System Review: Technoir, Part 4

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Action, Push, Hurt

Technoir is one of the indie games like Don’t Rest Your Head, InSpectres, Capes, and probably many others that make good use out of the easy availability of 12 packs of colored d6s. That is, you only need d6s but you need a lot of them and you need them in easily distinguishable colors. They’ll probably be passing around the table so it helps if they all belong to one player. Technoir uses three different dice types:

  • Action dice are added for the player’s Verbs (basically skills): you always roll action dice equal to the verb that makes the most sense for the roll.
  • Push dice are added for the player’s positive Adjectives: you can add one push die for every adjective that could help with the conflict (but you have a limited number and using them discharges them so they aren’t available to defend).
  • Hurt dice are added for the player’s negative Adjectives: you have to add one hurt die for every adjective that would hinder the conflict.

Actual rolls are similar to InSpectres or any other “roll many keep best” systems. You take the highest result on your action and push dice and that’s your result. If you rolled more than one of that number (e.g., double 6s), it’s a result that wins on ties (otherwise, the defender wins on ties between result and target number).

Obviously, this means that having more than a couple of dice makes a maximum roll increasingly likely. And even though the defender wins on ties, equal skill is still heavily weighted to offense, because your defense is also equal to your skill. For example, without any push or hurt dice involved, two competing highly-skilled characters with ranks of 4 in their applicable verbs (the highest you can get in character creation) will be rolling 4d6 against target numbers of 4 (around an 85% chance of success even with the defender winning on ties). If the defender has any charged push dice remaining, he or she can discharge them to raise the skill and retroactively cancel a success, but it’s basically a lost cause unless you’re defending with a high skill. It’s, in short, really hard to fail with your good skills, even against skilled opposition.

That is, it’s really hard to fail until you have some hurt dice. The function of hurt dice is to cancel out results. If you roll a 6 on a hurt die, any other 6s on the roll are ignored: the best you can roll is double 5s. Even one hurt die can turn an overwhelming advantage into a solid chance for failure, and by the time you have a few of them even the most skilled character is going to be functionally helpless except on the rare times when they all roll low. And how do you get hurt dice? You pick up negative adjectives from other characters acting on you.

This is one of the crucial elements of the system that doesn’t really shine until you play. Conflict revolving around stacking up arbitrary adjectives may initially seem too freeform for a traditional group. Why not just argue that the adjectives on your guy aren’t a big enough vector to convince you? It’s because hurt dice are aptly named: even if you don’t think that the vector has been filled to really make a character stop resisting, stacking up enough negative adjectives does mean that the character is effectively helpless. In my second demo session I wound up with a relentless cyborg death machine NPC basically giving up on a fight and surrendering because she had too many hurt dice to threaten anyone or have a chance to escape.

In practice, conflict winds up being dynamic in a way you don’t usually see with any kind of traditional wound system. Each round you basically have four choices: try to keep stacking adjectives on the opposition, try to remove negative adjectives from yourself or an ally, cut your losses and try to get away before you get so buried in hurt dice you’re trapped, or just give them what they want already. I can’t remember the last time my players seriously considered running from an even fight in any other system, but it happened the first fight in Technoir.

Making It Sticky

And in lots of other games, why would they run? If you give up on a winnable fight, they’re probably just going to be as healed up as you by the time you face them again. Nothing sticks. But Technoir lets players achieve partial victory by landing sticky adjectives and then bugging out before the favor can be returned.

You see, push dice are very limited and zero sum: each player gets three to start a scenario and the GM gets none. You need push dice to activate your positive adjectives and boost your defenses. You can make adjectives last longer than the scene (or until the target takes an action to remove them) by spending one of the push dice used in the roll that created the adjective (which is important, as that affects whether you describe it as a temporary or lasting problem). You can even make an adjective permanent if you’re willing to spend two push dice. Dice spent in this way go to the target (either the GM for NPCs or the player when a PC picks up a sticky problem).

