Friday, May 27, 2011

Intrigued by a new Wilderness of Mirrors

I just saw that the "double-oh-two" (002) edition of Wilderness of Mirrors is available as a PDF. There's a six-page preview up on DriveThruRPG, but it doesn't offer much in terms of what's different in the new edition. Since the actual book is itself about 14 pages long, a 6-page preview is rather generous. I can't really ask for more, even if it isn't answering my questions.

So what are the differences between the first and second edition of Wilderness of Mirrors? Here's what I can gleam from the preview:
  • The stats are no longer named for Roman gods. Judging from the index, it looks as though the whole mythology theme has been moved to what is perhaps an optional setting that takes up about a page at the end of the book?
  • There's a new stat that represents using muscles or physical force to get what you want. 
  • The stat that was for killing looks to have been basically split up into shooting and the new muscles-related stat.
  • As near as I can tell, the stat for being team leader is gone. 
  • The final page has some sort of list of (possibly real-world) intelligence agencies.
What changes I see look good. The mythology stat names worked against the theme/setting of the game, so I'm happy to see them gone. Saturn was a dump stat for all the PCs except the actual team leader, so I'm happy to see that stat not just renamed but removed. Setting information, even if it is just a page or two, could be good for getting your mental gears turning. What John Wick did choose to change or add, looks to be 100% improvements.

One change I would have liked to see, but clearly isn't in the new edition, is fixes to the character creation math. As mentioned in my various other posts, there are certain builds that are just better than others in terms of in-game effectiveness, but if everyone made the "smart" decision during character creation, you end up with lots of overlap and little differentiation between PCs. Replacing Saturn with "The Heavy" may fix that a little, but probably not completely. Which makes me curious as to whether or not there's any changes to the way mission points and threat are generated,  as  you could perhaps fix the problems there.

Links to some of my previous posts about Wilderness of Mirrors:
So now I have to decide if it's worth picking up the new edition. On one hand, it's only 5$, so I can clearly afford it. On the other hand, it's $5 for just 8 pages that I haven't read, most of which might be content I already have (so the big improvement might just be a spiffier layout). To further complicate the decision, the new version of Wilderness of Mirrors will eventually end up reprinted in the upcoming The Big Book of Little Games, price unknown, release date unknown. Hmm.

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.

Character Builds and Differentiation in Remember Tomorrow

   In yesterday's post I discussed our recent play of Remember Tomorrow, a rules-light cyberpunk-genre RPG.  I found it entertaining, but structurally a little odd. I'm tempted to give it another try, to see if the counter-intuitive stuff would shake itself out with a bit more experience.  Before doing so, though, I thought I'd take a peak at the math behind the mechanics of the game.

   Specifically, I was curious how the various character creation options stacked up against one another. In Remember Tomorrow (hereafter shortened to RT), you have three character attributes: Ready, Willing, and Able. These stats are effectively interchangeable, as every time a conflict comes up you roll 3 dice and assign them after the roll each to a different attribute. At character creation you split 12 points between the three stats, with no attribute being above 8 or below 1. At first blush, it seemed obvious to me that a stat block of 8 3 1 was better than a block of 4 4 4... but would the math actually support that gut reaction? Is there in fact one character build that outperforms the others?

   I made a list of all the possible stat combinations for a starting character (8 3 1, 8 2 2, 7 4 1, 7 3 2, 6 5 1, 6 4 2, 6 3 3, 5 5 2, 5 4 3, and 4 4 4) and ran some computations on success rates and probability. Not surprisingly, the versions with the highest number (and beyond that, the greatest spread of values overall) have higher chances of scoring a single success. 831 gets a successful roll 87.4% of the time, where as 4 4 4 only succeeds 78.4%. Honestly though, that variance in performance was a little less than I was expecting. Ultimately, this is a system that says "yes" more than it does "no", and the odds are in your favor for getting a successful roll no matter what your initial stats are.

   Of course, rolls in RT are not simple binary pass/fail rolls. Most are opposed rolls, and even the times where your roll isn't being compared to someone else's there's still the benefit of additional outcomes scored for a high margin of success. That's where 4 4 4 makes up for its initial obvious shortcomings. Stats of 8 3 1 will only get a triple success in 2.4% of all rolls, but stats of 4 4 4 will result in the triple success 6.4% of the time. While that seems like a small difference, in terms of impact on your average roll, it perfectly makes up for the increased chance of a single success. The mean roll is 1.2 successes (assuming no Edge dice or P-Cons) for all the possible character builds. There's none that is clearly better than the others. Those that are less likely to fail are also less likely to score big.

   So what's the best build? That depends on what you're after.  If you're expecting to make a lot of contested rolls, then the flatter distribution of stats will be of benefit, as it results in more chances of getting a triple success. So those who play very aggressively and antagonistically will be best served by starting stats of 4 4 4.  If, on the other hand, you're instead planning on playing a little more cautiously, relying on deals (and your initial introduction) to get early rewards without conflict, then you're better off with an 8 and using early successes to bump up your lower stats.  Either way, the distinctions are pretty minimal, with a particular build being only very slightly better than any other for certain purposes. So don't sweat it.

