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!

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Mythology Talk: Songlines in Australia

Question: Could you please talk about the songlines of the people of Australia?

This is a very old question from the question box of yore, but a reader peeked in to remind me of it and ask for it not to be forgotten, and I'm happy to oblige! The Australian gods and native spiritualities are not yet represented in Hero's Journey, but they might in the future, and in the meantime, they certainly exist in the world of the game!

First of all, this blog post is only going to barely touch on some of these ideas. Australia is enormous, and while there are many common features among different indigenous groups' beliefs, there are between two and three hundred different distinct native Australian peoples, so anything that tries to talk about them as all being the same is not going to be accurate. There are common features in much the same way there are common features across many European mythologies or many west African mythologies, so those are super neat to look into, but don't fall into the trap of thinking that means that Australian mythology is just one thing!

Songlines in indigenous Australian history and spirituality are almost literally "common threads" - they're oral narrative histories, geographies, and mythological stories that connect different territories and peoples within Australia. A songline might involve describing the local flora and fauna of the area and the most efficient or safest routes of travel through it, and it might do so by describing the creation of that place and those living things by ancient Heroes and gods. A strong theme in various indigenous Australian Dreaming tales is of ancient creators, traveling through Australia and creating the animals and natural landmarks, setting the cosmos in order and designing, sometimes on purpose and sometimes just by virtue of passing through, the way life would progress among animals and humanity alike. Songlines tell the stories of these ancient figures and their adventures and exploits, and they often connect different peoples with their own cultures together; for example, the Wiradjuri people of southeast Australia tell stories about Dharramaalan, the one-footed emu-hero, and his progress across the landscape, and their northern neighbors the Kamilaroi have their own stories of the same figure and what he did when he passed through the area in which they live.

By definition, songlines are always a great whole made up of many parts; different peoples' stories about the same heroes and gods added together into a greater narrative, and descriptions of the landscape and natural world tied together to create oeverarching oral maps of huge parts of Australia. Songlines were important tools for travelers in Australia in pre-industralized times, since they very concretely kept track of where things were and what natural phenomena to expect when you traveled through different areas; many scholars believe that indigenous Australian people were able to use them to travel enormous distances with very little equipment, and successfully navigate the vast deserts of the Australian interior that could otherwise prove lethal. Because songlines are oral traditions rather than physical landmarks, you would have to know the songline - or at least the part of it that concerned the area you were hoping to travel through - in order to use it for either navigational or spiritual purposes, although some of the petroglyphs and natural landmarks in Australia are considered marks of the same travels by ancient creators that the songlines represent:

There are a lot of associated rules and customs when it comes to songlines, too, some of them varying depending upon the specific people; some songlines can only be followed in one direction (i.e., you can tell the story forward, but you can't rewind it backward, and that includes traveling backwards physically as much as telling the story backwards orally), some songlines can only be followed by particular people (e.g., boys on their coming-of-age journey), and some songlines describe specific actions that someone reciting them must take, suiting their deeds to match those in the song. Songlines often encode information beyond just the literal words and names that are sung, too - for example, rhythms and tones that rise and fall to describe the topography of an area's geography, so that even if the songline passes on down to a people who don't speak the same language, they can still understand what it is telling them about places they have never seen.

Obviously, all of this is incredibly fascinating... and because so many oral traditions and indigenous spiritual practices were lost when European invaders arrived and started doing things like killing off local populations and outlawing the use of native languages, information is often scarce and not particularly accessible to scholars. Even if it were, this topic is also obviously much too complex to handle in a single blog post - but if you're interested in Australian indigenous spirituality and the songline stories, here are a few resources to check out!

Given that we're neither indigenous Australians nor have we so much as set foot in Australia, we're not the most authoritative source. Indigenous Australian scholars and writers will have way better perspective and information than we can!

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Hopefully Fortune Smiles on This Update

This update is queued because Hurricane Irma is coming to kill us all. The next few posts are queued, too, but after that we may have trouble communicating for a while. We'll try to keep you all informed.

Us being chill while being the only survivors of the apocalypse

What's Up With Writing

Sun was finally beaten into submission (something... sort of joke about beaten gold goes here), and we went on to finish Moon Mortal Blessing refits these past two weeks, so Celestial is on its way as well. Moving over to Spiritual, we cleared out Fortune (known as the "easy one" if you can believe that) first, and are somewhat appropriately and morosely working on Life and Death this week.

