The Alexandrian

Technoir and Smart Prep

January 10th, 2012

Technoir - Jeremy KellerTechnoir continues to be a big hit at my game table. It’s proven to be a success not only with my hardcore players, but also with the casual brigade. The question now is whether it can be bootstrapped into either an open table of some sort or settle down into a dedicated group. (We’ve had a few thoughts on both.)

Technoir is also helping me clarify a lot of my thinking about the roles and functions of GMing.

I’ve talked in the past about the concept of “smart prep”, by which I’ve generally meant focusing your prep on stuff with high utility while avoiding prep which is either unnecessary or likely to be wasted during play. (For example, the entirety of “Don’t Prep Plots” is about focusing on smart prep.)

On that note, here are a few general principles of “smart prep”.

(1) Try to avoid prep which cuts off options during play.

Note, however, that prep inherently does this: If you decide that the walls of Castle Shard are purple during prep, then you’ve cut-off the option of making them black during play. So what you want to focus on is leaving open the meaningful options.

Another way to look at this is that you want to retain as much flexibility in what you prep as possible. This not only allows you to avoid redundant prep, it also means that you’re generally reducing your overall prep while actually increasing the utility of your prep at the same time.

For example, imagine that you’re prepping a goon squad for Baron Destraad. If you spend a lot of time figuring out exactly how to position them in Room 16B and the tactics they’ll use in Room 16B, then you’re limiting the utility of that goon squad to Room 16B. (You could, of course, simply ignore that prep. But, of course, that means you’ve wasted that prep work.)

(2) Don’t prep anything which could be just as easily generated during play.

Technically, of course, everything can be improvised during play. So what you want to focus on is the stuff that adds value by virtue of being prepped: For example, prepping stat blocks ahead of time instead of trying to generate them during play will generally speed things up at the table. Detailed floorplans or handouts can provide valuable and evocative visual aids for the players which generally can’t be created on-the-fly.

In general, look for the stuff that’s time-consuming; that requires special tools; that will benefit from considered thought; or which you know you just aren’t particularly good at winging.

(3) Try to avoid prepping any specific plots. And definitely avoid prepping any outcomes.

By which I mean stuff like “after A happens, then B will happen… unless the PCs do X, in which case C will happen instead.”

This applies at both the micro- and macro-levels. And, in many ways, it’s just a specific iteration of the first two guidelines: When you prep specific sequences of events, you’re self-evidently cutting off options (the other ways in which that sequence could play out) and prepping stuff that could be just as easily generated during play. (In fact, it would probably be easier to generate it during play since you won’t waste time with contingency planning: What happens will be what happens.)

Of course, all of these principles should be thought of as guidelines. In actual practice, there will be exceptions (often very useful exceptions). But I suggest thinking long and hard about your prep methods to see if there are ways in which you could be achieving the same results (or better results) with less prep. (Or using the same amount of prep to achieve more.) In my experience, most GMs spend a lot of time on wasted prep.


I want to take a second now to talk about how smart prep applies to Technoir, because the plot mapping scenario structure of the game ends up drawing a very clear and very specific line between smart prep and wasted prep that I think is useful in understanding the difference between the two.

As I’ve discussed before, scenario prep in Technoir takes the form of a transmission. Each transmission consists of six connections, six events, six factions, six locations, six objects, and six threats arranged onto a 6×6 master grid which allows you to randomly generate and connect these nodes to each other. The connections you generate between the nodes will spontaneously create the conspiracy-oriented scenario the PCs are engaging.

There are three transmissions included in the rulebook and you can also download the free Twin Cities Metroplex transmission. In these transmissions, each node receives a single sentence of description. For example:

Archangels of Saint Paul

A militant religious organization looking to cure the city of its sins.

Objects receive a set of tags (allowing them to act like other equipment). Connections get a full stat block (including the favors they can do for PCs). And threats get a set of 3-6 stat blocks (to be used as antagonists). But other than that, the single sentence is all you get.

Clearly there is no wasted prep here. And, speaking from experience, this minimalist approach works.

