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…