Saturday, October 14, 2017

Mechanics Talk: Mythic Technology

Question: How does technology work in Hero's Journey? What do scientist characters do?

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. - Arthur C. Clarke

Technology versus magic is weirdly split into two opposing conversations when we talk about game design, and storytelling in general. We distinguish between fantasy and science fiction by saying that one is about magic and spiritualism and the unexplainable, and the other is about science and architecture and the ingenuity of humanity; we say fantasy is characterized by gods and sorcerers and mythical creatures, and science fiction is characterized by aliens and robots and mutated human beings. We divide up fantasy and magic and label it "old" - things humanity believed in before we knew better enough to know they were impossible - and science fiction and technology as "new" - things humanity believes in that are fantastic but theoretically possible. Games and fiction are divided pretty strongly along these lines, so that a setting generally involves one but not the other as the core of their world (although not always, of course - looking at you, Shadowrun.)

Anyway, this becomes a major question for a game like Hero's Journey. In HJ, the characters live in the modern world - a world full of technology and all of human advancement and invention - but they are affected by and tap into the ancient powers of divine magic. They're straddling the line, which begs the question of how magic and technology interact, and what the game does to allow characters to use one or both (or not, as the case may be).

Interestingly, while we tend to think of mythology as firmly in the realm if Old/Magic/Fantasy, that isn't necessarily so. In modern times, we associate things like "science" and "technology" with what we think of as the cutting edge now: computers, virology, space travel, robotics, genetics, everything that describes what humanity is trying to learn new things about and develop new powers and solutions to. Those things are technology, of course, but really any new method or invention that changes life for people qualifies as technology; at one point in human history, chariots and bows and arrows were new and exciting technology, and so was the invention and mass use of papyrus or parchment or vellum or paper, and so was mining and alloying new metals and types of precious stones, and so was the invention of everyday tools like fishing nets, hammers, wheels, sails. Those things were as huge and society-changing as inventing tablet computers or developing drugs that cure malaria were in more modern times; technology didn't just start in the 1980s, and ancient people were very aware of and interested in scientific and technological advances. And that means that they had deities who were in charge of those things - we don't have to come up with a way to reconcile magical ancient gods with technology, because there are and always have been magical ancient gods of technology.

I included that Arthur C. Clarke quote above because the distinction between "magic" and "technology" is a pretty recent one, culturally speaking. You might notice that gods who are strongly associated with technology are often considered sorcerers or mysterious gods of arcane intellect; this is because, to the average layperson (in any age, not just the ancient ones), super science and advanced technology are basically the same thing as magic. Something incredible suddenly happens or is made possible, and the explanation is "complicated words that may or may not be made up and you don't understand them", so really, what's the difference between speaking the words of a spell in an occult tongue and describing a chemical formula in impenetrable technical terms? In either case, magic words nobody but the user understands made something seemingly impossible happen. It's not surprising that ancient people often viewed those who were capable of amazing technology or new scientific feats as magicians; it's not even really different now, except for the terminology. I understand in theory that there is an explanation for how my cell phone works, but the actual explanation is as much a mystery to me as if it involved summoning a demon and binding him with words of power, really. I know there are people in the world who do understand these things and in fact make them happen, but in another time and place, I very well might have called those people wizards. There's no functional difference.

(This isn't confined to science, by the way; many cultures have also considered people who knew how to read and write to be magicians - they can somehow capture and store words and language, things that don't even have form, and save them for later! they can look at meaningless random markings and somehow pull wisdom out of them! - as well as people with skills in medicine and herbs - they went into the dark forest, came back with leaves that look exactly the same as every other leaf, but now little Aisling has miraculously recovered from a killing fever and no one else can possibly figure out how! We're just talking about scientific technologies and inventions at the moment, but the phenomenon of considering impressive skills to be magic is a common one worldwide throughout history.)

So, in HJ, what constitutes "technology" and what constitutes "magic", and how do you use both? As you can see above, the lines are not clear-cut and a lot depends on what exactly you're doing. Stats are used for doing, not passively being, so there are not necessarily singular stats for all these things.

In a broad sense, manipulating technology - using computers or machines - tends to fall under Streetwise, one of the Trickster Talents. Tricksters are the civilization masters; they are the ones who know how to navigate and manipulate cities, inventions, and systems the way the Hunters know how to do the same thing out in nature, so they're the ones who know what buttons to push and what levers to pull to make things work the way the humans who designed them clearly intended them to. Sages can certainly get in on the action with their Knowledge Talent, which might be called upon to try to understand mechanical workings of technological things or to figure out the theory or science behind something; sometimes the Sage knows how something is supposed to work, even if they don't have the hands-on ability or experience of doing it, or the Trickster knows what to do to get it to work but couldn't explain the theory behind it if you called them on it. And then, of course, there are the Creators; they're the ones who use their Art Talent to actually build new things, from throwing pottery to delicately putting together a nanochip, and whether or not they have the other stats determines whether they're genius inventors who know exactly how to theorize and use this thing, or talented manufacturers who can design and build something like pros but are not the right person to have take it out into the field later.

Do you have to do those things? No, and you can use those same stats to do completely different, "non-technological" things, too. Technology is a facet of life and adventure that can come up in a lot of different contexts, but it's not required for any Hero (much as, hopefully, nothing else really is other than the basics of "stay alive"). But these are just naked rolls; what about fancy stuff, like building explosives, or coming up with the cure for cancer, or inventing a new kind of spaceship? How does a Hero do those?

In those cases, you need more than a naked roll; invention and creation of things beyond normal everyday technology require Blessings. We've talked a little before about how Blessings aren't necessarily "magic"; rather, they represent skills and abilities that normal people who aren't specialists or Heroes don't have. Some of them are magical, in that they involve doing things that are normally impossible by the laws of physics, but some of them are just specialized skills that normal people don't have, and others are advantages that a Hero has to represent their stronger skill or innate ability in a particular area. The average person can't cobble together an explosive without going out and learning how and being a decently steady hand at doing so; likewise, if your Hero wants to make explosives, they need to have the appropriate Blessing to do so. Those Blessings exist, so just like your Hero needs Blessings to cast magical spells, they also need Blessings to perform feats of super science. Remember up above how science and magic are, in a storytelling context, often functionally identical? That's what's happening here; Blessings can be either or both, and Heroes are free to use them with whatever kind of flavor best fits them.

(This is also a balancing tool; it helps to keep different Creators from being identical when they can invest in different Blessings that result in different skillsets, and of course making sure that certain Blessings are required for particularly powerful tools and abilities helps prevent characters from being overpowered cheesemonkeys who render all other characters and methods unimportant. If anyone can just create instant flesh-eating airborne chemical agents or homemade pipe bombs that destroy all enemies with normal, no-resource-investment rolls, they're just going to literally solve all problems with chemicals and explosives because it's free and easy and real useful not to have to engage. Of course, you still can make building explosives your primary method of combat if you want to - go on with your bad anarcho-terrorist self! - but you'll have to put time, effort, and resource expenditure into it to do so, just like the Warrior has to for their murdering skills or the other non-Warrior Talents that have combat abilities have to pay for their mayhem powers.)

So, at the end of the day, the answer to how technology works in Hero's Journey is basically the same as how everything else works; there are multiple Talents that are rolled for various scientific and technological pursuits, and particularly impressive or difficult feats probably involve Blessings, just as they would for any concept. Technology and magic aren't separate from each other in more than interpretation in many cases; your Hero can use either or both, all based on what they want to invest their time and skill into.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Mythology Talk: The Cradle of Civilization

Question: Could you talk about the Mesopotamian creation myth?

The key question here is, of course: which one?

"Mesopotamian mythology" is really an umbrella term for the ancient religions of the cradle of civilization (centered mostly in what is now Iraq). The largest of these are the Sumerian civilization, which was centered on the city of Sumer (4500-1900 BCE); then the Akkadian Empire, which focused on Akkad (2334-2154 BCE); then the Assyrian Empire with its center in Assur (2200-605 BCE); and finally the Babylonian Empire, based in famous Babylon (1895-619 BCE). As you can see, there's lots of overlap in time - Sumer continued to be relevant for the entire existence of the Akkadian Empire and into the beginning of the Assyrian and Babylonian Empires, and the Assyrian Empire arose while Akkad was still a power and also coexisted with Babylon for several centuries.

And also, as we can see, they're all on top of each other geographically as well. So it's no wonder they have religious features in common - or rather, they all very nearly share the same religion, each adding their own features, which is why we usually talk about them all together. There isn't a ton of difference between Akkadian mythology and Babylonian mythology, so in the interests of not nitpicking very tiny things like who wears a fish symbol where, we just talk about it all in one big bowl of Mesopotamian Myths.

But because there were multiple civilizations involved, with multiple goals, over a very long period of time (remember those Egyptians we just talked about last week being so long-lived? they've only got these folks by about 500 years!), there are inevitably differences. So the Sumerian creation myth is not quite identical to the later ones. So let's talk about what is the same, and then where the differences lie!

