Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Mythology Talk: The Journey Through Duat

Time for another mythology question!

Question: Could You make a post about Ra's Journey to the underworld and the gods he meets there?

Now, not only am I excited to answer mythology questions sometimes again, but I especially love this one because it made such a perfect excuse to show off some of the in-book art for the game. Each pantheon has a cosmological map detailing important places in their mythic universe, and since so much of the Egyptian universe is concerned with Duat and what's going on down there, their map is a perfect companion to talking about Ra's journey on the cosmic barques. Here's the Egyptian cosmology map:

There he is up there, even! Still on the daytime part of his journey, clearly, but we can move on to talking about the less daytime parts. There are full writeups about a lot of these locations in the book, actually, but here's a quick simplified version!

At the edge of the world lies the Watercourse of Ra, the great source of the Nile river that travels out of the world of mere humanity and into Duat. Entering upon the river, the barque is greeted by six serpents with flaming breath, who guard the passage into Duat and allow none who might harm Ra to pass by them. After passing the first of the pillared gates that separate each region of Duat, the barque enters Ur-Nes, the land of the shadowy boats, which float upon the waters seemingly without any captain or crew and carry the souls of the dead onward to the great fields of wheat and plenty that await them. At the end of Ur-Nes is the Watercourse of the One God, where the beautiful kingdom of Osiris stands; but, of course, Ra will not be staying here, as he is only temporarily dead and has places to be come tomorrow.

The barque passes the Pits of Fire, where souls of the wicked dead are tormented, and also past the pits is the Land of Living Forms, where the river falls into a fathomless ravine and is engulfed by the desert of Seker, which is as far as any of the dead who are not gods themselves can travel. In the desert, the barque barque transforms into a great serpent, the better to travel through the parched sands when a boat can no longer carry the god onward, with Ra and his entourage in its snaky mouth. The serpent carries on to the Hidden Land, the abode of Seker and the great sphinxes of the underworld, and then to the Abyss of Waters, where many of the gods are said to dwell, but again Ra can't stop and visit, although it's said that the other deities often come out to pay respects to his passage as he goes by.

The Secret Cavern is the most dangerous portion of the journey, since it's where the great serpent Apep lies in wait, intent on swallowing Ra and bringing eternal darkness to the world; this is where Horus and Set battle the serpent each night, and where the other gods who join them on the barque struggle to make sure that the sun can rise again tomorrow and the world won't be plunged into chaos. (And this is pretty relevant, considering that there was a solar eclipse that took a shot at the venerable old god last week in southern North America!) The barque then continues on past the Sarcophagus of the Gods, where the graves of all gods who have died remain (although these gods, too, call out to pay their respects when Ra passes by), until it reaches the Procession of Images, where serpents belch flame to light the way and guard the barque, which has returned to its original form.

The Lofty Banks lie beyond the Procession of Images, the home of the greatest among the Egyptian gods, and they come out to provide light and encouragement to Ra to see him the rest of the way through Duat’s many gates. The Mouth of the Cavern comes next and leads to the land of Ra himself, who rules and maintains it when not busy; and finally, at the easternmost edge of Duat, lies the land where Darkness has Fallen and Births Shine, the place of rebirth and rising at each new morning. Here Ra enters the mouth of the great golden serpent Ka-en-ankh-neteru, the Life of the Gods, and through it is reborn to embark upon the solar barque and rise into the sky to cross the world as a new day’s sun.

There's a lot of complex symbolic and representational value in each of these steps, some of it easy to unearth from casual scholarship, some of it probably requiring an Egyptian Antiquities degree to really get into, but that's the basic gist of it!

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Progress Marches On

Me doing the update posts was a lot better looking when Anne wasn't making me look bad with other blogs. But here's more updates.

Artist's conception of what trying to drive this game sometimes feels like

What's Up With Writing

All the basic system refits are complete! We finished all the re-writing of the Endowments, which were the major systems thing still needing updates, and Anne wrote you guys a post about it so you could see some of them. Mostly, we just had to adjust numbers from testing for the Persistence, Innervation and Empowerment. They were all working well with their assigned concepts but sometimes needed a little "more" to make sure they were competitive with each other. Faithful Allies, Sway, and Gambits got totally rewritten to match them up with the updated systems mechanics and are all way better now (sorry, playtesters who got frustrated with old versions, but you were taking it for the team). Also Focus, the Sage Endowment, got a whole system instead of just being a resource adder, so grats, Sages.

