The Alexandrian

Technoir - Jeremy KellerTechnoir uses a simple core mechanic in which verbs are used to push adjectives onto characters. (For example, you might use your character’s Hack verb to push the adjective “exploited” onto a gunrunner’s security system.) That may look a little gimmicky, but it actually seems like a really slick little system.

What I find particularly notable about this is that it mechanically articulates and reinforces a procedure that I use almost constantly when I’m refereeing in virtually any system: When a player proposes an action with an uncertain outcome, the action is mechanically resolved using the rules of the game. Then I consider how that outcome has shifted the status quo and carry that knowledge forward as additional actions are proposed and resolved. I’m intrigued to see how a system that feeds directly into this process will perform in play: Will it piggyback it? Reinforce it? Interfere with it? Enhance it?

I’ll probably have more to say about Technoir once I’ve had a chance to actually play it, but my read-thru of the rulebook actually got me thinking about something completely different that I want to touch on today: Skill challenges in 4th Edition.

Technoir structures its core mechanic into Sequences using a very simple system of turn-taking. The trick to resolving sequences is pretty simple: Because adjectives are meaningful, the GM can use his common sense to know when a sequence ends (because the adjectives that have been applied will either result in the players being successful or unsuccessful in achieving their goal). This works because you can’t just slap adjectives on willy-nilly; you need to establish the proper vector by which the adjective can be applied. (In other words, you need to explain what actions you’re taking to achieve the objective.)

The result is that adjectives both arise naturally from the game world and also strictly describe the game world. As a result, sequences build organically and logically to unforeseen conclusions.

The system is, as far as I can tell, incredibly flexible and can be applied to almost any conflict (or what Technoir refers to as a “contention”): Hacking, seduction, combat, interrogation, tracking, chases, etc.

In other words, Technoir‘s sequences have the same mechanical goal as 4th Edition’s skill challenges (resolving discrete chunks of action in a structured format). But skill challenges are the polar opposite of Technoir‘s sequences:

First, whereas Technoir trusts the creativity and common sense of the players at the table to determine when a goal has been achieved (or thwarted), 4th Edition’s skill challenges hard-code a success-or-failure condition which is completely dissociated from the game world. Or, as Technoir puts it:

After any turn is taken and an action is performed, everyone at the table should look at what’s happening in the fiction. As I said before, there’s no score. You have to decide for yourselves when this ends. Each player should respect the adjectives that have been applied and removed and decide what her protagonist wants now — no matter what hse came into the scene wanting. You should do the same for your antagonists. You might find that one side got what they cam for and is done. Or that the two sides are now willing to compromise. Or that there are no good vectors for attacks any more. Look for new ways out of the situation. Maybe it’s time to stop rolling dice and cut to a new scene.

But if there is still something to contend over, go on to the next turn and play out the next action.

Technoir cares intimately and enthusiastically about what your characters have done, why they’ve done it, and what they’ve accomplished by doing it. 4th Edition’s skill challenges, on the other hand, don’t give a crap about any of that: If you haven’t rolled four successes yet, then your characters haven’t succeeded (no matter what they’ve achieved with those checks). And if you have rolled four successes, then your characters have totally succeeded (even if their actions haven’t actually achieved that yet).

Second, Technoir‘s system inherently gives freedom of choice to the players. They set their goals, determine their actions, and even demand their outcomes. (Of course, those demands may not always be satisfied.) Despite several years of constant errata and house rules attempting to soften 4th Edition skill challenge’s away from the rigid railroad presented in the original Dungeon Master’s Guide, the system is still inherently antithetical to player choice. For example, here’s a key quote from the presentation of skill challenges in D&D Essentials Rules Compendium:

Each skill challenge has skills associated with it that adventurers can use during the challenge. (…) Whatever skills the DM chooses for a skill challenge, he or she designates them as primary or secondary. A typical skill challenge has a number of associated skills equal to the number of adventurers plus two.

Incredibly, skills that players want to use that the DM hasn’t pre-approved can never be considered primary skills and are automatically considered inferior (they can count for no more than one success and may not count for successes at all). By default, 4th Edition tells you that ideas originating from the players are not to be treated with the same respect as ideas originating from the DM. It’s hard-coded right into the rules.

The two approaches really are night and day: Technoir trusts the creativity of the players. 4th Edition shackles the creativity of the players.

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16 Responses to “Technoir: Sequences vs. Skill Challenges”

  1. Stephen says:

    That was one of the things that totally weirded me out about 4E. I distinctly remember the Design and Development articles prior to the new edition outlining skill challenges as far more open ended, encouraging players to suggest ways to use their better skills to contribute. Then the game came out and the skills were hardcoded.

