Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Remember Tomorrow

A couple sessions back, my weekly one-shot group gave a test run to Remember Tomorrow. It's a rules-light set of cyberpunk mechanics, with little to no setting and roundtable narration principles. The "hippy game" equivalent for Cyberpunk 2020 fans, Remember Tomorrow has a little bit in common with Universalis in that GMing duties are distributed across the table and you may end up playing several characters over the course of the night.

Remember Tomorrow was written by Gregor Hutton, who also wrote 3:16 Carnage Amongst The Stars, and it really shows. That's not really meant as the "diss" it may have sounded like, given how often I've vented about 3:16. While I eventually grew frustrated with 3:16, along the way it provided our group of about 6 people with entertainment for about 17 sessions. So I certainly got my money's worth, and then some. (Over 350 manhours of entertainment from a $10 PDF. That's a heck of a bargain!)

Remember Tomorrow (hereafter called RT) has many of the same strengths that 3:16 does - it's easy to learn and remember, distributes narrative power across the table, reduces the GMing prep burden to nil. In fact, you could argue that those strengths are actually amplified in RT. It's better at what 3:16 did well than 3:16 itself was. In our first session of RT, we told a wild, unpredictable story, and only once had to look anything up in a rulebook. Bravo!

However, RT has many of 3:16s flaws as well - limited differentiation between characters, mechanics that are so grainy you can't apply any modifiers, the occasional pacing and structural issues caused by unrestricted narrative rights, rules that encourage Player-Vs-Player conflict but don't really reward it enough to make anyone comfortable getting aggressive - and these flaws too are amplified beyond their presence in 3:16. RT is definitely drawn from the same well as 3:16, but then adapted to a less-structured genre. It's everything you loved or hated about 3:16, dialed up to 11.

The lack of setting can be a source of confusion, such as when two different people disagree about what it means to be a "rogue AI", and how they can interact with the world. The lack of solid GMing advice or definitive guidelines, the competitive elements, and the scene-by-scene narration rights rotation can combine to make for a very uneven pacing and sometimes a lack of fairness. The conflicts caused by setting vagueness are not insurmountable, especially if you're just using it for a one-shot or short-run mini-campaign. Just the same, they render it probably a better game for use with friends you have an established rapport with, than for dumping on a group of strangers at a convention.

We encountered these lack-of-guidance stumbling blocks in our group when one person kept starting all his scenes with one of the other PCs (the rogue AI mentioned above) yet again trapped inside another unfamiliar super-computer. Eventually, those sorts of issues would sort themselves out, but it was definitely frustrating in the short term. We approached the game from a point of view of generic cyberpunk future, and so some of us narrated things as gritty and dark, while others went for sufficiently advanced tech and a more lighthearted cinematic approach. In hindsight, I think the game would play much better if the group agreed up front to use a setting they are all familiar with, such as CP2020, Max Headroom, a specific series of novels, or The Matrix. That way everyone's on the same page about what you're after thematically, and you have a reference point for what the tech in the setting can do. The other half of it, learning how to play fair in a game with no GM, is just a trial-and-error issue. (And though it bugged me to see the same "trap" again and again, what else can you do to challenge a rogue AI?)

A few other minor issues were caused by the non-traditional structure. Most notably, there was a particular type of scene that was conspicuously absent from RT. When one PC wants to talk to another PC, that's generally trivially easy to arrange in any RPG. Unless it's the middle of a fight scene, or one PC has been taken captive, the players have it entirely in their power to start up a conversational scene between their characters, often even in campaigns where GMs keep a tight reign on the narration rights around you. In RT, surprisingly, this paradigm is inverted. Though the rules really don't draw attention to it, it is in fact nigh impossible for two PCs to even communicate, let alone work together in RT. I can easily start a scene where one PC attacks another, or where a Faction attacks a PC, or where a Faction contacts a PC and strikes a deal with them, but I am implicitly forbidden to stage a scene where my PC contacts another PC and tries to help or team up with them. There are color narration scenes, but as written those must begin with the intention of turning into conflict, and only become peaceful scenes by means of a happy accident when no one escalates. Which means that only those players most inclined to abuse rules-systems or metagame are even capable of teaming up. Of course, if the other player misunderstands you attempt to subvert the system, you could easily end up in a combat between your PCs, which makes people not want to risk trying to interact with the others.

As a result, one of the players at our group compared the game to multiple solitaire, and that wasn't an entirely unfair comparison. Indeed, the momentum always lies with the Factions within the game, not the PCs, which is a bit awkward. PCs feel less like protagonists and heroes, and more like the poor dumb schlob that everything happens to. Even when the PCs win the die rolls, they still have a somewhat passive role in the game, since their scene goals are usually something along the lines of "don't get shot". Worse yet, the structure feels terribly counter-intuitive, as though you aren't actually playing the character you're holding, instead you're just waiting for the next threat to rear its head. The rules as written render the PCs incapable of actually pursuing anything, and they instead just have to roll with the punches. That seems like a house-rule might be in order:

A Very Simple House Rule:  This rule adds an additional scene type: Dialog Scenes. You may choose your PC and any other PCs or Factions, played by the appropriate other players. You play this scene out as a conversation and light interactions. Unlike normal Deal or Face-Off scenes, Dialog scenes give no mechanical rewards or penalties, and involve no die rolls. They exist solely to facilitate the interactions between PCs, to allow for a bit of flavorful characterization, to illustrate (but not advance upon) your goals, or to function as a "pass" if you're stuck for a better idea when it's your turn to frame the scene. Color | No Conflict scenes may still be initiated in the normal way, by having a Face-Off scene peter out. Face-Off scenes that result in no conflict still get their usual rewards, as the risk of conflict was present.