The Mesopotamian creation myth goes generally like this: in the beginning of the universe, there were only two beings, who were Tiamat, the feminine principle of salt water, and Apsu/Abzu, the masculine principle of fresh water. The two of them gave birth to the first gods, the twins Lahmu and Lahamu, who were the silt of the primordial waters, and they gave birth to Anshar, the horizon of heaven, and Kishar, the horizon of earth. They gave birth to Anu, the great god of the heavens, and Ki, the goddess of the earth, and from the two of them were born all the other gods: Enlil and Enki/Ea, who were the fathers of Ninurta and Nergal and Nanna/Sin and Marduk, who were the parents of Utu/Shamash, Ereshkigal, Innana/Ishtar, and so on and so forth. Enlil was born first, and as the god of air and sky separated his parents to allow space for all the other gods and humanity to live between them (if that sounds familiar, it's because Egypt has the same myth of Geb and Nut separated by their father Shu, and it's hard to guess, given how ancient both pantheons are, which one borrowed it from the other!).

Once all the gods have been created, however, their dancing and shouting and general noise-making becomes so loud that it begins to disturb Tiamat and Apsu, the ancient progenitors, who find the noise aggravating and intrusive after an eternity of existing silently alongside one another. Tiamat puts up with the noise even thought she doesn't like it because she is the mother of all of them and considers it part of her duty to put up with their youthful hijinks, but eventually Apsu can't take the noise anymore and tells her that he wants to destroy them and be done with it. They argue some, with Apsu almost swayed by Tiamat's argument that they can't destroy their own children, until his servant Mummu (the god of stasis and peace) tells him that he will never sleep again if he doesn't get rid of the gods, and Apsu agrees and decides to clean house.

The gods get word that their ancient sire is planning to do away with them and understandably start panicking, until Enki/Ea, creative trickster god of the waters, tells them he will handle the situation, and creates a complex spell that puts Apsu to sleep. Since sleeping was pretty much what Apsu wanted in the first place, the story could have ended here, but that's not how gods usually solve their problems; Enki kills Apsu while he sleeps, takes his symbols and tools for himself, and establishes his new home within the fresh water that Apsu once controlled, making himself the new god of waters. (On a symbolic level, this represents the gods taking control of fresh water, an important and necessary part of life, away from the ancient primordial powers for their own use and eventually humanity's. Apsu was not a god who could be called upon by humanity for help with life-giving water, being too ancient and remote, but Enki is.)

Unfortunately for everyone, this act of killing the patriarch of the gods did not go over well with the entire cosmos. Tiamat was shocked and horrified by the loss of her husband, killed by the very children she had argued with him not to act against, and various of the other gods taunted her, telling her that it was her own fault for not standing with her husband when he needed her and further scorning her, saying that the sea is too violent now that she is upset and she was never a good mother to them, either, since it's bothering them. Grieving and infuriated by the accusation that she did not love her husband or her descendants, Tiamat eventually decides to declare war on them, and begins to give birth to a whole new generation of monsters and gods on her (symbolically, these are hideous and dangerous monsters because she's having them all by herself; they are solely born out of the endless depths of the ocean, instead of from the mingling of the salt water with Apsu's fresh water that made the gods). She chooses one of the new gods, the noble Kingu, and makes him her new husband, giving him the Tablet of Destinies to show him as the legitimate ruler given power by her as the eldest deity and sending him out to lead the army against the gods who betrayed her.

Enki hears about this and gets very worried about the situation, and they start by trying to send out envoys to convince Tiamat not to murder them all.
Enki goes himself first, but is too frightened of her and comes back; then Anu, his father, who as the father of all the active gods has the authority to tell her to back off with all of them behind him, but she is not impressed and strikes him, causing him to flee. Out of ideas, the gods call an assembly of all their number to try to figure out what to do, but nobody else wants to or could be powerful enough to challenge Tiamat or Kingu, until finally Marduk, Enki's young son, is chosen for his martial prowess and told to go handle the situation. Marduk agrees, but only if the gods will give him full authority as his their ruler if he succeeds, which is probably a pretty easy thing to promise given that it won't matter in the very likely case that he fails like everyone else. They call up Lahmu and Lahamu, Tiamat's and Apsu's eldest children, to legitimize the transfer of power to Marduk, and then send him out with the power of all the gods behind him to try to save the day.

Once Marduk arrives, he's so majestic and terrifying with the powers of all the gods on his side that Tiamat's army is overwhelmed and doesn't want to fight him, and even Kingu is intimidated and unsure of how to proceed; only Tiamat is not afraid of Marduk. He accuses her of being a terrible mother who has married Kingu when he doesn't deserve it and is plotting against her children, and they close in single combat while the rest of the army scatters. Eventually Marduk wins by pouring all the winds of the world into Tiamat's open mouth so that she splits open and then cutting out her heart; once he has done so, he captures the rest of the army and takes them prisoner, and takes the Tablet of Destinies from Kingu in order to further legitimize his own rule. He then creates the rest of the world out of the pieces of Tiamat's body; half of her body fashions the heavens, while the other half makes up the earth. Her blood is converted into rain, her skull into earth, her breasts into mountains (punctured so that their milk runs out as rivers), her vulva into the support for the sky, her tail into the Milky Way, and both of her eyes are punctured to become the sources of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Marduk goes home to become the uncontested king of the gods, and humanity is eventually invented by the mother goddess Ninhursag/Nintu to populate the newly created world.

So that's the general tale, one full of heartbreak and patricide and people making terrible decisions. Scholars have long pointed out that it probably influenced a lot of other nearby mythologies - I already mentioned the analogue with Geb and Nut above, and the pattern of sons superseding their fathers' rule, and their mothers' violent reaction, is one that appears even more violently in Greek mythology. But as mentioned above, there are a lot of changes depending on which period of the empire you're in and who's in charge!

For example, the Sumerian version of the myth, the earliest one, does not contain the whole war between the gods and their parents; it describes Nammu, a primordial deity of the waters, who gives birth alone to Anu and Ki, who then create the gods. Nammu doesn't appear in Assyrian and Babylonian versions of the myth, since she's been completely replaced by Tiamat, but has a cameo in Akkadian mythology as the being called upon by Enki to create humankind. The Akkadian version of the story adds Tiamat and Apsu as the original creators and sets in place the chain of descent from them the Lahmu and Lahamu, then to Anshar and Kishar, then to Anu and Ki, and introduces the story of the conflict between the gods and their progenitors, though the main actors are Enlil and Ea (Enki). The Assyrians brought their personal favorite god, Assur/Ashur, a solar god who was the one they considered to have fought and defeated Tiamat, a story that persisted in Assyrian-dominated areas of the empire until the rise of Babylon (Ashur was identified with Anshar, Anu's father, in some areas due to the similar names and also because it made him even more important if you put him so high in the genealogy!). And, finally, the Babylonian emperor Hammurabi who rolled in around the eighteenth century BCE was a personal devotee of Marduk, and he instigated an empire-wide initiative to rewrite a new national version of the creation story, this time with Marduk as defeater of Tiamat and supreme ruler over all the gods.

This is interesting in Hero's Journey, of course - there are most likely multiple sects within the Mesopotamian religion, and while Marduk as the main dude is probably the most common and visible one, there are probably splinter sects that continue to consider Enki or Ashur or various other deities and stories the important ones, and relegate Marduk to side importance. Just as there are huge numbers of splinter sects in modern world religions today, there is probably a wealth of hotly debated difference between different Mesopotamian denominations!

Monday, October 9, 2017

Playtest Characters: Teams Basilisk & Python

Now that y'all have gotten to see the playtest pages if you want to, here's a little closer look at the playtest characters! They're brand-new mortal Heroes who have only played a session or two, so we anticipate that they'll branch out in many directions as they grow.

(Yes, according to John, the team names have Relevance to the Plot, but since the players don't know that yet, you'll have to speculate on your own.)

Team Basilisk: Agent, Soldier, and Chef

Character #1: Jaime Dienas, called by Demeter

Jaime is a chef at a local Cuban restaurant, which he built up himself and runs in order to support his family and carve out a little space in the thriving multicultural landscape of Miami. The son of aging immigrants, he does his best to take care of his parents while growing his business, dreaming one day of being financially solvent enough not to have to worry about taking care of everyone (and of one day not having to worry about his parents being deported if something goes wrong, an issue that is becoming more worrisome by the day). He was a farmer originally, and his intimate familiarity with the way food is grown and harvests adds to his ability to create food that is seldom appreciated as well as it deserves.

He became a Hero when his divine patron Demeter arrived at his restaurant and sampled his food, revealing herself only after she had decided that he was worthy of being encouraged. After she impressed upon him the need to choose local ingredients and be mindful of what people had to do to grow and harvest them before he received them, she sent him into the world to act in her name, bringing comfort and life in a new age that she hinted might need it more than ever before.

Jaime has so far been excellent at creating sustenance and art in the kitchen (Vision), wrangling and working with his employees as a team (Diplomacy), and making sure to encourage his companions to be cautious and look back over decisions before running headlong into anything.

Character #2: Neel Sharma, called by Ganesha

Neel is an ICE agent, a government worker who specializes in investigating, discovering, and deporting illegal immigrants and aliens on United States soil; for years, he did his job without qualms until the new restrictions came into play and he found his own parents were being targeted for deportation when their paperwork expired and they were not allowed to reapply. After helping them illegally evade notice, he began to have moral questions about his job, wondering how many other families he had torn apart who were no danger to anyone, and these days has begun subtly working against the system from the inside, hoping to make a difference without getting caught. His cover job is as a bartender at a local club, where he generally feels less conflicted about his life.

