The Things that We’ve Learned Are No Longer Enough

The core scenario engine for Technoir is the Transmission. These are very short (10-20 pages with lots of whitespace) modules that are less an adventure and more a conceptual framework for an adventure. Several are available in the book, others are available on the website, and still others have been fan-created various places throughout the internet. They’re effectively a way for the designer and fans to release micro-expansions, and, I believe, are largely inspired by Fiasco‘s playsets.

At the current stage of release, transmissions are city guides. Each transmission covers a single city as it exists in the future world of the game. Within, there is a short city overview and then connections, objects, locations, events, factions, and threats within that city. However, it’s not really a city guide in the traditional sense: this isn’t a detailed list of everything interesting the writers could wring out of a location. Instead, each of the six categories is limited to six elements. The core idea is that you can pick any single element with a 2d6 roll, and that connections can have a meaningful subset of the elements available to a 1d6 roll. You’re effectively getting the most interesting 36 elements of the city to hang a game on.

So what do I mean by “conceptual framework for an adventure?” While the extant transmissions are designed around geography, they are, in fact, scenario building blocks that happen to be based in a given city. The interesting thing about them is that they’re a traditional module, disassembled. You could potentially have a transmission for a confined space that’s just large enough to have 36 interesting elements, or a national or global transmission with the PCs having some mechanism to move between elements without breaking the game’s pacing. What’s important is that there are a bunch of interesting things that suggest but don’t require connections to one another. You can put them together one way and get one adventure, and another way to get another, but all pieces fit into an overarching theme and mood pretty easily.

For example, for both my demo sessions I ran the Twin Cities transmission (available on the official downloads page above). Both sessions wound up with vastly different scenarios based on randomized assembly of elements, but both featured the transmission’s themes heavily: the rise of a powerful cybertech firm and the ill effects that had on the local citizens left behind. It accomplished this by linking most of the elements to one side or the other, so, while the scenario itself emerges procedurally from the randomized rolls, the themes aggregate from the component parts.

This has largely revolutionized how I feel about adventure design. Effectively, with less than half the page count of a D&D module that would provide 1-4 standard sessions of play, I was able to generate two very satisfying and long sessions, could probably run several more with the same characters and continuing plot threads, and could reset the city for a different group and get a very different story progression. And when I made my own transmission, it only took me a few hours (much of which was formatting the thing).

If the idea that you can provide a module that creates a satisfying and easy to prep story, but is mostly made out of reconfigurable “plot legos,” doesn’t find its way into a lot of other game systems, I’ll be very disappointed.

Building a Mystery

So how does this actually work in play?

In addition to the transmission, you’re going to want a big piece of paper (or a newfangled tablet with some kind of Visio-style flowchart app). As elements come out of the transmission, you add them to the paper and connect them with a line to the other elements they’re related to. If you’ve looked at the new Smallville game at all, it’s very similar to their character creation system. You ultimately get a sprawling map of story elements that is easy to glance at and remember what elements are connected and allow that to suggest rationales. Like any such process, the only major limitations are your available page space and what happens when you have to connect two things that don’t have a clear open space between them.

To start with, you generate three elements from the full 36 in the transmission, cluster them at the center of your map, and connect them. This is the core of your story. Sometimes, the connections will immediately make sense, and other times you’ll have to wait for later in the session for them to really start coming together. For example, in my first session I got a blizzard, a security firm, and a group of disenfranchised farmers. It took a while for that to make sense (and it ultimately turned out that the surface story was just a distraction from the real dastardly plot). In my second, I got a riot, a popular bar, and a medical evacuation helicopter. It was very easy to realize that the story was about having to medivac someone from the bar because the streets were too crowded and dangerous to escape by car. Whether it’s obvious or not, the starting three elements give you, as a GM, some initial action to throw at the players.

