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.