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Technoir: Player-side Review

Samhaine has recently been posting his GM-side analysis of Technoir, and I've been talking about it more or less nonstop in my posts, so here's my actual post discussing it. In the second session he ran, I played Thornton "Pierce" Kimball, an investigator who had been working for Minnesota's Big Pharma corps and had picked up some medical knowledge along the way. He was also pretty 'borged out, with an experimental headjack connected to an external derma-linked router patch, and reflex stimulators to give him the speed to get out of trouble. See, Pierce couldn't fight his way out of a wet paper sack, a fact which would become relevant (but, curiously, not detrimental to my enjoyment) during the session.

He was both in debt to and obsessed with one Arma Winn, whose shop stood in downtown Minneapolis (also relevant). He got one of his connections to another PC through his employment with Pen Re; Kainenchen's PC was Pen Re's cousin, if I recall correctly. Also, I had some previous contact with Four Color Criticism's character, who in turn was buddies with Stands-in-Fire's character. All of this occurred as a systemic part of character creation; for one-shot or short-run games, this is perfect. It was, if anything, a genre-appropriate and more stripped-down parallel of Spirit of the Century's excellent system for connecting characters, so that you don't waste a whole session on "okay, why are we hanging out together?" (As a brief digression, if I had expected this to be a longer-term game, I might have wanted more complete control over my character's starting nature and relationships, depending on the degree to which the character was fully formed in my head prior to character creation.)

Our group had a slow and kind of rocky time getting into the game's plot, specifically because of Technoir's GM-side innovations. There's a baseline "something going on" at the start of play, but neither the players nor the GM can really know what it is or who's behind it until the players start investigating it. This means that the GM can't exactly telegraph reasons that you'd start asking a particular contact about a situation, because until you go talk to them, he hasn't generated that information. If I understand correctly, the GM couldn't pre-generate this information if he wanted to, because the order in which PCs proceed makes a difference. It's all randomly rolled anyway. I like investigative games and I like games that reward me for paying attention to the information that goes out over the course of play, so there was a sense of... breaking the ice, I guess.

To explain just a little further, I tend to be cautious and circumspect in questioning NPCs, so as to avoid burning bridges - I figure I can always ratchet up the pressure later. Technoir doesn't really approve of this approach, because noir doesn't approve of this approach. Noir protagonists - not to say heroes - get in people's faces. They put them off balance. They shake the tree and see what falls out. Maybe the next time I start a new character for a game that is more than a one-shot, I'll give that a try.

Our initial challenge was simply traveling through the city, as there were riots going on downtown (ongoing fallout from the first session that Samhaine ran). We were asked to find out what had happened to one particular guy, because he was inexplicably off-grid. It turned out that he had been shot and an EMP had been set off in his bar, frying everything. In a cyberpunk world, this is about as bad as it gets. We start working on arranging medevac for this guy, because the tools that would save his life are (predictably) dependent on electricity. We sort out some suspicious circumstances of who's flying the medevac chopper, or something to that effect, and found out just how he made so many enemies: he handed a bunch of his bar's patrons over to the law as they planned to free themselves from the cortex bombs that had been implanted in them (the plot of the first session). Pretty awesome cyberpunk stuff all the way around.

So I went up to wave down the medevac chopper or something like that, I spot someone watching the roof from a nearby building. Well, crap, I should tell the team about this. On my way back down the stairs, some lady goon puts me in a headlock. Well, crap. I mentioned how Pierce can't fight his way out of a wet paper sack? So the lady goon - turns out to be Pen Re's sister, a cyborg with total cyber-psychosis - starts making some demands, you know how it goes. The thing about being a cyborg is that a lot of really important system become vulnerable to hacking when you're in skin contact, because dermal linking is so convenient. So it becomes a race between her chokehold on me and my hacking into her system. The rest of the party shows up to save my bacon and continue the fight, because once I lock up her nerves it's a lot easier to break the chokehold. I think I also shut off a couple of her senses.

What I particularly loved about this was that it came down to shifting the context of the fight to play into my stats. All of my skills are verbs intended to give me some way to apply progressively worse negative adjectives to my opponent. I can make them sticky - that is, much harder to purge - by handing the GM some of my precious push dice (dice I otherwise use for bonuses to attack and defense). Once he has his hands on them, the tension level of the game goes up, because he can use them to apply sticky adjectives back to us. This is how PCs start dying - two sticky physical adjectives at the end of the fight and you might need major cybernetic surgery to revive you and get you into the next scene.

In fact, I was dying at the end of the scene, and I was shipped off with the NPC we'd come to save when the medevac team showed up. The cool thing about this is that once I've taken a sticky adjective and recovered from it, the stats of any rolls that I failed (and thus "primed") have a chance to improve. In the game's first conflict, I made a point of using Coax, which was another of Pierce's many weak points (Coax, Fight, Move, and Shoot all started at 1 die), just so it would be primed.

The problem that I have with the system - one I wonder if they'll change in the upcoming Hexnoir - is that PCs cannot struggle against things that are not living or sentient opponents (wild animals yes, robots yes; flooding river no). I think that Man vs. Nature is an underused source of challenge in games, and it makes me sad that Technoir's system doesn't really have a clear way to handle it. Of course, noir protagonists don't deal with raging rivers or mountain climbing all that much, so it suits the genre just fine.

I haven't mentioned much about the cyberpunk world that it presents, mainly because it accomplishes this in a minimalist fashion through the gear list, but what we see of the world is still very cool, and an excellent foundation for conflict and investigation.

Overall, I like Technoir very, very much, and we've been hounding Samhaine to run another session with the same characters. But then, I felt the same way about Dresden Files, as I've mentioned before, and about Don't Rest Your Head, which I'll get around to talking about sooner or later.


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