    Technoir is a lot of fun, and wound up working really well in play for my group. One thing to consider when porting the concept to another system, however, is that the adjectives system has both a hard and a soft method to end conflicts. Ideally, you use the soft method which is everyone agreeing that the adjectives have stacked up to a particular outcome. However, even if you can’t reach a consensus, you have the hard method of having built up so many Hurt dice that you can no longer win at any rolls. Even a player (or NPC) that refuses to admit that it’s time to give in will eventually have to face that all he or she is doing is building up a mountain of hurts in the quest to keep going.

  2. Bryant says:

    That idea appears a page or so later. “When players improve creative uses for skills that weren’t on the DM’s list of skills for the challenge, the DM typically treats them as secondary skills for the challenge.” Also, “The DM usually picks the primary skills before a challenge begins,” a few paragraphs earlier.

    Your commentary on Technoir is interesting and useful, and the comparison to skill challenges is even useful. However, you might want to stop critiquing the 4e you made up in your head and pay more attention to the rules as they exist.

  3. Justin Alexander says:

    You’re right, Bryant. That was poorly phrased on my part. I’ve corrected the post. It’s not that they’re completely dismissed; it’s just that they’re automatically treated as inferior contributors.

    @Stephen: For reasons I’m not entirely able to fathom, skill challenges have been a continual clusterfuck for WotC. They were massively revised once within the first six weeks of release and, IIRC, again within six months of release. These errata were not applied consistently throughout the core rules and, in the meantime, two or three other versions of the skill challenge rules had been published in various WotC products. And last time I checked, the latest errata for the DMG still lists different DCs than the Rules Compendium.

    Re: Transferring the concept to a different system. I had thought briefly about hacking something together for 3E as a system for resolving/informing social challenges, but, as you say, the system is actually knit very elegantly to the core mechanic and making it work in other environments may prove challenging.

    OTOH, the 6×6 scenario master table, plot node, and connections system is pretty much instantly plug ‘n play. If that works as well as I think it will, I’m going to be using it all over the damn place.

  4. Kevin says:

    Isn’t that what he was referring to when he said 4E treats the skills players suggest as inferior, though? Isn’t secondary inferior to primary? I haven’t played 4E and only have a cursory knowledge of it, but I can’t find the fault in what he said here.

  5. Daztur says:

    The technoir thing sounds interesting, could you give a short example of how it plays out? I’m not really visualizing it well right now…

  6. Justin Alexander says:

    @Daztur: I’ll probably go into more detail in the future, but here’s the quick version.

    (1) All characters have a rating of 1-5 in nine verbs: Coax, Detect, Fight, Hack, Move, Operate, Prowl, Shoot, and Treat. (These are basically your attributes and/or skills from other games.)

    (2) Characters will also have adjectives. Some are positive; some are negative. Most are fleeting (they disappear at the end of a scene), but some will stick around for several scenes (or forever if they’re primal characteristics of the character).

    (3) There’s an “economy of Push dice” at the table. Basically, all PCs start with three Push dice. They can discharge these Push dice to help in adjective checks (as described below) or they can spend the Push dice to make the adjectives they stick on other characters last longer. (Players keep discharged dice and can use them again. Spent dice are given to the GM, who can then use them or spend them for his NPCs. As the GM spends them, they are returned to the PCs. And so forth.)

    (4) To apply an adjective, the player has to describe the vector by which their character is applying it. (In other words, you have to say what you’re doing.) The player receives a number of Action Dice equal to their rating in the Verb they’re using to apply the adjective.

    (5) The player also receives a number of Hurt Dice equal to their current number of negative adjectives which have been applied to them. (Adjectives which wouldn’t apply to the current action don’t count.)

    (6) If the player has positive adjectives which would aid the action, the can discharge Push Dice and add them to their dice pool.

    (7) The player now has a pool made up of Action, Hurt, and Push dice. They roll the full pool. Hurt Dice cancel all the results of the same number. (For example, if you roll a “2” on Hurt die, none of the 2’s in your die pool count.) The result of your action check is equal to the highest Action or Push die that wasn’t cancelled by a Hurt die.

    (8) This result is compared to the Reaction score of the target. The target’s Reaction is equal to the Verb the target uses to react, and the target can also discharge a Push die for each adjective that helps them to add +1 to the Reaction score.

    (9) If you get a result higher than the target’s Reaction, you’ve successfully applied the adjective.