He fell abruptly into the life of a Hero when Ganesha, remover of obstacles and granter of good fortune, appeared to him one day and in no uncertain terms made it clear that he did not approve of a career spent trying to bar people from citizenship and send them back into poverty and danger. After feeling judged and extremely wanting, Neel was intimidated into feeling more than ever before that he needs to effect change - even if it costs him everything he has.

Neel has been great at projecting carefully cultivated faces to the world (Empathy), scouting out strange situations for information about the political and crime landscape (Streetwise), and being deeply suspicious of everyone and everything until proven otherwise.

Character #3: Nicholas Buchanan, called by Tyr

Nicholas (Nick) was a soldier for most of his adult life, serving in Afghanistan in capacities redacted from most files until he lost a leg in the line of duty and was honorably discharged to find some other way to make his way in the world. Since his talents mostly lie in physical and military areas, he has made quite a small business out of bodyguarding and protection gigs for local celebrities and businessmen. Of course, not all these businessmen are particularly legitimate, and his side business of helping smuggle people in and out of the city without asking where they came from or why is probably not strictly on the up and up, either... but when life gives you lemons, sometimes you have to make lemonade with an unorthodox luxury goods smuggling operation.

He became a Hero not long ago when the sudden appearance of a boat full of apparently human-intelligent canines interrupted his bodyguard patrol around an eclipse party and Tyr, in the larger-than-life flesh, appeared out of nowhere to encourage him to help him fight them off and demand that he decide to push his boundaries. He was informed that this was only the tip of the weirdness iceberg, advised to work on staying in shape, and then left on a boat without little more idea about what was going on than he started with.

Nick brings skills to the table including action sports on land and sea (Athleticism), the ability to shoot enemies with artillery (Weaponry), and very motivational impatience to get up and go deal with things already.

Team Python: Two Waitresses and a Barista

Character #1: Helena Aguado, called by Dionysos

Helena is a barista at a local coffee shop, but that's just her Clark Kent cover. When she's not working, she's a crusader for justice, specifically focusing on conservation and environmental concerns. Humanity is killing the planet and she is determined to slow or stop that process: she wants to save the whales, prevent rainforest logging, and she will go to Washington and punch a senator in the face with brass knuckles that read CLIMATE CHANGE IS REAL if she has to. She's very passionate and intense, so much so that her relationships tend to be short and explosive. She wants to make a change in the world, for the better, but although she knows what's wrong, she isn't sure exactly what to do yet; she's looking for a direction and a way to make an impact.

She recently became a Hero when Dionysos called her out to a nightclub, got her extremely drunk, and explained that the world was about to change and she would have the power to make a real impact on that change - exactly what she wanted to hear. She doesn't know what all the babble about satyrs and morality and so on really means, but she knows this: he was looking for someone with the passion and power to go to the limit to make a difference, and she's exactly the right person for the job.

So far, Helena has been a superstar when it comes to searching for clues (Tracking), demanding people pay attention (Persuasion), and providing a refreshing and frank voice of reason when people get too emotional. Not that she isn't emotional, too, but she always keeps her eyes on the prize.

Character #2: Islande Chery, called by Hathor

Islande (Issy) works two jobs, one as a waitress at a Haitian restaurant and one as a personal assistant (read: errand-runner) to an international businessman and landlord, and between the two just manages to make ends meet. Born in Haiti but relocated to Miami with her family as refugees from the 2010 earthquake, she is a sweet-natured and happy person, just trying to make sure her family, roommates, friends, and everyone else are all happy and comfortable at the end of each day. She often shoulders a little extra financial burden or does extra chores or errands, but she never minds as long as it brings a smile to someone else's face. She hasn't yet found a real driving passion or ambition in life; for her, it's enough right now just to be happy in little ways while she learns more about where life will take her.

She became a Hero when Hathor in all her goddess glory appeared to tell her that she was needed to be a moral compass for Heroes with dangerous and driving jobs, destined to do big things (it doesn't hurt that those Heroes are also her friends!). She also heard a declaration that she would help restore the monarchy of Haiti - not the French monarchy of its colonial days, but the short-lived monarchy that replaced the invaders after the country overthrew them - but she doesn't yet know enough about either history or the divine to have the faintest clue what she's supposed to do about all that.

So far, Issy has been excellent at reading peoples' moods and needs (Empathy), physically toting her friends around when necessary (Brawn), and coming up with compromises for her two strong-willed and passionate friends (who can use a good mediator!).

Character #3: Valencia Rosales, called by Zeus

Valencia is technically a waitress, but that's just what she does now and then in between being fabulous. The daughter of a rather notorious Cuban crime boss (currently in jail for administrative misbehavior, which is sad but not forever), she is the definition of a carefree party girl: she loves boys, pretty clothes, expensive gifts, and fun days and nights at beaches and clubs. She's an Instagram model and a burgeoning artist of about fifteen different kinds, and she's all about finding excitement, happiness, and people to spoil her, getting fun out of every bit of her life she can. She's sure her life will burst wide open any minute when her obvious talents bring her fame, and she works hard to get noticed by photographers and talent scouts now that she has to support herself without her father's influence.

She found her way to becoming a Hero when a very sexy gentleman by the name of Zeus invited her out to a club, gave her jewelry, and then was really weird about not making out with her while loudly declaring that she had to scream her devotion to the city and be ready to be a powerful new force for change in the world. She wasn't really clear on what that meant or why he was being so weird, but apparently it's a thing that's happening now.

Valencia has so far been instrumental in convincing people to let her go places and do what she wants (Persuasion), being distractingly hot at strategic moments (Beauty), and reminding everyone that vague divine mandates are all well and good, but no one should lose sight of the fact that their own wellbeing is pretty important, too.

In the future, we expect one more character in each of these groups, as well as a third team (Team Elk is waiting to represent!), but they'll have to be saved for another post when they finish firming up and get started. Hopefully they give you a little more insight into the world of the very newly minted divine!

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Check Out These Playtests!

Welcome, we're back!

Us showing up late to this update from our rad jam session

What's Up With Writing

All the Sphere Blessings are finally finished - Life and Death have been kicked into submission. Anne also added some explanatory sidebars and concept pieces to help make everything pull together. She's now working on re-designing how Blessings are written out for maximum clarity and ease of use. (And also maximum space saving. There's a lot of stuff in this book.)

Next up we're going over Sphere Augments and the Devotionals. Anne keeps saying "make sure everything that needs testing is done before your stupid math" because she hates tuning and durability balance.

Join us in pointing and laughing at a new crop of bad player decisions

What's Up With Playtesting

We're still working on whether or not we get a playtesting hub on the website. (There are continuing technical difficulties which you all might have seen since the site goes up and down a lot.) But in the meantime the playtests are up and here's all you need to take a peek at them.

The games are being played over on, each with their own page. Currently, you can look there to see recaps of the game sessions, character sheets and bios, and any other updates that we end up posting there.

Hero's Journey: Magic City (Team Basilisk)
Hero's Journey: Magic City (Team Python)

If you want to see the placement for the Heroes on the Web of Fate and Sphere trees, you can peek at those, too! (Which, by the way, is #Spoilers for what's on those webs - the Sphere trees we have posted don't have their Blessings labeled, but the Talent Web and Devotionals do.) Check those out here:

Magic City Web of Fate Nodes
Magic City Sphere Nodes
Magic City Devotional Nodes

You can also follow the characters with their Twitter handles (although they're also in the feed on the HJ website and here on the blog, so you can see them there, too). @beachybaby_95 (Valencia Rosales, called by Zeus), @helenaaaahguado (Helena Aguado, called by Dionysos), @IslandeChery (Islande Chery, called by Hathor), and @NeelSharma1985 (Neel Sharma, called by Ganesha). The other players are being lazy and haven't made theirs yet, but we'll post them when they do and also put them in the feed.

The third game is still creating characters and scheduling, so they're not online yet. We'll add them in later when they start rolling.

Live footage of the bedroom flood of 2017

The Personal Stuff

We lived through the hurricane and most of the recovery is done. Among other things, we lost power and water, couldn't use cell phones or the internet for a while, our bedroom flooded and our door blew off like six damn times, but we were lucky that there wasn't anything worse. After the putting the door back and the drying the house and the dealing with the bugs and the finally being able to buy groceries again, we're back to normal, pretty much. Thanks for all your good wishes and we hope everyone else in the hurricane path is also recovering well.

Anne has to be doctorized five or six times this month so she might not be around as much as usual, but as usual hopefully that means that we know more and things are better in the future. Wave at her from the comments on her queued posts!

Like this scourge of the underworld, we're tired now. Time for underworld naps.

See you next time!

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Spoilers: Sphere Blessings!

Hey, y'all! It's time for spoilers!

Our extremely formal and scientifically rigorous Twitter poll came out with "Big Iconic Blessings" winning as the most asked-for category of Sphere Blessings, although not by much. So we'll do a few of those today!

What we mean by "big iconic Blessings" is that these are the showpieces of the Sphere at Mortal level - what we call the "party pieces" when we're designing them. They're the big, exciting, powerful, emblematic Blessings that Mortal Heroes are probably looking forward to getting most and that you would (hopefully, if we did our job right!) be most excited about using.

