Cyberpunk drew deeply from the well of hard-boiled fiction, often called noir after the genre’s commanding presence in film noir of the 40s and 50s. William Gibson was directly inspired by Raymond Chandler, wearing this influence on his sleeve in the original “Sprawl” trilogy of Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive. These influences didn’t quite trickle down into the original Cyberpunk roleplaying games, though, with Cyberpunk 2020 and Shadowrun more inspired by the techie bombast of authors like Walter Jon Williams and John Shirley, and their big guns, big hovercraft, and “fight the power” plotlines. There is a game out there designed for playing hard-boiled Cyberpunk stories, though. Technoir was originally released in 2011 after being funded on Kickstarter in June of that year. Though the game was released, the Kickstarter went fallow, leaving stretch goals undelivered and the game mostly unsupported. As of the beginning of 2019, though, this has changed. Justin Alexander, best known for his site The Alexandrian has, through Dream Machine Productions, brought Technoir back from the dead. The game is once again in print, and the undelivered stretch goal “Morenoir” has been completed and is now available. With all this activity, now is a perfect time to take a deep dive into this interesting narrative ruleset.
Technoir is built first around a plot map, which gains its starting nodes from a Transmission. Transmissions are lists of 36 plot elements, six each of Connections, Events, Factions, Locations, Objects, and Threats. The Transmission describes an overall setting and typically includes information about all of the elements listed, but this core six-by-six chart is the central source of truth for the Transmission. Your plot map starts by rolling for three of these elements and connecting them. While the GM is writing this plot map, the players are creating characters. Characters are primarily defined by Verbs, the nine ‘skills’ of the game, and Adjectives, a more freeform system that is used to encompass both traits of the character that may come into play as well as conditions which are inflicted in play. The characters get really interesting, though, when they pick their Connections. The Connections come from the Transmission, and since there’s only six of them there, the overlap helps make the relationships dense and intriguing. For each Connection, there are favors they perform, and all of these favors have specific mechanical benefits…some of which come up in character creation. A player could use the ‘splice’ favor to have cyberware installed for free, or the ‘shark’ favor to borrow money. When a player uses a Connection in that way, they’re added to the plot map. Connections also have a relationship Adjective, which defines the relationship and also has an influence on how scenes play out.
With your characters and plot map set, you’re ready to play. The game is a d6 dice pool, but results are based on the highest displayed result. If you get multiple dice of that highest result, the result gets a 0.1 added to it, as the multiple successes serve to break ties. The pool starts as the character’s rating in the applicable Verb, and the target number is based on the opposing character’s rating in the Verb they’re using to oppose. Both the dice pool and the target number can be modified, by the ‘attacker’ and ‘defender’ respectively, with Push dice. Each player starts out with three Push dice. These dice can be added to any roll that that the character has supporting positive Adjectives for, either among the Adjectives they defined in character creation, Adjectives they got in play, or Adjectives that belong to their equipment. The dice can also be added to the target number if the player’s character is reacting to the action of an NPC or other character. In addition to the positive Push dice, there are negative Hurt dice, which are added for every negative Adjective which your character has. Hurt dice cancel out any dice they match with, so even one of them is bad news. After the dice are resolved, the character will either fail the roll and prime that Verb for advancement, or succeed and give an adjective to the opposing character. At a baseline, these Adjectives are Fleeting, meaning they affect the character for one round. If there are Push dice left in the dice pool, though, the player can spend them to make the Adjective either Sticky (one push die) or Locked (two push dice). Sticky Adjectives last until the character does something to treat them, while Locked Adjectives are essentially permanent, though they can often be mitigated with cyberware. Taking Adjectives that describe physical harm also put your character in danger; at the end of the combat anyone who took Adjectives for physical harm roll to see if they’re Dying or Dead.
Unlike many narrative games we’ve read and reviewed which are completely player-facing, Technoir has a more traditional, symmetrical set of mechanics. Characters trying to give Adjectives roll against the static reaction difficulty of the other character, and this is true whether the Character giving the Adjective is a PC or not. The reason this is important is that Push dice are controlled by a closed meta-game economy. Each player starts with three Push dice, and the GM starts with none. While adding Push dice to rolls just causes them to ‘discharge’ (they’re not available for reactions that round but ‘recharge’ after the round is over), using them to upgrade Adjectives or target multiple opponents means that they are given away. When the PCs have all the Push dice, they have more ability to move the story forward and are less vulnerable to being really knocked around. When the GM has all the Push dice, they can really make the characters’ lives difficult with Sticky and even Locked Adjectives, and all the Hurt dice and threat of death that those bring. This does mean that, generally, the GM has to play mean when they have the Push dice, otherwise the game doesn’t rebalance and the plot doesn’t move forward. It’s a clever mechanic for maintaining momentum, and works well for hard-boiled tropes where the protagonist is going to have to take their licks before solving a case. Also supporting this trope is the advancement mechanic; you can advance Verbs after you’ve primed them by failing a roll, and you do so based on the roll to recover from a negative Adjective. You must be taken down and only then you can come back stronger.
I have owned Technoir for some time, and the system took me a few reads to wrap my head around. Adjectives are multifaceted, and understanding how they can be character traits, conditions, and also item tags takes a bit of time. This does make all the opposed rolling easier, because each one of those items affects the roll in the same way, only varying if it’s positive or negative. The lack of any sort of dedicated combat system also threw me for a loop; while Apocalypse World doesn’t have a dedicated combat system either it does have the Harm track to mechanize damage. Once I understood the purpose of the special Dead and Dying Adjectives and how they’d be applied, the flow and goals of combat made a lot more sense to me. And it’s important to note: hard-boiled is not a genre where you kill a lot of people. The fact that physical confrontations are intended, even from the mechanics, to have their own end goals besides ‘kill the bad guys’ is important.
I’m glad I was able to wrap my head around the conflict system because the Connections mechanics and the Push dice economy are both pretty brilliant. Connections come into play in character creation and immediately start making things interesting, but that plot map also expands any time the characters look for leads or more information. While it’s perfectly functional to play the game without using the Transmission format for prep, doing so gives you mechanics to make the storyline more emergent and therefore more able to surprise you. And if your game is evolving into a bona fide Cyberpunk conspiracy story, there are rules for keying in additional Transmissions and moving your story across multiple locations. Personally, I’m imagining multiple Transmissions for the same city…one for the gritty underworld, and at least one for each classic Cyberpunk corporation pulling the strings. There’s no limit to how deep the rabbit hole can go, and the GM can easily prep more conflicts and NPCs while keeping the story itself in the hands of the PCs and the dice.
Technoir is not a new game, per se, but its rerelease is an opportunity to take a look at this inventive corner case of Cyberpunk game design. Like GUMSHOE, Technoir focuses on very different elements of plot and characterization than traditional RPGs, but as a result it provides a different and effective way to tell stories, specifically character-driven hard-boiled and noir stories. The bones of Technoir are highly adaptable, and as such there is already Mechnoir and soon to be Hexnoir, spins on the game for mecha and magic respectively. If you’re looking to run some Cyberpunk and the word “intrigue” crosses your lips before the word “gunfight”, you need to give Technoir a try.