Technoir Playtest

Early on Sunday afternoon, in a board game café we expected to be deserted, but was not, we conducted our first playtest of the Technoir RPG Beta rules. Coordinated in part through meetup.com to expand my circle of gamers here in Seoul, we had four players willing to try a little cybered-noir on a sunny day. Sitting in a black room with purple velvet couches, while the city baked under brown skies both aided and interfered with immersion, but to its credit, the game seemed to easily catch the majority of players in that spark of creativity that doesn’t always happen, but should.

What Happened?

In true noir fashion, without even conducting introductions for those who were complete strangers, we commenced with a quick overview of intentions for the session before moving into a quick discussion on which Training Programs appealed to which people. That was handled quickly, so we launched directly into a description of the mechanics, the vector to approach defining actions, and a quick round of questions. The Q&A lead us directly to discussing the setting, which took us smoothly back into character creation, which once connections were chosen and hit up for gear, segued directly into the first scene.

While the players were pouring over the players guide figuring out the gear, and getting a sense of how they wanted to represent the character ideas that were bubbling up in response to the character design process, I was following the advice in the Technoir Rules for generating a plot randomly. I had a back up plan should I fail to be inspired, but honestly, that was totally wasted effort as the instant I had the mission seed (the first three plot elements) written and linked on the plot map my mind was full of ideas and racing to produce more. Each new item added to the map by player action was easily integrated into the core plot idea, and began offering me new and interesting vectors to instigate initial action among the players and let them work their way into the scene in proactive ways. Unlike many layered and convoluted plots, the only defining statement I had to make was, “You have been asked to meet January Jade at the Pig’s Eye Tavern to discuss a job. It sounds really important.” The players kept everything in motion from there, leaving me free to roleplay the NPCs, keep track of relationships, and enjoy the curious mix of simultaneously exploring and shaping my self-generating plot.

What was your reaction?

While the ability of the approach to inspire creativity was something of a surprise, what I began to appreciate even more was how much control over the density or complexity of the plot I had, even though the actual generation is at its core, random. By choosing to keep the story focused on the Twin City Metroplex Transmission, (what the game uses as a scenario or module) I was able to easily and quickly generate a heavily interlinked plot that was able to put tension on the characters and create situations where it became necessary to find compromises or engage in betrayal. This was very cinematic, and kept the pace of the game moving along under its own steam. Had I wanted a slower-boiling plot, or one with less complexity and/or strain on the characters’ connections, I could have added in other Transmissions seamlessly. It really is elegant. The plot map and the design of characters and elements in the game, are like silent partners which conspire with you to shape the story in symbiosis with the actions and reactions of the players. I have approached story design from this angle for years, but never with this kind of clarity, or with this kind of functional and ‘on-the-fly’ support. My experience with this approach definitely will have an impact on how I organize my games in the future, regardless of what they are.

How did the players react?

The group began to work in concert fairly early on, and game playing really started in earnest during the assignment of adjectives to describe each character’s relationship to their connections. Seeing the characters’ personalities being shaped by the way the players chose to define those relationships, and seeing how that in turn shaped the nature and sometimes gender or outlook of the connections seemed to free everyone to contribute rather than passively receive. Questions for the most part took greater focus on things like how people were feeling and acting rather than on what it was permissible to do.

I also think that the players enjoyed seeing me enjoy the twists and turns their actions were allowing me to work on the core plot.

The four male players generated two male and two female characters, all coincidentally code-named, all coincidentally having a code-name starting with C, and all coincidentally having a similar world view when it came to trusted contacts and allies. We had the corporate assassin Cyanide, the Rasta ruffian Cactus, the smooth Cipher, and the rough around the edges pilot, Chew (after the tobacco, not the 1000 year-old wookie).

What did they do?

The story opened with the idea that January Jade, a dealer and fixer of their acquaintance, had requested that they meet to discuss a job. The job sounded serious and began as a way to pay back some favors, but once the conversation started the group probed their way to discover that Jade was under threat of death. That not only ramped up their interest in helping, but also interestingly ramped up their desire for remuneration. The negotiations were fun, both between players to determine what was appropriate and between the characters and Jade.

Jade asked them to steal a prototype from Daedalus Innovations. Two characters had a relationship with an employee of that firm, in the department responsible for the prototype, so they decided to lean on him to get more information. Contacting him also revealed some suspicious behaviour, so they arranged to meet in person to see what was going on.

