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.

18 comments:

  1. I actually really love this mechanic. It's definitely very present in mythology that the Gods don't let their Heroes just die if they can help it. Sometimes Fate has other plans, of course. I usually incorporate 'divine intervention' into games anyway to some extent if I feel like the players don't deserve to TPK in that moment, but to have an actual mechanic will make me feel better about that.

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    1. We like the fact that the players themselves get to decide when the DI takes place, so they're helping drive their part of the story a little bit. :) (Of course, as GM, you can do a behind-the-scenes save when you gotta, they just won't know about it or be able to count on it. ;)

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  2. I like it for both the "Mythic feel" factor, and the myriad opportunities it gives the GM for messing with the players. (Insert evil laugh here)

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    1. Oh, yeah, the CONSEQUENCES are frequently great.

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  3. I think it's a good thing. Most players will paint themselves into a corner at some point and would really appreciate DI. Skilled players are almost never going to be in a situation where they need DI, but they can save their DI for when their teammates need it (possibly even brokering favors if they lean that way).

    It also opens the door for players of all kinds to intentionally try risky/glorious things because they know they have an out. And that can be a lot of fun in moderation! It's also a good safety net for average storytellers who know their players can burn a DI if the storyteller messes something up.

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    1. Yeah, one of the big motivators is so that players will do things that they otherwise might not because of risk - a lot of great mythic feats were long shots or super dangerous bad ideas, and this hopefully gives more conservative players a way to try one out now and then.

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  4. I'm just a little slack-jakced at an entire Saga )that's your equiv of a Story, right?) taking an entire year. That's almost half a campaign for me!

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    1. My wife and I have co-GMed a campaign [with a series of players] that started in 1995, and is still going on. It's a generational saga of a changing world, awakening Gods, and epic catastrophe and victory, and it isn't anywhere finished. An exception, of course, but games sometimes take on lives of their own. :-)

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    2. Well, to be fair, it wasn't SUPPOSED to take a year, but they got sidetracked. Very sidetracked. (We still love them, though, that's a situation that needed testing, too!)

      We've been trying to put some effort into testing for shorter Epics and Sagas, as a matter of fact, specifically because we know our own gaming style runs long and we want to make sure things work for the shorter-term games among us, too. :)

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  5. Doing a quick google search, it looks like the average length of a 'story' is about 1-2 months. Even a 3 month long story with 6 players would be a DI every other week.

    I wonder if you could use a different metric, like once every four games regardless of the number of players?

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    1. IIRC you only get two DIs during your entire lifetime, one at the Mortal tier, once at the Immortal one...so no, it wouldn't be a DI every other week, unless your players are happy enough to get rid if all the DIs they will ever get until Immortal tier on one Story.

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    2. Really? The implication in this post is that everyone gets to use one per story, and the story took an entire year to finish.

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    3. "Heroes only get a couple of Divine Interventions over the course of their careers" - not story, career.

      Also, it's explicitly stated in the blog post where they originally introduced DI: http://herosjourneyrpg.blogspot.com/2015/07/playtest-findings-escape-hatch-frequency.html

      To quote that post: "Each Hero may call a Divine Intervention for themself whenever necessary, after which a god (usually their divine patron, but you never know) or some other divine phenomenon rescues them; [b]but they may only do so once per tier[/b]."

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    4. What is a tier in this context?

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    5. Again, to quote that original post:

      "And since I can't remember if we explained that previously, there are three tiers of heroic power! Each Hero starts at the bottom as a Mortal, and if they successfully survive and thrive for long enough, they can evenutally reach the Immortal tier, and finally the Divine, at which point they are deities in their own rights. Tiers usually take a long time to progress through - they're each a third of a given Hero's lifetime, after all, so they're multiple Sagas long and nothing to sneeze at - so while having the ability to call down certain rescue immediately is very powerful, it's also nothing that should be expended carelessly, and once it's happened, it won't be replaced for a very long time.nd since I can't remember if we explained that previously, there are three tiers of heroic power! Each Hero starts at the bottom as a Mortal, and if they successfully survive and thrive for long enough, they can evenutally reach the Immortal tier, and finally the Divine, at which point they are deities in their own rights. Tiers usually take a long time to progress through - they're each a third of a given Hero's lifetime, after all, so they're multiple Sagas long and nothing to sneeze at - so while having the ability to call down certain rescue immediately is very powerful, it's also nothing that should be expended carelessly, and once it's happened, it won't be replaced for a very long time."

      Hope that helps assist any fears about fortnightly interventions :)

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    6. Allay, not assist... damn autocorrect.

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    7. Sorry, I was asleep while most of this conversation was going on!

      Samudra is right - Heroes only get one DI per tier, not per Saga, but I see how there could have been confusion since the playtesters I was using as an example above managed to have their Saga last wayyyy longer than anyone expected, and used them all up during it. They'll get new DIs when they become Immortals, but for now they have to rely on less sure escape hatches like Gambits and Escape rolls.

      In your metric, anon, where the story lasts an average of 2 months, the game recommends that the Mortal tier last around 5 Sagas, so you would have a little over one DI per Saga. (Of course, there's plenty of room for individual games to adjust that, though.)

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    8. That sounds much more reasonable. Thank you!

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