Rise and Shine (Sun)
    The Hero calls down some of the awesome power of the sun to awaken people in the morning and restore vivifying energy to them, even in moments of great crisis. Whenever someone is knocked unconscious by fatigue damage, the Hero may use this Blessing to command them to rise back up; when they do, that person immediately heals a number of boxes of both fatigue and lethal damage equal to the Hero’s total dots of Sun, and arises again to continue fighting the good fight.

Thunderbolt (Thunder)
    The Hero with this Blessing can release the formidable electric forces of their own body, inflicting a sudden searing lightning strike on an enemy. They may use this Blessing to strike any being in the same Episode with them, inflicting damage equal to their successes, half of which is dealt as fatigue damage and half as lethal (rounded down). This damage ignores the hapless target’s Defense, but can be mitigated by the Inner Circuit Blessing if they possess it. This Blessing may not be used on inanimate objects or structures.

Transformation (Life)
    A master over the power and form of living things, the Hero may temporarily transform them in moments of great crisis, commuting one creature to another. Whenever an enemy in close combat attempts to attack them, they may use this Blessing; if they successfully overcome their enemy’s resistance, they transform them immediately into an animal (it may be any animal of the Hero’s choice, but must be one that could survive in the current Episode’s environment - for example, they could not turn an enemy into a fish on dry land and then allow them to suffocate). The new creature must be of the same size category as its original form and retains its usual Defense and resistance rolls; it will no longer attack the Hero or anyone else, being overwhelmingly distracted by the disorientation of its sudden transformation. Any clothing or items the transformed enemy was carrying remain on them, folded into the transformation, and reappear exactly as they were once this Blessing’s effects end.
    Once the Hero’s enemy has been transformed, they remain that way until the end of the Episode, unless they suffer damage from any source or are targeted by a power that forces them to make a resistance roll,in which case they immediately revert to their original form (probably with great confusion and aggravation).

Now, of course, these aren't the everyday Blessings a Hero will use all the time, or the ones they get soonest, so here are a couple of examples of middle-of-the-road everyday Blessings, since they were the poll runner-ups, for comparison:

Séance (Death)
    A Hero with such a close connection to the great beyond may speak to the dead, even across enormous gulfs of time and distance. When a Hero uses this Blessing, they may ask any spirit of a dead person a single question that has a yes-or-no or short answer; if they overcome the spirit’s resistance, they are compelled to communicate the answer truthfully to the Hero. Should the Hero fail to overcome the spirit, they refuse to answer the question and the Hero may not contact that specific ghost again during this Chapter (although they can still try others!).
    The Hero must have a body part or object of value belonging to the deceased they wish to contact, or else attempt to call on them from the burial site of their body. In addition, when they use this Blessing, they become able to perceive any ghosts currently present in the Episode with them, although they cannot necessarily pry useful information out of them unless they directly use this Blessing to ask them questions.

Sacred Hearth (Fire)
    The Hero may build a comforting centralized fire, granting comfort, support, and serenity to themself and all their companions when they do. During a Lull Episode, if they create and tend a central hearth, a number of Heroes up to this Hero’s total number of Fire dots may both rest and heal as normal and also perform one action or Blessing that would normally prevent them from doing so; if they choose to forgo resting, they may instead perform two actions or Blessing that normally require an entire Lull Episode. The Hero themself may only perform one Lull-specific action or Blessing, since their second one is occupied with tending the flames.

Wind Whisper (Heavens)
    This Blessing allows Heroes to speak with the voice of the wind, directing it to carry their words to whisper subtly in others’ ears. They may speak or sing any simple message or verse of no more than a single sentence or thought, and cause it to be carried to any being in the same Episode with them, whispered privately to them and only them. Anyone who wishes to overhear the Hero’s message must overcome their roll with a Sight roll; if they fail, they cannot discern the message or even become aware that there was one, not even with alternative methods of communication such as lip-reading.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Mythology Talk: Evolving Egyptian Deities

A while ago, we had a request in the comments to talk about Egyptian gods and how they seem to always be changing, evolving, or reappearing with new pieces strapped to their heads and arms without apparent warning to those of us looking back at them from millennia in the future. So let's talk about the complicated world of Egyptian deity syncretism!

Egyptian deities are a lot like German nouns: they're all a thing on their own, but people frequently smush them together to create a new form that is something unique as well. Amun is one deity, and Ra is one deity, and Atum is one deity; and at certain points, people put them together so that they got the new deities Amun-Ra, Atum-Ra, or the ever-popular Amun-Atum-Ra, all of which are distinct on their own but also obviously and identifiably made up of bits of the single gods within them. They gain combined powers and spheres of influence that clearly come from the original combined gods, but also new ones to go with their new deity status; and they're usually shown with combined symbols and attributes as well.

Left to right: Amun-Ra, Amun, Ra, Atum, Atum-Ra

You can see the combinations in their iconography and physical depiction in art; Atum-Ra is shown as Ra's falcon head and sun disk + Atum's royal throne and scepters of rulership, and Amun-Ra is shown as Amun's ram horns and royal collar + Ra's sun disk. And these are of course only a couple of the possible ways those combined gods are depicted in ancient Egyptian art; sometimes Amun-Ra uses Amun's human-like aspect instead of the ram, or Atum-Ra sits in Ra's solar barque, and so on and so forth. And these guys are just one of the biggest and most iconic combinations! Atum, Amun, and Ra are also frequently combined with other deities - Horakty, Min, Osiris, Khnum - and each of those further combinations makes something else new again, even though it retains the qualities of the deities that were attached together.

So... why does this kind of thing keep happening? Why do we have Osiris-Seker as well as Osiris and Seker, and Isis-Sopdet as well as Isis and Sopdet? Why does Egyptian mythology keep creating Frankensteinian deity combinations like Mut-Hathor-Ma'at, and what are they for when they already had the three individual goddesses involved?

There are several answers that add up together, and the first one is just the phenomenal amount of time we're talking about when we discuss the ancient Egyptian religion. We have possibly the longest and best-preserved religion in all of human history in the Egyptians; from the early period through the end of the Greek- and Roman-dominated period, the religion existed and was actively practiced for something like 3500 years. That's almost 70% of all civilized human history. Entire civilizations have been born, risen, flourished, and died without even taking up the majority of the amount of time of the one for whom the Egyptian gods were the masters of the universe. That is an enormous amount of time for a religion to be active, and as you might expect, that means that it changed a lot during that huge period. Politics, governments, social pressures, technology, even the landscape itself changed during that time, and as a result the religious needs of the people changed, and which deities they worshiped, and how, had to change along with them to stay relevant.

(By the way, since in Hero's Journey the Egyptian religion didn't cease to exist during the seventh century, add another fourteen hundred years to that timespan. Heroes of the Egyptian pantheon in this game are representatives of a religion that has existed contiguously in one form or another for almost five thousand years. If you suspected they might have slightly swelled heads about it, well, they would deny this, but they would usually be lying. Bernard Fitzroy X will explain very patiently to you that he's no more important than any other Hero, and the fact that he emblazons the symbol of his pantheon on giant surfaces when casting spells and frequently actively mocks the "young religions" when his Greek companions are trying to do things are just coincidences that have good individual reasons behind them, obviously.)

Left to right: Mut, Mut-Hathor, Hathor

Anyway, some of the combination plate deities in Egyptian mythology are a result of the religion's extreme age; as in most other mythologies, older deities sometimes get replaced by younger ones. New gods with more popularity can overtake the place of older ones, and often those older deities' stories and symbols are just attached to the younger one that is "absorbing" them, creating a hybrid deity that is really more of a combination of one god eating another one's importance than anything else. The combination both lends the younger deity additional significance by identifying them with an already established god and their history, and eases the transition by allowing worshipers of the older deity to transfer over to the younger one through the familiar stories and symbols. This is what happens with some of the older gods of the Egyptian religion, who were extremely important but replaced by a younger generation in their worshipers' eyes; Mut, for example, the mother goddess of creation and nurturing, was incredibly important in about 2000-1600 BCE, and while she never disappeared, she was later eclipsed by younger goddesses, so that Hathor and Isis often became associated with her symbols (particularly the ankh and the vulture crown) and took on many of her roles to bolster their own importance. A more extreme example would be Iah, the ancient moon god, who by the eleventh century BCE had been completely replaced in popular worship by Khonsu, and was generally only remembered as an individual entity when he appeared as a personification of the moon itself in myths about Khonsu or Thoth, who manipulated and carried him as lunar deities themselves.

Another factor in the many syncretized deities of Egypt is the fact that what we think of as "Egypt" today was not, for most of its history, a single unified place with a single unified religious culture. Different dynasties and ethnic groups ruled various areas of Egypt at different times, not to mention that different cities often had their own cult centers, not all of which were at all agreed on what deities were in charge of what or who was most important to the universe as a whole. This is why, incidentally, there are so many conflicting cosmological stories in the Egyptian canon; for example, Ra was the major deity in Heliopolis (Awanu), so myths from that city describe the creation of the world as his doing and all of existence as being made from his bodily fluids and creative emissions, while Ptah was the major god of Memphis (Menefer), which means that all the creation stories from that area are about him sculpting the universe out of primordial earth. Different cult centers had different worshipers with different priorities, so different areas of ancient Egypt might have had different ideas about what gods were most important, even during the periods when the kingdoms were theoretically united by a state religion.

