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.