Review: Technoir

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This review was originally published at http://nearlyenoughdice.com/review-technoir on the 24th of November.

Mix one part cyberpunk with equal measures of hard boiled investigation and film noir before pouring into a glass made from a lightweight rule system. Serve in a smoke filled bar, under the shadow of a looming Corporate skyscraper and you’ve got yourself Technoir, an original RPG by Jeremy Keller and published by Cellar Games. It is available from www.technoirrpg.com and on RPG Now.

Overview
One of the early RPG successes from Kickstarter Technoir is a cyberpunk styled game heavily flavoured by hard boiled detective fiction and film noir. The game is presented in a compact and beautifully laid out form, small enough that its easy to just slip the book into a bag just in case you get a chance to play it. If you’re looking for long sessions of planning, stealthy infiltration and stats for an endless list of cybernetics then I suggest sticking to Shadowrun. Technoir is about bold and reckless action, its about causing trouble because you can and flinging accusations just to see what sticks.

Rules
Technoir uses a lightweight rules system built around the use of Adjectives, which describe the result of actions, properties of objects and relationships between characters and their connections. Want to shoot somebody? Then you might apply the adjectives of Suppressed, Bleeding or even Scared; it all depends on how you want to affect the target and how long you want the Adjective to last. In a similar fashion Adjectives may be applied to represent emotional or situational (Distracted, bored, lustful etc) effects, describe the properties of items (Sharp, Rapid-fire, Expensive etc), and define the relationships between characters and their connections (Respectful, Loyal, Indebted etc).

Actions are attempted by generating a pool of d6′s, formed from characters attributes (Action dice), positive adjectives they can draw on (Push dice) and negative adjectives affecting the character (Harm dice, of which a character has a limited number). These are rolled together, with Harm dice cancelling out any positive dice of equal value, and the highest remaining die then compared to the target number. If successful the adjective is applied as desired.
It is here however that the Push dice really come into play as by default Adjectives applied through a successful action don’t last for long. If you wish to extend the duration of the effect, for example upgrade a ‘Suppressed’ to ‘Bleeding’, it requires that a Push die be spent, transferring it from the Player to the GM. In this way the game brings in an ebb and flow of power that fits well with the noir genre implied by the games title. At the start of each adventure Push dice reside with the PCs, allowing them to quickly investigate and get the information required to work out what is going on. As the dice flow to the GM the balance shifts and the PCs start to run up against larger challenges, difficult to overcome without the boost provided by Push dice. Here the GM can then start to really hurt the PCs, applying longer lasting adjectives (which confer Harm dice) but in order to do so must once again spend the Push dice, returning them to the control of the players. Finally the PCs, bruised and beaten but in possession of the Push dice, are in a position to uncover the truth and take out the bad guy at the centre of their troubles.

All in all the system works well and finds a good balance by bringing together traditional mechanics (rolling dice), player narrative (adding adjectives) and genre (the Push dice economy) into a single cohesive system. My experience with the system so far is that it works best when an adventure is spread over 2 or 3 sessions, one shots limit the impact of longer lasting adjectives on NPCs as they don’t appear in enough scenes. Longer adventures however and the PCs build up too many negative adjectives, severely limiting their effectiveness. The only real issue I’ve had with the system is getting to grips with the focus on character versus character conflicts, as the GM is advised to avoid rolls that don’t involve manipulating / affecting another character in some way. This makes sense from both a genre and system perspective, as applying adjectives to say, pick a lock, doesn’t make a big impact if that lock is never encountered again. I suspect part of my issue with this is that my NPCs are probably the weakest aspect of my GMing so only time will tell as to whether I can get a handle on this aspect of the game.

Transmissions
Transmissions, which make up a substantial portion of the book, are a system for the generation of on the fly adventures which are generated as information is uncovered by the characters. Each Transmission forms a small setting, something which is mostly absent from the main game, however even these settings leave much up to the imagination of the GM. There are 3 Transmissions included in the book itself and each contains within it a series of contacts (NPCs who can provide favours to the PCs), locations, events, factions, threats and objects. At the start of the adventure the GM takes 3 of these elements and uses them to form a story seed, as the PCs explore and investigate they draw in further elements which the GM connects to that initial seed. For example if a PC goes to a contact to borrow some money that NPC is added to the plot map and suddenly they may be connected to a spate of kidnappings the PCs are investigating, maybe she’s involved in laundering the money of the gang involved or her son is one of the individuals who has been taken. The plot map, generated from each of these elements merely provides the links between points in the adventure, its up to the GM to decide what those connections are.

