Thursday, August 16, 2012

Hubris and the Single Hero

Let's talk about Hubris (the Age of Bronze game mechanic) and hubris (the real world thing) a little bit.

Hubris is the axis around which a campaign of Age of Bronze revolves. The game is designed for you to reach a tragic end. This shouldn't be fought, but embraced. The number of Greek heroes who got home and lived happily ever after can be counted on one hand; even then, they usually weren't actually happy endings if you squint your eyes a bit (looking at you, Helen and Menelaus).

The tragic story arc is facilitated greatly by the Pendragon campaign structure, which we ported over wholesale. Just as with Pendragon, a campaign is one adventure per year, with a Winter Phase for you to take care of all that between session life stuff. All of that is mostly unaltered, though we have some rules about keeping up with appropriate sacrifices and such in order to keep the Olympians happy.

This pace helps. You can't tell that story inside a year or even two. For the most part, the Greek heroes took years to flame out. There are certainly the quick ends, like Icarus, but that wasn't the usual way it went and we have them covered, too.

So, what is hubris (as opposed to Hubris, which I'll get to at the end) as it's presented in Age of Bronze?

First of all, it's not simply pride, even larger than life, overweening pride. It certainly can be that, but that's a very small piece of the puzzle. Pride is certainly tied up in the whole thing, though. This might sound confusing, but there's a key to figuring out how telling a story about hubris and tragedy works.

Most importantly, we're working from the idea that religion is, at base, a way of communicating a society's values to its people. The stories, the deities, the heroes, the lessons... they're all there to let the listener understand what the rules are. The gods expect you not to kill, not to steal, etc. It's all fairly universal from culture to culture, with little tweaks here and there.

The interesting bit is when you take secularism out of the equation. There is no secular society offering "universal" values based on things like tolerance and human rights. Since laws govern mortal and immortal alike (and make no mistake, Zeus suffers for violating them as much as anyone else, when it's all said and done), all laws are deemed to have passed down from Olympus. The laws are the same whether you're in Athens or in Zeus' palace, right?

Here's where hubris comes in. Violating the laws of society is the same as violating the laws of Olympus, since they're one and the same. That is an extraordinarily prideful thing to do, just not in the way most modern people think of pride. In this sense, a minor crime like petty theft becomes hubristic; the thief has exalted himself above the laws of the cosmos. Not terrible, mind you; it's still a minor crime. It is still hubristic.

So as soon as the player hero steps off his farm into the wider world, he's set himself up for violating the rules. If society expects all men to be humble farmers or shepherds and all women to be mothers, doing anything else is preparing for a glorious, but guaranteed, fall. The hero leaves the farm, fights people, crosses the gods, disobeys the king, etc, etc. This is all hubris.

Of course, for every rule, there's a loophole. There's ample space to talk about the stuff which results in protagonist death which doesn't quite line up with these basic guidelines. That's okay! To quote the Age of Bronze rulebook:

Furthermore, the issue of hubris in the Greek world is one of incredible complexity and falls well outside of the scope of this game. There is a great deal of very interesting scholarship covering the ancient concept of hubris, and many readers would be surprised to find that some things they have always considered to be hubristic are not, while other things which never occurred to them are. Many of the great mistakes of the Greek heroes would probably not seem to be hubris at all to an ancient Greek (Orpheus looking back at Eurydice, which was mentioned in the opening of this chapter, is almost definitely not hubris in a traditional Greek sense, but it is equally definitely a very bad mistake which ruins his life and which causes the gods to make him suffer). These rules simply allow us to model the improper acts of Greek heroes and their consequences within the game world without devolving into an academic debate regarding semantics. Just remember that there is a difference between hubris, a complex word in Ancient Greek, and Hubris, a game mechanic in Age of Bronze and things should run smoothly.

Or, use the above about societal laws and divine laws being comparable as a jumping off point. Oedipus having relations with his mother isn't worse than Herakles braining people with his club, yet one is clearly deemed worse than the other in the context of their respective stories. It's okay to state that some things are of enough cosmic import to get several Hubris points.

Yes, Hubris points.

In Age of Bronze, the hubristic acts a hero commits nets Hubris points. Each character has a score from 1 to 20. 1 is a normal person, liable to do nothing much, while hitting 20 means it's time to have a tragic end for your hero and get the next one ready to play (probably one of your kids).

Theft is worth 1 point, while murder or trying to reach Olympus is worth 5 or more. The Gamemaster has room to play here, though we provide a pretty good list of different acts and their suggested penalties.

