Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Saturday 27 March 2021

Tomorrow's Future Today

The Future We Saw is a near-future, post-scarcity, post-labour roleplaying game of A.I. and precognitive manipulation of politics, power, privacy, and information in a world of radical political, corporate, and social factions. This is a future in which corporations and other organisations not only have their own public relations teams to make themselves look good, but teams of undercover fixers whose task is to ensure that their employer looks good and their employer’s rival looks bad, that they have the inside information on their rivals, whilst denying inside information to their rivals. Working in small team ‘Special Forces’ style operations, these fixers will conduct acts of blackmail and kompromat, assassination and intimidation, infiltration and hacking, extraction and kidnapping, sabotage and discovery, and more. Each team will comprise combat and protection Veterans, technical Specialists, Psy-Ops who provide medical and psychological support, and Seers, precogs capable of seeing Glimpses and Gazes into the possible future, and so potentially avoid them—though not without suffering high degrees of stress such that it is not uncommon for Seers to burn out.

The Future We Saw is published by Lost Pages, best known for its Old School Renaissance titles such as Genial Jack Vol. I and the Burgs & Bailiffs series. It employs the mechanics from Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition to provide four Classes—each of which goes up to Fifth Level, near-future skill and tool Proficiencies, and the spell-like Glimpses and Gazes of the Seer. In addition, it covers the types of factions found tomorrow—if not today—and the means to set up a Scheme, or campaign, in which factions will send teams on Missions against their rivals to gain or prevent leverage, perhaps discovering other information, which will lead to further Missions, and so on. Lastly it includes a campaign setting, set-up, and scenario in tomorrow’s Dublin written by the author of Macchiato Monsters: Rules for Adventures In a Dungeonverse You Build Together.

The Future We Saw is not a Cyberpunk roleplaying game. Not only does it lack the chrome and neon aesthetics, it is not about technology and our inability to integrate with it, and it is not about the masses versus megacorporations or working to bring them down. The various factions in The Future We Saw are in power, so it is about sabotaging them, manipulating them, and controlling them rather than destroying them, and all for the benefit of another faction rather than society. The Future We Saw is about the manipulation of a future that has already been lost to the control of corporations and other factions whose promises have failed to deliver as discourse polarised and technology either drove out the need for labour or began to direct it. What technology there is has been subsumed into society, whether that is robot delivery drones or mobile devices or A.I.-driven vehicles—essentially all recognisable from today, and in terms of game play there are no hacking rules. Instead hacking is handled offscreen by an NPC, if at all. However, labour is at least useful for providing a human face, or stepping in when A.I. cannot cope or needs to be repaired, but in the main, robots do much of the work. However, constant working with A.I. has caused mental illness in many, even triggering a precognitive ability in some. Typically, this comes in the form of a hallucination which suggests the best possible outcome, but not whether the action will succeed, such that the powers of a Seer are powerful, but not absolute. However, such predictions, known as Sights, can fail due to errors in belief, the blurring of details, focus upon incidental details, and personal bias as well as the Seer’s mental health.

An Agent in The Future We Saw has the six attribute scores of Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition—Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. Each of the four Agent Classes grants various Proficiencies—Saving Throws, Armour, Weapons, and Skills, as well as a series of features. For example, the Specialist starts with Expertise—double Proficiency with two skills and Specialist Training. This can be Thug, essentially the equivalent of the Rogue’s Backstab; Contacts, which grants Advantage on Charisma checks when dealing with criminal contacts; or Meaningful Practice, which grants a bonus action with one particular tool the Agent has Proficiency with. Two means of Agent creation are given. One is an array for the ‘Typical Professional’, whilst the standard three six-sided dice are rolled for those ‘From Other Walks of Life’. An Agent then receives some bonuses to these and then selects a Class. An Agent does not begin with equipment as this is provided by his employer on a Mission by Mission basis.

Marilyn Hilliard was an actuary working for Solid Life Health Insurance supporting an expert A.I. when she began to see the times of deaths of her customers. This drove her into having a mental health episode and eventually hospital. Her policy and employment was subsequently purchased from Solid Life Health Insurance and she found herself working for an entirely different employer.

Marilyn Hilliard
First Level Seer

Strength 12 (+1)
Constitution 06 (-2)
Dexterity 13 (+1)
Intelligence 14 (+2)
Wisdom 18 (+4)
Charisma 16 (+3)

Hit Points 7

Proficiencies: Light Armour, Simple Weapons
Saving Throws: Intelligence, Wisdom
Skills: Insight, Investigation, Persuasion

Stress Prevision (People)
Future Sight: Emotional Button Mashing, Evil Eye (Glimpses); Alpha-Beta Approach Pruning (Gazes)

