Early on Sunday afternoon, in a board game café we expected to be deserted, but was not, we conducted our first playtest of the Technoir RPG Beta rules. Coordinated in part through meetup.com to expand my circle of gamers here in Seoul, we had four players willing to try a little cybered-noir on a sunny day. Sitting in a black room with purple velvet couches, while the city baked under brown skies both aided and interfered with immersion, but to its credit, the game seemed to easily catch the majority of players in that spark of creativity that doesn’t always happen, but should.
In true noir fashion, without even conducting introductions for those who were complete strangers, we commenced with a quick overview of intentions for the session before moving into a quick discussion on which Training Programs appealed to which people. That was handled quickly, so we launched directly into a description of the mechanics, the vector to approach defining actions, and a quick round of questions. The Q&A lead us directly to discussing the setting, which took us smoothly back into character creation, which once connections were chosen and hit up for gear, segued directly into the first scene.
While the players were pouring over the players guide figuring out the gear, and getting a sense of how they wanted to represent the character ideas that were bubbling up in response to the character design process, I was following the advice in the Technoir Rules for generating a plot randomly. I had a back up plan should I fail to be inspired, but honestly, that was totally wasted effort as the instant I had the mission seed (the first three plot elements) written and linked on the plot map my mind was full of ideas and racing to produce more. Each new item added to the map by player action was easily integrated into the core plot idea, and began offering me new and interesting vectors to instigate initial action among the players and let them work their way into the scene in proactive ways. Unlike many layered and convoluted plots, the only defining statement I had to make was, “You have been asked to meet January Jade at the Pig’s Eye Tavern to discuss a job. It sounds really important.” The players kept everything in motion from there, leaving me free to roleplay the NPCs, keep track of relationships, and enjoy the curious mix of simultaneously exploring and shaping my self-generating plot.
What was your reaction?
While the ability of the approach to inspire creativity was something of a surprise, what I began to appreciate even more was how much control over the density or complexity of the plot I had, even though the actual generation is at its core, random. By choosing to keep the story focused on the Twin City Metroplex Transmission, (what the game uses as a scenario or module) I was able to easily and quickly generate a heavily interlinked plot that was able to put tension on the characters and create situations where it became necessary to find compromises or engage in betrayal. This was very cinematic, and kept the pace of the game moving along under its own steam. Had I wanted a slower-boiling plot, or one with less complexity and/or strain on the characters’ connections, I could have added in other Transmissions seamlessly. It really is elegant. The plot map and the design of characters and elements in the game, are like silent partners which conspire with you to shape the story in symbiosis with the actions and reactions of the players. I have approached story design from this angle for years, but never with this kind of clarity, or with this kind of functional and ‘on-the-fly’ support. My experience with this approach definitely will have an impact on how I organize my games in the future, regardless of what they are.
How did the players react?
The group began to work in concert fairly early on, and game playing really started in earnest during the assignment of adjectives to describe each character’s relationship to their connections. Seeing the characters’ personalities being shaped by the way the players chose to define those relationships, and seeing how that in turn shaped the nature and sometimes gender or outlook of the connections seemed to free everyone to contribute rather than passively receive. Questions for the most part took greater focus on things like how people were feeling and acting rather than on what it was permissible to do.
I also think that the players enjoyed seeing me enjoy the twists and turns their actions were allowing me to work on the core plot.
The four male players generated two male and two female characters, all coincidentally code-named, all coincidentally having a code-name starting with C, and all coincidentally having a similar world view when it came to trusted contacts and allies. We had the corporate assassin Cyanide, the Rasta ruffian Cactus, the smooth Cipher, and the rough around the edges pilot, Chew (after the tobacco, not the 1000 year-old wookie).
What did they do?
The story opened with the idea that January Jade, a dealer and fixer of their acquaintance, had requested that they meet to discuss a job. The job sounded serious and began as a way to pay back some favors, but once the conversation started the group probed their way to discover that Jade was under threat of death. That not only ramped up their interest in helping, but also interestingly ramped up their desire for remuneration. The negotiations were fun, both between players to determine what was appropriate and between the characters and Jade.
Jade asked them to steal a prototype from Daedalus Innovations. Two characters had a relationship with an employee of that firm, in the department responsible for the prototype, so they decided to lean on him to get more information. Contacting him also revealed some suspicious behaviour, so they arranged to meet in person to see what was going on.
When they arrived at the meeting point, they found their contact, Pen Re running for his life from Siamese Syndicate goons. Stepping in, they quickly subdued the goons and began grilling both their friend and the thugs about what was happening. That interrogation process revealed some big Aha! moments and the smiling and laughing declaration by at least one player that they were being screwed.
You see, Pen Re was being blackmailed into ensuring the theft took place, while simultaneously being setup as a patsy for the whole escapade. Jade was being pressured by the same villains to arrange the theft, and risked both exposure and death for failure. This ended up dividing the PCs on what needed to be done, and how to profit by it.
Cyanide had very close ties with the Syndicate, but also felt very loyal to Jade. Cipher was strongly tied to Pen Re. Cactus was tied to Pen Re and owed Kreds to Cyanide. Chew owed Kreds to Cyanide and was also closely tied to Jade. Everyone was short on Kreds, and aware that the Syndicate already knew that they were the ones fingered by Jade to pull off the theft.
We left off on a cliffhanger where the group was trying to decide how to steal and get the prototype to Jade not only without implicating Pen Re, but in such a way as to void the blackmail and frame job being set in motion against him… while still getting paid.
All of this came from 9 verbs, some scattered adjectives, a few interesting nouns, and a couple of lines on a piece of paper.
What went wrong?
Thanks to a great discussion on Story Games, I was prepared for the most common issues people had been having, such as conceptualizing how action resolution was supposed to play out. By forearming the group with knowledge that that had been a problem with other tests, it reduced the impact when it began to appear in our own session. We expected it, and when people had a little difficulty figuring out what sort of adjective to inflict or getting their heads around what story effect that would have, we just worked together to keep our sense of what was happening in the scene coherent, cogent, and cool.
The only real issue which came up was a problem really grasping the use of push dice to obtain more lasting effects, and that lead to a discussion which was really about accepting that to advance their characters through the story and into more advantageous positions, they would have to accept harm being done to them. I do not think I was able to come up with reasons which satisfied everyone at the table, and my recommendations to the designer were to provide a lot of very lucid support in that area for new GMs with new players. It’s not hard to do once you get going, but in some ways, getting going is a leap of faith. For new and experienced gamers alike, clear signposts of which way to leap may save a lot of groups a lot of confusion.
- Interview with Jeremy Keller from Stargazer’s World (stargazersworld.com)
- Technoir from Ravenous Role Playing (ravenousrpg.com)
- Technoir Playtest Part 2 (Eldritch Fire Press)
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