The Transmission system works extremely well, allowing a GM to generate a plot as it unfolds and as the PCs are drawn into the adventure. Of course this requires the GM be comfortable with working out details on the fly but even if you’re not comfortable with this the framework provides an easy to use, pre-generated set of points which can be used ahead of time to plan an adventure. There are a number of Transmissions which are already available and with their simplicity its easy to write more focused around your city or setting of choice.

Customisation
While the game is written from a cyberpunk perspective the relatively limited nature of the setting material makes the system extremely easy to adapt to other settings. As part of the Kickstarter project the author has already released MechNoir, which shifts the focus to Mars and adds in rules for the use of Mecha and is planning to release HexNoir, a magic / fantasy based adaptation for the game. From a personal angle I’ve been working on an adaptation for running games within the Dresden Files universe (which can be found here on this blog). This coupled to the compact size of the book and ease of writing new transmissions means the game is on my list of systems I’m happy to pack in my bag while travelling just in case I can slot a session of it in.

Wrap Up
Technoir is a game that I would definitely recommend to those who are fans of the cyberpunk genre, especially if they’d rather focus on the motivations and conflicts of characters as opposed to the stats of a particular piece of cyberware. The system underlying the game is distinct, easy to learn and encourages the styles of play expected of by the genre, with the added bonus of being easily hacked to fit other noir influenced settings. All in all definitely a game that I am glad to have taken that Kickstarter gamble on.

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QuicFic: A Simple Thing

Lavan was my first LARP character, and remains the only one I’ve played over a long period of time. When I started attending the Nexus LARP it was fairly obvious that I was new to LARP and still relatively new to RP. He had a loose background and motivation details but he lacked an actual character, a defined personality trait. Not surprisingly the first event I played him in a manner that ultimately wasn’t him, wasn’t the character. It did however come to help define him fully.

By the last Nexus event, around 5 years ago now, he’d become what I can only describe as a person in his own right. He’d developed in so many ways that I hadn’t expected, going from an obsessive scientist (heh, he was one of my first RP characters, I went with what I knew) to second in command of the settlement medical facility, general settlement representative (on first the council and when that folded as rep to Corona Corp) and overall respected member of the settlement. I even managed to work in why he drank so much coffee, severe and chronic insomnia (out of character I was drinking a lot of coffee simply because most of the evenings at Nexus were spent socialising and drinking) that between events saw him taking the graveyard shift on a regular basis. In summary I enjoyed playing Lavan and would love to do so again if I could. This short fic was written while I was still playing Lavan and focuses on why he got his first tattoo.

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A Simple Thing

Walking into the room that served as the tattoo parlour was like walking into another world. Outside it was the middle of the day, the sun was high and things were starting to heat up, already the humidity was reaching beyond what Lavan would call comfortable. As the door closed behind him he had to pause, to give his eyes a second or two to adjust to the darkness that seemed to engulf everything. All that he could clearly see was a chair in the middle of the room, old and faded though no doubt still in regular use. Adding to the darkness was a smell that had become familiar recently. He’d never really been able to describe it beyond smelling like tobacco but different. Which was fair enough he supposed given that the origin was one of the genetically modified tobacco plants, a combination of the original plant, genes to make it grow well in the UK climate and something people referred to as weed. As it was mainly the older generations that called it that he’d always assumed it was a pre-fall term for some other plant.

“Whaddaya want?” The voice had come from the corner of the room and now as his eyes really got used to the light he could see somebody sitting there, a large man with long untamed hair tied into a simple ponytail, a bottle of something hanging from one hand. “Well kid whaddaya want?” the man asked again, starting to sound a little annoyed with the teenager standing in at the other side of the small room.
“I’m here for a tattoo of course, the guys at the plant said this was the only place in town to get them,” Lavan managed to reply though his voice seemed to fade before it could have possibly reached the man in the corner, almost as if it had been swallowed by the darkness, however silly that sounded to the voice of reason at the back of Lavan’s head. That was the same voice that had tried to convince him this wasn’t required, that it was a stupid .

Lifting himself up from the stool he was perched on the tattooist took the few steps required to bring him level with Lavan, though given their respective heights Lavan had to tilt his head back a considerable way to get a look at the guys face. “Yeah well they’re right, and contrary to local rumour I stick to Corona’s rules, nobody under 18 gets a tattoo and that’s that. So you old enough then?”

