6 September 2012

Cyberpunk Roleplaying with Technoir

I had meant to write this up a couple of weeks back, after doing the session report of my first time playing the game, but ended up procrastinating instead. Better late than never, right?

What is it?

Technoir is a cyberpunk role playing game by Jeremy Keller and was funded via Kickstarter last summer. I'm really impressed with the overall layout of the book. The book is done in a striking blue, black and white color palette which gives it a nice cyberpunk feel and is very easy on the eyes. I do wish there were more pieces of art spread throughout the book, but I'm sure Mr. Keller wanted to keep the Kickstarter goal as low as possible.  The writing is also very concise and clearly communicates concepts with great examples.

The setting of Technoir is generic cyberpunk, complete with cybernetic augmentations. There are more specific setting details to be found in the Transmissions (adventures), but even these snippets could easily fit into just about any cyberpunk game or setting.

Technoir also won a Judge's Spotlight Award at this year's ENnie Awards.

How does it work?

Technoir really shines in this department. Everything from character creation to resolution is well thought out and illustrated with great examples.

Technoir starts with something called a Transmission. You can think of a Transmission as the skeleton of an adventure. It contains key NPCs, events, objects, factions, locations and threats. The GM uses a table to randomly select a number of these, called Nodes, and connects them together in a kind of mind map. This creates the framework for an adventure. A number of other things happen with the Transmission, but let's jump to character creation for now.

While the GM selects and connects Nodes the players should be hard at work creating their characters. Character creation reminds me a little of Traveller in that characters are built out of a number of careers that act as the character's personal history. For example one player might select Criminal, Pilot, Soldier for their character. Each of these careers increases core attributes for the character, called Verbs. These are things like Shoot, Fight, Hack and Coax. They range from 1 to 5 and each point adds one more die that can be rolled during challenges. In addition to the Verbs players also select one Adjective to add to their character from each profession. A Soldier, for example, might select Tough as an adjective. These are called upon during challenges for bonus dice.

Once players have their Verbs and Adjectives sorted out they start connecting their characters to NPCs. These NPCs are listed in the Transmission that the GM is using and the players go through in turn and select an NPC and the kind of relationship they have with them. Each player makes three of these connections. The relationships are very interesting. A player might have a borrowed money from an NPC and this gives them more money to spend on outfitting their character, but leaves them in debt for when the game actually starts. There are a number of other types of connections that can be made and the players also select an Adjective to describe their relationship with the NPCs.

At this point the GM should have a relationship map that connects player characters to NPCs and those NPCs to a number of events, objects, threats, factions and so on. This is where the actual game begins. Usually by this point the GM will have figured out how everything fits together into an adventure and the loans and favours owed or friendships with NPCs are perfect for hooking player characters into the action.

The actual moment to moment game play of Technoir should be mostly familiar to role players. Dice are only ever rolled if a PC is in conflict with an NPC (or another PC). These challenges are resolved via opposed rolls where each side rolls a number of dice equal to the relevant Verb plus additional dice from relevant Adjectives. There is some extra crunch in deciding whether to use the extra dice to get a better result or keeping them in reserve to improve the quality of a success. There is another wrinkle to deal with in the form of negative adjectives, when one is applied to character (through a wound, for example) a red die is added to the pool of dice and whatever value is rolled cancels out all dice of the same value. With negative adjectives stack up this can become quite punishing.

Speaking of negative adjectives, whenever someone wins a challenge (be it NPC or PC) the winner applies and adjective to the environment or target. Someone that was stabbed might have the adjective "bleeding" applied to them and these adjectives can be called on for bonus or penalty dice. This makes Technoir play, revolve around placing and stacking adjectives on things. There are no health points or difficulty targets, the players just say how they want to affect the world and apply an adjective if they win.

One thing about the resolution system that bothered me is that there are no versus environment conflicts. The idea seems to be that if nobody is opposing a character they will eventually succeed at what they are trying to do, but sometimes you want to roll to see if someone can avoid drowning in a lake or something. Luckily, it is very easy for the GM to assign a base difficulty of 1-5 dice to oppose a player in a situation like this.

Final thoughts

I really, really like Technoir. It plays like the halfway point between Fiasco and Shadowrun/Cyberpunk 2020. It shines as a one-shot game, but I think it should scale into a longer campaign with few growing pains. The Transmissions are brilliant. Not only do they have re-playability due to the random elements, it also takes very little time and effort to create a new one. I can hammer out a new Transmission in less time than it would take me to do more traditional adventure prep. Technoir's resolution is fast and entertaining and any ex-Shadowrun players will still get to use their stacks of six sided dice.I do wish that Technoir had included rules for environmental conflicts as well as a little more direction for long term campaigns and character advancement, but all of these things are easily handled by the GM and unnecessary for enjoying the game.

Number crunchers probably won't like Technoir, it isn't a game that concerns itself with stats or bookkeeping of any kind. Everything is handled through adjectives and that includes cybernetic augmentations as well as vehicles and weapons. If you are the type that likes to know how much faster that upgraded engine will move your motorcycle then this game isn't going to scratch that itch. If, on the other hand, you are someone that likes the idea of Shadowrun or Cyberpunk 2020, but is intimidated by all of the numbers and rules or just can't be bothered with keeping track of that stuff then you will love Technoir.

Technoir is available in print from the official website and in PDF from DriveThruRPG. Player's guide handouts and Transmissions are also available as free downloads, but do not contain all the rules you will need to play the game.


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