We then moved on to fixing Blessings that were based on any of the systems that got updated, because some of them didn't work right anymore or were based on something that got changed. We blitzed through Fire, Thunder, and Water, so the mortal level Elemental Blessings are a clean sweep and ready for the playtesters, and also finished Heavens before getting stuck in the quagmire of Sun. Stupid Sun.

Stupid Sun.

What's Up with Playtesting

It looks like we'll have three playtest teams, although schedules are a challenge. Players have character sheets now and are tackling the web while we figure out the last of the scheduling stuff, and then we'll hopefully get to start playing pretty soon. The solar eclipse we just had here in the States was an omen for beginning the story that we couldn't pass up!

Playtesters hard at work, choosing the most strategic of nodes

What's Up With Technical Stuff

The website keeps going in and out, so we apologize for the annoyance. We're investigating whether it's a hosting issue or what. Remember you can always find the blog here even if the site is down!

The Personal Stuff

Anne goes into surgery tomorrow, so she's calm about it and I'm yelling and frazzled all the time. She's been writing all the blog posts she can come up with to queue ahead of time so they'll post for the next couple weeks since she doesn't know when she'll be able to write again. So there will be some to look forward to and if they disappear, it's because she's in bed. We'll keep you updated, but hopefully it won't be a big deal.

This is exactly how dramatic Anne is every time someone makes her stay in bed

There's only one Sun Blessing left that won't cooperate at Mortal and I'm going to yell sun-related keywords in my head while I sit on a plane tonight. See you guys next time!

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Art Spoiler: Devotionals!

Since new playtesters are getting acquainted with these right now, I thought this might be a good moment to show off the completed Devotional trees! All of you got to see my awful hand-drawn drafts way back in older posts, but I think we can all agree that the graphics department is unequivocally better at this than I am.

You might notice some adjusted order of concepts, not to mention a few corrected labels (some based on y'all's feedback!). Hopefully we'll all get to hear about some excellent Devotional exploits as the tests progress!

EDIT: Barely had I posted this when our excellent and vigilant Hinduism consultant messaged me and said, "What are you doing, I thought we discussed one of these concepts and changed the name/basis for it, we talked about this," and he is of course right. So there will be at least one more Blessing name change. Alas!

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Mechanics Talk: Endowments!

So we've had lots of requests for more information on mechanics, and since John just told y'all that the Endowments got their face-lift after playtesting, now seems like an awesome time for that! The last talk about it was a long time ago and while the long period of time is not awesome, the newer, fancier versions of Endowments totally are. So what changed?

  • Empowerment: The Creators who wield Empowerment didn't see any real changes, but they're still excellent.
  • Faithful Allies: The Lovers whose Faithful Allies would follow them to the ends of the earth now have more specific and cooler options for different kinds of allies, and choose which one is most appropriate to attach to their Hero.
  • Focus: The Sages who have such mighty Focus now use it in much more direct and flashy ways, replacing their old system of "here are some more resources".
  • Gambits: The Tricksters who run their Gambits got a big old rework; while they're still doing ridiculous nonsense and warping the plot with their moments of grandiose shenaniganry, they're now doing it with a much more mechanically concrete underskeleton.
  • Innervation: The Warriors who Innervate themselves got some balancing monkeying, mostly to do with deciding exactly how many bonus resources they get when they decide to go hog-wild.
  • Persistence: The Hunters who Persist are still, thematically, persisting, but now in addition to getting more resources back, they also get to disregard the usual caps for said resources.
  • Sway: The Leaders who have Sway over their minions got a total retrofit, and now call in a specific specialist support character to follow their orders rather than investing in a sort of sphere of more general influence.

This is all very exciting (or at least, it is to us, and also the playtesters, so we hope you, too!), but what does it mean? Let's go through them!