But, if we wanted to do more prep within this structure, is there value to be added? I think so. Notably, however, it would also be trivial to reduce the value of your prep even within the minimal profile presented by the sample transmissions.

Let’s start with the latter. Imagine a transmission in which we define one of the locations as:

Club Neo

A plain block of concrete glitzed in overlapping layers of multi-sensory AR.

In the same transmission we include a connection:

Madame Ling

A lady of refined manners and the drug mistress of the Lowtown party scene.

Looks good. On the other hand, imagine that we describe Madame Ling like this:

Madame Ling

The owner of Club Neo and the drug mistress of the Lowtown party scene.

Same minimalist approach, but – in the specific context of Technoir – this latter example is flawed. Why? Because it locks down the relationship between Madame Ling and Club Neo. This not only functionally “forces” Madame Ling onto the plot map if Club Neo is generated (which I’ve found can disrupt the flow and robustness of the map), it also drastically reduces the flexibility of these elements in play. (For example, without that constriction, Madame Ling could consider Club Neo a rival; she could be trying to take it over; she could be romantically entangled with the owner; and so forth. All of these options disappear if we’ve established that she’s the club’s owner.)

Continued Tomorrow: Value-Added Prep

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8 Responses to “Technoir and Smart Prep”

  1. Stephen says:

    The official transmissions tend to handle these implicit connections by making each contact’s Connected table relate to things that they should be involved with. Adrienne Chou, for example, is Syndicate-related, and has things like Syndicate Assassins in her table. Similarly, Pen Re is likely to generate the Renegade Cyborgs (one of whom is named to Una Re to imply a direct connection). So while you wouldn’t necessarily list “Pen Re is the researcher that created the Renegade Cyborgs,” there’s a very high chance that will come up as a connection in play.

    It gets more interesting when you’ve played the same transmission for multiple sessions and some of these connections become known and assumed by the players (e.g., if the cyborgs come up, the players are going to call Pen Re, even if she’s not officially connected to them on the spread this time around). I’ve been toying with the concept of “related but not relevant” to handle these interactions: sure, those pre-established connections exist, but it’s not yet relevant to the contact’s plans at the moment.

  2. jdh417 says:

    Yeah, if D&D had something like this, it would be tremendously helpful in generating adventures. Unfortunately, D&D never really specifies what the adventuring group is doing, only that they’re together and looking for adventure. One the one hand, total freedom of action for group. On the other, complete constriction in commercially available adventures because they can’t specify what the adventuring group is doing to get them into the adventure. Adventures end up having to be as generic as possible in group motivation.

    Sorry, off-topic, related to the 5e post.

  3. Justin Alexander says:

    Not really off-topic at all. I’m currently tinkering with introducing plot map exploration into my OD&D hexcrawl. One of the problems I’ve had with my OD&D open table is that there’s a default game/campaign structure for:

    – Megadungeon exploration.
    – Wilderness exploration.

    Which means that when we sit down at the table, there are a couple default options for the players to do (or they can follow some specific lead).

    But without a similar ‘crawl structure for urban content, the two cities in the campaign have largely been ciphers. In a campaign with regular players, there are all sorts of ways to hook in urban content. But what I’ve found with an open table is that play strongly prefers the default structures around which spontaneous adventuring groups can form up. I’m hoping a plot map will provide a ‘crawl structure; the trick is supplying a default engagement method (which is currently lacking from Technoir’s implementation).

  4. Hautamaki says:

    Justin–How about using the Keep on the Borderlands as a starting point; it’s basically a hybrid cave/urban adventure if you think of the Caves of Chaos as an evil aligned city.

    I’m just pulling stuff out of my ass here but bear with me.

    You could take a standard city map but divide it into sections that are controlled by various interest groups in direct competition with each other. This is basically what the caves of chaos are–different caves controlled by different interest groups mostly in competition with each other, though some such as the two orc caves are aligned, others like the goblins are subordinate to the hobgoblins, the bugbears and gnolls are essentially neutral, the kobolds and ogres work for any/all of the other groups, the minotaur and owlbear are wildcards that nobody goes near, the cultists are the real threat to the nearby keep, and so on.

