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.


  1. Ok, so, questions:

    1. How do Faithful Allies and Sway differentiate themselves from each other, and what advantage does FA have over Sway... cuz it kinda looks like Leaders with Sway can essentially call on any favour any kind of FA can give that they want for their purposes, whereas Lovers get only One (unless they're also Sages in which case I smile slightly at the fact that brainy Sage Lovers go against the stereotype and actually have better relationship skills than non-brainy ones :) )?

    2. Is it possible to, instead of creating a specific FA, choose a kind of FA and then just call on an endless stream of past flings to fulfill that role in the case of a Casanova type Hero? Like would it matter mechanically if the fluff changed from 'specific person' to 'il cataloga e questo'?

    3. Sage benefits are permament enhancements to other Endowments, right? So I'm assuming you don't have to use Reserves to have a second FA, you just have one.

    4. As a continuation, it would seem that just having the Sage endowment unlocks all the benefits that it grants unchanged by your current Sage level... are any Endowments benefitted by higher stats? (beyond just having the Endowment by having that Aspect in your top three of course).

    5. So Sway is now for Specialists summoning... so what about Heroes with actual people to Lead, anything from managers at McDonald's to Mercenary Captains to Kings to Shiva's Ganas... is commanding and deploying groups of people for minor appropriate stuff just a Leader roll now?

    6. Could you recap mechanically what Empowerment does? I didn't quite get the effects of that Endowment, and how does new Focus effect it?

    7. What is going on in the Egyptian Focus pic? That looks very sorcerous! And what myth is the Hindu Sway pic from, can't place it :)

    1. 1) For one thing, FAs can be around all the time, whereas you have to pay to call people with Sway each Chapter; there are also Blessings that specifically deal with FAs, which Sway does not have. FAs also provide specific benefits that happen regardless of situation as long as they're around, whereas NPCs called up with Sway are essentially basic NPCs and won't necessarily come with those things. (With Sway, you're calling someone with specific skills you need, but they don't come with resources or benefits beyond that; FAs don't have particularly useful skills/stats, but come with resources and benefits.)

      2) Yes and no. FAs are supposed to be specifically important to your Hero's tale, so they are specific people, but nothing prevents your Casanova-style Hero from having tons of lovers/friends/whatevers outside of them as well. A Hero who is a notorious runaround might have a huge string of lovers, but by definition they aren't important enough to be the FA; maybe the FA is a parent or friend who is a more important connection to them, or the one lover they can't shake who keeps successfully tracking them down. It IS possible to replace an FA if one dies, so if you want to be the super cold-hearted type of Lover who views those who love them as disposable, it's still possible to go through a good number of them, although there are temporary consequences when you lose them.

      3) Correct. Most Endowments require you to spend Reserves to use them, but you don't have to double-spend for your Sage benefit to be applied.

      4) A couple Endowments do get a benefit from higher stats (other than of course needing the stat to stay high to be one of your Endowments in the first place), but for the most part they're independent; buying more Hunter doesn't make you better at Persisting, nor does buying more Lover make your FA more powerful. Even those that do have an effect based on a stat apply only to effectiveness, and don't have the old Focus problem of literally making the Endowment usable more often.

      5) Correct! For the most part, if you're interacting with NPCs and you want to boss them around, you'd use Leader rolls or Blessings to do that. Sway represents that there's always someone you can call in and be the boss of, but you aren't automatically the boss of everyone you meet unless you put in the effort for it.

      6) Empowerment lets Heroes use some of their Creator Blessings instantly instead of having to waste actions on them (so they don't need an action to, say, heal someone on the fly in combat); Focus allows them to also use that Blessing instantly twice while only paying for it once. Just shooting healing laser beams all over the place.

      7) The Egyptian picture up there is a depiction of the Pharaoh Akhenaten and his family/followers worshiping their special patron, the sun-disk Aten! You can tell it's Aten because of the creepy hands radiating down out of the otherwise benign-looking sun. Akhenaten's Sagely success is questionable, considering he was eventually ousted and his religion canceled, but then again, he did do an impressive job of rerouting his entire kingdom's focus for a while.

      The picture below Sway is of Indra, disguised as a Brahmin beggar, meeting Bali, king of the Danavas!