In these cases, combo deities arose because of commerce between different cult centers; the inhabitants of one city might plunder the attributes of a major deity from elsewhere and add them to their own major god, such as when the people of Elephantine (Aswan) who worshiped Khnum as their most important river god occasionally borrowed for him the crocodile head of Sobek, who was the major river deity of Crocodilopolis (Shedet), in order to illustrate that Sobek was subordinate to him and that any Sobek stuff going on was clearly just Khnum stuff in disguise, or that those people worshiping Sobek were in fact worshiping Khnum, just in his crocodilian form. That way, the cult center got to keep their conviction in which deity was the most important and crucial in that area without having to do something drastic like declaring that the other god their neighbors worshiped didn't exist; both gods do exist, but one just happens to be a form of another, and over time, the whole area begins to consider both gods in their hybrid form together instead of as separate figures. Or, more harmoniously, you might get a combo deity because worshipers of two such gods see the other deity's useful attributes and want to apply them to their own, and the two are fused because they're similar but have individual qualities that enhance a new whole.

Left to right: Khnum, Khnum-Sobek, Sobek

All of this would (and did!) cause a huge amount of syncretic combination between deities even without outside influence... but outside influence is inevitable over such a long span of time, and there were multiple waves of invaders, settlers, and conquerors in Egypt over the many many centuries. They brought their own gods with them, and in fine Egyptian tradition, those got added to the giant bowl of Frankensteined connection deities to create even more new gods, these ones uniquely Egyptian even if they were based on deities from elsewhere. The Hyksos culture rolled in to conquer the Lower Kingdom and, since they were all about Sutekh, a thunder and chaos god, the local Egyptians merrily absorbed him into Set, the local thunder and chaos god, to keep right on doing what they were doing (by the way, this is the root of why Set begin to go from being respected as the muscle of the pantheon and the protector of Ra to being universally reviled; nobody likes the dude who is in charge of the invaders who are brutally conquering you with their fancy new "chariot" technology, and when the Greeks showed up to also align Set with the evil monster Typhon, his fate was sealed). The Canaanite cultural influx from the northeast brought Baal in and added him to Set as well (Set: the most thundery of thunder deities) and since they had several warlike goddesses in Astarte and Anat, their influence encouraged the Egyptians to identify their own love/fertility and war goddesses together, further solidifying the concept of a savage Eye of Ra that was also a nurturing mother figure once calmed down.

And, of course, Greece and Rome were only a short boat ride away, and even before they started conquering everything around the Mediterranean like the rabid expansionists they were, they were sharing their own deities as well. Greek gods like Hera and Dionysos were borrowed and attached to new syncretic deities, resulting in Isis-Hera and Serapis, a very intentionally created combination deity made up of Osiris + Apis + Dionysos in order to give Roman rulers in Egypt a popular deity that fell in line with their own religion but would be appealing to the Egyptian locals and calm down religious unrest. Because Greek and Roman religious policy was to point at any local deity they encountered and say "cool story, but that's really , you're just calling them by the wrong name", they were already identifying gods with other gods as a matter of course, so the Egyptians just took their proto-syncretisms and added them to their own practice of combining gods with similar functions or helpful combo forms to continue what they'd been doing for centuries before Greek interference. (Which worked out well for them, since the Greek and Roman overlords blithely assumed the Egyptians had immediately come over to believing in their religions without much trouble when in fact they were juts cannibalizing them for their own religion but nodding sagely whenever the Romans asked if they were behaving themselves.)

The interesting thing is that, of course, these are things that happen in pretty much all ancient religions. Different people import and export their religion when they move around, and evolving politics and areas of focus change over time and result in gods needing to change to represent and do new things happens in every culture. The difference for the Egyptians is a sort of recycling mentality; where some cultures drop or forget a god that has outlived their usefulness to the culture, or combine them with a new one but then claim the two were the same all along, the Egyptian paradigm operates on a neat alternative where individual gods are still important in their own right, but their many combined forms are also treated as individual and important ones as well. Ra and Amun and Atum all still exist, and Amun-Ra and Atum-Ra also exist, and they all do their own thing for their own purposes simultaneously in various places. Generally, no one feels the need to try to explain how Ra and Atum-Ra can both exist at the same time; the ancient Egyptians just wave over there at where they are clearly doing that and don't feel the need to explain further.

(Remember Akhenaten, author of the brief foray into Egyptian monotheism, who claimed that Aten was the only real deity in Egypt and all the other sun gods were just versions of him or else didn't exist? There is a reason that was so unpopular, and it wasn't just the issue of monotheism vs. polytheism having to overcome the problem of "I just declared your god doesn't exist" or the political clash between Akhenaten's pharaonic powers and the powerful priesthood of Ra. It was also very much counter to a culture that was used to saying that if there were two gods who had some of the same features, they were probably both legitimate in different ways or else forms of one another. Erasing one of them completely, let alone all of them, was not a popular move.)

Aten, no sycretism allowed!

In Hero's Journey, this tendency toward syncretism and expressing different forms for different peoples is expressed in the Egyptian Devotional powers, which involve being able to Voltron yourself into combination forms that do new and different things that your single form could not have. In this way, there's a specific mechanized form for Heroes and gods to deal with the concepts of multiple and combined identity in ancient Egyptian religion, starting with asserting their individual identity before progressing up to syncretic concepts. So be on the lookout for that in the future!

(As we mentioned above, since polytheistic religions in Hero's Journey are all continuous, the Egyptians do not end up being the oldest civilized religion in existence, even though in the real world they had the longest run; the Sumerian gods are at least as old, for example, and evidence from some Australian oral stories suggests that they've been passed down for up to ten thousand years, making them twice as old in spite of the western world tending to ignore them because of their emphasis on oral tradition over written and nomadic civilization over city-building. But the Egyptians are extremely old even for HJ, and their great antiquity in the real world gives us a lot of interesting material when it comes to looking at how gods change over time!)

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Playtests: Ladies and Gentlemen

The playtests have begun! They're going well so far, and the first two groups are having a blast. We're really glad to be back on active testing to see new and edited systems in play and make sure the odd kink gets worked out as we go along, and just for the energizing ability to be playing Hero's Journey again! John has been a dynamo of energy for the past few setups and initial game sessions, and the player enthusiasm is truly a pleasure.

There are three groups of players, and as with most tabletop experiences, there are more male players than anyone else; eight of the testers in our pool right now are men and only three are women. Since distribution is a question with multiple testing groups, we decided to do a little experiment here; for the moment, all three women players are in one game, and the other two games are all men. We're not sociologists and nothing's peer-reviewed, but I found it interesting to observe the all-ladies game and see how play style and themes are a little different than they have been in mixed-gender groups that we've tested before.

Among other things, the all-women group leaned toward characters that were Fun, with a capital F; none of them made grimdark characters or came equipped with tragic backstories, with at most one character being a refugee from a natural disaster (but she's all right now and very happy in her new home) and another a multiple divorcee (but she's all right now and happily using the assets from her marriages for her own ends). The others are passionate scientists and activists, carefree party girls, and matronly ladies who take no shit but are happy and comfortable in their lives all on their own. This is a noticeable contrast with the characters from the dude groups, which include a great deal of angsty backstory - war, deportation, permanent injury, violent discrimination - and have a distinctly darker tone.

(Of course, neither of these broad "types" of characters is superior to the other; both dark and serious themes and light and fun feel are valid and enjoyable kinds of characters and stories. It's just interesting to me that the ladies all went bright and happy while the men went stressed out and sad, and if I had to make a totally baseless armchair analysis, I'd say that those were the result of very different escapism desires.)

So far, I've also noticed a difference between the kinds of intra-character interaction between the two groups. In the all-women game, there's a strong emphasis on cooperation; the characters live together, cooperatively share the burden of chores and payment for their lives, and make a point of conferring and sharing information before making decisions as well as placing a strong emphasis on group security and making sure that they stay together to protect each other. Conversely, the interactions in the all-men game are characterized by conflict and individualism; the characters live separately and alone and have their own assets, do not interact prior to getting shoved together by divine fiat, and are suspicious of each other and likely to have conflicting suggestions for what to do in a given situation, even once they decide to work together. Again, neither of these is necessarily a "better" way to play, but the difference between the two is pretty striking!

Even the first steps of the game were at odds - the Call to Adventure, the moment when the story says, "Hey, something's happening! Come be a part of it!" The characters in the all-women game, for the most part, suffered a few minutes of "are we sure this is safe?" concern before all committing fairly quickly to the idea of adventure as an exciting prospect, and are raring to go even though they have only a vague idea what they're going to be doing. The characters in the all-men game resisted the adventure vigorously, not wanting to leave their current jobs and plans or commit to something they didn't understand, and were much more uncomfortable, unhappy, and discombobulated by their brush with the divine even afterward.

What does all this mean? Who knows. Given that there are a zillion factors involved, these are just observations, but I might go on and keep doing them as the all-ladies game progresses; seeing how a game with all female characters and all female players might play out differently than literally every other game we've ever run or participated in (all of which were either mixed or all men) is a neat experience to chronicle!

I'm only observing the all-women game regularly, so you'll have to wave at John if you want more direct experience with the all-men games (one of which has already started, the other of which is still waiting in the wings!). We may swap players around and change the gender balance of the groups in the future - who knows where the campaign will go! - but for the moment, I'm just enjoying seeing a different play ecosystem than usual.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Mechanics Talk: Devotional Concepts

We had some questions a while ago about the concepts that go into the Devotionals, so let's look at those real quick!