After that, there are a few systems marked for double-checking to make sure everything goes together right - durability, Archetype advancement, and environmental damage come to mind, also that table where Creators make things that blow them up - and we need to go over the Devotionals, too. No sleep for the wicked...

That feel when you finish the entire section but then find one more "??check??" tag in the document

What's Up with Playtesting

Two of the playtest groups are done with character sheets and almost ready to roll (though obviously acts of an angry nature are beyond our control so it might be a little bit longer than we planned before anyone can actually start). In the meantime, here's a quick look at what a bit of the Web of Fate looks like with 2/3 groups on it ready to go...

Every single one of these assholes decided to take Trickster so good luck to me, I guess

The Personal Stuff

Anne's surgery went well and she's doing great. She probably has to do a couple more this year, but she keeps saying she's fine and she can be a weightlifter now if she wants or something. She's wrong but it's positive.

Like I said at the beginning, there's a hurricane so powerful it defies the usual hurricane category system barreling down at us right now... so depending on what happens we might be stalled for a while. If we get lucky we'll just be out for a week or so, if we don't we might have to replace our home and/or not have power for a long time. So while we're out begging various ocean and storm deities to spare us, we might not have as much work time as usual, but we'll give it our best shot.

Whatever we did, sir, we apologize

See you all next time!

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Spoilers: Revenge of the Archetypes

After lots of neat discussion about the idea of Archetypes in our last post one million years ago, we had some requests for examples of characters that might fit each of them - sort of to get the idea of what the Archetypes are supposed to be illustrating and of what Heroes in stories gone before might represent them. There are a LOT of other Heroes and gods that display these Archetypes in various different stories around the world, but we stuck with just the ones in the core book to stay most relevant. And just for fun, I'm including some gifs of pop culture Heroes that fit these Archetypes as well, because I can!

Remember, almost all Heroes have two Archetypes, or change their Archetype as they expand into becoming a new kind of Hero over the course of their stories, so you may run into characters that seem to display more than one!

Artisan: Innovation is the force that improves the world.
Archetypal God Examples: Apollo, Hephaestos, Sarasvati
Other Heroes: Daedalus, Imhotep, Volund

Artisans are motivated to become Heroes because they want to make stuff that changes the world. That could mean a lot of different things: creating new artforms, inventing new objects that fundamentally change society, being a performer whose art does amazing things, teaching a new generation of makers, and so on and so forth. They have creativity and skill on their side, or at least think they do, so they're out to share those things and make their mark.

Of course, you won't succeed every time you try to Artisan. You can also be an Artisan who tries to make important things and fails to have any real impact. But if you work at it and you're Artisaning well and frequently, over the course of your career as a Hero, you're bound to invent, make, or introduce something you can point to as your little effect on the universe as a whole.

Champion: A life without challenge is a wasted life.
Archetypal God Examples: Durga, Set, Thor
Other Heroes: Achilles, Herakles, Karna, Sigurd

Champions are all about overcoming obstacles and becoming Heroes purely to prove that they can. They have something to prove: whether it's defeating the greatest and most dangerous of enemies or braving the most daunting and perilous of tasks, they need to prove, not just to other people but to themselves as well, that they can do these things, and the idea of letting someone else handle it would seem like gross cowardice (or at the best, at least laziness) to them. They would be literally wasting their own time and potential if they didn't seek out and do these things, and avoiding giving those powers and skills to the world at large that could have benefited from them. Champions also see being a Hero as their very literal job - because they can do these things, they have to, because who else is there to do it if not them?

Unsuccessful Championing usually means that the Hero or god in question got creamed by the difficult task or dangerous enemy they tried to take on, but remember, that's just par for the course. All Champions sometimes get their asses kicked by adversity - it comes with the territory when they spend all their time trying to do the literal most difficult things they can find to do - and every time they do, all that means is they successfully found the obstacle they should be focusing on, and if they survive, run right back into it again.

Citizen: To be one with your people is to be truly whole.
Archetypal God Examples: Agni, Heimdall, Yama
Other Heroes: Aeneas, Menes

Citizens become Heroes because their communities need them. They care about supporting, protecting, and safeguarding their people - whether that's family, their neighborhood, their ethnicity, their local contact network, you name it, they step up because the rest of the group needs them to. Someone has to be the voice or the arm of the people, especially if they can't always speak or act for themselves, and a Citizen Hero is always trying to make sure that what they do benefits or protects their people one way or the other. It's not that they don't have personal or selfish desires, but their careers as Heroes aren't about that; they're about their people. They are, very literally, the power of the people.