    There are a few limitations and provisos to this (equipment plays a role; you can’t jump directly to “dead”, etc.), but that’s the gist of it.

  7. Bill says:

    What I don’t understand is why WotC writers for D&D don’t look enough at Star Wars Saga Edition. The skill challenge information outlined in Galaxy of Intrigue was much better than the skill challenges in the DMG (which isn’t unreasonable since they came out later and could improve on the idea’s presentation) or Essentials. The idea of using a player’s input is definitely there and incorporated into a substantial example of play.

    Doesn’t the right hand know what the left hand has done at WotC?

  8. Zeta Kai says:

    No, apparently not.

  9. Sebastien Roblin says:

    I think the most cutting problem with skill challenges (which Jason brings up in the article) is that conditions for success or failure can be met regardless of the logic or in-game context- ie, winning a ‘scale the fortress’ wall skill challenge by making a lot of knowledge checks for architecture. This gamist mini-game can also serve to mentally distance people from the game-world and conseuqences of the actions they are attempting.

    They are appropriate for certain intangible sort of situations- social exchanges or maybe I could see them being appropriate for a chase sequence- but even then, I would prefer them to be employed as a ‘hidden’ DM tool or planning system for adjucating extended skill usage, rather than the player realizing that they have entered a gamist ‘skill challenge’ mode in which they have to spam x number of succesful die rolls before y number of failures.

  10. Justin Alexander says:

    I initially thought they would be better for social encounters, too. (There’s an essay to that effect lurking around the website somewhere.) But during actual play I’ve found them to actually be worse; and the hidden ones are quite disastrous. The core of the problem is that, ultimately, skill challenges function by over-riding the GM’s common sense and replacing it with a really simplistic computer program. This is fairly insipid in any “false report of success” scenario, but in a social encounter it basically turns your NPCs into facsimiles that make Cleverbot look like a Turing Mastermind.

    I’m sure that an experienced GM could successfully “interpret” the results of the skill challenge in order to create something that makes sense. But such a GM is just duplicating the work they would be doing WITHOUT the skill challenge, except now they’ve shackled themselves with the limitations of the skill challenge while gaining absolutely nothing from it.

    I’ve found a few “mechanics inspired by the idea of skill challenges” to be useful:

    (1) Complex skill checks (which have actually been around since forever), which make it necessary to succeed at several checks in order to achieve one specific, concrete action (defusing a bomb, following a trail, etc.).

    (2) Handing narrative control over to the players. (“You need to get into the Castle of Despair. Tell me how you do it. I’m making this a 5/2 challenge.” And then the results are completely improvised within a narrative control space.)

    (3) Group checks. (Everybody in the group is doing the same thing collectively — climbing a wall, sneaking into Mordor, whatever. Have everybody make the check and use skill challenge mechanics — including, crucially, failure cancellation — to resolve the attempt.)

  11. Anthony says:

    I really like this idea! I have a hard enough time getting my friends to accept new versions of old systems though, I’d unfortunately never get to try this system. But this sounds like a great way to think of driving forward non-combat encounters in a more definable way! I’ll definitely adopt some of these elements in my game.

    And as for secret systems, I’m a big fan of them actually. I like having them because I’m not always good at seat-of-my-pants DMing and I like to have a system already in place… but I’m GREAT at tweaking stuff I already have. That’s why I like keeping the system a secret. I can tweak the system on the fly. “Oh, that was really effective! I can skip these steps of the mechanic.”

    I’m not exactly the most fluid DM but I’d hardly say my NPCs are grossly mechanical as a result.

  12. Norcross says:

    Technoir sounds interesting, and I really don’t like 4e, but I the degeneration into (well-based) 4e-bashing really weakens the “review”.

  13. Justin Alexander says:

    Well, it was written as a comparison between sequences and skill challenges, not a review. So the fact that it doesn’t function as a review is probably an acceptable casualty. :)

  14. Arne Babenhauserheide says:

    Damn, now you got me to buy Technoir – and to consider turning our consequences Module into something much closer to Technoir by making the consequence the default and the damage the way to evade the consequences:

  15. — #Теория — Структура игры, ч.15: Универсальные сценарные структуры (перевод) says:

    […] как я уже упоминал недавно, «Technoir» добилась замечательного успеха именно в этом […]

  16. BAALBAMOTH says:

    I don’t know, all of this sounds overly game-ist (handing around dice, lots of pools to keep track of) and I’m not really seeing the advantages over a success level based pool system (like shadowrun,) do you really find that the system is valuing simulation over narration? Or is this really just more narrative control hijinks?

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