    A city likewise could similarly be controlled by various interest groups in competition with each other–but the competition will be complex and many layered. For example, the leather tanning guild may consist of a few rival factions that are in direct competition with each other, but this competition is irrelevant and largely invisible to non-members. Different criminal gangs will certainly be in competition with each other, but this competition is largely unseen by the civilian population, depending of course on the degree of control that the city watch is able to maintain. Different noble houses will probably have influence over different neighbourhoods and may very well vie with each other for control even somewhat openly at times ala Romeo and Juliet. But all these different conflicts are kept below the surface, and the territories controlled by different factions in different forms of competition are likely overlapping. How can the relationships between all these different factions spread over all these different layers of conflict by mapped?

    I’d love to make a run a decent city campaign but it’s orders of magnitude more complex than a simple dungeon crawl. In order to be done truly right, the PCs have to have the option to insert themselves into any layer of conflict that they wish, and the DM needs to be able to accurately assess the effects of their actions not only on the immediate conflict they are entering but on all of the other conflicts at different layers happening in parallel. If the PCs wipe out a certain criminal gang, it not only paves the way for other criminal gangs to expand into the power vacuum, it may also affect a noble house vying for power that relied on that gang for intel or even assassinations. In a city of decent size there would be dozens of guilds and criminal gangs, and at least a sizeable handful of noble houses. That’s thousands of relationships to map. Not to mention the actual physical maps you’ll need for all the places of interest.

    No wonder the Ptolus book is like 600 pages or something.

  5. Justin Alexander says:

    Until I discovered the pure awesome-ness of an open table, I had a fairly tried-and-true breakdown of game structures for fantasy gaming:

    – Dungeons used the traditional dungeoncrawl.
    – Wilderness exploration used my homebrew hexcrawling variant.
    – Urban settings used node-based scenario and campaign design.

    Dungeoncrawling just requires a megadungeon scenario (to support the larger number of characters) and hexcrawling actually wokrs better with an open table (since it otherwise generally results in wasted prep).

    I’m not ready to write-off node-based design for open tables entirely, but it will certainly require very different techniques. (For example, I find that my node-based structures generally default to clue-based navigation. But clues don’t work at the open table: There’s no guarantee that the characters with the clues will be there for the next session.)

    There are basically two features required for an open table game structure:

    (1) A default scenario hook.

    (2) The ability to disengage at any time and then re-engage with completely different characters.

    For dungeoncrawling and hexcrawling, the default scenario hook notably boils down to “exploration”. (In the dungeon you go in and start poking around; in hexcrawling you pick a compass direction and go.)

    Is there an equivalent for urbancrawling? How do you “explore” a city?

    Technoir’s plot mapping is intriguing because it provides a generic mechanism for it: Hit up one of your connections and they’ll hook you into the plot map. (The trick, however, is that it’s not as clear-cut as dungeoncrawling or hexcrawling: The GM needs to figure out what the hook actually looks like, whereas the same is not true for dungeoncrawling or hexcrawling.)

    The ability to disengage/re-engage at liberty is also conceptually difficult for urbancrawling. In dungeoncrawling and hexcrawling, you simply stop exploring and go back to town. The portion of the dungeon or wildnerness you haven’t explored will be there when the next PCs show up. (This doesn’t necessarily mean that the dungeon or wilderness is put on pause; but it does mean that the dungeon/wilderness doesn’t care who comes back to continue exploring it.)

    By contrast, if you get a group of players who get into a gang war with the Thieves’ Guild… what does it mean to disengage half-way through that? Is there any obvious way for a completely different group of characters in the next session to re-engage that?

    To put this in different terms: In my OD&D open table campaign, I’ve generally been very firm that sessions do not end with PCs in the middle of dungeons. Back in September, however, there were some people engaging the Temple of Elemental Evil and they didn’t want to break off the assault. I agreed to put the scenario on pause as long as they all immediately agreed to a near-future date when they could all play again. That worked once. But we did it again after the next session… and somebody ended up with a conflict and we had to cancel the third session. Re-scheduling proved difficult.