Next up is another brilliant system: the players don’t start with nearly enough money to buy all the gear they’ll want in character creation. So, as they make characters, they ally themselves with some of the transmission’s six Connections: important people or mavens within the scope of the plot that have their finger on the pulse of the city, resources to support the PCs, and agendas of their own. During character creation, the players assign a relationship to these connections and can ask them for favors to get extra cash or specific equipment, but utilizing these favors adds the connections to the map. Effectively, the players start the game with some level of tangible debt to NPCs that have a direct stake in the budding plot. Since an NPC won’t provide any more character creation favors after the first two (on the map and connected to a node), PCs frequently have to hit up several connections during chargen, and thus will start the game beholden to multiple NPCs who are likely on opposite sides of the growing conflict.

I just want to dwell on the coolness of that for a second. These are NPCs that are added to the player’s character sheet and provide a tangible, system-based benefit immediately. There are few elements of player psychology more powerful than the act of putting something on a character sheet, and I have never seen a player get emotionally attached to an NPC faster than every player in my Technoir sessions got attached to the connections in what was basically a one-shot. And when you have that powerful and quick of a world connection coupled with those same NPCs having conflicting goals and needing the PCs to enact their plans, that’s drama. Even players whose natural tendency is to move slowly and not get their characters involved in anything dangerous were quickly rocketing around the story at the contradictory behests of their patrons. It was cool. My only nitpick on the front is that there are some favors (like the NPC going on a date with the PC to get into an exclusive location/event or giving the PC a ride) that are not necessary for chargen; this resulted in one of the NPCs that only had these favors (Kallico North, internet superstar) being basically adrift and not involved in anything for most of the sessions while the other NPCs were set to chew the scenery.

So, coming out of character creation, you have three randomized elements in a story core with several NPC connections latched onto them. Now play begins.

During play itself, the connections can still grant favors (and the non-chargen ones start to be useful), and doing so continues to hook that NPC into the plot. Connections can also answer questions: each one has a subset of the master transmission table that’s broken into plot hooks they give out when they aren’t connected and ones they give once they’re hooked into the plot. Whenever a PC asks one of these NPCs about something (e.g., “I was just chased through the city by weird security goons. Do you know what’s up with that?”), you can roll on that connection’s chart and add a new element (e.g., “I hear they’re based out of the Daedalus Arcology”). This is phrased as something the NPC, as a maven of the underworld, knew and is now explaining, but it’s actually being generated on the fly. So the procedure for an adventure basically involves the players building out the elements related to other elements they find interesting, and the GM giving that all context.

It’s not necessarily the greatest system for players that enjoy feeling like they’re acting in a pre-generated world; some players balk at the concept that the world is being drawn in just ahead of where they choose to look (even though most GMs have to do this to a certain extent). It’s also a system that probably works way better for GMs comfortable improvising heavily: you’ll sometimes only have a few seconds to generate context for a PC question and roleplay the NPC as if it’s the most logical thing in the world for this reveal to happen now. But if you have players that are willing to accept the procedural generation and you’re up to the improvisational task, you wind up with a profoundly useful scenario design that loops and branches like a real hardboiled novel and wastes minimal effort on areas of the game that players aren’t interested in. If it gets generated, it gets used.

I do have one minor criticism for this section of the game which I’ll lodge now to perhaps lightly counterbalance nearly 2000 words of praise: there’s not a lot of support for making your own transmissions or even expanding the existing ones for longer play. The examples of play in the book itself wind up killing off one connection at the beginning of a session and becoming completely antagonistic to another by the end: that’s two of six of the most vital elements of play unavailable without any advice on what to do in this situation. Continuing play basically boils down to changing to another city with a transmission when you’ve used up most of the elements in the first one, and there’s no actual advice on how to make your own transmissions (though, as noted, it’s not tremendously hard to figure out since it’s a pretty simple format). I would have liked to see advice on plugging in new elements to existing transmissions after a few sessions and how to create a meaningful transmission. Hopefully these will be tackled in the Morenoir supplement that is scheduled after Mechnoir and Hexnoir (which I’m really excited about).

So, yeah, this ran super long. Next week, maybe I’ll be able to discuss the conflict resolution engine in fewer words.

Part 3