Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Mid-Game Outcome Choices in Remember Tomorrow

This is my third post on Remember Tomorrow, a light cyberpunk RPG I played recently. This post analyzes some mid-game strategic choices you'll have to make, and concludes they aren't nearly as well balanced as the options at character creation.

Previous Posts on Remember Tomorrow:

Effectively, Remember Tomorrow has a very aggressive Experience Point system. Someone levels up at the end of every single scene. Fights, arguments, and mental challenges all use the same simple and abstract mechanic, and at the end of every conflict someone's stats improve. The number of successes rolled determines how many upgrades you get.

I was curious as to what things are worth spending Outcomes on when you win a scene during the game. Luckily, this analysis is a faster and simpler bit of math than my previous post. Unfortunately, while there's little math, there's a lot of conceptual ground to cover, and it's likely to be a lengthy and verbose discussion.

Your options for every success (some restrictions apply) you roll are:
  1. Gain +1 in an attribute
  2. Gain +1 in Influence (Factions only)
  3. Gain a P-Con
  4. Tick a goal box
  5. Remove your own N-Con
  6. Reduce another PCs attribute by -1
  7. Reduce a Factions Influence by -1
  8. Inflict an N-Con on another PC or Faction
  9. Untick another PC's goal box
  10. Kill a character that already has Injured and Dying N-Cons

Let's address that list option-by-option:

1. We'll use the first option (+1 to your own Ready, Willing, or Able) as the benchmark by which to measure the other options. Each point you add to an attribute increases your average number of successes by 0.1. So a starting character will score a mean of 1.2 averages on their introductory roll, but a character whose had any one attribute raised previously will instead score 1.3 successes. Is a noticeable, measurable bonus, but not huge.

2. Immediately it becomes obvious that +1 Influence compares very favorably to +1 to R W or A. Influence is the only attribute Factions have, and it functions for them in the same way that all three attributes work for PCs. Since it affects all three dice in a roll, +1 Influence is three times as powerful for a Faction as +1 in an attribute is for a PC. If you really want a Faction to improve or degrade, adjust their Influence accordingly. When a Faction goes from Influence 4 to Influence 5, their average roll goes up from 1.2 to 1.5, and their chance of scoring a triple-success nearly doubles (from 6.4% to 12.5%).

3. Next we compare +1 R W or A to gaining a P-Con. On the plus side, P-Cons can reliably give +1 to a roll, where as attributes and Influence rely on random chance. That is to say, gaining +1 to an attribute increases your average roll from 1.2 to 1.3, but invoking a P-Con increases it from 1.2 to 2.2. That is, in a word, huge. Even more so when you consider that a P-Con also raises your maximum roll from a 3 to 4.

To balance the advantage of a P-Con, there's the disadvantage that you only get to use it once. On first glance, I thought this would keep P-Cons and attributes fairly balanced. But in actual play, it doesn't. P-Cons are absolutely better. You just don't roll often enough in a session of play for the difference to compensate. You may get to use the attribute boost three or four times as often as the P-Con in a session, but it's worth only a tenth the value on each use, so the attribute falls behind. Plus, if the P-Con gives you the win, you can spend one of your newly earned outcomes restoring it. This ability to "roll P-Cons forward" is a huge strategic advantage in the game, and a little shocking the first time you see it in practice (if you weren't expecting it). If you don't have a P-Con, it's always worth getting one.

As a further wrinkle, you can only spend 1 P-Con per roll, so there's not a lot to be gained by stacking them up excessively (but keep reading). P-Cons have a few other uses, though.

They can also be used after the roll, to reroll your whole set of dice. This is always worth doing if you failed to roll any successes. As we mentioned, there's typically a better than 70% chance that the reroll will improve your position. Adding this in to the mix further increases the value of P-Cons. A second P-Con is probably always worth it, too, then, since that protects you from a bad roll. If you already have two P-Cons, though, the attributes start looking more attractive.

P-Cons can also be burned for various minor benefits. They can turn a +1 attribute bonus into a +2 attribute bonus, but it's hard to see why you'd want to since the P-Con on its own is more potent than the extra +1 to an attribute. Lastly, you can burn a P-Con to tick a goal box even if you failed a roll... but as we're about to see, that's rarely going to be in your best interests.

4. Here's where we start to get into weird territory. In the game, every PC has a goal. When playing that PC, you naturally want to pursue the goal, get them closer to it. However, if you ever achieve the goal, your character is written out of the story, so there's a minor conflict of interests. If you're enjoying playing a particular character, you're not terribly motivated to score them their third and final goal tick.