Long ago, when we first started designing Devotionals, we envisioned them as having three "tracks", which we referred to as Divinity, Ritual, and Theology. They represented the three kinds of powers that each pantheon might have to grant uniquely to their Heroes; Divinity represented powers that Heroes and eventually gods of that pantheon traditionally displayed in their myths and stories, Ritual represented powers granted to Heroes for performing the sacred actions and rites of their pantheon's religion, and Theology represented powers granted as symbols and representations of their pantheon's conception of the universe and the forces that move within it.

The early drafts of the trees had them as separate choices - you could invest in any of the three separately, and they had ten powers apiece, and your powerset would be uniquely tied to the pantheon your Hero served but could also have a wide amount of variety depending on which ones you invested in. You would have dots in one of those tracks as well as in the Devotionals overall, mirroring the design of the Domains and Spheres that are available to all Heroes.

Over time, this ended up being refined down and changed into its own unique system. Devotionals stopped using the Domain/Sphere setup, and became an independent set of powers, connected by branching paths that allowed some crossover as you progressed but still had unique conceptual lines, even if they were no longer their own "stats". Divinity, Ritual, and Theology were no longer Spheres and therefore open to any Hero of those pantheons, and the Devotional set repurposed the word Divinity to refer to the specific resource pool that the Devotional powers work with.

But even though you no longer buy dots in Ritual or Theology, the three old "Spheres" still exist, just not formally. The Devotionals (now twenty powers overall) are arranged in a tree with three tracks, and each track corresponds to the old Divinity/Ritual/Theology setups; all Heroes start with their first node in what used to be Divinity, and can then progress wherever they want from there. (There are also more nodes in the Divinity track than there are in either Ritual or Theology - eight as opposed to six each in the Ritual and Theology tracks - and both choices to slightly prioritize Divinity are intentional, since even a Hero who doesn't subscribe to their pantheon's religion or practice their rituals should still be likely to display their pantheon's concepts of what a Hero or god should be like.)

So the old "Spheres" are a concept thing for us as developers now, but no longer explicitly lined out in the game itself. But you can still clearly see their influence in each tree, where the leftmost path refers to Ritual actions and the rightmost one to Theological concepts. Each pantheon of course has their own concepts and powers as a result, which makes each Devotional set a little different. They have mechanical themes that correspond to the tracks as well; the track that used to be Divinity is mostly individualized powers and abilities Heroes wouldn't otherwise have, while the path that used to be Ritual is about supplementary benefits that aid Heroes in their everyday adventures (the way rituals in mythology are used in a consistent way to bolster a Hero's life), and the path that used to be Theology is about gaining the juice to use these powers (by drawing from the sources of power and importance in their pantheon's worldview).

A quick overview for each pantheon!

The Egyptian Devotional Tree:

The Egyptian Divinity path is about the concepts most central to Egyptian Heroes and gods: identity and transformation. This encompasses symbols and names that represent the Hero and their legend, their essential identity to their pantheon and people, and eventually the ideas of syncretic combination of Egyptian Heroes and deities to meet the needs of their people and stories.

The Egyptian Ritual path is about traditional Egyptian religious practices: creation of magical talismans and scrolls, the speaking and inscription of spells, and the preservation of important things so that they last throughout the ages. And the Egyptian Theology path is about the central concept in ancient Egyptian thought of the manifold soul, made up of many parts that are all critical to an individual's life and eventual journey through death, and drawing power from understanding and harnessing these parts of the Hero's own soul.

The Greek Devotional Tree:

The Greek Divinity path is about quintessentially ancient Greek values and concepts: skill and mastery, fame and glory, and being so impressive that your story lasts the ages no matter what. Its powers involve mastery over specific areas of your greatest skill (and accompanying areas of weakness), impressing others, and becoming a pinnacle of power and expertise in your chosen area of influence.

The Greek Ritual path is full of Greek-style practices, including euphoric and intoxicated worship, contests and tests of skill, and consecration of sacred spaces to the divine. And the Greek Theology path is about recognizing the inherent place of Heroes and their stories, their skills and their tragedies and flaws, and the power of fate to ultimately control all their destinies.

The Hindu Devotional Tree:

The Hindu Divinity path is about the representation of Heroes and gods through many symbols and forms, from tools and images to personas and forms. It includes the Hero's place in a universe of divine and human Heroes alike, their personal symbols and sacred images to represent different facets of their power, and eventually the ability to manifest as completely different personas in order to represent the facet of themselves most needed at that time.

The Hindu Ritual path cares about the Hero's sacred duty to better themself through meditation, scripture, and reverence of the divine, and lets them become more successful through tireless devotion. And the Hindu Theology path is about connecting to and finding a place in the great cosmic cycles of existence, levels of enlightenment, and recognition of underlying truth that form the background of Hindu universal thought.

The Norse Devotional Tree:

The Norse Divinity path is about destiny: discovering it, fulfilling it, and making sure nothing stops you before you arrive where you're supposed to be, whether it's because of a foretold fate laid out in prophecy or just the unsung end of your inevitable path through heroism. Its powers involve ensuring your survival in order to make sure you're there to fulfill your pre-ordained roles and living up to everything your Archetypes and divine backing require of you.

The Norse Ritual path is concerned with religious practices that allow the direction and focus of power: spells, runes and the effect they can have on the things they represent, and calling upon fate to ensure greatness. And the Norse Theology path looks at the Nordic conception of a many-part world where each piece has its own role and each world balances the others to create a working universe, and allows Heroes to align themselves with those worlds when necessary.

Since y'all can see the names of Blessings (other than the ones that need fixing in the Hindu Divinity track... sorry!) on the trees linked above, you can probably make some educated guesses at what each Devotional is about, even if not how the mechanics support it. I'll leave you to your speculations!

Sunday, September 24, 2017

All the Trees Are Down

This is a tiny placeholder post to tell you all that we're alive and survived the hurricane. The door came off and we got flooded and the electricity and water and groceries are all questionable at best, but we're hardy survivors.

Being hardy survivors is hard work though, so we didn't get much done for the game. So updates two weeks from now and in the meantime enjoy all the queued stuff.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Mythology Talk: Sara La Kali

Question: Could you do a post on Sara la Kali, patron saint of the Romani?

I can and I will, but I have to preface that Romani religion is a subject with a lot of misinformation floating around out there, both in formal scholarship and the wilds of the internet. For most of the existence of formal study and anthropology, Romani peoples and their cultures were studied by outsiders (usually white European ones) who didn't really understand what they were studying or witnessing and who often actively made assumptions based on misinformation and stereotypes, and even now there isn't much easily accessible scholarship by Romani writers to help contradict them. The internet also tends to be a huge culprit for passing on sensationalist and frankly racist depictions of Romani beliefs and spirituality, so source with great care when you're out there researching, y'all.

Sara la Kali (or Sara e Kali, or Sara-la-Kali, or Kali Sara, or Sara the Black) is a figure in Romani religion with a lot of potentially syncretic origins and connections to other mythologies. The reference to her as a "saint" comes from the framework of Catholicism (which is the majority religion of the Romani in modern times, but not the only one - there are plenty of Jewish, Muslim, Orthodox, and Protestant Romani, too, along with representatives of smaller religions); to Catholics, Saint Sarah is the especial protector of the Romani people, largely due to a story in which she supposedly converted them from their polytheistic beliefs to the True Faith and ended their previous worship of the goddess Ishtari. Of course, this is a story related by Christian writers with an interest in making the Romani seem like backwards heathens and themselves like holy saviors, so the odds of this being a faithful and unbiased account of events are slim, to say the least. There are other Catholic stories surrounding Sara as a saint as well, including that she is one of the Three Marys present at the crucifixion of Christ, or that she was an Egyptian servant of one of the Marys and accompanied her on her holy journeys. (It's hard to tell if this is a piece of folklore explaining why she's always depicted as very dark-skinned, or an unfortunate allusion to the old medieval European belief that the Romani people came from Egypt, or just something that wandered in from elsewhere in the canon. Catholicism is weird.)

The brief mention of Ishtari in the myth above is interesting, because it leads to all kinds of questions: the name suggests some relation to the Mesopotamian goddess of sexuality and storms, Ishtar, or to her Canaanite counterpart Astarte/Ashtoreth, a sexuality and war goddess, and if so, those are surprising names to see pop up in a medieval account of active worship! If that's accurate, how did Ishtar's cult survive so long and continue actively when the rest of her pantheon became ancient history to humanity long before then? When and how did some Romani people come to worship her, when their origins lie further east and south than her native lands? Did she come with them, or was she somehow transplanted to southern France (maybe by the Phoenicians) and waiting for them? And, given that the popular yearly pilgrimage festival to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in southern France involves a re-enactment of Sara la Kali's icon being carried down to the sea, how much of a coincidence is it that in the myth above, the people are described as venerating Ishtar by carrying her statue to the sea to receive a blessing? It's a curious footnote, especially since without any more information, we'll probably never know the answers to any of these questions (or if they are even real questions, and not just things made up by monks looking to pad their resumes).