Getting from 1 to 20 without complications would be boring, so we prevent that by imposing penalties at 5, 10, and 15 points. At these break points, the hero encounters his Nemesis. Divine comeuppance is headed his way. The penalties are primarily there to make his life miserable, rather than kill him. The penalties are:

1) A +5 to all his Personality Trait rolls. He ends up being more extreme in his emotions, at the mercy of his feelings, which leads to more hubristic acts as he loses control.

2) A further -5 penalty for fumbling a Passion roll. The character ends up in longer and more severe depressions when they occur.

3) A directed trait related to the act which put the character over the top must be taken, at a score of 2d6. If Ariston drunkenly urinated in a stream sacred to Demeter, the Gamemaster might decide that he gets a Weakness for Mead directed trait of 2d6 attached to his Indulgent score. Again, this is about making the character more extreme in his behavior, which invariably leads to more and more Hubris.

4) An extra 1d6 is added to his city of residence's Weather rolls at the end of each year. Minor plagues, locusts, harsh winters, whatever. Things get tough for the city harboring a hero who has annoyed the gods.

These penalties are cumulative and Hubris cannot be decreased, ever. A hero going from 1 to 12 Hubris gets double the penalties (one set for 5 Hubris plus one set for 10).

While Hubris can never go down, a character can remove the penalties before they stack up. To do this, he must atone for his crimes. He visits an Oracle or a character (PC or NPC) who has the Divination skill. The Divination roll must be successful and only one roll is allowed per year.

If the roll is successful, the character is given a task to perform which, if successful, will remove the Nemesis penalties. The diviner or Oracle consults with the gods, finds out what's needed, and points the hero in the right direction.

In play, all of this adds up to a subtle but pronounced (especially when combined with Aristaea, which is another post) increase in the speed of Hubris accumulation. It's slow at first, but as heroes become more powerful and more unhinged, it comes more and more quickly.

In the end, Hubris never goes down. Every hero will hit 20, whether quickly or slowly. Once 20 Hubris is reached (and there's no Nemesis penalty for 20), the hero's player and Gamemaster sit down to chat about how to end things. However it shakes out, whatever's decided based on what's come before, the hero's career will end tragically. This is the chance for big, literary stuff. Shoot the moon. Make Orestes wish his tale was half as poignant and unsettling as yours.


  1. You mention the idea of the underlying moral values of society in this post, which seems related to a question/concern I have about Age of Bronze: how do you plan on dealing with the alien value system of the Greek heroes? I mean, when I think of Greek heroes, I think of rapists, slavers, thieves, and murderers, taking after their gods. The Illiad begins with a debate over which "hero" gets to own a woman enslaved for use as a sex slave, and in many ways the conflict over Briseis drives the entire plot of the Illiad (not to mention that the whole premise of the Trojan War is kidnapping back a woman who has voluntarily left her home and husband, albeit under divine influence). I find it hard to really deal with the concept of trying to run characters in a world where heroes are rapists and slavers, but at the same time trying to ignore or white-wash that seems inconsistent with the emulation of source material that both Age of Bronze and KAP strive for (although certainly that's what D'aulaires and other similar retellings, which were my introduction to Greek myth, did).

    I know this is a tangent to the point of the post on hubris, but I'd really appreciate some insight into how you plan to handle it. Age of Bronze is a really interesting project, that I'm enjoying reading about, and I'd like to know your approach to one of the problems of the source material.

    1. That's an excellent question. I've been debating a blog post on just this sort of thing but have kept putting it off for later.

      One is that we try to make it clear that there's some uncomfortable subject matter going on and that, really, it's okay to let the desires of the group overrule the casual rape and slavery. I think our sidebar on rape actually goes so far as to say, "It's there, but it's best to leave it to the side." Greg was very much on board with that approach. The fact is that emulating uncomfortable things is an extremely double-edged sword and, while we definitely want Age of Bronze to get into some of that alien thinking, fun and emotional comfort are absolutely, 100% an okay thing to have overrule the bad edges of the emulation.

      This reads a little like a cop out, I know, but it's extremely heartfelt. There's only so far that my brother and I, as the authors, are willing to push people into things they're not comfortable with. I'm not comfortable with those things in my group, and probably not comfortable with it in any group.