You'll notice that the three "self-buff" style Endowments - Empowerment, Innervation, and Persistence - stayed mostly the same, while the "story vehicle" style Endowments (and Focus, which is in a weird grey area in between) got big changes. As usual, the road to game balance hell is paved with all our good intentions, and awesome though nebulous ideas like "change the story in a big narrative way" or "create ongoing character introductions to bolster your social situations" are, they predictably had more problems when it came to testing them in a live game with real people who wanted to use them.

I'll focus on the four that did change, and we'll take them one at a time! (Quick and dirty, but I'll try to keep up with comments/questions!)

Faithful Allies (Lover)

The old version: Faithful Allies had the same basic idea in the old version as in the new one: as a Lover, you are beloved by many, and to illustrate that, you have an ally who dotes on you and wants to be with you and support you, providing help the best way they know how. The old version saw Lovers calling their FAs in when they needed a little help, receiving from them some financial or material resources. Players rolled a single die, and how high they rolled determined how many resources their ally was able to help them with this time; if they rolled particularly low, they might not get much or any help, or their FA might even turn out to be in trouble and need a rescue.

This all sounded like a neat idea in theory, but testing helped uncover the warts, like the fact that the rate of this Endowment failing or not being particularly useful was way too high; Heroes had to use one of their most precious and hard-to-replace resources to call them, so having a 30% or so chance of nothing useful happening was way too high. It was also very vague, and players pointed out to us that they would have trouble running it if they were running the game themselves; how did they figure out how much money or goods was the right amount per roll? Tables with specific amounts didn't scale up very well or make much sense when Heroes got more powerful or traveled around, and the FA too often seemed like dead weight, only slightly useful at best, an actual drag at worst. It was also really fuzzy how they interacted with combat and dangers in the world, and as non-Heroes, they seemed often like they were too fragile to be worth bothering with if there were Big Things happening.

The new version: The idea is the same, but the execution is clearer. Heroes now choose from one of four types of Faithful Allies when they start, and each kind offers a different benefit; maybe your FA is a Defender, in which case they help protect you as their beloved in the heat of battle, or maybe they're a Patron, in which case they give you money and materials somewhat like the old system but with clearer guidelines, or maybe they're a Caretaker or a Mechanic. Whatever they are, they're devoted to their Hero, and they provide their benefits not only to the Hero, but as a spillover to the rest of their group as well, which makes it in everyone's best interest to support the Hero's story of love and companionship. The fact that your Hero is a Lover means that people loving them matters to the story and benefits the team, so even if the other Heroes don't personally care much about an FA, they have an investment in their story.

A few other mechanics were solidified and cleared up; there are now clearer rules about how FAs act in combat, what happens if they are injured or die, and exactly when and how their benefits kick in. They also now have a much higher success rate; there's a 90% chance the FA gets to roll in and prove their love to their Hero each time, with that last 10% representing the small chance they run into trouble (being part of a legendary tale, after all) and need their Hero to ride to their rescue.

Focus (Sage)

The old version: The old version of Focus was very simple; Sages could bring such powers of concentration and focus to bear that they had more resources for using their other Endowment than anyone else did; essentially, they were hyper-focused specialists, capable of performing only one Endowment but doing it more than anyone else could.

There was nothing really wrong with this, as far as it went, but players in game found it a little on the boring side. It's not that they didn't like being capable of using their other Endowment like superheroes all the time, but even those who liked specializing instead of being generalists found that the lack of options wasn't super exciting. It was more, but it wasn't better. Also, John was bugged by slight imbalance issues with the whole concept anyway; theoretically, it made Sages able to double up on stats more than other characters - their extra resources were based on how many dots of Sage they had, but other types of Heroes couldn't increase their Endowments by just buying regular dots, so it wasn't entirely fair, either.

The new version: Sagely Heroes are still focused and capable of turning their beautiful brainpower on their other Endowments, but now there are specific results for doing so - it's not just more, but better! Each of the other Endowments gets a new better function when combined with Focus: Creators use their Empowerment multiple times, Lovers get more than one Faithful Ally, Tricksters get to bump the odds on their Gambits in their favor, Warriors get even more resources for Innervation mayhem, Hunters get a second dimension in which they can Persist, and Leaders find that the assistance they call up with their Sway is even more effective.