Of course, those familiar with Hinduism will probably notice similarities with the fearsome goddess of destruction, Kali. Like her, Sara la Kali is usually depicted as black-skinned, and the name is of course the same; not only that, but Sara is a name occasionally used to describe Durga and Kali in Hindu scripture. There is also some argument to be made by various scholars that Shiva, Kali's consort, is preserved in some Romani traditions as a figure of worship or respect as well, which would encourage further identification between the two religions.

There's a lot of disagreement between scholars and Romani people of faith alike about how much connection there really is between Sara and Kali, though; while the Romani do have their roots in India, leaving what is now northern India to become a diaspora somewhere around the eleventh or twelfth century, and therefore very well might retain some elements of Hindu religion and culture, many Romani people point out that the similarities with the Hindu Kali are superficial and that she is a uniquely Romani saint or deity, and would rather people didn't say she was just "derivative" of another faith's figures. Others point out that, due to that same history in India, many words and concepts in Romanes can be linguistically traced back to Sanskrit - in other words, "kali" means black in most dialects of Romanes, just as it does in Sanskrit and modern Hindi, so "Sara la Kali" just means "Sara the Black", rather than necessarily referencing Kali the deity. Likewise, "sara" means the essence of something in Sanskrit, so the word being used as an epithet of Durga or Kali doesn't necessarily mean anything other than recognition of their power and importance.

Another thing to note here is that Romani religion and spirituality, depending on the place and people, also sometimes involves lesser deities or saints that are worshiped in their own right beneath the umbrella of monotheism, much as Hindu gods are worshiped separately even though they are all acknowledged as expressions of Brahman, or the Persian Yazata receive veneration even though they are usually in modern times considered subordinates or sub-deities to the actual god, Ahura Mazda. These saints or gods are called delorre, literally small gods (from the same root as del or devla, which comes from the Sanskrit deva meaning god!), and most delorre are referred to as "saints" or "angels" in English but may occupy a more important place in Romani practice. Sara is considered one of the delorre by some communities, although like most cultural phenomena among the Romani, she isn't universal because there are so many wideflung ethnic groups and diasporal communities in the Romani family.

I'm sorry if y'all were hoping for more in-depth information, but alas, it's a subject without a lot out there and that requires more winnowing nonsense from actual information than I have time for right now with a hurricane barreling down our necks (hi again from the past! I hope we're back by the time this posts!). But here's a list of resources on Romani culture from Romani sources, so give it a look if you're in search of more.

Romani folks will always be better and more authoritative experts than we are, so we encourage you to go forth if you're looking for more information!

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Mechanics Talk: Those Pesky Spheres

An excellent question recently asked over on Twitter was what exactly the Spheres are being such pains in the butt about. Hilarious though watching John yell at and about them is, not to mention imagining personified Spheres capering gleefully around eluding our attempts to call them to heel, it doesn't actually tell you much about what the problem is and why they're their own uniquely special kind of obnoxious.

This is mostly discussing Mortal-level Blessings, which have been the project lately.

The Elemental Domain: Fire, Thunder, Water

The Problem with Fire

Fire's problem is one of expectation vs. level-appropriate reality. We know what we expect someone who has "fire powers" to do: set things on fire. But we're looking at a Mortal, a generally human-level user of fire, so if they're slinging fireballs and setting the house ablaze every which way while Heroes with other Mortal Blessings are doing things like saying "hey, look over here at me real quick" or "I heal three damage!", Fire's going to look more than a little overpowered. In fact, it's almost always overpowered - whenever you see the pyrokinetic in any modern sci-fi or fantasy story, they're generally immediately considered to have one of the "strongest" powers, regardless of what other people can do, because, well. Fire.

Another issue is that at the Mortal level, Blessings should be things that Heroes who are generally recognizable as mortal human heroes could be doing, so even though the Spheres are more "magical" than the Talent Blessings, and they definitely have Blessings with visibly magic effects, we want things to remain generally Mortal in nature to give the Immortals somewhere to grow to. Summoning fire from nowhere or murdering everyone with explosive flame hardly screams "human being called to adventure" as much as "terrifyingly powerful mutant that humans should get away from" (which again is a decent description of Immortals, possibly!).

The solution: Fire's Mortal Blessings focus on humanity to keep that mortal-level feel, specifically on how fire is tamed and turned toward humanity's purposes. There aren't many mortal heroes in mythology who are out there setting things on fire - generally, destructive fire is the province of either enemies/villains, or high-level deities and spirits - but they are doing things to harness fire for the good of their people or adventures, such as providing heat, light, cooking, smithing, and so forth. Of course, if they go deep enough into Fire, they get the option of lighting up their enemies in a spectacular blossom of flame (every Sphere gets one of what we consider a "showstopper" power), but most of the Mortal Sphere tree looks for other, level-appropriate uses for Fire.

The Problem with Thunder

Thunder has an odd problem: who are the Mortal-level Thunder Heroes? Can you think of any? Usually, Thunder is the province of literal gods, which makes sense since storms are a big scary event that humanity for the most part can't do much about and has to hope are being governed by a deity who will either be merciful about it or who can be bribed with worship and sacrifice not to smite them. Or, alternatively, rain is also something that humans desperately need but can't just call down when they want it, and have to request via elaborate ceremonies and hand-wringing. But we don't want to have Thunder as a concept be one that is cut off from Mortal Heroes, so it has to do something, right? (Something within the bounds of the same issues we just talked about with Fire and overpowered elemental zapping!)

The second issue is that Thunder includes lightning and lightning means electricity, so there's a tempting question of whether or not to have electricity-based powers... but in a game based on mythology and mythological Heroes, electricity-based powers are in a weird limbo due to the sheer modernity of electricity as a power harnessed by humanity. If these are the same cosmic powers that ancient Heroes used, how weird would it be to write a Blessing that has to do with manipulation of grounded current flow when that concept wasn't even close to existing yet during the first Age of Heroes? But by the same token, electricity is now a large part of the modern world and the modern Heroes who are about to use these Blessings, so pretending it doesn't exist or can't be affected when most other things can feels tone-deaf at best.

The solution: Thunder's Mortal Blessings work on allowing the Hero to in small ways embody the ideas of rain, thunder, and storms - since calling them down is probably out of their reach, they can instead affect the world on a smaller scale by being little storms inside their human bodies. While there is still the showstopper "zap thine enemy" power, most of the tree involves affecting other people and structures as if they were themself stormwise; being impressive or gloomy, powering objects that draw from the stored energy of their inner connection to lightning, and so on. It's a little more varied than Fire just because of the sheer lack of non-godly things mythological Thunder ideas do, but averages out to a character with an interesting toolset.

The Problem with Water

Water weirdly has an issue with heroic figures doing a lot of things that, well... aren't actually about water, at least directly. Mythological figures that are associated with water do of course do water stuff, but more often their powers are about things that are in the water, but not water themselves - they talk to fish, or dredge up treasure from the bottom, or are great at driving boats, and so on and so forth. Few of them are just doing water stuff, which makes sense to a certain extent; after all, other than "make water", "purify water", and "water-bending", all of which are impressively powerful enough that they might be out of a Mortal Hero's reach anyway, what else do you do with it?

The science questions are also present here: water is the same as ice is the same as steam, so how and where do you draw the line between what Water can and cannot affect? Some stories make water-manipulators able to affect it in any of its forms, making it incredibly powerful; others restrict it to only liquid, and therefore limit how much Water can even be used in environments like ice caps or deserts. Many ancient peoples conceived of liquid, solid, and gaseous water as completely different elements and have different heroes or gods to govern them accordingly, so how do you reconcile that with modern Heroes who learned basic physics in school?

The solution: In this case, we made the opposite call from Thunder; where Thunder incorporated modern electrical use to give Heroes access to appropriate tools for the setting, Water explicitly affects liquid water only, not ice/mist/etc. Partly this is because the different conceptions of different forms of water in mythology mean that there are already different deities and concepts associated with those things - winter gods have snow and ice specific powers that don't cross over with the water gods, who are usually conceived of as being inhabitants of liquid bodies of water, and likewise if we gave the Water users all the fog and mist and steam, the gods of the sky would have some of their traditional powerset diminished. As for the issue of Water people doing a lot with things that technically aren't actually water, we leaned into it; while there are Blessings that have to do with specific water issues such as breathing and swimming, many of them have to do with related powers over environment and objects in or around water. Sometimes, when mythology around the world is telling you "water gods talk to fish", then man, you let them talk to fish.

The Celestial Domain: Heavens, Moon, Sun

The Problem with Heavens

Heavens' main problem is that it tends to feel too samey. While there are a lot of different concepts wrapped up in Heavens - air, clouds, wind, flight, heights, the vault of the sky itself - the ones that are easiest to use down at the Mortal level are pretty much mostly related to air, and there are only so many versions of "air happens, affects a thing you were already doing" that can be exciting. Of course, some are good, and reliable buffing is appreciated by players who like solid benefit Blessings, but we don't want Heavens to end up being the Sphere where you don't get to do anything cool and players who like neat magical effects should not even bother.

There's also a real temptation for Heavens to stray too close to the Elementals instead of having its own unique character; because it contains most of the concepts of wind and air, it's easy to fall back on considering it an "honorary Elemental" Sphere. But we put it in Celestial for a reason - gods of the sky and the heavens generally don't behave like or have the same mythological functions as gods of the elements, and, like Moon and Sun, Heavens-aligned Heroes and deities are leaders and representational figures much more often than they are direct interferers in the affairs of the world. So Heavens needs to use concepts involving air, but not become the Air Sphere, either. A happy medium is needed!