This has a pretty profound effect on game rhythm. At the beginning of the game, the NPCs will never roll more dice than their best verbs, can’t boost their defenses over the base, and have no power to inflict lasting consequences on the PCs. The NPCs are at a severe disadvantage. But PCs want things that may require an NPC to take a long-term consequence (sometimes what the PC wants is for an NPC to shut up and die already). For that to happen, the player has to give the GM a push die to make it stick.

And then the gloves come off. In classic hardboiled style, by the end of the session the PCs have amassed a mountain of mental and physical traumas: the PCs may be spreading their push dice to put grief onto a bunch of NPCs, but it all rolls back onto the few of them. And NPCs with push dice just to roll and defend with are suddenly way more threatening than they were earlier in the session. It eventually becomes a race to identify the real problem and take it out before the tide of dice rolling in and out grinds the PCs into sand.

Additionally, in long-term play, the permanent tag becomes really attractive. A permanently seduced connection will have a hard time working against the PCs later. A permanently injured enemy will be rolling an extra hurt die for sessions to come. You can even conceivably upgrade allies and other PCs with new beneficial, permanent adjectives with sufficient justification and spare push dice to hand over to the GM.

Speaking of long-term play, it’s certainly a possibility. The way the game is set up, it might initially seem designed for pick-up one shots: players start super-competent in a couple of areas, there’s a very short list of verbs, and each city has a limited possibility-space of 36 elements in the transmission. A lot of other similarly light games would at least avoid anything but limited advancement if you want to play the same characters for more than a session. Technoir has a verb advancement mechanism as a core feature of play (prime the verb if you fail, have a chance to raise it the next time you clear a sticky adjective) and supports further upgrades in adjectives and gear within the system itself. A PC that avoids death (itself no mean feat with the lethality of the combat system) could grow gradually but tangibly for quite a while (accompanied by a pleasing achiever’s glow from the associated player).

Given that pretty much every player that I demoed Technoir for has been badgering me to run the game again ever since, I may eventually have an opportunity to put this supposition to the test lest I risk a severe beating…

Conclusion

Smallville: Westchester

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A discussion about how you could actually see the Brotherhood of Mutants as the geek-friendly outcast kids and the X-Men as the popular kids, mixed with a healthy dose of X-Men Evolution, led to this setup and list of possible leads and extras for a Smallville game.

A historic county an hour north of Manhattan, Westchester is the go-to home for Big Apple commuters of means. In particular, many foreign diplomats find the area appealing for its culturally sensitive schools and safe neighborhoods. Thus, it is a bit of an international mixing pot in the guise of a small New England county.

But it has a secret. Little known to most of the world, the Millennial Generation has the highest tendency of beneficial mutation of any previous generation. Several of the most powerful mutants of Generation X have worked long and hard to manipulate events to move many of the most promising such children to this small suburb where they can be watched, trained, and cultivated for the inevitable day that mutants become common knowledge to the world.

Most have found themselves at Westchester High School, a melting pot of American and International students. But with the normal angst of teens, the secret of super powers, and the unexplained manipulation by various forces within the school, this place may soon go from melting pot to ticking time bomb.

Adults

Westchester High

  • Adler, Irene (Destiny) – Registrar
  • Darkholme, Raven (Mystique) – Guidance Counselor
  • Eisenhardt, Max (Magneto) – Political Science teacher
  • MacTaggert, Moira – Biology teacher, romantically involved with the principal
  • Marko, Cain (Juggernaut) – Football coach, principal’s stepbrother
  • Xavier, Charles (Professor X) – Principal

Uneasy Allies

  • Day, Nathan (Cable) – Mysterious police sergeant
  • Fox, Tessa (Sage) – Shaw’s personal assistant
  • Frost, Emma (White Queen) – Principal of Frost Academy, private middle school
  • Gallio, Selene (Black Queen) – Local fortune teller
  • Proudstar, John (Forge) – Local Mechanic, Native American, James and Danielle’s father
  • Shaw, Sebastian (Black King) – Businessman, City Council member
  • Smith, Callista (Callisto) – Vigilante (guards homeless in New York)