   Note however that having a 1 can be dangerous if you expect other players at your table to be very aggressive with Factions. If the notion of having to make a new PC mid-session is very unappealing to you, you might want to avoid having any 1's out of the gate. Personally, I'm leaning towards an 8 2 2 build and an early Deal scene, but it's hard to argue conclusively for any particular build when all the options are so balanced.

   At this point I'll just observe that yes, I'm aware of the vaguely munchkinly weirdness in doing a mathematical analysis of character builds for a rules-light highly-narrative game where one can swap PCs mid-session. I'll even grant that it's sort of missing the point of the system. But I wanted to know if the rules even worked mathematically, and I was pleased to discover they are indeed quite balanced...

   ...almost too balanced, honestly, since character differentiation just doesn't happen mechanically. Ready, Willing, and Able are all rolled for every situation. There's only one in-game factor that favors a particular attribute, and as long as you roll low (good) at least twice per episode, you can all but ignore it. The description of the attributes has only very shallow cosmetic impact (if any) on narrating your results. These facts combine to make all characters feel pretty much identical during the game. There is no concept of "character niche" in this game, and I'm not sure how I feel about that. That one character can be "Armed" with a mono-katana and another be "Armed" with the truth is on one level extremely cool, but also a little sad in that it sort of makes the flavorful stuff (including the tech and brand charts) less meaningful. The non-traditional structure of the game probably circumvents the usual troubles of character overlap, since the PCs will be operating mostly alone or in conflict, not in concert. As long as the fiction / narration is solid, this potential "problem" should be easy to work around.

Attributes0 SuccessesSome Level of SuccessExactly 1 SuccessExactly 2 SuccessesExactly 3 Successes
8 3 112.6%87.4%57.2%27.8%2.4%
8 2 212.8%87.2%57.6%26.4%3.2%
7 4 116.2%83.8%50.4%30.60%2.8%
7 3 216.8%83.2%50.6%28.4%4.2%
6 5 118.0%82.0%47.00%32.0%3.0%
6 4 219.2%80.8%46.4%29.6%4.8%
6 3 319.6%80.4%46.2%28.8%5.4%
5 5 220.0%80.0%45.0%30.0%5.0%
5 4 321.0%79.0%44.0%29.0%6.0%
4 4 421.6%78.4%43.2%28.8%6.4%

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.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Driving Your Players Crazy

Lately, I've been having a lot of experience with PCs going bonkers. There's a couple different ways to handle it, depending on what your goals are.

In 3:16 Carnage Amongst The Stars,  I just drove the whole group crazy. Hallucinations, multiple realities, glaring inconsistencies, characters and situations that obviously couldn't exist, etc. It was almost all improvised, and I made no efforts to correct "mistakes" or obvious contradictions. Each week I just dove down whichever rabbit hole struck my fancy. This works really well when you're okay with the game not being taken 100% seriously, and when you're not really focused on long-term viability of the campaign. Honestly, I never expected that campaign to run as long as it did.

My Gumshoe Continuum campaign, on the other hand, is one I take very seriously, and hope to be running for a couple more years at least. We're about a year and a half into the campaign at this point, and just last Wednesday, I finally revealed that one of the PCs was crazy. He'd technically been nuts for about six months, but we played it real subtle. There was a scene where he nearly got Fragged Out (think of Back to the Future when Marty's hand starts to fade away: Frag's kinda like that, but it'll drive you crazy, too) , took a lot of mental Stability damage and snapped. So, the other players and I (as GM) decided on his specific brand of insanity, and warped the campaign around it. (That is, after all, the way the Gumshoe insanity rules work.) There was a minor NPC, who (coincidentally) had only ever interacted with his PC. So we decided she didn't exist.

Her name was Beverly, and she would eventually be nicknamed Beverly the Wallflower. When she was first introduced, I had every intention of her being a real character. The PC, whose name is Declan McGee, met her at a speakeasy in 1928 New York. She was just a bit of local color, introduced to establish a scene and was but one of like 50 details added just to make 1928 feel really different than modern day. 1928 was the PCs first major trip back in time more than a decade, and so I put some effort into making it interesting and "real". I had Declan run across Beverly the Wallflower a couple times, and was considering introducing a subplot where she starts stalking him, but hadn't really put much work into it yet. Like I said, none of the other PCs had met her yet (though one had most likely seen her across a crowded room).

Shortly thereafter, Declan failed the big Stability test after being Fragged (zapped by paradox), and the rest of the group got to conspire behind his back about what manner of madness had afflicted him. My wife suggested the awesome notion that perhaps her character hadn't actually seen Beverly across the crowded room, because maybe Beverly didn't exist. It was brilliant, and especially devious because it's not something anyone would see coming. If I introduce a character in September and in December your PC fails a stability test, you don't expect the consequence to be that the scene back in September didn't happen. But indeed, that's what we ret-conned behind the delusional character's players back. Effectively, we decided that he'd dreamed up an imaginary friend. He met his imaginary friend this one night in 1928 at a bar where he was feeling a little left out. From there it followed that every time the PC felt left out, lonely, or imperiled, Beverly would show up out of no where to make him feel safe and loved, even if he wasn't.