“Of course” was Lavan’s automatic reply, the lie being much easier than he’d have expected it to be. In actual fact though he was barely 16, his birthday having been a couple of months previously. After that it hadn’t taken him long to decide to leave home, too many memories were associated with that place and even though almost a year had passed since that event most of those memories were still of those last few days. So he’d ended up here, yet another sector 4 town, identical to all the others in the area, creating the basic goods that kept the sector 3 settlements going, a chain that seemed to repeat itself all the way up to the fabled Sanctuary districts. Not that he’d ever gotten anywhere near one of those, the best he’d managed was the town in which he’d grown up on the outskirts of sector 3, barely 20 miles from where he was now.

Pulling his hand out of his trouser pocket Lavan passed the neatly folded piece of paper to the tattooist, the design he wanted drawn on it along with the details of where and what colour he wanted it to be put. It was, as Lavan had come to think of it, just a simple thing. Looking at it though the tattooist mumbled to himself, barely audible to Lavan despite being only a step or two away. “simple…. 20 mins…. right arm….12” During this his eyes flicked once from the paper and over to Lavan, pausing for a second, wandering what the significance of the design was. Given the number of people that had passed through he knew there was always some significance to these things, especially when the design was as basic as the one he’d just been given

After what seemed like an eternity to Lavan the tattooist started talking loud enough to be heard properly. “Something like that, will cost ya…. say $40 dollars for me to do, assuming you want it done properly that is.” That was a lie, both of them knew that. The price for the tattoo was normally about $25, the rest was simply the price of Lavan’s earlier lie about his age. Reaching into a pocket on his jacket he pulled out the collection of creased and crumpled notes that he’d accumulated since he’d gotten into town, $40 was only just short of how much he had, food would be short for a while it seemed. Despite knowing this his hand never hesitated as he counted the money out, reconsidering wasn’t something he was willing to do, not for this.

20 minutes later Lavan walked out of the room and its darkness though he’d return to that tattoo parlour at least once more to get further designs inked into his skin. Unconsciously he placed his left hand over the design, even though it was covered up by a simple bandage until his skin had settled down a bit. As time passed it became something of a habit, without realising he’d often reach out to touch the design when his mind was unsettled, drawing comfort from the knowledge that even if he forgot everything else he’d never forget that. After all without knowing where he’d come from how could he ever find where he was heading to?

QuicFic: #0

I found her in the spare room as usual, totally absorbed in filling another canvas. The room is pretty spartan, even by my minimalist standards. There’s a small training mat rolled up in one corner, two kendo sticks balanced atop it. Up against another wall a collection of canvases, each detailed with the thin, precise brush strokes that had become Ellenor’s preferred style. I knew from previous visits that each was identified only by a number, they’d started at 50 with each new painting numbered one lower than the last.

She’d positioned herself in the centre of the room, her paints and brushes forming a lone spot of chaos which went unnoticed by its creator. The latest painting followed what had become a familiar theme, two indistinct and faceless figures sparring, one styled in black, the second in white and framed only by its outline against the otherwise blank canvas. I’d never had the guts to ask Ellenor which represented her as all too often the second individual was speckled with red, which I knew could only represent one thing. Unusually, given the sequential order of each work, the red came and went, never present for more than two or three paintings before it disappeared again.

“You’re early,” she commented, breaking breaking the silence that had filled the air since my arrival.

“No I’m on time, I just didn’t feel like waiting for you to be late before I came up to get you,” I snapped back, regretting it instantly. “Sorry, its been a long day.”

“No worries, I know that feeling. Let me just finish this off.” Before I could voice an objection she’d grabbed another brush and the red paint. Two quick stokes was all she needed, “There, finally done.” As Ellenor packed away the paints I glanced at the painting again. A scribble in the corner identified it as #0 but it was the dashes of red that caught my attention. The first, arrow straight along the length of one blade. The second, shorter but just as straight across the neck of the figure in black.

QuicFic

I’ll probably never attempt NaNoWriMo, I’m not sure I have a novel in me and I certainly don’t have the patience to write one in a single month. Writing short fiction is a different matter,  though even then I tend to stick to individual scenes as opposed to short stories and now that I’m commuting my aim is to get into the habit of writing on a more regular basis, with the results going up here under the QuicFic category.

Review – Spec Ops: The Line


Spec Ops: The Line was developed by Yager Development and published by 2K Games. The game is available on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360. As well as the review presented here the game sparked thoughts on the role of narrative connections, which will be the focus of a future article.

Spec Ops: The Line is, at first glance, a fairly generic third person shooter and in many ways it is. The game however also offers something lacking in most games, something that only truly becomes apparent when you play through the entire game. It is this something extra that raises this game from a solid but generic shooter to an excellent and compelling experience. Before I discuss that aspect in detail lets look first at the setting and game play.