Potential Threats

  • Essex, Nathanial (Mr. Sinister) – Prominent Biologist
  • Farouk, Amahl (Shadow King) – New York crime boss expanding trade to the suburbs
  • Grey, Christopher (Stryfe) – Strange drifter
  • Kelly, Robert – Junior senator of New York looking for an angle on re-election
  • Nur, En Sabah (Apocalypse) – Rich businessman, Indian
  • Oyama, Yuriko (Lady Deathstrike) – Yakuza assassin
  • Stryker, William – Local preacher bent on discovering the secret of the school
  • Trask, Bolivar – Mechanic and robotics expert

Graduates (College-Age)

  • Bishop, Lucas (Bishop) – Police deputy
  • Carosella, Guido (Strong Guy) – Roadie for Lila
  • Cassidy, Sean (Banshee) – Police deputy
  • Cheney, Lila – Rock singer
  • Creed, Victor (Sabretooth) – Thug
  • Howlett, Logan (Wolverine) – Cool kid
  • LeBeau, Remy (Gambit) – Thief and con artist
  • Thurman, Nina (Domino) – College student

High School Students

Popular Kids (“Xavier’s Pets”)

  • Drake, Robert (Iceman) – Junior, track and field star
  • Grey, Jean (Phoenix) – Junior, cheerleader
  • McCoy, Henry (Beast) – Junior, Wrestler and science magnet student
  • Munroe, Ororo (Storm) – Senior, African
  • Rasputin, Peter (Colossus) – Sophomore, Russian
  • Summers, Scott (Cyclops) – Senior, Basketball forward, class president
  • Worthington III, Warren (Angel) – Senior, Rich kid

Misfits (“Eisenhardt’s Freaks”)

  • Allerdyce, John (Pyro) – Sophomore, troubled
  • Darkholme, Anna-Marie (Rogue) – Sophomore, Raven’s adopted daughter
  • Dukes, Frederick (Blob) – Junior, big and violent
  • Eisenhardt, Pietro (Quicksilver) – Senior, Max’s son from estranged marriage
  • Eisenhardt, Wanda (Scarlet Witch) – Senior, Pietro’s twin sister
  • Petrakis, Nikos (Avalanche) – Junior, Greek
  • Toynbee, Mortimer (Toad) – Freshman, weird kid

Other Students

  • Blaire, Alison (Dazzler) – Sophomore, music major
  • Braddock, Elizabeth (Psylocke) – Sophomore, English (Half-Japanese)
  • Dane, Lorna (Polaris) – Freshman, into physics
  • Madrox, James and John (Multiple Man) – Freshman, “Twins”
  • Pride, Katherine (Shadowcat) – Freshman, likes computers
  • Proudstar, James (Warpath) – Freshman, Football player, Native American student
  • Southern, Candace – Junior
  • Summers, Alexander (Havok) – Freshman, Scott’s little brother
  • Tanaka, Opal – Junior, Japanese
  • Wagner, Kurt (Nightcrawler) – Sophomore, Homeschooled
  • Xavier, David (Legion) – Freshman, special-needs student
  • Yoshida, Shiro (Sunfire) – Junior, Japanese

Middle School Students

  • Cassidy, Theresa (Siryn) – Sean’s little sister
  • Crestmere, Allison (Magma) – British
  • Dacosta, Roberto (Sunspot) – Brazilian
  • Guthrie, Sam (Cannonball)
  • Lee, Jubilation (Jubilee) – Chinese-American
  • Manh, Xian Coy (Karma) – Vietnamese
  • Proudstar, Danielle (Moonstar) – Native American, James’ little sister
  • Ramsey, Doug (Cypher)
  • Rasputin, Illyana (Magik) – Russian, Peter’s little sister
  • Richter, Julio (Rictor) – Hispanic
  • Sinclair, Rahne (Wolfsbane) – Irish
  • Smith, Tabitha (Boom-Boom)

