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.


  1. Ooh, technology. This is an opportunity to ask about the difficulty of culture heroes or Deities who 'impart' their inventions, physical or ideological.

    Inventing something and getting a Pantheon to incorporate the invention (or idea) seem to be two very different things, but are often done by the same figure. For example, the Orisha use iron weapons thanks to Ogun developing iron smelting, which is both Creator / Sage-y (the invention), and then Leader-y (getting people to adopt the idea). This can be sorta weird because not all of the inventors are the most... socially apt figures I suppose? Susano-O gets credited for introducing metallurgy and swordsmithing to Japan (albeit, it is a personal cult saying this, and you know, they tend to be a bit self-aggrandizing) and it theoretically 'catches on' due to the fact it historically does catch on. But, Susano-O is not the most social or politically influential figure. Would these Sages or Creators be able to influence societies to adopt their inventions, or would they need a bit of Trickster / Leader to pull it off well?

    1. This is a meaty and complicated question! (My favorite!)

      This is true, not every inventor figure in mythology is the most well-beloved person out there; of course, you have some silver-tongued friends who also happen to be good at makin' stuff (Apollo inventing the lyre, for example), but you also have some people everyone hates who really aren't good at that kind of thing (see: Hephaestos, the poor guy).

      There are a few options, really, for how an invention gets out and becomes a "thing" in society - divine or supernatural or just mortal, really - that are most likely:

      1) The inventor (probs a Creator in at least some dimension) is also a Lover or Leader, and is good at telling people to use their stuff or being endearing enough that people want to give it a shot. This is the easy path.

      2) The inventor isn't really a Lover or Leader, but they have some stats in there and they aren't totally helpless, either. Ogun might be a good example of this kind of thing; sure, he probably isn't going to beat any really invested Lover at getting people to like and/or listen to him, but he's definitely probably got the basic stats to say, "Hey, mortals, use this," and not be ignored. Convincing other deities? Maybe, maybe not, depending on how you'd stat him.

      3) The inventor is terrible at this, but the invention is so good it speaks for itself. Sometimes people in mythology (and the regular world, for that matter) use technology because it's awesome and/or useful, rather than because it's been marketed to them well, although of course marketing never hurts. A good example might be Perun giving humanity the knowledge of how to harness fire for cooking and heat - he pretty much just scared their pants off repeatedly by having terrible interactions where he just lit things aflame and watched them run around screaming, but eventually they realized that hey, fire is super useful for cooking and not freezing to death, so they adopted it anyway.

      So in the case of someone like Susano-o, you probably want 2 or 3. Maybe Susano-o has the Leader to say, "Use these gifts I'm giving you," and be obeyed, even if he isn't exactly the diplomatic and sensitive type. Or, if he doesn't, maybe people just realized that swords are super useful, especially for exercise and murder, and that metallurgy is incredibly helpful for inventing other things, even if it takes them longer to adopt it than it might have if they'd been inclined to hang on his every word.

      In general, if Creators are not utter social washes AND without the resources to Strive for Glory when interacting with mortal society, they'll probably manage to convince people to do things at a basic level without too much trouble. Convincing a charioteer god to give up their wheels for an airplane, though, would probably require considerable actual influence, and be a much tougher sell.

    2. Clarifying, we're mostly talking about gods, so some of that was a little god-specific - they usually have a good shot at convincing mortals to do things even if they're bad at convincing as a general stat. Mortal Heroes might have more trouble, since they can't count on their divinity to boost their abilities much, and might have to resort to things like hiring a marketing firm or conspicuously leaving their creations where they hope people will find them and discover how great they are.

  2. That was a brilliant read! Most of the explanations I have been toying with are pretty much along the lines of those three ideas. The fact that the Theoi are collectively just mean and more than a bit dismissive is the logic I have used to explain why his metal-beings (Talos, his golden servants, the guard dogs of King Aeetes, ect) have not caught on in the slightest despite obviously being super useful.

    I haven't had someone try to play a character who wants to introduce Steel to the Aztecs or Haikus to the Irish (which would probably result in a lot of counting, swearing, and violence), but after seeing several attempts to introduce ideas, I thought sorting out an idea for introducing technology or art would be a good plan.

    Looking forward to seeing more stuff from you guys as always!

  3. Hmm...this discussion made me think of a different but related closely related are political power and Leader? Take, for example, Brahma...he's not a God I can see as having much in the way of Leader, but he's also not a God his Pantheon would ever lightly disobey. Am I maybe overthinking this? Should I just assume he's a very non-traditional Leader? Or is there some other way to reconcile 'great political power, not much leadership'?

    Speaking of, a question about Shiva...speaking personally (and maybe I'm being slightly biased from actually being Hindu) but Shiva always struck me as more of a Lover than a Leader...a personal God, not a God on high...many of his followers prefer to call him Father, not Lord, and his relationships with Nandi and other ganas is very...friendly and close and Lover like (that came out wrong, but you know what I mean). And yet he has what can only be explained as the Sway Endowment, which means not only Leader investment, but heavy duty Leader investment, top three no less. Again, I'm wondering if my point of view is just too close to the subject matter and I'm overthinking this?