When they arrived at the meeting point, they found their contact, Pen Re running for his life from Siamese Syndicate goons. Stepping in, they quickly subdued the goons and began grilling both their friend and the thugs about what was happening. That interrogation process revealed some big Aha! moments and the smiling and laughing declaration by at least one player that they were being screwed.

You see, Pen Re was being blackmailed into ensuring the theft took place, while simultaneously being setup as a patsy for the whole escapade. Jade was being pressured by the same  villains to arrange the theft, and risked both exposure and death for failure. This ended up dividing the PCs on what needed to be done, and how to profit by it.

Cyanide had very close ties with the Syndicate, but also felt very loyal to Jade. Cipher was strongly tied to Pen Re. Cactus was tied to Pen Re and owed Kreds to Cyanide. Chew owed Kreds to Cyanide and was also closely tied to Jade. Everyone was short on Kreds, and aware that the Syndicate already knew that they were the ones fingered by Jade to pull off the theft.

We left off on a cliffhanger where the group was trying to decide how to steal and get the prototype to Jade not only without implicating Pen Re, but in such a way as to void the blackmail and frame job being set in motion against him… while still getting paid.

All of this came from 9 verbs, some scattered adjectives, a few interesting nouns, and a couple of lines on a piece of paper.

Not bad.

What went wrong?

Thanks to a great discussion on Story Games, I was prepared for the most common issues people had been having, such as conceptualizing how action resolution was supposed to play out. By forearming the group with knowledge that that had been a problem with other tests, it reduced the impact when it began to appear in our own session. We expected it, and when people had a little difficulty figuring out what sort of adjective to inflict or getting their heads around what story effect that would have, we just worked together to keep our sense of what was happening in the scene coherent, cogent, and cool.

The only real issue which came up was a problem really grasping the use of push dice to obtain more lasting effects, and that lead to a discussion which was really about accepting that to advance their characters through the story and into more advantageous positions, they would have to accept harm being done to them. I do not think I was able to come up with reasons which satisfied everyone at the table, and my recommendations to the designer were to provide a lot of very lucid support in that area for new GMs with new players. It’s not hard to do once you get going, but in some ways, getting going is a leap of faith. For new and experienced gamers alike, clear signposts of which way to leap may save a lot of groups a lot of confusion.

Comments
8 Responses to “Technoir Playtest”
  1. Cyanide says:

    It was a really fun time and I thoroughly enjoyed the game setting, from character creation to the cliffhanger ending. My only issue with the Push dice problem, as I explained in the discussion afterwards, was that in order for my character, an assassin, to actually kill anyone, I would be required to spend all 3 push dice. In the initial confrontation with the goons, had they not been Syndicate (and therefore my allies) I would have tried to kill them with my nifty katana. I could have done so with one mook(if the dice roll favoured me with three ‘success’ Push dice) but that would mean I would have had to take at least 3 penalties from teh 2nd mook to regain my 3 Push dice required to kill him, but at the same time, would have taken as many Hurt dice (that cancel Push dice if rolled as a ‘sucess’) so in effect, it would be come game-mechanically nearly impossible to kill the second mook. This is definitely a drawback for a stated assassin character. It shouldn’t be *that* hard to kill a mook.

    I understand the concept (I think) of how the Push Dice work, but I think having to give them to the GM to create an adjective (‘fleeting’, ‘sticky’ or ‘lasting’) effect, results in a double-penalty for the player. To get them back one *has to take damage*, or Hurt Dice, that cancel out Push dice if rolled successfully. There is no other way to continue the fight to the death — I *must* get hurt. I have no problem with taking damage but to make it a *requirement* to kill a mook doesn’t make me much of a tough-guy fighter. I might be able to ‘Push’ past the ‘Hurt’ and kill the mook (re: I ‘succeed’ with all Push Dice and ‘fail’ with all Hurt Dice) and I might just as easily succumb to my injuries by rolling a ‘success’ on all Hurt Dice and a ‘fail’ on all Push Dice. Am I understanding this correctly? If so, as one other player mentioned, it uninspires players from actually spending them for a lasting effect – especially if it is only some nameless mook, which, in turn, makes them unkillable.

    To me, everyone should have a pool of Push Dice, including the GM to be spent willy-nilly during combat. If the player rolls 1 success on the Push dice then it can be spent on an adjective, 2 for a sticky adjective, and 3 for a lasting adjective (like ‘dead’). Do you think this overpowers the game mechanics?

