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The Noir in Technoir

I’ve been involved in many conversations about Technoir, and one of the criticisms I hear is that there isn’t really any noir in the game. And I agree, insofar that I also see there isn’t any inherent pulp in Fate–it’s genre expectations & understanding of theme & tropes that bring those things to life in a game. A game doesn’t have to directly support a genre with mechanics if there is an understanding that desired tone will be filled in.[1]

However, there is one place where I’m seeing a lack of noir tone in Technoir: the distribution of Push dice.

If you don’t know, well, check out the free Technoir player’s guide.

The players start with all the Push dice, giving them the power to make lasting change and defend themselves. The GM’s characters, in contrast, don’t.

That’s the opposite of noir, in my view. So what happens if you give all the Push dice to the players?

I don’t know. But I look to find out.

– Ryan

P.S. Thanks to EZ for his comment on yesterday’s post that triggered this thinking.

[1] That said, putting framing elements (like questions or options) into character creation could more easily push noir into the game, but creating characters that remind us of those tropes and themes, with elements on the character sheet to reinforce that. Which, I think, it does pretty well for cyberpunk, and I’ve had fun with as long as I treat the game like a harsh cyberpunk world and allow noir to be a happy accident.

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20 Responses to The Noir in Technoir

  1. Mark DiPasquale says:

    The strongest noir element in the game for me are the character’s Connections. Even before play starts, the PCs have complicated relationships with people who are part of the conspiracy that’ll be uncovered during play, people who have things the PCs want and need but that inevitably turn on them.

    The plot map also hits some of noir’s cynical and morally ambivalent tonal notes: play long enough, and every element in a playbook can wind up tied into the conspiracy. If someone seems clean, it’s because you haven’t found out how they’re dirty yet, and if something seems innocent, it’s because you don’t know the whole truth.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Mark,

      After playing it & running it a few times, I find the relationship map is a useful tool, but there’s nothing that’s inherently noir about it.

      What happens in the first fifteen minutes of play will color the tone of the game for hours to come, and what happens in those hours will color future sessions. And in those first fifteen minutes, you’re fighting against the game’s power dynamic setup to produce noir.

      – Ryan

  2. I don’t want to put words in Jeremy Keller’s mouth, and it’d be interesting to see his response to this.
    My interpretation (and I know you know this, Ryan, I’m going through this at length for others’ benefit, but would like to hear your comments if you have contradictory experiences) is that the Push mechanics as written should generate a noir arc. Initially, the players have all the Push dice, which makes them capable of getting through Act 1: Investigation and Setup. There’s no need to inflict lasting consequences during this phase, but you need a bunch of dice to get down and hairy with the real players in the plot and figure out what they’re up to.
    When the players start acting on their information, expending a handful of Push dice to do something meaningful, this triggers Act 2: Confrontation. The PCs have been poking around and sticking their noses where they don’t belong, and the GM is now equipped to fight back. Funny thing with Technoir is, Push dice in the hands of the players belong to a particular PC, while Push dice given to the GM goes in the GM’s pool rather than being attached to a given NPC – this means the GM can bring a couple of heavies in to put a stop to the PCs poking about, the players gang up on them to take them out – /now they’re taken out/, but the GM can still use those Push dice with surgical precision to have some /other/ NPC bring the shit crashing down on a particular PC. So Push dice in the hands of the GM are far more dangerous than Push dice in the hands of the players, because the players can’t just swap out their PCs when they’ve sustained too many lasting consequences.
    So in Act 2, the PCs get summarily beaten up, or at least sustain serious consequences. In the process, the PCs suffering those consequences gets their Push dice back, and are now armed with a lot more precise information on what vector of attack would have the most impact. They rally and carry out their plan in Act 3: Finale. People die, plots are revealed, maybe a twist or two are laid out on the table as PCs have to engage their contacts one last time, thickening the plot. Push dice flow back and forth and finally the Transmission is complete, for good or ill.
    The above is clearly not the only possible arc or outcome, but it seems a common one to me. Should the GM instead retain all Push dice from the get-go, it’d appear that Act 1 is more or less bypassed in favour of stronger plot- and scene-framing by the GM to bring players into the plot almost by force, and get hammered pretty much straight away. Since protagonists in noir fiction by and large are only tangentially related to the overall plot, and appear to enjoy plot immunity until they become embroiled in it through sticking their nose into other peoples’ business, this appears to be less true to the genre for me.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Out of curiosity, have you played it or is this just from your reading?