Citizens sometimes fail, often because something they thought would help the community turns out to backfire and hurt them, or because they aren't there to take the lead when their people need them to. But as long as they don't fall into the trap of considering themselves more important than the rest of their community, their actions usually over time help them build up their people and help them when no one else could or would.

Companion: Every person is the most important person in the universe.
Archetypal God Examples: Baldr, Demeter, Parvati
Other Heroes: Mohini

Companions focus on forming close bonds and connections with other people; they know that it is people who really change the world and affect events, and therefore helping and empowering individuals is just as powerful in the long run as fighting a monster or inventing the cure for cancer. Companions want to make individuals' lives better and be a warm and positive connection in their lives, which could be as friends, lovers, family members, confidantes, therapists, or any other role that lets them change a person's life for the better. Every single individual makes a change in the world, and a Companion Hero is connected to all of them, the center of a beautiful, complex spiderweb of allies and loved ones.

Of course, sometimes Companions fail to make meaningful connections with people that they want to befriend or help, or it turns out that said people are not very nice and want to take advantage of the Companion - or sometimes they just can't help someone, which tends to be exhausting and unfortunate for everyone. But the important thing is that they keep trying; where others might say that an individual is unimportant in the grander scheme of events, a Companion never believes that.

Explorer: There is no greater cruelty than the restriction of freedom.
Archetypal God Examples: Artemis, Bast, Ullr
Other Heroes: Icarus, Jason

Explorers have to get out there and see, do, and experience - they have to, they'd be the first to tell you. Being stuck in one place forever is stifling and horrifying to them; they want to go new places, find out new things, experience new and unfamiliar sensations, and continually broaden their horizons. They become Heroes because they aren't content with just staying where they are and are looking to be part of a grand adventure; even if it turns out not to be a lot of fun, they could never have just stayed home, for goodness' sake.

Explorers sometimes fail because they get cornered by events outside their control; they end up in jail, or they run out of money and have to walk and it takes a really long time to get anywhere they haven't been before, or they have to stay in the area to help people and can't just jet off somewhere the way they'd really like to. For the most part, they do their best by keeping an eye out for new experiences to try and places to investigate, even if it's just a new area in their home city or a new cultural experience in the community down the road!

Jester: All people have the right to joy in their lifetime.
Archetypal God Examples: Dionysos, Hathor, Lakshmi

Jesters care about joy, excitement, and happiness, and trying to give them to everyone else. They become Heroes because they see that there's too much sadness and dismalness in the world, and they're going to do what they can to redress that balance; some of them do that by being classical-style jesters, acting like clowns to make people laugh and stop taking things so seriously, while others work hard to do things that bring a smile to peoples' faces by giving them things they need or providing entertainment and succor where they can.

Since Jester Heroes are trying to combat an entire planet full of sorrows and misfortune, they're fighting a sort of neverending battle, and sometimes they fail just because it's too much to try to literally keep everyone they ever encounter happy at all times. They give it their best, though, and often tend to be the types to ignore or handwave their own sorrows; after all, bringing someone down by talking about their own sadness is hardly going to make them feel better, so they'll be smiling even when they don't feel it.

Magician: The world can be remade by those with vision.
Archetypal God Examples: Odin, Ptah
Other Heroes: Merlin

Magicians become Heroes because they have a grand vision for the world that they want to realize; they're big-picture people who want to rebuild the whole thing (possibly after tearing it down first, if need be). They're architects of the world around them, designing new systems, organizing new politics, and finding ways to meddle with not just changing some things but with reorganizing the entire shebang.

Or at least, that's what they want to do; it's a tall order, so Magician Heroes often suffer setbacks and have to adjust their master plan, or end up having to spend a very long time trying to put their fifty-five-step plans into action. They stay on message, though; as long as they're theoretically moving in the right direction, many Magicians can still count it as a success even if it takes an immensely long time or ends up not looking quite like they thought it should have.

Preserver: Tradition and order make a stable world for all.
Archetypal God Example: Anubis, Hades, Skadi
Other Heroes: Hector

Preservers are the protectors of tradition, law, and established custom. They become Heroes when the peaceful order of things is threatened and needs a defender; they believe firmly that traditions exist for a reason and have all the value of generations of wisdom and effective practice behind them, and act as stalwart defenders against chaotic forces for change that might tear down those traditions. Many such Heroes defend the cultural history and tradition of underrepresented groups, or keep things like folk wisdom and legal codes from being lost or misunderstood.

