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!