What Doesn’t Kill You…

I’ve been reading Dashiell Hammett off and on over the last few years. I’m a big fan of Hammett-inspired films like Miller’s Crossing and Brick. This is hardboiled fiction at its best as far as I’m concerned. One of the elements that defines a hardboiled protagonist—besides the cynical attitude—is a willingness to face danger. To get hurt, beat up, or even worse in order to do the job. Generally they get punched in the face a lot.

Hardboiled is an influence on cyberpunk, but it is something I am emphasizing even more so in Technoir. In cyberpunk RPGs there is a tendency to spend a couple hours planning in order to get in and out unseen, unscathed. Hardboiled protagonists walk in the front door. They make their presence known. They make people nervous. They shake the tree and see what falls out. The best way to infiltrate enemy headquarters is to walk up to one of their goons, get tasered unconscious, and taken prisoner.

The first part of emulating this idea is to make sure that the characters in Technoir can take a beating. First off, there isn’t much of a buffer against injury. If someone hits you, they can inflict an Adjective on you. Spending a Push die or two then is all that’s needed to make that Adjective sticky or locked. Sticky Adjectives are anything from wounds to injuries that can recovered from with first aid, some medicine, and some time. Locked Adjectives are permanent injuries—severed legs, gouged eyes—and can only be repaired by cybernetic replacement.

Having a bad Adjective at any level makes you add a Hurt die into your dice rolls. The more bad Adjectives you get, the more Hurt dice you roll. Hurt dice aren’t a definite penalty—they cancel out any matching results so if they don’t match your highest result then no harm done. But the more you have, the bigger chance they will trip you up or force you out (if all of your positive dice are cancelled out, you lose the conflict on the GMs terms). But you can take a lot of bad Adjectives before that happens.

Of course taking a bad Adjective is still bad for your health. And players tend to avoid behaviors that are mechanically bad for their characters. Ryan Macklin vocalized this issue in one of the early playtests of the game. It was even worse because it played into the whole Push economy. Players start with all the Push dice. That means that the GM can’t inflict any Adjectives on the wound or injury level until the protagonists start wounding or injuring the antagonists first. But the players were discouraged from spending their Push dice, giving them to the me—the GM, because they knew that in order to get them back they would have to get wounded or injured themselves. Why not keep all the Push dice for themselves and try to win the conflict using only the default level fleeting Adjectives?

Because this is hardboiled fiction, is what I tried to tell Ryan. That’s the genre. That’s what’s cool about these stories is that the heroes get beat up and bloodied.

But I knew that if I had a hard time selling that to a player standing right in front of me, I would have a harder time explaining that to a player I have never met, who is hearing this from her GM who read it in a book.

Ryan was right—and so were all the other game designers in the room who were nodding along in agreement. This kinda pissed me off[1] because I really liked the Push economy. It was really elegant, I thought, if I could just get players to engage in it.

My solution came to me during the drive home from that game. At that point, I still hadn’t completely nailed down how the advancement system worked. All I had to do was tie the advancement system into the healing system. I made getting better at your Verbs happen when you are treating sticky or locked Adjectives. If you don’t get those injuries in the first place, you can’t make an advancement roll. The added bonus is that recovering from locked Adjectives is a good excuse to get new cybernetic implants. So the second part of emulating this genre concept was incentivizing getting hurt. The idea is that what doesn’t kill your protagonist makes her harder, better, faster, stronger. It’s one thing to say it in the text, but to sell the idea I had to say it with the rules.

  1. [1] The issue pissed me off, I should say, not Ryan being right. I was grateful that Ryan really lasered in on the problem.
  1. So, over at Transneptune, we’ve been poking at a game that was going to be cybernoir. When I first came across Technoir, it felt like you had kinda scooped us, but increasingly we’ve realized that we don’t understand noir, and have shifted the focus. But seeing what you write here is great—it helps make noir make sense to me, and makes me excited to see your game.

    I’m a little unclear on how tying it to advancement incentivizes getting injured, but I’ve always been more keen on injuring my characters than advancing them. Maybe I do understand some of noir more than I think I do…

  2. Kit, I’m the same way. I tend to have my characters go all John McClane no matter what game I’m playing. I suppose it’s only an incentive for those concerned with the mechanical advantages of their character. But I think that’s the same set of players who view getting injured as a disadvantage. So I think it’s just making sure that the mechanics feedback and the concept of the game are in-line with each other.

  3. Jeremy,

    You are generous. But, really, it’s Rob Donoghue who is right. He ripped up a Mythender mechanic that I wanted to argue “but, if you play it in the spirit in intended…”

    In fact, I said something like that. And Rob balked. Mythender is better for it. So that’s just me paying Rob’s painful advice forward.

    Also, I so heart Technoir.

    - Ryan

  4. Well, Rob wasn’t there. You were. And if not for that, who knows what could have happened. Anarchy probably.

  5. You know, I’ve got to be a bit of pedant here: John McClane tries to keep himself from getting hurt with some frequency. Especially in DIE HARD, we have to build up to him jumping off the building; his first instinct in the film is to flee so fast that he leaves his shoes behind. He uses stealth and guile to engage terrorists one at a time, rather than getting taken captive to get right to their boss.

    What can we infer from this? Clearly, the GM of DIE HARD had intended McClane to be captured along with the rest of the hostages right at the beginning of the scenario and that premise did not survive contact with the player.

  6. Forgive me for jumping in late to the party here, but I have a question about “getting better.” Besides improving your 9 verbs and giving each other more +Adj, is there any other way that characters improve?

  7. Well, you can always buy more stuff. In fact when you take locked neg Adjectives, you’re going to have to buy an implant Object and have it installed in order to fix it. Also, through the course of the game, especially after you start adding more Transmissions to your campaign, your protagonists will start meeting more Connections. And that provides more favors.

  8. What Doesn’t Kill You… :: RyanMacklin.com - pingback on July 4, 2011 at 12:32 pm
  9. Congrats to Technoir, from Ring City :: RyanMacklin.com - pingback on August 16, 2011 at 11:21 am

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