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