That simple house rule (and a clearer discussion up front about the setting) would solve most of my objections to the game, and allow it to run a lot more smoothly and intuitively.  It would then function as the quick-to-pick-up, easily improvised alternative to CP2020 or Shadowrun, a role at which it would excel. If I wanted to run CP2020 next week, I'd have a lot of reading and planning to do between now and then, but if I wanted to run RT in the next 5 minutes I'd have a one page summary to read and the other 3 minutes of my prep would be breaking open a pack of blank index cards. In this hectic world where we don't always have as much time for gaming as we'd like, light-weight games like RT are a real boon.


Anonymous said...

I must admit that I think the problems with the game go deeper than that. Apart from the open scene characters pretty much don't get to act, only react. If it weren't for the opening scene no one would have known about Sarah's character and her kid. It's this that makes challenges more difficult. In a traditional game a rouge AI might help someone break their kid out of prison. This would then involve the challenge of cracking the computer system and dealing with the human guards etc. But conflicts come from someone else having a faction come after your character. This seems to severely curtail many plot arcs.

r_b_bergstrom said...

I'm not convinced about that. There were several things we weren't doing "as intended" in terms of the metagame. Not wrong, per se, but kinda missing the point.

Examples in the following posts:

r_b_bergstrom said...

We didn't do any Deals. None. Deals are a major way for PCs to pursue agendas. We didn't do them because the summary sheet says "Cut Deal to work against another PC". However, the rulebook says "This Deal needs to help both sides
and usually will involve you working against another PC or aiding the
Faction with information." If we'd realized it doesn't have to be against another PC, we would have done some deals.

r_b_bergstrom said...

The rulebook, looking closely at it since the day we played, constantly encourages the Controller of a scene to check in with the other players. They recommend asking the other players if they'd like a scene about their character, asking where their character last was in the fiction, etc. A high level of communication and input, and getting buy-in from the other PCs. Instead, we sort of had "draconian GM of the moment" situations. Picking someone to pick on, instead of choosing where the story would logically go next.

In other words, scenes should never start with "Forget where you were and what you were doing in the last scene, now you're suddenly trapped inside yet another computer system that you didn't really have any reason to go into." You got that exact scene start how many times? Of course you're going to feel the game is flawed... when the real flaw was bad "GMing" on the part of the scene's Controller.

r_b_bergstrom said...

Ideally, everyone should make a faction that's opposed to another player. That way you have a logical point to interact around, and a Face-Off scene between the PC and the Faction can advance the PC's goal.

Our Factions pretty much existed in a void, almost unconnected to the PCs. Likewise, our PCs had no connections to each other.

r_b_bergstrom said...

We weren't consistently establishing scene goals before rolling. Which means when a PC won, their free scene goal for being the winner ended up defaulting to just "not get killed" or something similarly lame and passive.

Scene goals aren't supposed to be opposing sides of a coin. "We shoot him" vs "I don't get shot" is giving the PC the short end of the stick, but it's what we kept defaulting back to after the fact when we'd forget to set goals till after we knew who won. If they fail to get the successes needed on "We shoot him", it's automatically assumed they failed, so them just failing shouldn't be the PCs scene goal.

A PC success should advance things for the PC in some way. Better scene goals would be "We shoot him" vs "I turn the tables on them, capture their lead NPC, and force him to give me information that moves me closer to my goal."

That sounds like a lot, but only from the perspective of a traditional RPG where each die roll is a single action. Here, the die roll is a whole scene, potentially made up of multiple discrete actions. So while that goal sounds like a lot, it's actually not anything mechanical, so it's underachieving for a goal. You could list your scene goal as basically the same thing, but also include either a goal box tick, or -1 Influence for the attacking Faction if you win.

r_b_bergstrom said...

One other area I think we could improve: (This isn't so much something we did wrong per the rules, just something we didn't do particularly well.)

Our Introduction scenes were mostly lame. They were neither interactive, nor expositional. Most of us (myself included) tried to do them in a narrative fashion, with simulated dialog, that was intended as artful and flavorful. Which at first blush sounds great, but in retrospect they mostly failed as art (off-the-cuff improv often does) and worse, they just weren't very functional.

Problem is they didn't convey much information. When each intro scene ended, we didn't really have a clear idea of what that PCs goals were. The clearest exception was Sarah's PC, but unfortunately there was no Faction to oppose her, and thus no way to work her goal into the narrative. In retrospect, I wish I'd done my character's intro scene out-of-character, more as an explanation than a scene.

r_b_bergstrom said...

In conclusion, I think we failed more than the game did, and that a second play might be able to fix that.

However, I'm a firm believer that in any game, the GM needs to have a solid familiarity with the rules. This being a GM-less game doesn't mean that no one needs extensive rules knowledge, instead it means _every player_ needs solid familiarity with the rules. Our group of 6 featured two players with a low-level of rules knowledge, and 4 players with no rules knowledge.

Of course, the rulebook sure could have had more play examples and a hell of a lot more useful advice on how to stage scenes. When half the advice is snarky things like "call Bullshit", it makes you ignore the other half.