      Two, the traits offer us a handy way of stressing certain things. Much like Pendragon, the emphasis is on rough and tumble warriors. Rather than chivalry, we offer bonuses for fulfilling the Greek Warrior Code, which is all boisterous and self-centered and loud. Those are the heroes which you're concerned about. So just generally, traits allow us to model behavior, acceptable or otherwise to either the Greeks or us.

      So we've got the Warriors over there. But we also have a second track, a bit ahistorical, but welcome in light of those concerns. Rather than emulate the Warrior Code, we've added the concept of Balance Traits. These are personality traits which, when in perfect balance with one another (both in the range of 9-11), offer mechanical bonuses. It's a way of playing the mystic or the hermit, based on Platonic ideals of justice and balance. I'm not ready to go too far in depth on the specifics, because this is one of the bits liable to change, but there will be an alternative.

      Third, is that the rape and murder aren't actually things to be emulated, and here's where it's not a tangential question at all, because it has to do with hubris. I'm liable to bring my co-author and brother in on this, because he's got more of the in-depth academic background to my layman's interest.

      Rape was, according to a lot of scholarship, the most hubristic act that the Greeks could conceive of. It was the ultimate taking of what didn't belong to you, the ultimate setting of the Self over the Other.

      By that metric, the sheer prevalence of the act means these guys weren't "good" guys. It's okay to not emulate that. There are plenty of heroes who didn't, like Orpheus or the Twins.

      Concurrent with that is that nobody really gets away with it. I love the poem (and the name is escaping me right this second) which is about how the Trojan War and subsequent downfall of Mycenaean culture is punishment for Zeus' rape of Leda, with the implication that it was fate catching up for a lifetime of that crime. It was a Romantic poem, so that's obviously not germane to "actual" Mycenaean life, but I think it does offer a window into some subtext which can be missed if we zero in on the idea that the weaknesses of the flesh and accompanying violence are excused.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful response, Ian.

    I'm not sure my interpretation of the source material matches yours--I view the traditional stories about the Greek heroes as representing an ethos of "us versus them": theft and rape and killing are fine as long as you're doing it to the Other, they're only reprehensible when done to people you have a bond to (fellow citizens of the same city, your family, guests and hosts in a hospitality relationship, specially anointed stuff of the Gods, etc.) I tend to view the later Athenian tragedies as having some revisionist, critical reanalysis of stories from the Homeric era stories. (And for that matter, I view rape and slavery as more ubiquitous: the two principal stories of Castor and Pollux are a story of slave-taking (the kidnapping of Aethra, in revenge for the kidnapping of Helen), and a story that can certainly be read as kidnapping and rape (the story of the Leucippides.) There are absolutely exceptions; for all that he's a pathological liar, Odysseus is notably not a rapist, and criticizes the carrying on of some of the other Achaeans in the Illiad. But I tend to view those exceptions as rare cases.

    All that said, I'm certainly not an expert in classical stories--most of what I know is from frosh year English classes long ago and from conversations with my wife, who specializes in Roman history, not Greek. And I'm glad to see that this is something you've been thinking about and working on how to handle in a way that is both acceptable to modern players and aware of the issues with the corpus of stories.

    1. With regard to the Othering, absolutely. I think that comes out in the text. We try to make it clear that the barbarians (Illyrians, Thracians, pre-Mycenaean hill dwellers, etc) aren't really Greek and it's "okay" to do terrible things to them.

      But I also think that only goes so far. As an extended example, Steven, the fellow who is doing the actual play reports (next one up this weekend, probably), was talking to me about a situation he wanted to present to his players. The king wants to frame some barbarians in order to eliminate them as a threat, so he asks the heroes to go stomp on them. So Steven's thinking about different scenarios... can they be civilized, should they be slaughtered, etc.

      My response, when we discussed, had a few angles to it, if you'll indulge me. One, no they can't be civilized. Born barbarian, die barbarian. Being Other is in the blood. Two, killing them or enslaving them is probably okay. They're Other! They live away from Us!

      So, cool, kill them! But what if the heroes get there and they have no weapons? What if the fearsome barbarians are all old men? What if they refuse to defend themselves?

      I've never felt as though the solutions are always cut and dry, even though the violence and what we would think of as depravity are, as you said, ubiquitous and obvious. Because they were! In Steven's case, and in game terms, the heroes probably have the cultural right to slaughter a village of old men if they're barbarians. But is it, by game terms, Hubristic? More than likely, and Hubris will nip you in the end.

      Slavery's a little weirder, because that probably isn't a crime in most cases. That's a shame to modern sensibilities, but for the bulk of human history, it was a business transaction weighted toward the powerful.