In addition, in order to achieve the goal, you need to spend outcomes (or burn P-Cons) to get the ticks. Which means that every time you gain a tick, you're doing it at the cost of being slightly less competent in the future than you otherwise could be. There's a trade-off here that provides some of the tension of the system, but I could also see it rubbing some people wrong. I kinda like it, but then I'm a big fan of tragedy in films and novels, and I don't mind watching my characters get run through the wringer a little.

Regardless of what you think of it from a dramatic perspective, it's hard to conclude that there's any reason to score goal ticks in the early game. If you use those outcomes and P-Cons for other purposes early on, you'll find it much easier to get the goal ticks late in the story when the plot seems to be winding down anyway.

5. The fifth option when spending an outcome is that you can get rid of your own N-Cons. My initial reaction to this is that it's never worth it, at least not mechanically.

N-Cons don't do much. They only get invoked rarely, just on those scenes where you win by a large margin and someone fears you really zapping them with outcomes.  Even then, as long as your Scene Goal was a good one, you're still getting something solid out of the exchange. So really, N-Cons only impact you if you're winning, and then all they do is make you win a little less. That's not to say there aren't times where you'll want to buy off a specific N-Con because it's thematically inconvenient. But this should be low on your priority list.

The exception would be for Injured and Dying, which have additional rules baggage that could result in character fatality if ignored for long. Getting ether of those fixed up / removed is a decent option if you're invested in your character, and could be critical if you expect that any of your fellow players are the murderin' type.

Now we're into the half of the list where things turn aggressive and negative. From here on out, all the options are things you can do to someone else.

6. When is it a good idea to lower another PCs attribute? Actually, I think the answer is "almost never". Remember how we decided that gaining a P-Con or an Influence was much more potent than gaining one Attribute point? Well, the same math applies here, and perhaps more strongly. If I'm expecting further conflict with the party in question, I'll get better results by pumping up my own characters than by hindering theirs. 

There's one obvious exception: If someone has a 1 in an Attribute, reducing it to 0 kills them off and writes them out of the story. That's pretty huge. Of course, if it's rarely worth knocking attributes down in the first place, you won't see these sorts of weaknesses come up very often.  When you do, you should always ask yourself if killing that PC off is dramatically appropriate at that junction. You should never kill off a PC "just because you can". If it fits the storyline and enhances game play, great, go for the throat. If all it's going to do is ruin the night for someone whose been rolling poorly, then consider the noble route of just boosting your own characters instead.

Another argument against impairing someone's stats is that it's flavorless. The various attributes just aren't defined well enough for most of us to really grok what it means when your Able is reduced from 6 to 5, for example. The game doesn't even really establish what human average is (4 because that's what most stats start at? Or 3 because PCs are exceptional? I dunno.) Your changing the math (-0.1 successes per roll), but not the shared reality.  If you're looking to make things hard on someone else, there's more thematic and flavorful ways to do so (namely, by giving them N-Cons).

7. There's slightly more cause to reduce the Influence of a Faction, however. For one thing, as we established earlier, Influence is about three times as potent as R W or A. The shared nature of Factions make them more likely to attack you in the future: a high-Influence faction is a threat to all PCs. If a Faction's Influence gets too high, it will exit the game victoriously, possibly speeding up the end of a session. Lastly, since they're not held by a single player you don't have to worry about a destroyed faction putting a damper on someone's fun the way a dead PC might (though it does count as an Exit and could end the session suddenly).

While still not generally as good as getting yourself a P-Con, burning a Faction's Influence is something you'll be happy to do from time to time.

8. Often the most flavorful option for antagonizing someone is to give them an N-Con. "-1 to Ready" is a lot less imaginative and meaningful than making your target "Confused" or "Destitute". N-Cons are easier to role-play, as they create great hooks and focus for the narrative fiction.

Sadly, N-Cons are mechanically very weak. As mentioned in the section on getting rid of your own N-Cons, giving them to someone isn't worth it from purely mathematical point of view. All they do is make the winner of a conflict win a little less, and since they are expended when used, they're a very temporary set back. You can sometimes trade them in to double the hit to an attribute or Influence, but that's a lot of set up for minimal impact. N-Cons may be flavorful, but they don't do much.

And that's perfectly fine, by the way. As is often the case in competitive RPGs, you often want some way to mess with another player that isn't a horribly huge setback for them. You want to rain on their in-character parade, without doing the same out-of-character to the player. Flavorful but trivial N-Cons are perfect for this.

As above, Injured and Dying are exceptions to the rest of the guidelines concerning N-Cons. A character with Injured eventually has to do something about it, or it will become Dying. A character with both can be killed as an outcome. Which means Injured and Dying have a bit more punch to them, and are reasonable choices to inflict on characters that you want to hinder.

