17 September 2013

Technoir

Technoir, by Jeremy Keller of Cellar Games, is a game of noir-style action and investigation in cyberpunk-inspired future.

In this game, the protagonists (let's not pretend and call them heroes) will use their abilities, gear and connections to resolve some kind of mystery. Their actions will inevitably complicate matters, drawing in more elements of the setting as they follow the various threads deeper. Also, along the way they will get damaged. No one gets out of anything unscathed.

The mechanics behind this are simple and unified; everything (for better or worse) revolves around the use of adjectives (I'm going to mimic some of the book's styling for emphasis). Generally speaking, the objective behind any contested action is to put a suitable adjective into play. These adjectives can be either positive or negative, and have a duration associated with them, fleeting, sticky or locked. Fleeting adjectives last until the end of the scene, while sticky adjectives last until the end of the next session (for positive), or until fixed (for negative). Locked adjectives are mostly permanent.

To accomplish this, players are primarily going to use their verbs, which are essentially the equivalent to skills; these form the basis of any roll. They can also use any positive adjectives they have access to, and their objects and associated tags (which are basically adjectives for objects). Each player starts with three Push dice which are activated by appropriate adjectives, objects and tags.

When you put an adjective on someone or something, it is fleeting by default. However, you can spend your Push dice to make it last longer. Normally Push dice will return to your pool, unless they are used in this fashion. Whoever controls the target gets the Push dice. It is important to note here that the GM does not start with any Push dice. The players are fully in control of when the game escalates - when the player's push, the GM gets to push back. Everything is setup so that they players are going to want to push.

The reason why players will want to put those Push dice in the GM's hands is two-fold. The first is that it's rather difficult to accomplish anything meaningful when the consequences don't have any teeth for either side. At the end of the scene, everything is going to be copacetic without some kind of lasting effect. The second, and perhaps most important, is that character advancement requires them. Characters can gain a new adjective by another player giving them a positive adjective and making it locked with two Push dice. Verbs are only advanced through treating sticky and locked negative adjectives on your character. Yes, to get better, you are going to get hurt (or embarrassed horribly, or your stuff broken, etc.) and must then pick yourself back up. Which is all rather noir - or all Technoir protagonists are saiyans

While the unified mechanics are a certainly neat, the most useful thing within the game is the plot map. There are a few games out there that use this concept, but this is one of the cleanest takes available. The idea behind it is that there are Connections, Events, Factions, Locations, Objects and Threats. By bringing these into play, either randomly or deliberately, the plot can evolve and complicate itself and the relationships between these various elements can be clearly communicated.

To make it work, each character starts with Connections. During play, if they go to these Connections for information, a new wrinkle to the plot will be added. The reason that the characters will go to their Connections is that they will always provide some information. If the Connection is involved, it may not be what the player is after, but it will always be something.

There are also three pre-made settings (referred to as Transmissions) within the game. Each setting has six entries into each category and tables to help randomly generate a new plot node for each Connection. This provides an excellent template of how to put a setting together without really needing to know how it all fits together ahead of time.

The advice around how to use the plot map and the plot nodes (as each discrete piece of the plot map is referred) is good for any GM who wants to expand how they think about a game. It is probably the best part of the game and useful outside of the game itself. As well, each of the setting pieces helps to breakdown the ways that various elements can come together to cause trouble and really ruin the protagonists' day.

What the game can do poorly at times is explain some of the details of the mechanics. It should be mentioned that reading all of the examples is almost a necessity. How some of the mechanics actually work (like what it means when one tag trumps another) is glossed over in the main text, but clearly shown in the examples. That being said, the examples are actually very good and helpful. They show all of the edge cases and bring all of the mechanics into play. Similarly, mechanics are frequently referenced prior to being explained. The book is well indexed and not very big in the first place, so this is hardly a concern, but a mild irritant on the first read through. Final criticism: the order of sections within the text is strange at best. Discussions of the plot map follow character creation and then the system follows that before moving back into GM topics. All in all, very mild.

Anyone who enjoys cyberpunk-style gaming and looking for something a little on the rules-light side should definitely consider looking into this game. Even if cyberpunk isn't your thing, if you are GM the structure and growth of the plot web and how Transmissions are put together could be a valuable tool in its own right.