Elementary School Students

  • Cheung, Lee (Leech) – Chinese
  • Guthrie, Paige (Husk) – Sam’s little sister
  • Gywnn, Megan (Pixie) – Welsh
  • Ichiki, Hisako (Armor) – Japanese
  • Maddicks, Arthur (Artie)

System Review: Technoir, Part 3

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Lightweight but Sturdy

In my opinion, the ideal game system is:

  • Robust enough to cover the vast majority of situations that come up in game
  • Complex enough to give players interesting decisions during character creation and advancement
  • Simple enough to learn easily and not have to keep referencing the book during fast-paced scenes (if at all)
  • Flexible enough to let me use my intuition as a GM without ignoring a rule and invalidating a player’s shtick

This last point is the most contentious in modern game design, and I may talk about it more in a later post. Suffice it to say that I like a system that gives me space to arbitrate as a GM without worrying too much that I’m robbing a player of access to a fun system (e.g., in D&D I might just arbitrate a social response based on PC and NPC social skills and roleplay, while that’s less tenable in a game with a dedicated social combat system).

Technoir leaves a lot of room for GM power to move things along, while, conversely, creating some very interesting constraints on authority in other areas. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Arbitrary or Contrary

As mentioned in the first post in this series, Technoir‘s system effectively has two modes:

  • Direct or Indirect conflict between two or more characters.
  • Character action that may lead to conflict with another character but isn’t, itself, conflict.

Effectively, the game has a specific agenda: only roll dice when another thinking actor is your target or is targeting you (well, technically you only discharge dice when you’re the target, but that will make more sense later). Anything that isn’t contention is connecting tissue and can just be arbitrated (primarily to more quickly get to the drama). If what you want to do doesn’t suggest a roll against another character, the GM is free to just assess whether it’s possible based on character skill and background. Typically, you’re expected to err on the side of just letting the player succeed: the goal is to move the story on to conflict, after all.

This paradigm has a really interesting effect at the table: you see how conditioned some gamers are to couple any statement that begins with “My character is going to…” with picking up the dice. I can’t speak for the players in question, but it seemed from my end of the table that my refrain of “Don’t roll. You can just do that.” was increasingly liberating and resulted in an increasing enjoyment of the system. Ultimately, many games these days have a caveat to avoid asking players for rolls if both success and failure aren’t interesting, but just the concept of the simple challenge is habit forming. Players get used to rolling for things, even when the GM doesn’t need them to (aka, “please stop rolling a d20 every five feet. I know you’re searching for traps, and I’ll let you know if you need to roll”). Technoir just flat out says that there’s no such thing as a simple contest: unless you’re trying to do something to somebody, or they’re trying to do something to you, don’t roll. I may try to get away with more of that in other systems.

So that’s a big paragraph to justify how liberating arbitration is, but it’s not exactly a system. So how do the game mechanics actually work when you do have character vs. character contention?

Pretty much everything in Technoir that has a system involves adjectives. They’re a lot like Aspects in Fate: each character builds up positive and negative adjectives, or gets them from gear, and they affect things for the time they’re around (often by giving bonus or penalty dice, discussed next week). Typically, you figure out what you want to do to an opponent and pile related adjectives on them by offensive rolls until you get what you want or they at least have to abandon the conflict. For example, a sultry escort might attack an opponent by stacking him up with Intrigued, Attracted, Beguiled, Seduced, and Suborned, a dedicated hacker might take down a cyborg with Linked, Derma-Linked, Nerve-Linked, and Deactivated, and a straight up fighter (see also, short-term character) might just beat up a target with Bruised, Cut, Smashed, etc. until the target either gives up or dies.

Note that everything but the straight up fistfight respects the concept of vectors: what you can do to a person is limited by what the group agrees is reasonable to do in one step. You don’t just one-roll seduce someone; instead, you have to get their attention, work through a conversation, and finally get your way. Similarly, you can’t just go straight to hacking a person’s cybernetics: you have to find their personal computer wirelessly and work your way through their internal network connections to force open a path to the device you want to hack. And while you’re doing all of that, they’re probably trying to affect you in a similar way… or trying desperately to shake off your adjectives while they wait for backup.