9. Unticking goal boxes is an interesting and potentially flavorful option, but one that's hard to rate in terms of power and math. Yes, if you do it, that's at least one more scene the target has to spend pursuing their goals before they can successful Exit. Its just hard to predict how much longer you'll be adding to the game. Someone else may target them in the very next scene and inadvertently undo your result, or hours may go by without them getting a success in the right area.

As mentioned earlier, ticking a goal box in the first place is something of a sacrifice. That means undoing it is likewise both a sacrifice and a serious blow. It does nothing to advance your own cause, but it can potentially undo someone else's entirely. I wouldn't do so lightly, but would keep an eye open for times and situations where it's worth it.

Another thing worth keeping an eye open for is player enjoyment. Goal boxes aren't likely to get ticked until characters have spent some serious time building up strengths and pursuing plotlines. Which means that someone ticking a second box may be looking to retire the character. It may be a sign that they're just done with that character. If you make achieving the goal too difficult, they may just respond by
dumping that PC in the pool and running an Introduction scene for a new PC. While such disruption is certainly an effective and powerful use of your outcome, it's not particularly fun.

10. The final option for spending an outcome is to kill an Injured and Dying character (ie: one with the Injured and Dying N-Cons). As with anytime you kill someone else's PC, you'll want to consider whether or not it's dramatically (or politically) appropriate at the moment.

There's a school of thought that says it's important that PC death be a real possibility in gaming. That if you never grease a PC, your players will have a diminished sense of concern about their characters, and take stupid risks or goofy actions they wouldn't otherwise, and emotional impact (or suspension of disbelief) will be undermined. I, for one, tend to subscribe to this train of thought. You can't play a horror game (for example) for long with a GM that's never really going to challenge or threaten your PCs.

However, it's very easy to go too far in the opposite direction, killing PCs without warning and despite their players never making the sort of mistakes that might "justify" it. Even hardnose GMs need to take care not to be capricious or unfair about it, or they'll eventually lose all their players (not just the characters).  I mention this because I think it's one potential "problem" with RT's system. It's possible, though unlikely, to score one big lucky die roll that inflicts Injured, inflicts Dying, and kills off the PC in a single roll, without the player being able to do anything about it. More-likely, a couple of targeted scenes and bad rolls will conspire to inflict the special P-Cons on someone before they can do anything about it, and leave them vulnerable.

Sometimes the sudden plot-twist of character death will enhance the story, other times it'll ruin somebody's fun. Make sure you know which before you do it. And before you strike that death blow, remind yourself that the narrative structure and scene-framing rules of RT make it very difficult for someone to take simple precautions like getting their character to a hospital.

In Conclusion: (The following advice is assuming that accomplishing your Goals and "winning" is important at all. If you're not playing to win, disregard this advice and make whatever decisions seem most narratively interesting. It is an RPG, afterall.)

When playing your own character, the most useful option for spending your outcomes in game is to give yourself a P-Con. Spend P-Cons aggressively at every opportunity, and use the extra success to rebuy the same P-Con (or any other) whenever it's appropriate. Once you've got two P-Cons on your PC, your priorities should shift. Reduce the Influence of the Faction that is most directly in conflict with your PC to defend yourself from future attacks. Only raise your own attributes when you score a third (or further) outcome on a roll, or when the conflict didn't involve a Faction that's likely to be an issue in the future. Don't worry about your own N-Cons unless they are Injured, Dying, or really hampering your narrative style. Don't worry about goal ticks at all until you've got your character well established with 2 P-Cons and significantly boosted stats. Boosting your weakest stat is more important than raising your higher ones, as it will improve your chances of a double- or triple-success.

When being the Controller, strike a Deal early to shore up your PCs weaknesses. Once that's accomplished, look for opportunities to use your PC in a Face-Off you have a chance at winning. If that's a long shot (or even a 50-50 proposition), instead pick a favorite Faction and antagonize others to build the Faction up. Again, P-Cons are the means to long-term success, but keep an eye out for anyone burning off "your" Faction's P-Cons on their turns as Controller. If that happens, switch to just Influence boosts so you're not feeding someone else's efforts over your own. You want your favored Faction competitive, but not better than your own PC (so they won't be used against you). If another P-Con or Influence point on your favorite Faction would make them stronger than your PC, change your focus to inflicting N-Cons on the other players. N-Cons are great in that they're flavorful but won't ruin anyone's fun. The objective isn't to crush the other players, just to win slightly more rolls than you lose and provoke some fun as the soulless corporate (or homocidal ganger) badguys.

And remember, respect the narrative. "Winning" is less important than making a good game all around.

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