Preserver Heroes are living in a fast-paced modern world and so they can have a rough time sometimes; the sheer volume of things being destroyed or replaced at any given time is daunting, and most of them have to choose specific things to focus their efforts on. They can also sometimes get blinkered and resist necessary or positive change just because it is change, but they do a lot of very important preservation and restoration work that saves important things for generations still to come.

Rebel: Unjust rules were meant to be broken.
Archetypal God Examples: Loki, Pan, Prometheus
Other Heroes: Robin Hood, Spartacus

Rebels become Heroes to fight the Man. They aren't rebels in a general "fighting everything in authority" sense, of course - they are specifically about opposing unjust or corrupt leadership or systems, so they don't feel the need to protest against a benevolent administration but they'll absolutely be out there undermining rulers who want to take advantage of their people or bend the system to their own advantage. (Of course, depending on the Hero, some of them might point out that they've never seen any such thing as a leader who was actually above reproach, but that's why they're so important...)

Rebels can have real trouble having to pick their battles, since they can't swallow letting any corruption go past them unchallenged, and as a result they tend to end up in trouble a lot of the time, sometimes being punished so thoroughly that they get taken out of commission and can't have as much impact as they might wish. But that never stops them for long, and if being persona non grata is the price they pay, well, someone's got to do it.

Ruler: True power is wielded only by the worthy.
Archetypal God Examples: Horus, Indra, Zeus
Other Heroes: King Arthur, Rama, Theseus

Rulers approach the problems of leadership from the opposite end: they cannot abide unfit rulers or weak leadership, which means that, most of the time, the only person they can truly trust to do a good job of it is themselves. They believe that only those who are worthy of power should ever have it - usually themselves, since that's the only person they can be sure of - and actively work to consolidate their own power, usually taking it away from others who don't deserve to have it in the process. Not every Ruler Hero is power-hungry, necessarily, but they're all ready to take on the role of authority if they have to, for the good of everyone underneath them and society in general.

Obviously, Rulers' usual problem is just other Rulers (Heroes or otherwise) - they don't get along, for obvious reasons, unless they all have enough mutual respect for each other and each others' leadership styles not to decide they have to stage endless palace coups on each other. They also often find themselves working alongside Rebels to topple unfit leadership - but the Rebel is always there behind them, watching to make sure they don't repeat the same mistakes...

Savior: Everyone is deserving of help and support.
Archetypal God Examples: Athena, Isis, Vishnu
Other Heroes: Perseus

Saviors want to save and help people, in whatever form that takes. They don't decide who "deserves" it and they don't want to pick and choose who to help; everyone who needs help should get it. That might mean saving people from danger or helping them when they're hurt, or getting them food and supplies when they're needy, or providing psychological support when they're having a rough time. They'll even help their enemies when they have to, although this can cause occasionally problems with other Heroes who are a little less mercy-minded.

A Hero who's a savior usually gets stretched thin - there are a lot of people who need saving, and even when they're great at what they do, sometimes they just can't save everyone. They also sometimes come into conflicts where saving one person might mean letting another one down, which can lead to traumatic choices, and their I-mean-everyone approach can mean they conflict with the other Archetypes pretty frequently if saving or helping someone would foul up a Rebel's just rebellion or a Magician's master plan.

Scholar: Truth is the greatest power.
Archetypal God Examples: Brahma, Frigg, Thoth
Other Heroes: Odysseus

Scholars believe in the old adage: knowledge is power, and the more they have, the more powerful they are. Learning is always good and important for its own sake, regardless of whether or not what they learn is "useful" by anyone's standards, and they become Heroes because they know there's an enormous wealth of knowledge out there waiting to be learned. They not only want to find these things out, but they also want to teach them to everyone else - truth and knowledge are important for everyone and the world becomes a better place the more people have access to them, so hoarding them is antithetical to their desire to see a more enlightened universe.

Scholar Heroes can suffer from the high-stress nature of their adventures; sometimes less information-minded Heroes run right over evidence or blow up information streams, which can be frustrating, and sometimes they have to try to make a case that is more practical than "because wouldn't it be cool to find out???" to convince companions to stick their noses into an area that doesn't seem useful to them at the time. But they're often able to do and learn things from their relentless pursuit of knowledge that others never would, and as long as they keep trying, they keep adding to their store of truth as they go.