Gambits (Trickster)

The old version: Gambits are the coolest thing, but they were such a headache to make work properly in a game. In the old version, Tricksters could blow their resource and roll a single die when they decided it was time for a Story Event to occur, and something would happen randomly based on the result. It might be anything from a list of possibilities including the Trickster having pre-planned for this eventuality and actually been in disguise in a different city at the time, a god deciding to get involved and Judge Someone Harshly for their misbehavior, or something blowing up and enormously inconveniencing everyone in the area. Each result had a general effect involving what kind of story was being told, and Tricksters could massively affect situations or get out of sticky spots by doing what Tricksters do best: warping the story so that they could find an unorthodox way to handle it.

There were problems with this on both sides. Players really liked Gambits - in fact, they loved them, and jealously hoarded them and used them all the time - but the randomness of them, while a core feature of Gambitness, still had a lot of issues with making the use of precious resources sometimes be not only not worth it, but actively detrimental to everyone. The story events weren't universally applicable, so a Hero could use a Gambit, and even use it successfully without a negative backfire, but the story event that occurred could be useless to their current situation (for example, if a Hero was falling off a volcano and used a Gambit to try to survive, rolling a Just Deserts result, which caused a random person in the Episode with them to suddenly experience karmic punishment for whatever they'd done wrong recently, might be hilarious and/or narratively resonant, but it wouldn't save them from a sudden magmatic demise. On the other side of the table, John was finding that it was harder than he'd thought to come up with a reasonable story for each Gambit result on the fly, and that balancing positive and negative results was difficult.

The new version: The core idea of Gambits is the same - a random roll from the Hero to decide what possibly ridiculous outcome suddenly occurs and redirects the entire Episode. However, all the roll results now in some way involve the Hero (and possibly, but not guaranteed, their friends as well) escaping from whatever danger is currently threatening them; players were overwhelmingly using them as escape hatches anyway, so we decided to lean into the Trickster theme of improbably saving their skin whenever possible. There are levels of success still, however, and the same story vehicles that let the Trickster take a little control of the story with their trickstery wiles. Each roll result now has a concrete mechanical result as well as a story trope attached, so that whomever is running the game won't have all the same migraines John did during testing. Even "failure" rolls could still kind of be success, depending on how you look at it; yeah, rolling a 1 means your Hero probably dies, but they die saving the rest of the team, so that's sort of an overall success, depending on what your goal was! (If your goal was leaving the other Heroes to die while you escape with your loot, not so much, but even the most unlikely Tricksters sometimes accidentally become heroic in a crunch moment.)

Sway (Leader)

The old version: This was the system that got the most refitted, because old Sway was just a hideous mess. The original version involved a Hero choosing an area in which they wanted to have sway - control and influence - such as military matters, politics, academics, and so on. Then, whenever they spent a point of their resource, they could call up their contacts in that area and ask them to do something that fell within that purview, and then roll a single die and see, based on the result, how successful their sway was in getting that thing done.

If that sounds super vague and hard to adjudicate without a lot of complicated rules, it's because it totally was. Even with all the rules and such that we added, it was too messy for life. What counted as being within the right "area" of sway, and how much dickering had to go on between players to figure it out? What scale of task was appropriate to ask for, and how did you determine that on the fly? And once the roll happened, there was one again much too high a percentage chance of failure - watching excitement die out of a player's face as they try their new system and it doesn't work three times in a row (sorry, Katie!) is not a good moment in mechanical testing. We worked with it and worked with it throughout the test, but every set of small changes and balance tweaks slightly helped but didn't fix the problems, and added more and more layers of detailed text that made reading and running it a chore.