The solution: Distinguishing between "air" and related concepts like "wind" and "breath" was a useful tool, since they frequently have different connotations in myth, and we made sure to collect effects that allowed the Hero to call upon the great cosmic powers of the sky with which they are associated, but without necessarily forcing them to be enormously cosmic themselves, keeping it appropriate for Mortals. Higher-level concepts will have an easier time distinguishing themselves from the Elementals as more godly Heavenly ideas come into play, but the Mortal level now strikes a good balance between usefulness and unique sky associations.

The Problem with Moon

What problems does Moon not have? For one thing, it has an enormous issue of focus. Where some Spheres are pretty universally focused on specific issues around the world, lunar deities and powers are very different in different cultures, most likely because of the moon's association with wildly different features and systems. The moon is associated with madness and mental manipulation, but also with rest and healing, but also with travel and light in the darkness, but also with physical effects such as reproductive health, but also with controlling the tides and currents, but also with timekeeping and calendrical events, but also with occult mystery, and so on ad infinitum. It has so many different associations that choosing just some of them is difficult, especially when you want the ones that are most relevant and universal for Heroes of different pantheons!

Moon also has a very slim roster of examples of Heroes who are aligned with the moon - and that's not just mythologically, but in any media, modern or otherwise. Once you get past Sailor Moon and Moon Knight, how many others are there that are actually using powers based on the moon? Mythologically speaking, there is usually a moon deity in most cultures' cosmology, but they often just hang out up there, existing and symbolizing but not doing much, so there was a real pickle when it came to figuring out what these powers should even do. They should be awesome, useful, interesting, and capable of stacking up against other Spheres - but we had to invent a lot more here to work with their ideas.

The solution: Moon ended up with a lot of powers that are more "auxiliary" - because the moon is associated with affecting a whole lot of concepts and systems by existing but not with actively doing things, many of its Blessings have to do with augmenting or affecting other powers or skills in the game, making the Moon-aligned Hero one who enhances their other heroic traits because of the moon's pervasive influence over so many aspects of life. They do of course also get some powers that directly do things, but it's a Sphere that, like the moon itself, has a more subtle influence over the game than something more straightforward like one of the Elementals.

The Problem with Sun

Sun has a very simple problem: it wants to make light, and kind of nothing else. The sun is, mythologically speaking, very good at doing one thing, and that's being super bright; it has the side considerations of warmth and helping stuff grow, but that's kind of it. Sun gods are out there being the sun, and they don't have time to do anything else, a fact that most of mythology considers self-evident because they're the sun, and it is very important that the world isn't plunged into everlasting darkness. They don't need to do anything else. Somehow, the idea of seven Blessings that are all some variation on "and then you glow" isn't the most exciting pitch for a powerset ever.

Sun is also another offender for the list of Spheres that massively powerful cosmic gods obviously demonstrate powers from, but Mortals seldom do, so coming up with Mortal-level Blessings for Heroes who are basically souped-up human beings is a challenge. Even just powerfully glowing is pretty magical, so when we want the majority of these Blessings to be less visibly magical, how do we do that with a Sphere whose entire mission statement is about being super visible?

The solution: As with Thunder, a lot of the Blessings here ended up being based on a foundation of the Mortal Hero embodying the sun in a limited way, being able to do very tiny versions of the big sun deities' party powers of waking the world, smiting the darkness, or providing light and heat to those around them. We also went with some powers that involve drawing energy from the sun, so that the Hero aligned with the sun can in effect be a little bit "solar-powered" when compared to others.

The Spiritual Domain: Death, Fortune, Life

The Problem With Death:

Death is a gigantic concept and while it's a very necessary one for a game where your Hero can access mythological concepts and maybe even ascend to godhood, it's still one that's really hard to reduce down to concrete powers. Most death deities are administrators, basically; they run their underworlds, make sure the dead and the living are kept separate, sometimes judge worthiness or mete out punishment or reward, and prevent any shenanigans and nonsense. Obviously, this isn't particularly useful for Mortal Heroes - they don't have an underworld to administer and even if they did, being a combination warden, judge, and file clerk isn't most players' idea of a good time. So Death overall has to come up with powers that are on theme with the core concept of death - that feel like things a Hero aligned with the idea of death should be able to do - but that aren't all irrelevant high-level cosmic dungeon-running.

The secondary problem with this is that when asked what sort of powers a death-aligned Hero or god might have, most people say, "um... killing people?", which is understandable but not really helpful. For one thing, everybody can kill people - Warriors kind of have that as their main skillset, not to mention all the other ways of doing that such as Elemental users frying people or Tricksters using their assassination powers or just good old political intrigue and so on. For another thing, there are only so many powers you can get out of "kill people", and Blessings that are just yet another variation on "deal some damage to an enemy" are not exactly new, groundbreaking, or exciting. And for a third thing, one powerset just being a literal kill-your-enemies win button is overpowered no matter how we try to spin it, and hardly fair to everyone else who has to work so hard to beat the bad guys.

The solution: This is the one Sphere where working with low-level Mortal concepts is actually helpful. Mortals do interact with the dead fairly commonly in mythology, folklore, and storytelling in general, so we got to draw from those ideas; being a medium, connecting to and working with corpses and spirits, performing funeral and sanctification rites, and so on. The middle ground of Immortal is probably where Death is going to be the biggest pain in the ass...

The Problem With Fortune:

The biggest problem with Fortune is one of execution. There are loads of good concepts of good luck, bad luck, curses and blessings, random chance and fate that you can play with in Fortune, but since the major way the game mechanizes fate and chance is rolling dice, it's easiest to affect dice rolls with Fortune. The problem comes in because it's really, really boring to have an entire Sphere built around adding and subtracting to dice rolls, especially when other Talents and Spheres occasionally do that, too, so we needed to find alternative ways of illustrating your powers over the concept of randomness and luck.

Another problem is that because Fortune lends itself to modeling random chance so well, it's hard not to write powers that actually feel bad for the player instead of good, which is an understandable design flaw. Randomness is all well and good, but it needs to be beneficial to the Hero, or at least beneficial most of the time, or there's no point in having the Sphere at all. Different players have different tolerance levels for how much uncertainty or danger is baked into their powers, but Fortune, being a Sphere, should be available to different types of luck or probability Heroes in different cultures and stories, so we don't want to restrict it to only the Heroes who are into big-risk-big-reward (they already have options for things like that). It's also tempting to use "bad luck" downsides to balance powers - after all, if there's a chance your power wrecks you, we can make the benefits that much better - but that just plays into the issue.

The solution: While Fortune does have some roll-affecters - it really can't avoid them - it also has the ability to affect other random effects triggered by Blessings and Endowments that Heroes normally have no effect over, making the fortunate Heroes literally the only ones that can cheat in their favor a little bit on core mechanics. We also diversified into some more concrete effects of being lucky, such as getting hurt less, winning at games of chance, or getting extra benefits when luck comes through and the Hero does something especially lucky all on their own.

The Problem With Life:

So many. So many problems. Life encompasses a lot of concepts - so many that way back at the beginning of the game, we discussed whether or not it should really be two Spheres, like one for animal life and one for vegetable life, or one for reproduction and one for health, or one for fertility and one for life cycles, etc. into infinity. But in the end, it's one Sphere because Heroes and gods aligned with those concepts always double-dip and cross into others - there are only a tiny number of figures who can do one of those things but not the other, and giant numbers who do both - and in the end we decided we had to bite the bullet and let the concept be. Life covers health, disease and wellness, reproduction and fertility, human life, animal life, plant life, and so it has to do a lot of things but still feel like a coherent whole for the user. (Also, it has a lot of overlap potential with Talents - in particular, Energy users are already doing some health and injury stuff and Naturalism users are already messing around with animals and plants some - so it also has to be unique and more of a Sphere set of powers rather than a humans-interacting-with set of powers.)

Another issue is the fact that some of these things are very important cosmic powers and areas of influence for culture heroes and gods, but not super useful in the context of an adventure-based roleplaying game (another reason Life was combined and not farmed out into separate Spheres). Things like pregnancy and fertility, in both humans and livestock, are important concepts that various mythological figures need to affect, but how often does a Hero in a roleplaying game need to use those over the course of their adventures? How do we reconcile concepts that need to be present, but that players may consider "dead" or "useless" powers even though they do cool world-affecting things?

The Solution: Life probably feels a little "potluck" compared to some of the other Spheres, since it has a lot of conceptual ground to cover, but we worked toward making sure to fill in areas where the Talents weren't already covering concepts and making sure that Life Blessings were a little beefier and a little more impressive, the better to let the Life users flex their more magical powers. "Useless" powers were some sent off to higher levels and some accompanied by a benefit or a sideways approach to the issue - so that Heroes would be rewarded for using the power and fulfilling Life's mission statement, even if they didn't strictly care about whether or not the locals were going to have a good year. With so much going on, it might be the Sphere where we end up coming back at the end for tweaking, but for now it looks like it's rolling with the others reasonably competitively!

This is a queued post so I may or may not be able to answer comments, depending on the seriousness of the Great Storm Wars. See you later!