Gods are, of course, gods; while many of them are divine Heroes in their own stories, they're not player characters and statting them as such doesn't always make perfect sense. But they still display the Archetypes that Heroes always have, and it's a lot of fun to speculate about what Archetypes various heroes from all kinds of myths, legends, and modern stories might have!

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Mechanics Talk: Contention

All right, so I heard there were some requests for discussion about the player conflict system? I am here to provide!

The system in question here is called Contention, and it refers exclusively to when Heroes - player characters - are in conflict with each other. It's a pretty easy rule of thumb whether contention rules or combat rules are in effect; if you're fighting an NPC, it's combat, and if you're fighting a player, it's contention.

Of course, "fighting" is something of a misnomer here, or at least not the whole story. Contention doesn't just refer to actually taking a swing at each other, although it certainly does cover that situation; it has to do with any time the player characters are in direct conflict with each other. That means also when they want to use powers on each other, when they want to stop one another from doing something, when they want to mess around with each others' important resources (like mortal families or companies they own), or any other time they're about to get peanut butter in each others' chocolate. Contention covers any situation in which the players come into conflict with each other, which doesn't necessarily always need to mean violence (although it definitely can!).

The contention "system" is also kind of a misnomer, because it's by far the least systemy system in the game. Contention is specifically the mechanical system that turns off mechanics.

When Heroes get into conflict with each other, contention kicks in, and during contention, the game pauses while the players decide how to proceed. Instead of basing the results of a Hero vs. Hero situation on a random roll or on who has stats where, the players discuss how the conflict should go, and what the most interesting story to come out of it should be. Oh, stats and powers still matter - players get to bring up their Heroes' skills and how they might affect the situation, and they can use random rolls to make decisions if they want to as long as everyone agrees to it - but in the end, the players have to reach a consensus about what happens. Does one Hero triumph over the other, and if so, how, and how is the situation awesome and heroic, not just for the winner but for the loser, too? Are other characters getting involved, either players or NPCs, and if so, what might they do? What kinds of consequences would this conflict have for the game in the future, and how can the players weave it into their story? Once the players figure out what they want to happen, they decide (with Destiny's help) what resources were spent and what injuries sustained, and describe the impressive conflict that just occurred between them, and then they move on to continue the game on the other side.

Contention gives all the players the opportunity to make sure that the players are telling the story together, even if the characters are doing their level best to beat each others' faces in. It lets them talk about motivations and themes, about where they think these conflicts might drive the Saga, and about what cool scene resolutions they'd love to have as part of their heroic canon. From Jason trying to drag Herakles back onto the Argo to Hanuman getting into it with Arjuna over the latter's disrespect of Rama, Heroes fighting and disagreeing with each other is an awesome part of many a mythic tale, but we want to make sure it's also an awesome part of the game, which means it should be something that gives every player a voice and the option to help shape the outcome. And if the players can't come to an agreement about what would happen, no harm is done; the conflict is canceled, and the game goes on without anyone having to feel like their Hero's story is being trampled.

So, in a game that has lots of your usual crunchy rules and mechanics, why is it that Hero vs. Hero conflict is subject to mediation instead of having rules about who wins? You might remember that, a long time ago, we talked about how Hero's Journey is a game that assumes a certain amount of cooperation among the players of the game, and that's the major reason for this as well. This isn't a PvP game; by nature, while groups of Heroes certainly have squabbles and arguments, it's a game where they're trying to work together to achieve common goals, not one where they're trying to triumph over each other. Contention also prevents players - whether accidentally or on purpose - from bullying other players at the table, and from setting up a story where some of the players are winners and others are losers. This is a game where everyone is telling a story together; the whole group should get to tell a story that they find interesting and satisfying, so there should never be anyone who "loses" when they came to play and enjoy themself (although of course a Hero having a tragically heroic death or setback within the game is perfectly all right!).

So contention it is. Heroes who work well together get to do so, and Heroes who hate each others' guts or can't stand each others' goals can tell those more antagonistic stories without their players worrying that they'll wreck the game for everyone else. Everyone gets to be a part of the ongoing Saga, and while there are specific rules attached to the system - when contention kicks in and when it can be considered resolved, as well as guidelines for Destiny to mediate contention and possible solutions and storytelling choices - in the end, the power to weave the heroic tale of two Heroes going head to head is all in the hands of the players, where it belongs.

(P.S.: I'm writing this post from the past, since there was medical stuff was earlier this week; I queued in it advance for all you beautiful people. Please pardon me if I'm slow on comment responses for a while!)