What can I say? I'm a bit of bastard (and while I'm at it, I'll add that the Gumshoe insanity rules rock). After a few sessions, good ol' Declan McGee was alone for a bit chasing a personal project while far away from 1920's NYC, and Beverly showed up to keep him company. Of course this was a shock to him, as nothing in those first few scenes with her indicated she was a Spanner (time-traveler). So he of course asked about this, and so she (or rather, his subconscious, played by me) filled in details of how they were being kept apart by her direct superior, Alexander Graham Bell. Yes, that Alexander Graham Bell.

Why was Bell keeping Beverly away from Declan? There's a minor rule amongst the Continuum that Spanners are not supposed to procreate with one another. Imagine a small child with the power to invert causality, or worse yet a baby that can teleport out of the womb. Scary stuff, so the rule is fairly reasonable. Beverly explained to Declan that Mr. Bell, her mentor, was concerned at her obvious affection for Declan, and feared she lacked the willpower to keep things platonic. This is why should could only visit Declan rarely, and on the sly.

To his credit, my player chased after this plotline with gusto. He started up a relationship with Beverly, and would tastefully ask to skip ahead to the next morning whenever they were alone together. Which is something I'm very thankful about, because it means we aren't left wondering what was really going on in any compromising scenes. They snuck around outside of the watchful eyes of The Continuum, made secret dates, and complained about how A.G. Bell was forcing them to be all cloak & dagger.

As GM, I just kept upping the dramatic ante. Beverly eventually showed up (all in Declan's mind) as an Exalted (one of the top ranks of the Continuum) based out of Atlantis (a big floating prehistoric battle platform to protect mankind from the time-traveling bad guys). Or so she said. There were a couple bits that didn't quite add up, and so Declan decided to get Further Information. I believe the player wanted to make sure that his sweetie wasn't a Narcissist (essentially a temporal terrorist), but the in-character motivation was basically to confront A.G. Bell and get everything out in the open. You know, pursuit of maximum drama. :) So he tracks the inventor of the telephone down, and starts interrogating him about Beverly.

"Who?!" Alexander Graham Bell asks.  "Young man, I'm afraid I have no clue of whom you speak."

So Declan goes off on him. Lots of in-character yelling, and then a couple sessions dedicated to proving that A.G. Bell was lying to him. As that seemed to fail, he asked some NPCs for help spying on Beverly to make sure she wasn't up to no good. As you can imagine, hiring private eyes to investigate someone who doesn't even exist eventually lead to help of another sort. Some Psyches (time-travelling psychiatrists) caught up with Declan and took him somewhere remote to get some much-needed rest and counseling.

One of the awesome things about a time-travel RPG is that you can advance the plotline or timeline for one PC without it affecting the others. If you were playing some other RPG and one character went nuts, you'd either have to retire the character, or come up with some miracle cure. Instead, Declan spent 3 years in therapy in a Boxed (really really really remote, both temporally and physically) facility, conquering his own inner demons. We talk a bit about therapy, introduce a few NPCs he meets at the asylum, and then, 3 years older and wiser, he spans right back down to just a couple seconds after he left the party. That's a useful tool / implication of time-travel that has never before proven as immensely useful as it did last session. What could have been a campaign-wrecker instead became a puzzle with a quick and painless solution.

Now, it occurs to me there's a lot more I could have done to keep the truth from him. As I understand about schizophrenic delusions, most people inflicted with them go a long ways towards rationalizing and justifying their visions. Anyone who tries to tell them they're crazy stands a good chance of being labeled "part of the conspiracy". But ultimately, that would make this entire campaign a game about how this one PC went nuts. I just recently did a game (3:16) about people going nuts. I didn't want to tank or warp this campaign entirely around it, unless it was really an exciting concept to the players.

So, rather than come up with more convoluted defenses for Beverly (as if "I've been spending time in Atlantis because Alexander Graham Bell doesn't trust me around you" isn't convoluted and ridiculous enough), I decided to just throw things in the player's court. If he wanted the quick 10-minute solution, which he did, it would just cost a couple years of his character's life. If he'd instead told me "No, I want to be like Baltar", then I would have continued to play his imaginary friend on-and-off, but kept it secondary to the plot, just a minor character quirk. In the real world, when you can't tell reality from imagination, it's all but "game over", but this being an actual game, I need to make sure it only enhances the fiction. This may be Gumshoe, but it ain't Trail of Cthulhu, and I feel no need to ride the road to madness and despair in a streetcar named tragedy... at least not if it's not what the whole playgroup thinks would be the most fun. When the insanity is over, the game must go on.

Meanwhile, one of my other PCs is busy having The Last Supper with Christopher Marlowe and Derren Brown, but that's a tale for a whole other blog post some other time...