This all works surprisingly well at the table for something that’s largely subjective. Part of it is that there’s a pretty clear feeling of progress, and the players are free to ask how many steps they have to build before they get what they want. Another is that there’s a definite feeling of counting coup on the target: even if you haven’t gotten what you wanted yet, each adjective you do land on the way grants a penalty die that makes it harder for the target to get you back. Conflict is shifted from a system of arbitrary hit points to a descriptive tactical summary (which may be way more intuitive to non-gamers, but I have no data on that point). Finally, within the scope of the larger narrative, enough is often going on right at the moment that even a temporary inconvenience to an NPC gives the other PCs a chance to finish what they’re doing and help out. Plus, even if you don’t get what you want, you can often make the adjective sticky such that it’s still hanging around the next time you see the NPC (and you will see the NPC again).

Really, my only complaint for the whole thing is that, despite being the best attempt I’ve ever seen at making social, mental, and physical conflict all identical, physical conflict has a special case rule. Specifically, in any scene where you take a sticky physical adjective representing a wound, at the end of the scene you have to roll to see if you start dying from your injuries (and if you have a lot of them, you might skip straight to “dead, unless you can get invasive surgery quickly”). This has the desirable Noir-ish effect of making combat something you don’t want to get into if you can help it, and is an interesting abrogation of GM responsibilities related to PC death (i.e., “I didn’t kill you. I just roughed you up. Your poor rolling killed you. What you roll on your ‘don’t die’ dice is out of my hands.”). But there’s no comparable system for other frames of conflict, which is jarring. I’m seriously considering trying the system for any scene in which a character’s objective is to apply a major change to the target. So, for example, you can seduce him, but you won’t find out whether or not he’s suborned until the scene closes. You can hack him, but you won’t find out whether he’s rooted until the end of the scene.

So all of this is interesting in a high-concept way, but do the dice actually support it?

How the dice system affects how this all actually works is interesting enough, and I’m reaching a big enough wall of text at this point, that I’ll get into that next week.

Part 4

Fatenoir: Dresden Files with Technoir Dice

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If you haven’t read Technoir, some of this might make more sense after this week’s review.

While I’m a big fan of Fate in general, sometimes I want a dice system that doesn’t owe so much to FUDGE. Particularly for the Dresden Files, I’d potentially like something without as much swing on the low granularity traits (i.e., having a 1 higher skill is meant to indicate a huge difference in competence). Further, perhaps something that makes spending Fate good but not as overwhelming as it is normally, something that’s not so much work on the GM to remember to compel, and something that makes more use out of situational tags. Fortunately, the Technoir dice system suggests the following mods that should affect all of these nitpicks. This is completely untested, and might result in some wonkiness at low and high skills.

For this system, you will need a lot of d6s. These are preferably in three distinguishable colors (and will be passing around the table a lot).

At the beginning of each story/scenario, each player has Fate dice equal to his or her character’s adjusted Refresh (even if the total was higher at the end of the last scenario). The GM does not get any Fate dice to start with: the total Refresh of all the PCs is the total available Fate dice. All Fate dice begin “charged.”

Players can “discharge” Fate dice to use them in rolls.

  • Do this at any point in the roll: they can be rolled one at a time after seeing the total.
  • They can be used for active or reactive/defensive rolls.
  • See the system below for how they are interpreted.
  • Discharged dice return in two ways:
    • All available dice recharge at the beginning of a session.
    • One Fate die recharges for every Consequence die a player voluntarily adds to a roll as a self-compel (e.g., “Because I’m a Drunk, I think this roll would be harder for me, I’m adding 1 Consequence die”). As usual with self-compels, the GM can deny the addition/refresh (typically because the roll isn’t particularly important).

Players can “spend” Fate dice (giving them to the GM) to make Consequences, Maneuvers, or other generated tags sticky.