The new version: The new version uses the same concept of a Hero who is a Leader calling in support personnel when needed, but simplified the system considerably to prevent all this mess from trickling down. Now, the Hero just simply knows and has authority, pull, or respect among so many people from throughout their life that they always know the right person for the job; whenever they want, they can call in someone by spending a resource and flexing a little Leaderly muscle, and that assistant arrives with the exact skills the Hero wants them to have (within reason, based on the Leader's own level of Leaderliness). If they need a tech guy, well, a tech guy with Sage and Trickster shows up, and if they need an attractive escort to a party, someone with all the Leader and Creator to be a charming delight arrives just when required. They always know someone who would exactly fit the bill, and that someone will always show up to do their best for the Hero before going home again.

And that's the Endowments, in a nutshell. Powers you get in the story just for being you, whatever specific kind of Hero you are.

Now, in a technical sense, these are "going back into testing" since the playtests starting up are going to run them around, but we have spent a lot of time and care on them and we don't anticipate any more major changes on these systems. They're solid, fun, and thematically cool, so we foresee them looking about like this when they come out to you, barring tiny balancing tweaks to numbers here and there. (Dear playtesters, please do not discover any gaping faultlines and make me a liar. I mean, do, if they're in there we don't want them in print, but you know what I mean.) They're rad, we're excited about them, and we can't wait to watch people concentrate so hard their magic explodes and call in That Scholar They Know on Ancient Hungarian Epics at the drop of a hat.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Mythology Talk: Immortality and the Olympians

Hi, everybody! Did you miss me? Because I missed you!

Last week, we got the coolest present: a mythology question in the question box! We haven't gotten one of those in... well, a really, really long time, which makes sense, because we weren't able to answer them so understandably you folks weren't sending them anymore. But look! There it is! It popped up in my email and it felt like people were waving at me to come back and answer it. Look, here it is!

Question: Since so many gods can actually die, why are the Olympians the only well-known gods who are seen as both immortal and invincible/unkillable?

So I'm going to answer it, because I can do a blog this week and I was excited to see it, and the Olympian gods are a part of the landscape of the initial Hero's Journey setting so it's relevant to all of us!

A brief little distinction first - the Olympians are technically just the Greek gods who live on Mount Olympos as the major divinities, but the idea of immortal semi-invincibility in Greek mythology isn't confined only to them! Non-Olympian Greek gods - for example, the ocean deities like Proteus or Amphitrite, the underworld gods such as Hypnos and Thanatos, or the rustic pastoral gods like Priapos or Kybele that tend to run around various divine fields and landscapes - also fall under that heading. The Olympians get a lot more popular focus, since most of them had the largest cults and were the major figures repurposed for later Roman reuse, but technically all the Greek deities are just as immortal!

Honestly, this is a sociological question as much as anything else. Different gods come from different cultures, and different cultures and their religions have different concepts of divinity and different needs as far as the kinds of stories and ideas they want to talk about. As a matter of fact, the vast majority of gods across different world mythologies are not "truly immortal" - that is, most of them can be killed and sometimes are, in the myths of their home cultures, and some can even age and die on their own. Deities like the Mexica Huehueteotl are distinguished by the fact that they're old and suffer some of the ailments of old age, even if it took an unimaginably longer amount of time for him to age from the beginning of the universe to now, and other gods clearly fear death from accident or injury, such as when the Egyptian Ra almost dies of Wadjet's poison and calls for Isis' aid, or when Shiva kills his fellow Hindu death god Yama for disrespecting him and the resulting universal chaos caused by the god's absence forces everyone to resurrect and restore him before the world is irreparably damaged. The entire Norse canon is based around various gods' impending and inescapable demises. So clearly, gods dying is not an aberration worldwide; it's way more common.

The Greek mythological concept of gods as being eternal, unaging, and indestructible to the point that all their warfare even among themselves is designed to imprison or inconvenience each other to the maximum extent because there's no actual getting rid of them is pretty rare, although we tend not to notice it. If I had to guess, I'd say that we may not realize it because those of us in the western world are used to monotheistic religions like Christianity and Islam, in which the one central deity is also immortal without beginning or ending and completely unassailable and indestructible, so the idea of a god being indestructible just seems normal without further examination. (In fact, there's definitely scholarly discussion out there about Greek concepts of divinity as eternal and indestructible influencing early Christianity, but that's a whole other subject I definitely do not have room to mess with right now!)