      – Ryan

    • I’ve run Technoir three times in convention settings. Each time I’ve gotten variably far into what I’m describing as Act 2, where the PCs starts really getting into some shit. Unfortunately, these being convention games with strict time limits, that’s been the totality of my experience, so the remainder of Act 2 and Act 3 is based on my reading and my theory of play only. The first bits I’ve experienced seems to jibe with actual-play, though.
      As I said, I’m very interested to hear if others have had alternate experiences with the full arc.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      The act breakdown you’re showing is far from how I’ve seen it played. The decision to use Push dice has always been individual, with a flow rather than an act structure, and sometimes even meta. I’ve heard “This guy isn’t worth a Push die, so I’m not spending it.”

      Which turns the classic “two guys with guns” noir technique into something weaker depending on the die distribution at the time. And since the die distribution isn’t linked to slow moments of plot, that’s unfortunate.

      – Ryan

    • That’s very interesting. One of the gotchas I see in Technoir is that by giving the players all the Push dice, you’re also giving them free reign to set the pacing. As GM, the best you can do to try to enforce a certain pace or rhythm is to threaten, not the players directly, but the stuff they hold dear – players who “get” the system will understand that as long as they hold all the Push, they can’t really get affected long-term. And with the PCs being only marginally connected to the plot r-map (through their Connections, mostly), they have no built-in motive to act on your threats. If the players aren’t playing ball, you have little chance of keeping the pace going until they decide to act as a noir protagonist would. I’ve definitely encountered this problem in my play-throughs as well.

      As I see it, the game hinges on the players not playing strategically (like “this guy isn’t worth a die”), but motivating their characters’ actions by noir tropes (e.g. defending the girl even though they “know” she’s trouble) and actively putting their characters in harm’s way. This requires that a certain degree of noir is frontloaded into the game through a social contract to play that way rather than relying on the game to automagically generate the noir for you, as you point out in the post. Having said that, while some may see that requirement for frontloading and same-pageness as a weak point, I don’t see the rest of the mechanics of the game as working /against/ the noir genre at all.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      One of the gotchas I see in Technoir is that by giving the players all the Push dice, you’re also giving them free reign to set the pacing.

      I’m not sure I buy that. But even so, it only works if (a) they realize that and (b) that’s what they’re looking for.

      As I see it, the game hinges on the players not playing strategically (like “this guy isn’t worth a die”), but motivating their characters’ actions by noir tropes

      If that’s true, then the game fails. The one thing you cannot do as a game designer is enforce specific modes of play. You can only encourage them. People will bring to the table whatever desires & considerations they have.

      Having said that, while some may see that requirement for frontloading and same-pageness as a weak point, I don’t see the rest of the mechanics of the game as working /against/ the noir genre at all.

      Since I do, clearly we’re not playing the same game.

      – Ryan

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      I’ve been thinking about this since the original comment, and I think I get where I’m disconnected from your experience: the flow of Push dice don’t match act breaks. The economy is so small that multiple exchanges can happen in the scope of one act, and having studied act breaks in TV & movies, they don’t happen the same way in RPGs that push a player-paced style.

      Which makes me really curious at how you manage that. What does an act transition look like to you?

      – Ryan

    • Well, unfortunately, this is an area where I’m not backed up by a whole lot of real-life data, having not managed to achieve a large number of transitions and having never gotten to Act 2 -> Act 3 transitions.

      I’m guessing though, from your description, that my games and your games have differed in just how frequently the Push dice are used for lasting consequences. What I’ve done is, during Act 1, I get the PCs acquainted with their Connections, and have the Connections drop some hints or hand out some tasks. Some MacGuffin is engaged here for motivation, usually the promise of some Kreds to pay back a debt or something related to a Relationship. Eventually the PCs paths cross, they congeal, compare notes, and decide what path to go down next. At this time, if not before, I introduce some opposition, as I should have at least a handful of Push dice at this point, and this is vaguely the transition into Act 2. During this time, once I have a sufficient amount of Push dice to do real damage, I focus in on one or two PCs and give them serious consequences. And that’s as far as I’ve gotten; though I have theoretical plans for how to proceed from there, I have yet to be able to test them.