  • Fate dice can only be spent in this way if the player used them in the roll that generated the Consequence (e.g., you can’t succeed with no Fate dice used and then spend a Fate die when that resulted in a Consequence).
  • The stickiness increases by the following factors (these replace the normal Consequence recovery rules):
    • A normal Maneuvered aspect  lasts for the number of shifts on the roll to apply it, or until the target makes a roll to remove it. A sticky Maneuver lasts until the end of the scene.
    • A normal Minor Consequence lasts until the end of the scene. A sticky Minor Consequence lasts until the end of the session.
    • A normal Moderate Consequence lasts until the end of the session. A sticky Moderate Consequence lasts until the end of the current scenario.
    • A normal Severe Consequence lasts until the end of the current scenario. A sticky Severe Consequence is permanent (like a normal Extreme Consequence).
    • A normal Extreme Consequence is permanent as per the basic rules. A sticky Extreme Consequence allows the target to be immediately taken out in the manner defined by the attacker (and remains permanent if this is non-fatal).
  • Any result of “Taken Out” for a named character (PC or NPC) must generally be backed by a spent Fate die to make it stick.
    • If an NPC is taken out but the active PC does not elect to spend Fate, the result is narrated in a way that removes the target from the scene but allows a return shortly thereafter (with any Consequences persisting but Stress emptied).
    • At the GM’s option (but it should be used sparingly), a NPC that has not taken all possible Consequences may choose to turn a player’s decision to make Taken Out sticky into sticky Consequences that remove the incoming Stress and a Concession (i.e., the NPC leaves the scene but with sticky Consequences instead of a fatal wound).
  • Players gain back Fate dice at the beginning of a scenario (up to Refresh), when the GM spends dice to make a Consequence sticky on a player (the die goes to the player with the Consequence), or when the GM suggests a non-roll-related Compel (giving the player the die if the Compel is accepted).

When performing an action:

  1. The active character’s player rolls 1 skill die.
  2. The player must roll 1 to 4 Consequence dice (take the worst Consequence currently suffered: 1 die for Minor, 2 for Moderate, 3 for Severe, and 4 for Extreme) to the roll.
  3. The player may discharge and roll up to 1 Fate die for every applicable Aspect (advantages possessed by the character, disadvantages and maneuvers on the target, and applicable aspects on the scene).
  4. The result (explained below) is compared to the target’s defensive skill (or the difficulty, if there is no target).
  5. The target does not roll a skill die, but must roll all Consequence dice.
  6. The target may discharge and roll Fate dice for defense-applicable aspects (personal, attacker, or scene).
  7. The final result of the active character’s roll is compared to the target’s final roll (or static difficulty) to generate Shifts. As usual with Fate, a tie is a 0-Shift success for the active character.

To interpret a roll:

  1. Find the base skill total.
  2. Read the skill die first. Treat it as a modifying skill (i.e., if it is higher than the base skill, add 1, and if it is lower, subtract 1). This is the new skill total.
  3. Arrange the Consequence dice from highest to lowest.
  4. For each Consequence die that is higher than the skill total, reduce the total by 1. Recalculate the skill total before each subsequent die (i.e., Consequence dice can penalize a roll even if they weren’t higher than the original total).
  5. Arrange the Fate dice from lowest to highest (and rearrange them as additional Fate dice are added).
  6. For each Fate die that is higher than the Consequence-adjusted skill total, increase the total by +1.

Thus, without additional flat bonuses and penalties, the highest possible roll is 6, and the lowest possible roll is -4. If you’d like higher possible totals, allow Fate dice that roll 6 to count as infinitely high (i.e., every 6 adds +1, even if the total is already 6).

An example roll: The base skill is Fair (+2), the skill die is 5 (new total +3), the Consequence dice are 4, 3 (reducing by -2 to +1), and the Fate dice are 2, 4, 6 (increasing to +4). If the 4 on the consequence dice had been lower, neither die would have been higher than the total, and the final result would have been a +5.

GMs use this system much like the players:

  • The GM does not have any Fate dice at the start of an adventure. He or she only gets them when players make enemy Consequences sticky.
  • Fate dice the GM acquires begin discharged.
  • The GM’s Fate dice recharge at the beginning of each scene.
  • The GM spends Fate dice used in an antagonist’s roll to make the player’s Consequences sticky.
  • The GM may spend Fate out of conflict to Compel a PC’s Aspect.