So why did the ancient Greeks conceive of their gods as immortal super-beings who could never be destroyed, when their neighbors right next door in Mesopotamia and the Slavic and Celtic lands are writing epic tales about gods dying and being extremely upset about it? Well, culturally speaking, the Greek religion focuses a lot on a very clear line between the mortal and the divine: mortals cannot aspire to divinity, and deities can never be and never were mortals. The concept of hubris, unforgivable pride that causes humans to compare themselves to or disrespect the gods, is a huge theme in Greek myth, and the beloved stories of demigods with divine blood transcending what normal mortals could do just underlines how much humanity is confined to a level well below the gods. (In fact, the only cases of mortals becoming divine are those who already had the blood of gods in their veins, as opposed to various other cultures worldwide, where ancestors, skilled mortal heroes, and culturally important figures are regularly deified to represent how important they are or how lasting their impact is.)

So ancient Greek culture, with its emphasis on humanity and divinity being inseparably divided, makes the gods literally the opposite of fragile humanity: humans are mortal and age, gods do not, humans are fragile and easily injured and made ill, gods are not, and humans can be killed by mishap or violence, and gods cannot. Divine conflicts by nature don't look like human ones as a result, because gods aren't humans and Greek religion wants to make that very clear. It's worshipers' place to respect and worship the gods, and the gods' place to be worthy of that respect and, failing that, to at least be entertaining and educational in their enormous-scale screw-ups.

You'd probably need to be an actual anthropological scholar specializing in ancient Greek religion to have the full answer to this question, which is probably more nuanced than this post can be, but that's all the time I've got today. I'm waving at all y'all and hopefully I'll get to write more soon!

Sunday, August 13, 2017

In August We Fix Things

It's me again, updating things like an update boss.

This is what this blog would look like three thousand years ago

What's Up With Writing

Anne took pity on me this last two weeks and helped more than usual, because we were putting a lot of stuff from the last round of playtests rewrites into final and I couldn't figure out where she put things in chapters. There are so many words in them. She says I deserve it because she can't read any handwritten notes I make.

The playtests showed us a lot of problems with Endowments that could use fixes so we finally finished the updated versions of all of them (except Gambits, Gambits are....hard). Mostly they are the same idea but with some mechanics fixes. Some of them were too punishing and we wanted them to be more fun so they didn't have such a high rate where they weren't helpful in specific situations. Other ones were too hard to run. When I am looking at a system I wrote and saying "this is really hard to GM on the spot", maybe something went wrong. Anne wants to do a post about the specifics so maybe that coming soon, because it's been a long time since we posted, even though the changes aren't new for us they aren't the same as the last time you saw spoilers.

I was trying to float some other fixes but Anne put this big note that says STOP TRYING TO CHANGE BRAWN on my computer. Balance is important!

If the Leader Endowment doesn't feel like this, is there even any point in having it?

What's Up with Playtesting

Character creation has wrapped up for all but a few people and there will be multiple groups running at the same time in the same shared setting - kind of a big sandbox with rival teams in it. Not sure yet if it will be two teams or three, depending on the last few people. So far there are some great characters and the players are being very helpful about trying new combos and powers so we can see how they perform in the real world.

Since we're working on getting some playtest stuff on the website so you guys can all see it (and also the players but also you!), I want to take this opportunity to ask what things you want to see. Character sheets? Story summary? Highlight powers they used? If you were going to pay attention to any playtest stuff, what would it be? (Not that we can promise everything but let's all dream together.)

More feasting hall pillars, as voted by the people

What's Up With Technical Stuff

No tech stuff this time, but we'll let you know when new website stuff happens.

The Personal Stuff

Progress has turned into surgery for Anne at the end of the month. This is supposed to be a good thing, with problem fixing. We can rebuild her, faster, better, stronger. It's not super severe so she hopes she won't be out of commission for very long afterward. (Actually she said she would just type on her laptop in bed but we probably have to put a stop to that sometimes.)

She did however tell me she's been working on a blog post for a couple days so...stay tuned for her triumphant return, she's coming.

Artist's rendition of bionic Anne of the future

I'm going back to Gambits now because they're making me too crazy to sleep.