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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