I’m running a couple tabletop RPG campaigns right now, but the one I’m probably having the most fun with is a game of Technoir I’m running with three friends from college. I originally learned about the system (as I imagine many people did) through Friends at the Table, a superb actual play podcast which used the system during their COUNTER/Weight series, but it was only once I started to really get into the gears of the system that I realized how incredible it is.
So, on a high level, Technoir is, as the title implies, a game about playing noir-style mystery stories in a far-future cyberpunk setting. Players set about unraveling a massive conspiracy which consumes the world around them, and they do that not by doing forensic analysis and deducing facts and listening to testimony, but by knocking heads together until someone finally blurts out the truth in between bloody gasps in a back alley. Also they all have cyber eyes and katanas and stuff.
Actually, the marriage of cyberpunk and noir is extremely potent here in Technoir. Cyberpunk as a genre is extremely interested in the concept of debt and transaction as a motivating factor for story. Much like noir protagonists, cyberpunk characters are usually broke, requiring massive sums of money to afford the technology that allows them to merely exist in this world. That debt binds them to the corporations, or criminal enterprises, which employ them. A cyberpunk can’t just “go off the grid”. Despite the fact that this world sucks, this world is also the one that pays them. Gibson hammers this theme fairly strongly with Case in Neuromancer, who is unwillingly pulled into the plot by the need for resources which only his criminal benefactor possesses, and to a lesser extent with Turner in Count Zero, who is unwillingly dragged back into his life as a corporate mercenary, but ultimately knows he has no choice.
Technoir brilliantly leverages this dynamic through the use of Connections, a set of six non-player characters which serve as the glue which binds the players to this world. During character creation, players define their relationships with these Connections, emotionally linking themselves to these six people. They can also take favors from these Connections both during character creation and play, and the one they are almost certainly going to take early on is lending money, putting them in very literal debt to these characters.
Now, the characters are bonded to these six characters, but that’s half of the puzzle. The other half comes in the Plot Map, a graph of connections that the GM maintains which represents the full extent of the conspiracy. At the start of the campaign, the Web is fairly sparse, but as play continues, nodes are added to it, representing people, places, objects, and events which one way or another are a part of the conspiracy.
Now, here’s the clincher: every time a player takes a favor from a Connection, a node representing that Connection gets a new link to another node on the Plot Map. I promise that I’ll get into a detailed analysis of this in a second, but first I want to exclaim to the heavens that this is fucking genius.
So, narratively, here’s what happens. Every time a player calls in a favor from a Connection, their debt to them grows, forcibly linking the two characters over time, as this increasingly lopsided transactional balance grows into Chekhov’s Debt, a looming specter to be cashed in by the Connection at any time. On top of this, every time a player calls in a favor from a Connection, that Connection’s own involvement in the grand plot deepens and gains wrinkles and details.
These simple facts in concert give me as the GM so much to work with. The character is becoming increasingly entangled with the conspiracy itself through their Connection, while also giving this broad, intangible conspiracy a personified face through Connections. A Connection might call in the player’s debt and force them to do something relating to the conspiracy at large, making the players active agents in the conspiracy itself while masking the true nature of their involvement under the simple guise of “paying a debt”. Drawing links between a Connection and the conspiracy gives the GM ample room to motivate the Connection for a betrayal of the players, which will sting all the more due to the amount that the players have interacted with the Connection.
What might seem to be a set of disparate mechanics all essentially create an elaborate trap for the player characters. The favors are an alluring lure on a fishhook, dangled in front of the players and shimmied around for them to look at. The Connections themselves are the fishing line, running from that hook all the way back to the central mystery. All the GM needs to do is dangle the bait in front of the players for long enough before they bite, and then they take hold of the players’ debts like a reel and drag them into their eventual demise in the dead center of the mystery.