  2. Yeah, that was the very issue concerning me when I was talking to the Jeremy by email. He said it was kinda design feature, that the game is not about professional people who do their job without taking damage, but about sorta desperate men, who inevitably take punishment, but prevail and get the job done. I’d say, apart from issues with transmissions themselves (I mean, two strangers simultaneously knowing one corp engineer?) it’s the most important problem. Or, better to say, feature, which makes me not inclined to run technoirs

  3. At least I remember that in fact most mooks will run away after just one negative adjective. Though it doesn’t fix the assassin problem

    • Runeslinger says:

      From the perspective of the Noir genre, what Jeremy is trying to model is a fairly key ingredient, and this is a huge part of the buy-in at the start of the game. It is understandable that people want to wade through oceans of mooks without getting hurt because that might seem cool or fit a particular character concept, but in a game set up to meld particular genre elements, the starting point for imagination needs more attention. If one doesn’t imagine inside the lines, one is imagining something else. In the films and fiction from which the noir side of this game is drawn, progression through the tale typically requires the hero taking a beating, but choosing to soldier on. Prime examples are The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon, but there are more. You can even see this trope in action in homage films like LA Confidential.

      All that said, there are two forces at work when we run into the aspect of killing itself. Other than choosing not to kill as it doesn’t really fit the genre to do a lot of it, unless the GM is very careful not frame situations where the Protagonist might want to permanently silence more than one character at a time (and perhaps that is a significant part of Buy-In for both the GM and the Player) mechanically it still does not seem possible.

      I do want to continue playing Technoir, and other genre games, like my ongoing love affair with Pulp. Addressing the issue of player comprehension and acceptance of the flavour and boundaries of the genre chosen, is a part of the skill of running a good game, and I would like to keep honing that skill rather than distorting or foregoing the games altogether.

      • Cyanide says:

        Sure, taking a beating and moving on, within the scope of the entire picture (or story if you will) is fine, and I in particular was not taking about oceans of mooks – just two. Just to re-iterate my point, the fact that I cannot dispense with a mook (which within this character concept at least would be entirely likely during say a corporate raid to steal a Cyborg body and running into guards, some of whom would have to be put down hard) the only way for it to be possible to kill more than one is by taking heavy, heavy damage, which is just off-putting, but I can get past that I suppose in terms of the genre not wanting you to actually kill people outright.

        Here is a scenario though: I am attempting the above-mentioned break-in. I have no intention of killing any guards, but at best I could subdue 3 (leaving them with the sticky adjective “unconscious” (because of my mad martial artz / ninja skillz) without having to take damage in order to be able to take on another guard. Now, in re-reading the Contention rules as laid out in the Player’s Guide, it says that “The target can choose to ‘give in’ rather than accept your Adjective” which could be twisted to mean that the guard surrenders… but then without the adjective, stickied, he would be free to blow the whistle as soon as I am out of sight, wouldn’t he?

        To me the problem is the “spending” of the Push dice. I am not sure, yet, what difference rolling 5 as a “single success” versus 5.1 or 5.2 as 3 5′s is… these successes are only used to overpower a defense roll? If the target rolls a single 5 to defend and I roll 5.1 I guess I win. But what if I roll 5.2… those extra two successes are hanging out there like what’s under a Scotsman’s kilt on a windy day. If those extra successes can’t be used to apply sticky or locked adjectives, then something is broken. I would accept having to spend Push Dice if the only way an adjective could be stickied or locked was if the extra success came from Push Dice as opposed to the standard dice roll… how is that for a thought?

        • Runeslinger says:

          Remember, this is not a system where you accrue numbers of successes, the die pool is a chance to get a result on any particular die that beats the value of the TN or trait used to oppose it. The x.1 value allows you to beat the TN or the defender with a tied roll. If they have a Coax of 4 and your highest result is a 4, they win. If you roll two or more 4s, you win.

          Giving in means accepting the conditions of the adjective that would have been applied, without having to take the negative adjective. So as I see it, perhaps incorrectly, you would be able to subdue guards without having to make ‘stunned’ sticky, and in exchange for not having to get treatment to remove the negative adjective, they accept the narrative consequences of what you were trying to do.

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  1. [...] included a few links for the Technoir RPG beta. Runeslinger at Casting Shadows actually wrote up a playtest session where his group sat down to play the game. And it sounds like it went well! I like open ended games [...]

  2. [...] I know I’m not the only one in town with my eye on Technoir. I’ve heard about Technoir being played. Some guy was angling for Solo play with Technoir. There are even Transmissions of Technoir in the [...]



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