      But the distinction I see is that you say that multiple exchanges can happen in the scope of one act, and while that’s true on a microscopic scale (you give me one, I give you one back), my take is that before you reach Act 2 you as a GM need to have accumulated enough Push dice to be able to dole out serious consequences to at least a couple of the PCs – which means you need to lay low in Act 1, and cajole the players out of their dice by dangling carrots in front of them or threaten stuff they care about instead of taking direct meaningful action against them. As an example, in one of my games, I had a prominent Connection brutally murdered in an alleyway while en route to the PCs hideout – they spent a large number of Push dice to find a lead to who was at fault, without it costing me anything.

      And then in Act 2, you give most of them back through beating the PCs up, swap out the NPCs that accumulate too many consequences for fresh ones, and when they PCs have sustained enough abuse you’re ready for some serious back-and-forth action in Act 3. In theory. While this approach makes for a slow build, but that’s also in-line with the fiction, from what I’ve seen.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Ah! You’re using act trigger based on Push dice, and I’m using act trigger based on storytelling/scriptwriting instincts. At least, that’s how I’m reading it.

      – Ryan

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Or, to be clearer about what I mean, you’re using the mechanics to trigger act breaks, and I’m using the fiction to tell me when an act break has occurred.

      – Ryan

  3. Yes, I think that’s exactly right, Ryan. That’s also what I meant about the players setting the pacing – if they refuse to give up their Push dice, Act 1 is just going to be so much longer. That also signals to you, the GM, that you haven’t yet given them something they really care about, though, so maybe that’s not a bad thing.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      But you, as the GM, are also tied there, as they know you don’t have the teeth to make something they care about threatened.

      Push dice are a weird economy. One that continues to fascinate me, but doesn’t work like anything else I’ve dealt with.

      – Ryan

  4. This is a great discussion. Awesome post, Ryan.

    You might be very right. I need to rewatch Double Idemnity (which is my go-to for noir). To be honest, I see Technoir as more in the hardboiled genre. And I think hardboiled definitely puts the initial agency in the hero’s hands.

    Maltese Falcon is my go-to for hardboiled. The whole thing doesn’t start out by something bad happening to Sam Spade, it starts with something bad happening to his partner. Spade isn’t really phased by this. Not enough that I think a negative adjective is inflicted. Spade chooses to take the case. He chooses to get involved. He chooses to shake the tree. It’s when he does that when the world starts pushing back. The world would have left him alone if he hadn’t got involved. Hardboiled stories are about protagonist agency, in my opinion. They are not forced into plot, they charge head-first into it.

    So maybe my strategy with the design for Technoir was not that I would force you into the genre conventions, but that I would do my best to support the groups who charge head-first into it. Or I may be generously remembering whatever the hell I was thinking a year ago.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Jeremy,

      I see some of that, yeah. Noir is also a damned hard genre to pin down, which leads people to have different ideas of what “noir” means at the table, different views of themes even if we all get the tropes. And when people look at a game these days as purporting a particular genre, there’s an expectation of mechanical support — which isn’t a problem with the game, but a fascinating view of the subculture.

      (Of course, you personally know my ulterior motives for this post…)

      – Ryan

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      I was talking with Ron Blessing today about this, as he’s about to start up a Technoir game. And I realized, as I was talking about what might be a good intro Transmission, that…well, here’s what I said (paraphrased):

      “I would say Hong Kong, because people get that, and similar I think for Singapore…wait, huh, actually if you want noir, those wouldn’t be good because HK cinema isn’t noir, but its own set of tropes and themes.”

      I’ll bet that’s one place where there’s a disconnect, in what the setting material evokes. You can, of course, do American Noir-style HK, or HK-influenced American Noir, but you have to work at it.

      – Ryan

  5. (Word.)

    Yeah. To be clear: the fact that I wrote a game with the word “noir” in the title doesn’t mean I know this shit anymore than anyone else.

    There’s all the room in the world for hacks, tweaks, and new games that explore other takes on these kind of stories.

  6. el Mīko says:

    Thought provoking post Ryan, thanks.

    I really like the take that Mikael Andersson has on the transitions between acts and the flow of push dice. I would really like to try running the act transitions based on the player’s use of push dice next time I run.

  7. 4649matt says:

    After playing with some passive, cautious gamers, I ran with 1/3 of the push dice already in my hands at the start so I would have a prod.
    This discussion helps illuminate why this worked, and it might be worthwhile adjust the balance of the push dice based on expectations. Sliding the starting push dice across the table is a gamma adjust for the game tone.