System Review: Technoir, Part 2

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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

Pathfinder Form Sheet

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The Alexandrian posted a really cool character sheet for his Legends & Labyrinths 3.X revamp.

I put together something based on that idea for Pathfinder, which my players seem to like better than the sheet I’ve been using. Today, it is yours!

System Review: Technoir, Part 1

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Dystopia!

As far as magnitudes of geekdom go, I’m not a very big cyberpunk geek. Sure, I’ve seen most of the big budget films that could be considered part of the genre, but mostly just because they fall under the bigger rubric of scifi. I’ve read Snow Crash and a few other books that could probably be considered related, but not really any Gibson. The closest RPG I’ve played to cyberpunk before this one was Shadowrun, and that for only one session. So, for cyberpunk I’m generally aware, but not educated.

The same is basically true for film noir and hardboiled novels. Film wise, my tendency to “quantum leap” my movie watching (i.e., I haven’t seen very many films made before I was born) means I haven’t seen any of the classics. I wasn’t really interested in early 20th century history until RPGs like Call of Cthulu, Adventure!, and Spirit of the Century made it necessary to get educated in a hurry. The Dresden Files novels are by far my primary experience with anything in the hardboiled genre. So, again, I’m probably more informed than your average person on the street, but likely far behind any geek with a real interest or even your usual film lover.

All this is to say that I’m not nearly the target audience for this game the way some people are, but I’m informed enough to give it a fair shake. I will probably neither notice really good genre emulation rules nor nitpick poor ones. Honestly, I got in on the kickstarter for this because Fred Hicks linked it a few months ago and the mechanics sounded neat, independent of the setting.

And I’m glad I did. The mechanics are overall very good. Let me explain in more detail…

Core Mechanics

Technoir actually has two major game systems that are completely separable, but synchronize well with one another.

The first is the adventure creation system. This mostly comes down to transmissions, which are very short little modules with six categories of plot-relevant elements each with six different items. You see, you roll d6s to randomly select them. Initially, you pull completely randomly to generate a story core, then you hook up NPCs that the players make use of during character creation, and then you start linking in further elements as the players badger their contacts for clues. I’ll explain it in more detail next week, but the upshot is that it does a really excellent job of providing enough steered imagination that a GM comfortable with improvising can run a very successful session on almost nothing.

The second system is the actual conflict resolution engine. It’s pretty simple, as is common in the more modern kind of lightweight indie game, but is one of the only systems of which I’m aware that features almost completely universal resolution: that is, physical conflict plays out using almost exactly the same rules as social conflict which is the same as generic task resolution. It accomplishes this by a twofold system:

  • All rolls of the dice are about placing negative adjectives of varying stickiness on other characters, which both denote progress toward accomplishing an agenda and also apply a penalty to the character suffering the adjective.
  • Any situation that can’t be phrased as a direct or indirect conflict between characters is arbitrated by the GM based on skills and background: you either are successful and the GM tells you how well you did and how long it took, or you’re informed that you’re not skilled enough to complete it within the existing constraints. The goal is to quickly move the game back into a frame of conflict between characters.

Bulleted out like that, the system probably sounds fairly vague and unhelpful to gamers comfortable with more crunchy systems, but, in-play, it wound up being entirely adequate and interesting even for group members that primarily play D20 and White Wolf. Again, I’ll explain further in its own post.

Ultimately, the Technoir systems provide a lot of what I’m looking for as an adult gamer that has to wrangle free time and other busy gamers: it’s quick to prep, provides enough structure to create flow and inspire ideas along a wide range of situations, and helps you accomplish a lot of story in a reasonable session length. I only have a few minor things I think are questionable, which will be mentioned in the individual posts.

In my current drive to run a session or two of each of my big stack of untried RPGs, it may have been a mistake to start with this one first: it’s going to be very difficult to top.

Part 2

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