    This turned into a major disruption for the open table: We had characters who were “locked down” and couldn’t be used. We had a location that other people couldn’t go to because its current status was indeterminate.

    I eventually had to write the whole thing off. And that’s the sort of thing my existing urban-based game structures seem to create pretty much automatically.

    Similarly, awhile back I thought I could design an open table scheme for Shadowrun: Simply seed a “jobs board” with a bunch of runs; then let whatever group assembled for the night pick a job and go with it.

    But it didn’t work: What happens is you get to 11pm and the group is only half-way through the run and needs to call it a night because people work in the morning. How do you disengage from a half-completed heist? How does a different group of characters re-engage the heist?

    (Open table by one-shot certainly can work. But it requires a lot more prep work and it can very easy turn into a logistical train-wreck.)

  6. Hautamaki says:

    Justin, in my opinion it’s not the disengaging that’s the real problem in an urban campaign, it’s the re-engaging. In reality it’s more or less trivial for players in a city to find an Inn or safe-house to do the RPG equivalent of the ‘save game’. Certainly easier than characters halfway through a dungeon crawl to escape the dungeon when the game session time is up. The difference is that with a dungeon crawl their progress is easily recorded and saved–these rooms have been explored, these monsters killed, these treasures looted, and those have not. There’s a clear amount of ‘progress’ that has been made.

    How do you map the amount of progress players have made in an urban campaign? It’s not always as easy to tabulate just how much ‘damage’ the PCs may have done to the thieves guild, and how that will affect future sessions that may not even involve some or all of those characters. Moreover, it’s not even as cut and dry that doing damage to the thieves guild necessarily represents any kind of progress. In a standard open table dungeon crawl the only goal is treasure; at this point I award XP exclusively for treasure. Can an urban campaign work that way? It’s easy to roleplay yourself as some sort of heroic adventurer even if all you’re really doing is looting monster’s treasure. It doesn’t feel nearly as heroic if you’re looting humans, even if they’re mostly ‘bad guys’. It starts to feel more like a grim and gritty crime campaign; a noir–which is obviously the feel that the creators of technoir are going for. Can that be adapted so easily to players who want to play D&D, but in an urban setting?

  7. Wyvern says:

    I realize this is a *very* delayed response, but I’m currently in the middle of an archive trawl after not visiting your site in over a year due to other distractions. This is the first post I’ve come to where I felt I had something worthwhile to contribute, so I hope you see this.

    Hautamaki’s closing comments sparked an idea about how you could run an urban campaign with an open table. As he points out, if you transpose typical “adventurer” behavior onto an urban environment, it results in a “grim and gritty crime campaign.” So why not run with that? Personally I’ve never had the stomach for an “evil” campaign, but if I made an exception it would be for a thieves’ guild campaign. In D&D3e the rogue is versatile enough that you could create a whole party of them and still have each PC fulfill a different role. If they belong to a guild, they could be sent on assignments in different parts of the city.

    They wouldn’t all have to be breaking-and-entering jobs either; they could run extortion rackets or gambling dens, spy on rival guilds, transport valuables across town while avoiding the city watch and fending off attempts by rivals to steal them… I’m sure you can think of more examples. You could even have one group assigned to determine how to break into a secure location, and their degree of success affects the amount of information available to the next group.

    As for the problem you mentioned about unfinished heists in Shadowrun, you could possibly fix that by enforcing a strict time limit — you have x number of minutes/hours before the city watch shows up/ the night watchman makes his rounds / the sleep spell wears off / the sun rises. Make sure they have an exit strategy, and if they don’t accomplish their goals before the deadline they’re forced to retreat to the nearest safe-house. Then, if some of the players don’t make it to the next session, just have the guild pull their PCs from that job and (if there are new players) send someone else in to relieve them. You don’t even have to come up with a rationale for this; the guild masters have their own reasons and they’re not obligated to explain themselves to their underlings.

  8. Justin Alexander says:

    Good stuff, Wyvern. Thanks for taking the time to post it.

    One of the projects I’m whittling away at in the background at the moment is a series for the Alexandrian on urbancrawls. This provided some useful perspective.

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