Setting

Six months ago Dubai was, for all intents and purposes, wiped off of the map by the largest and longest lasting sandstorm ever recorded. Most of the population were presumed to have been killed, as was an entire battalion of U.S. soldiers who had been sent in to assist in the evacuation. With the storm finally beginning to subside a radio signal has been detected, the source coming from within the ruins of the city. A three man Delta Force team, led by Captain Martin Walker (the main protagonist and player character), has been sent in on an initial recon op, to find evidence of survivors and locate the source of the signal. Not surprisingly conditions on the ground are not as simple as the team had expected…

Game play

Spec Ops: The Line is first and foremost a third person, cover based shooter with some basic squad command mechanics. In this respect the game is solid, offering all of the required functionality and game play expected but with little innovation or mechanics unique to the game. You are limited to carrying two weapons, a relatively small amount of ammo and a few grenades. Squad commands are relatively simple and focused primarily upon selecting targets for your comrades to focus their fire upon in addition to occasional special actions.

The game possesses the usual range of difficulties and on the default normal mode enemies provide a sufficient challenge. Playing through the game on this difficulty there were a handful of points where I required multiple attempts to progress but they were infrequent enough that they felt challenging rather than frustrating. At this difficulty most unarmoured enemies can be killed with a couple of shots and during the course of the game there is only a single type of enemy (excluding vehicles) which cannot be killed with a single headshot. One of the nicest touches is the inclusion of what is best described as sand damage, shoot out particular windows or parts of ceiling and the sand which is piled up against them will come crashing in, potentially on top of enemies stuck behind cover.

Based on game play alone I would score the game as a 7.0, a solid but generic shooter.

 

That extra something

What makes the game stand out from virtually every other third person shooter (and most other games) is the narrative connection forged during the game play. The actions taken as you play the game have a clear impact upon the characters and are designed to generate an emotional connection between the player and the events as they unfold. In saying this I’m not, primarily, talking about the typical make choice A or B points found in most games, the do I take the good option or the evil option. No, I am instead referencing what is arguably the central game play mechanic of every shooter, namely the killing of enemies.

Let me say this again, this is a military shooter designed to make you feel something when you kill people.

I think the importance of this is perhaps best clarified by a comparison with the Uncharted series, arguably one of the biggest third person shooter franchises at the moment. The hero of that series is Nathan Drake, a gun slinging, wise cracking rogue who is generally portrayed in the cutscenes as a loveable good guy. If you’re unfamiliar with the series imagine Drake is basically a modern day Indiana Jones, both in career choice and personality. In contrast to the cut-scenes most of the game play is spent diving behind cover and killing the hired henchmen sent at you by the big bad evil guy. Over the course of each game you’ll end up killing hundreds of these goons, so much so that the final boss of one of the games remarks during his obligatory monologue something along the lines of:

“Are we really that different? How many of my men have you killed in order to get here?”

The point is valid, to the extent that either Drake has two distinct personalities (loveable rogue and merciless killer) or perhaps, more worryingly, that Drake the hero is in actuality an insane psychopath who takes pleasure in mass murder. Not surprisingly the fact that the protagonist of the game is a brutal killer isn’t something that the developers have focused on much, lest we start thinking of him as anything other than the basic Hero archetype.

In sharp contrast Spec Ops takes three highly trained soldiers, people whose job it is to kill and places them into a situation where they are forced to do so. It does this so it can pull you in to the realities of war, showing the effect that killing can have even on those trained to do it. The consequences of your actions are revealed not only on the level of the unfolding story and visible impact on the psyches of the characters but also in smaller ways. The civilians terrified by your presence or the scribbled graffiti on the collapsed walls. Perhaps one of the most effective ways is that fallen enemies will often lie on the ground writhing in agony from non-fatal wounds. Easy enough to ignore perhaps, except that if you want to loot their weapons or ammo you must first complete the job, making that conscious decision to execute them where they have fallen. In a similar manner melee attacks can often be followed by quick kills, which are once again executed in such a way that they reinforce the brutality of what you are doing.

And you know what? The emotional connection the narrative builds works. It works to the point where I felt bad for enjoying the game. It works to the extent that more than once I had to turn it off and take a break, because I didn’t want to know what came next, what horror of the battlefield I would be forced to actually stop and think about.