A Seer’s capacity to see into the future is divided into ‘Glimpses’ and ‘Gazes’. ‘Glimpses’ grant visions of the future about the Seer’s immediate environment—to see how a combat plays out to pre-empt an action, to determine how a conversation might play out, or to predict the worst possible outcome from a situation. In general, this is to gain a bonus action, a reaction, and so on. ‘Gazes’ take longer, often days at a time, and grant long range predictions, perhaps about the plans of a rival faction or the best possible course of action. Although The Future We Saw does not have hacking rules or mechanics, but the difference between ‘Glimpses’ and ‘Gazes’ maps onto the shift on how hacking is handled in cyberpunk and similar roleplaying games. Originally, hacking was always handled by a Player Character working from a base or home whilst the rest of the team goes on the Mission, essentially ‘Gazes’, but in more recent iterations, hacking needs to be done on scene, that is, the hacker has to go on the Mission. Which is this case, the equivalent of the ‘Glimpses’, visions of the future which happen on site, during the Mission. Predicting the future does not come without its cost. Invoking ‘Glimpses’ and ‘Gazes’ inflicts stress and suffering stress can led to burnout and exhaustion, which can greatly impede an Agent’s capacity to operate. Combat is also dangerous in The Future We Saw as it is possible to suffer grisly wounds.

Ideally, The Future We Saw should be played with four players and thus one of each of the four Agent types in the roleplaying game, though with more players, the doubled up Agents should opt for different specialities to enable each Agent to shine in different ways during play. Doubling up with Seer Agents may set up an interesting dynamic of differing views of the immediate future, but will also complicate the efforts of the Game Master to what that ‘best’ future might be in any given situation. Even with just the one Seer in a team, determining the ‘best’ future might be in any given situation is still one of the more challenging tasks in the roleplaying game for the Game Master.

In terms of setting, The Future We Saw does three things. First it presents and discusses five Factions—Hegemon, Innovator, Movement, Rentier, and Zaibatzu—and what their objectives are, why they are hated and why they are useful, and the three perks they can grant once per Mission. For example, an Innovator represents the Power of Progress, which could be cutting edge technology, pervasive data hoarders and manipulators, and the like, such as gig economy delivery and taxi services, and political consulting firms specialising in data analysis and manipulation. It is hated because it pursues improvements without any qualms about collateral or financial damage, but useful because it is building the future. Their perks include ‘Benefit: SIGINT’—harvesting data means great briefing material, Support: Cutting Edge—new technology; and Ultimate: Hack from the Stash—the possibility that the data breaches have already made in the target of the Mission, but not yet revealed. A diagram shows the relationships between the five types of Factions, so that the Game Master can see the alliances and enmities at a glance.

Second, it examines the types of Missions and Schemes that the Agents can be sent on. Whether an Extraction, Cover-Up, or Kompromat, Missions are played out in seven phases—Briefing, Procurement (assign equipment), Deployment, Execution, Extraction, Debriefing, and Consequences. What is interesting here is that in terms of game play, failure is as interesting as success, since the target Faction (or other Faction) might be running its own team of Agents and failure means approaching the problem again, but from a different angle, even a different type of Mission. Further, throughout the Game Master has her own character to roleplay in addition to the various NPCs in situ, and that is Control, a voice in the Agents’ ears, offering advice, help, and warnings, a la Control of John le Carre’s espionage fiction.

Schemes are the overall objectives of the Faction the Agents are working for, the equivalent of a campaign in other roleplaying games, but relatively short and meant to be flexible and be developed as the Agents play through Missions, make discoveries and the target Factions acts in response. These are mapped out on a ‘FTM’ or ‘Faction Tension Map’, which sets out the specific relationships between the Factions and other organisations or persons involved in the Scheme, willing or not. The relative brevity is supported by the number of Missions the Agents go on to acquire Levels—two Missions to get to Second Level, then three to get to Third Level, and so on, for a maximum of fourteen Missions to get to Fifth Level, the maximum available in The Future We Saw.

Third, The Future We Saw presents a Scheme setting, ‘Dublin 2020’. It details a city divided by wealth and a security Fence, dominated by corporate interests, alco-tourism, and tax breaks. It is supported by complete scenario, ‘L❤VE’s Data’s Lost’, in which the Agents are working for L❤VE, an Innovator and start-up company desperately on the make whose data, much of it private and harvested from its app, has been hacked into on the servers at a nearby server farm. The Faction responsible, ZPLNTR, a radical hacker group, is holding the data hostage and the Agents’ task is to prevent further leaks and get control of the data back. Mix in rival Factions, rival events, and more, and this is a decent starting Scheme which feels just a little too real.

Currently, The Future We Saw is only available in an ‘Ashcan’ or ‘Zero Edition’. This does not mean that it is roughly presented. The layout is clean and tidy, and there is a lot of white space. This is by design, and whilst some may complain, it does give the content room to breath and it makes it easy to read. The artwork is decent and though it needs a slight edit in places, the book is well written.

The Future We Saw is a heist roleplaying game, a roleplaying of small teams of experts conducting missions in small amounts of time. It is like the television series Leverage or Hustle, but with a twist. It is like those television series, but backwards—or rather forwards. In Leverage, the team achieves its aims, playing out a con on its mark, but how the mark is played, how each switch or misdirection is made, is revealed in flashbacks, showcasing the skills and abilities of the team’s members. In The Future We Saw, there are no flashbacks, but there are flashforwards, quick peeks and squints mostly into the immediate future(s), and they occur throughout the mission rather than at the beginning or the end.

Overall, The Future We Saw is an interesting take upon the heist and the post-cyberpunk roleplaying game, set in a tomorrow that we can already see.

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