it's still about Creators using their burgeoning energies to do awesome things with their powers that others can't - but we had to work on how that was happening mechanically, and adjust for player problems that were cropping up in testing.

The initial version of Empowerment involved it granting Creators access to two "versions" of their Creator Blessings: one that was the normal one everybody can use, and one that had an additional cost but was a supercharged, better and fancier edition. This was definitely cool, and players liked the idea of having SuperSpellsTM in theory, but it had a lot of problems in actual execution. For one thing, it required us to write TWICE AS MANY Creator Blessings as we originally had to, with the additional bonus difficulty level of having to make them have the same base mechanics and theme as other Blessings, which was exactly as much of a bad, time-sucking idea as it sounds like, and we got really tired of that really quickly. And the problem wasn't just on our side - it also forced Creator players to have to memorize two Blessings for every one they bought, as opposed to other specialties, which caused a good amount of confusion in the ranks.

Really, what ended up happening in playtesting was that players weren't sure on the fly what powers they even had access to or what they did, and thus forgot to use Empowered Blessings all that much, and when they did there was too much time lost for everyone to go double-check on what was even supposed to be happening. Not exactly a pulse-pounding good time.

A second draft of Empowerment came around not long after the original post, in which we'd cut it down to only specific Blessings being able to be Empowered, instead of all Creator Blessings. This fixed the problem of players having trouble remembering all the possibilities, and it was less writing for us, but it added the new issue of Empowerment now only being useful to people who wanted those specific Blessings, and garbage for everyone else. We worked to spread the love around and make sure some core Blessings in different specialties were always included, but that couldn't fix the fundamental problem of this version of Empowerment being more useful to some players than others, which felt super bad.

So finally, we ended up with Empowerment Mk. III, now significantly improved, which stopped trying to be so specific and super-powery and instead focuses on flexibility and universal application. We decided to move away from the idea of Creators having additional powers inaccessible by others, and instead focus on the idea of Creators as the source of energies that they can control and focus better than anyone else. Instead of trying to have different versions of Blessings, with all the headaches that entails, Empowerment now allows Heroes to use Blessings that have a certain cost instantaneously, even though they would normally require an active turn. This means that, depending on their specialties and powers, Creators might be able to suddenly defend themselves with illusions and misdirections even when it isn't their turn, pull magically created items out of their pockets on the spur of the moment, manage to heal a flagging comrade in the nick of time who otherwise would have gone down, and so on.

This is admittedly less cool than "totally separate, extra superpower" was, but the majority of the test players responded with something along the lines of "oh thank god", so they seem to feel that the tradeoff is a good one so far.

Warrior: Innervation


The Warrior Endowment changed so much that it had to be actually renamed; now no longer about being more brawny and capable of feats of strength, it's about having the energy and will to go on Warrioring at key moments. Those of you who saw the original post might remember that the old Warrior Endowment, Overextension, allowed them to briefly become so strong that they could do things even other Warriors normally couldn't, reaching out to perform incredible acts of muscle and power beyond their normal level.

And this was all well and good, but there were valid criticisms about it, which eventually ended up outweighing its good points. For one thing, it was, for lack of a kinder word, boring; yeah, being able to lift even more weight than you could before is nice, but it's not exciting in the way that the other Endowments, each allowing you to do something you couldn't already do, were. For another thing, it was too narrowly focused to be relevant to all Warrior archetypes; while it was great for Warriors who wanted to be juggernauts of destruction, those aren't the only mythic warriors out there, and players who wanted to be, say, a hyper-athletic gymnast, or a wise old martial arts master, or a swashbuckling swordsmistress, were not excited about a subsystem that obviously wasn't designed for them.

In the end, several players in discussions pointed out that Overextension felt a lot more like a Blessing than it did a full Endowment, and they were right. So you'll see it again, over in Blessings-Land, and we went back to the drawing board on how to let Warriors of every type be more amazing thanks to their mad warriorly skills.

Innervation, which replaced Overextension, now allows Warriors who find themselves in a pinch to draw upon reserves of determination and physical power to do things that they should really be too exhausted to even attempt; in essence, it restores a big old dump of resources to them all at once, making them suddenly resurge in the middle of a long, hard fight, or be able to pull off an expensive combo move that might have been out of their reach. The catch is that these resources can only be used to do Warrior stuff, and vanish if they aren't used by the end of the Episode - so literally, Warriors that innervate themselves get to do that middle-of-the-fight sudden power-up that so many fighters in story and legend do, and bend all that energy toward whatever form of mayhem they wreak best.

Initial playtesting has so far achieved a consensus of "this is super cool, I'm gonna kill everything," "oh god I hate it when characters do that in shows, I hope to god the one we're fighting can't do that", and "so what you're saying is I can literally use seven instant-speed Blessings at once a few times per Saga", and everyone seems pretty pleased about it. Also, it strikes a nice balance where no matter what kind of Warrior you are or what powers you use, you can use it to apply to your particular character type directly.

We'll be continuing to keep an eye on these in playtesting as we work on finishing up other things, but so far they're testing well. Now if only Hunter would cooperate...!