But I kept coming back to it, for the simple reason that it was a compelling experience. A game where in many ways the game play was secondary, a mechanism by which something bigger was delivered to the audience. The last game to do this for me was Heavy Rain, an excellent game where once again the story dominated. The difference between the two, however, is the game play. Heavy Rain made use of quick time events, a style many gamers are not fond of. Spec Ops, however, retains the mechanics of the genre, emphasising the contrast between itself and what players have come to expect from military shooters.

I realise that in this review I’ve been extremely vague as to the events which occur during the course of the game, as I believe that too many details would spoil the impact of the story. Suffice to say the way in which Spec Ops: The Line manages to get you to emotionally connect with it is what raises it from that generic 7.0 to, in my opinion, something nearing a 9.0. It’s why I would whole heartedly recommend it to anybody looking for something more than a game, for somebody who wants an experience they won’t forget.

Mark of the Dragon – The Dragon Clans

The Dragon Clans are a faction of my own devising for use within DresNoir, as while the Dresden Files has touched on Dragons relatively little is yet known about them. Presented here is some initial background for the mortal agents of the Dragons

Amongst the supernatural entities known to have great influence upon the mortal world the Dragon’s are perhaps one of the most powerful but also the most inconspicuous. While they crave power and wealth over the mortal world they seek it indirectly and individually. There is no Great Court of the Dragons, no families ties or stable alliances. Instead there are the Clans, the mortal servants who serve, their loyalty passed down the ages from one generation to the next.

It is unclear when the first of the Clans were formed. The feudal society which arose in early medieval Europe represents the earliest confirmed existence of the Clans as families swore their allegiance to individual Dragons in return for the power required to maintain and expand their holdings. Patronage by a Dragon brought these houses not physical strength nor supernatural power but cunning, intellect and longevity beyond that meant for mortal man. With it they directed the path of European development for centuries, building up great power bases capable of subtly nudging a society one way or another.

Until the Industrial Revolution that is.

With the lightning development of technology over the following decades came social upheaval and change at a pace the Clans were unprepared for. Through the first half of the twentieth century over half of the known clans fell as their power bases crumbled under the dual onslaughts of Capitalism and Communism. Those that remained were greatly diminished, clinging on to inherited wealth in a world where their influence brought ever decreasing returns.

The Clans of today are a shadow of what they once were and, if desired, can be loosely placed into one of three groups.

The Broken Clans are those which lost everything, their power, their wealth, their patronage. In the modern world it is unlikely that the descendants of these Clans are even aware of their heritage or the power that may still flow through their blood.

The Fallen Clans, like the Broken lost everything they once possessed. But they still remember and seek to regain their positions of power in society. As the ambitious and jealous outsiders the Fallen Clans are perhaps the most dangerous for they have nothing left to lose. This overt posturing has drawn the attention of the Dragons and many have are now covertly testing members of the Fallen, waiting to see if they are ready to return to positions amongst the worlds elite.

The Risen Clans, after weathering the storm that was the twentieth century have settled themselves into new positions. In place of the inherited lands and house politics has come economics and stock holdings. The Clans have shifted their power to the board room, as CEO’s, venture capitalists and board members. Multinational corporations, industrial giants and enterprising starts ups, all have been pulled into the webs of influence wielded by the Clans.

The Mark of the Dragon has returned to the world, and it reaches further than ever before.

Technoir: Upping the Tempo

One of the central aspects of the Technoir system is that of the Push dice economy, which are passed back and forth between players and GM in order to apply adjectives which last beyond the length of the current scene. For a full adventure, run over multiple sessions this works well. Unfortunately for a single session one shot adventure it leaves the pacing on the slow side, especially as many NPCs are unlikely to feature in more than a couple of scenes.

Upping the tempo is relatively simple, achieved through the addition of a new type of adjective, that of Instantaneous. Here’s the new rule in full:

  • Instantaneous adjectives slot in as the new default result of an action and do not require the spending of any Push die. The chain therefore now consists of Instantaneous – Fleeting – Sticky – Locked.
  • Instantaneous adjectives last until the character has taken their next action.
  • The cost to apply all other adjectives increases by 1. So Fleeting now costs 1 Push die, Sticky 2 and Locked 3.
  • Apart from the change in cost all types of adjective continue to function as before.

By introducing this rule players are thus encouraged to spend Push dice more freely in order to apply adjectives which last the length of the scene. In turn this provides a greater supply of dice to the GM who should spend them regularly in order to apply Fleeting adjectives on the PCs. This relatively simple change therefore not only ups the tempo of the game but increases the frequency with which players are handed a physical object, a technique which I’ve found does wonders in getting their attention and drawing them further into the narrative.