    Only Vishnu is the sigh of relief here...I can confidently say he has enough Leader and Lover to make anyone do whatever the hell he wants them to.

    1. People who have political offices or power don't HAVE to have Leader... but it makes it a heck of a lot easier. If you're not very good at your Sovereignty rolls, people tend not to take you seriously, and if you can't make a decent Diplomacy roll, well, that's how you accidentally embroil your people in ceaseless wars. It's generally good to have someone with Leader savvy in charge of the ship, for obvious reasons, although of course not every ruler or boss in history or mythology has been that person (for example, Set sure may have been king of the Egyptian gods for a while there, but his total lack of leadership qualities are at least part of the reason it didn't last long).

      You're not overthinking it, there're plenty of ways to go about this in a game trying to model these deities' personalities. The numbered points worked well in Dave's post, so here we go again!:

      1) Some leaders are just awesome at Leader. They know how to get people to listen up, pay attention, and be motivated to do what they tell them to do. These would be, say, your Zeus figures. No one is arguing with Zeus.

      2) Some leaders are good at some facets of leadership, but not others (which is why there are multiple Talents in the Leader Aspect!). For example, the person with the most Leader in our statted version of the Hindu pantheon is probably Indra, because he's clearly got Sovereignty going on in spades, is a Tactics master, and probably motivates people well with Purpose... but he's not what you'd call a Diplomacy powerhouse, so even though he's a very good Leader, he isn't the ULTIMATE Leader. Similarly, some people might be good at Leader but not in a way that makes them suited to running anything (Athena, perhaps - great at Tactics and Diplomacy, but perhaps not really a Sovereign?), or good ONLY at bossing people around, but actually kinda terrible at administration (say, Ra, who may be great at Sovereignty and Purpose but sorta not so much at Tactics and Diplomacy, which he has other people to do for him).

      3) Some leaders lead because people are, point-blank, afraid of them, for reasons other than them having a good personality. Maybe their people are terrified of their ability to just raze the kingdom to the ground if upset (Ogun, for example), or tolerate them because even though they're ineffective, they have some other quality that makes people reluctant to dethrone them (for example, Lover might make the people love them too much to want to let them go even if they're bad at running the place, or they use their awesome Domain powers to give their kingdom unending prosperity and fair weather so people don't argue with their desire to sit on a throne the rest of the time). Leader IS definitely the archetypal "this is where you get respect" stat, but it's possible to respect different types of characters for what they bring to the table.

      4) Some leaders are just puppet rulers with someone else actually calling the shots, in which case their own stats aren't the ones actually making things happen. Just like in #3, people may or may not like them based on other stuff, but the shadowy illuminati that actually runs the place is really the powerhouse.

    2. As far as Brahma goes, I'd say he's probably a 3 or 4 - no one would dream of disrespecting him, but not really because he's just so overpoweringly In Charge, more because he's well-known to be wise and extremely powerful and really, why would you want to annoy that person. (You'll see, when you see the powers that he grants his Heroes, that he mostly lives in the Creator and Sage Aspects, although of course like all other gods he does have other skills.) In fact, the whole mess of stories revolving around Brahma not being accorded worship because of his misdeeds is a pretty compelling argument against him being a great Leader - or possibly an explanation that maybe he once was one, but really isn't anymore.

      Shiva, you'll be pleased to know, does have some Lover officially ascribed to him in the book, for many of the same reasons you point out. I do think that, depending on your interpretation, you might not want to choose Leader as one of his top three Aspects enough to have Sway...

      ...but since avatara exist through the Devotional Domain, it's possible that while Shiva himself doesn't have that, perhaps, say, he might take a moment to embody Shankara instead, who might?

      (Perhaps surprisingly, Vishnu doesn't directly grant his Heroes Leader OR Lover powers, but not because he doesn't have any, just because he tends to be doing SO MANY THINGS that we had to try to simplify down to our best interpretation of the most "core" ones. Dude is involved in a lot of different Aspects and Domains.)

    3. Yay for lists! :)

      Personally I like 3 for Brahma but there's definitely versions of Hinduism like Vaishnavism that mark him as a clear 4, with Vishnu being the true power behind the throne.

      You have no idea how HAPPY I am at the fact that Shiva has Lover :D poor guy gets such a bad rep for being the Destroyer that no one notices he's just a big old softie inside :)

      I'm not surprised about Vishnu...I actually sat down once to figure out what each Deva's top three Aspects would be, and while some like Sarasvati were piss easy (Creator Lover Sage) and others like Brahma were difficult because I got to Creator Sage and hot a blank (I ended up giving him Creator Sage Trickster for the Disguise he does, but that's barely proper justification), when I got to Vishnu I basically stopped because there was not a single Aspect he couldn't be given, Also, funnily enough, every last one of the Deva other than Indra had Sage.

      Also that devotional teaser now has me even more excited for Hindu devotion :D I can definitely see the Pashupati aspect of Shiva having Leader enough for a band of Ganas :)