      (I paged Peter over here and I'm hoping he'll be able to address hubris, rape, and theft a bit. He had some good scholarship on how the matters were viewed which may surprise.)

    2. Also, I started on D'Aulaires, too! It was one of my first couple "real" books. The artwork was in my head during the entire writing process.

    3. Adam,

      I share many of the same concerns that you do, and approached the project with some apprehension because of them. In fact, as a classicist and someone to whom issues of social justice are quite important personally, conversations such as we are having now are often part of my daily internal dialogue, and affect me on a level well beyond the game which Ian and I wrote together.

      There is certainly no arguing that the Greek world was one often filled with atrocities, particularly against women. However, I do not think that the Greeks were blind to this fact in their literature; in fact, I think quite the opposite.

      When you say that you "view the traditional stories about the Greek heroes as representing an ethos of "us versus them": theft and rape and killing are fine as long as you're doing it to the Other..." I cannot agree.

      Consider Homer. Book 6 of the Iliad is explicitly devoted to taking us, as readers, behind the walls of Troy, and the scenes of Hektor visiting his family are some of the most poignant in the poem. In fact, Hektor is often more admirable than Achilles, if far simpler and less intellectual. Briseis is fought over as a prize of war, but Homer reclaims her personhood later in the poem when she discovers the death of Patroclus and is given a very moving and sympathetic speech. In fact, Homer has often been praised throughout the centuries for NOT taking the simple way out and simply making the Greeks a conquering, heroic force. Rather, he treats the Trojans with the pathos and depth which they deserve.

      Later in the literature, we see much of the same. Sophocles' Agamemnon play gives Cassandra perhaps the most interesting and pathetic part in the drama. Euripides' Trojan Women certainly treats the conquered Trojans as full human beings, and does not shy away from recognizing the pain and suffering enacted by the Greeks upon their foes. One of the beauties of Greek literature is its complexity and honesty, and it is too easy, I think, to see some of the horrible things that happen and shy away from the works on that basis.

      There is a scholar (who often has a naked political motive with which I strongly disagree, and so I would rather not name him for fear of derailing the discussion) who makes the point that, while the Greeks may well have had serious issues with their treatment of women and foreigners, their literature clearly shows that they were at least talking about those things, whereas their neighbors were often oblivious to such in their own literature. It is certainly hard to imagine Medea delivering some of her famous lines in most other ancient cultures.

    4. What does all of this mean for the game? I am not sure that I have a simple answer to that question. But I do believe that Greek mythology and literature makes fine material for games, and, indeed, most of our roleplaying games are influenced by it anyway. I can't imagine that it is any more difficult to find a way to manage these issues at the table than it would be when playing, for instance, a Conan game, or a Lovecraft game. Furthermore, I think that presenting our heroes as deeply flawed individuals who will most likely meet a bad end (as the literature does, too) is a much better way of handling such issues than simply ignoring the more racist and sexist elements of pulp fiction in gaming (to be clear, I certainly don't think there is anything wrong with playing that way either if that is what the adults at the table enjoy).

      One of the beauties of the Hubris mechanic is that players often find themselves in the position of deciding just what sort of hero they want to be. It is entirely possible to play a hero who acts in a far more upright manner than his literary counterparts; you may even avoid that Hubris score of 20 for an entire campaign if you do so. I am not sure that I would choose to play Age of Bronze that way, because I think that it is nice to have a game which can emulate its source fiction, warts and all, but I certainly think that it is a valid mode of play. In fact, I daresay that you could run a straight forward game based on the Hercules or Xena television shows and have quite a good time with Age of Bronze. My personal preference, and only my personal preference, is for a game which toes the line by having many of the nasty elements of the literature present, but often in the background; I would be uncomfortable playing a rapist, and would almost certainly walk from a game where that was going on at the table, but I don't mind the mention of slave women at the king's court, or the death of heirs to conquered lands. Those sorts of detail make the game a richer, if somewhat less immediately pleasant, experience for me.

      Individual groups will, ultimately, have to figure out how to handle these issues for themselves, as with any game, but I would love to find out, years from now, that people are playing Age of Bronze in lots of different styles, and having lots of different kinds of fun with it.

      Sorry if I have gone a bit long, but your posts were very well said, Adam, and I felt that they deserved as thorough an answer as I was able. I am happy to answer any other questions that you have.

    5. Thanks, Ian and Peter. A lot of stuff to think about in your replies, and I really appreciate your taking the time to write those.