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Hi Mark! Thanks for answering a few questions about noir and crime fiction in games. First off, who is a favorite fictional sleuth of yours? Why?
M: Ezekiel "Easy" Porterhouse Rawlins is a great detective whose stories combine traditional conventions of detective fiction with descriptions of racial inequities and social injustice experienced in the 40s and 50s. I love how he starts out as the Every man, one only seeking to get paid and ends up caught up in things beyond his control. This is so typical of Noir characters.
TSR’s Gangbusters goes all the way back to 1982, are you working with the game as it was then (or the 1990 revision), or has it been updated to match modern interpretations of the 20s/30s or changes in game design since then?
M: I am working with the rules as written, they should flow well with 1982 version as well as the 1990 version. I would love to write a modern interpretation of the rules while maintaining compatibility with the classic. Rick Krebs the original writer and creator of Gangbusters RPG has been very nice to allow to me to put out new material for his great game.
How do GMs and players learn about the genre as they play the game?
M: Gangbusters is a game that takes place in the Roaring 20’s and early 1930’s, essentially the Prohibition Era, of America. The focus of the game is on the Prohibition and the police/law enforcement struggle to control the streets and the halls of power. The player characters can take the roles of law enforcement, criminals, and other types of roles. The game is based in Lakefront City, ostensibly a fictional Chicago.
What parts of the rules and overall system capture what drew you to work with this noir game?
M: Gangbusters may be one of the most perfectly formulated roleplaying games ever made. Criminals get awarded for making money. Cops get awarded for making high profile busts. Journalists get awarded for scooping stories. The game supports as few as a single player all the way up to dozens. The rules are a simple percentile based system that can be easily adapted to many things simply roll a percent chance to do anything you want to do.
Noir often has a jaded view of society, how is this a part of Gangbusters?
M: This is a game where you don’t have to work together. There aren't that many non-cooperative roleplaying games out there. Gangbusters is one of them. Some of the players may play cops, others play as criminals, and still others play folks on the side. You don't have to cooperate if you don't want to. Sure, you could play a corrupt cop that lets your criminal friends getaway. But you can also play a straight-arrow detective who gets the other PCs put in jail. It's all up to you, and it doesn't interfere with the game the way, say, a party of evil destructive PCs killing each other might. Because this is part of the very meat of the game. On top of that the damn thing is deadly.You get in a gun fight, you can die, Fast. Players need to use their head and know when to fight and know when to walk away.
How would you rank wanting the players to experience adventure, justice, disillusionment and betrayal in Gangbusters? Are there other themes you find of interest in the game?
M: Well that all depends on the story and what is going on at the time. Some players may find out that winning may end up costing them more than they are willing to pay. Prohibition is a time where the rules don't apply, you can get a prescription for booze and still drink alcohol if you have it in the stored up. but to sell it or transport it will get you locked up. It's a time of open secrets where lots of players will find a double edge sword in most things. Players often experiences both sides of the law and conspiring with gangsters during the course of the game. So how much and how often is often up to the players and their actions.
Thanks very much for talking with me about Gangbusters and for bringing this classic game back into people’s view!
I want to thank Rick Krebs for creating a great game and allowing its continued support.
Mark Hunt is a Former Deputy Sheriff and Air force Veteran now game designer. He has created Drongo for Dungeon Crawl Classics., Adventures for Gangbusters RPG and currently writing his own RPG Swords of the Empire. You can find material here for Ganbusters RPG if you are interested in the game:
Thanks for talking with me about Noir and crime fiction in games. First off, who is a favorite fictional sleuth of yours? Why?
J: Emily, thank you so much for the chance to talk about noir,crime fiction, and gaming. I’m grateful.
There are so many choices for favorite sleuth that it’s hard sometimes to pick one, but if I had to, if there was a gritty battle royale, I think Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe is standing on top when all is said and done, having narrowly defeated Rex Stout’s Archie Goodwin.
To me, Marlowe is all the best things about sleuthing and crime fiction: He’s noble, a sort of paladin with a code but he’s not perfect. He’s got a sense of when to be charming, when to be flippant, and when it’s time to get his hands dirty. He comes off the page not as some superior detective, or the smartest guy in the room, but he’s the most regular guy in the room - the guy who just wants to do the right thing and still get down to the bar or diner before it closes.
And I think that’s a credit to Chandler. Moreso than Hammett, Chandler wrote a world that felt like a character and characters that exist along a spectrum of decisions and consequences, not just simple alignments that pigeonhole. Los Angeles and the surrounding areas breathe in smog and dust and exhale shadows and people that aren’t too clean and neat around the edges.
This is especially true when you hear the Philip Marlowe radio plays (search for Milton Geiger on Spotify), as the ensemble cast and the scripts really conspire to make the City feel both homey and alien. It gives a sense that trust is flexible and sort of tenuous, which plays even more with the expectation that the protagonist should be always marching towards doing “the right thing”.
Marlowe’s pursuit of what’s right isn’t a blind quest, he’s neither tilting at windmills nor acting "lawful stupid", he’s solving the crime because it’s the right thing to do. It just happens that the associated paycheck will really help him pay the bills. He doesn’t place a premium on the more boy scout ideals of turning down the reward, nor is he strictly mercenary. It’s his moral code that guides him, all else is gravy on his steak.
What parts of crime fiction were you most interested in when you wrote Noir World and what lead you to use the Powered by the Apocalypse system to make a game about them?
J: My first memories of crime fiction came from audiobooks. Robert B. Parker’s Spenser (and it’s related TV show, Spenser for Hire) were the first detective stories I remember, and I really liked the voiceover. The idea that you were in the character’s head, that you were seeing what he saw and had access to his thoughts was incredibly intimate and special.
I was always a reader, and as a kid, I was encouraged to read more than any other activity (I think because it kept me quiet and there was low risk of hurting myself), so I kept up with Spenser and later went to Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe corpus. Again, the narration was there, but so were the plots. Now two ideas began to fuse together, and as I read more stories, through Chandler and Hammett and then into films and television, I starting building this toolbox of techniques I could take into my fantasy gaming with my friends. The hard-boiled tropes put a nice tint on the high fantasy stories of second edition D&D.
I never thought I would ever be good enough to make a game, even after I got into the industry professionally. I could help other people make a game: I could edit something, I could bounce some ideas around, I could test things for people, but for a long time the idea of making a game seemed to be a thing that the really smart and talented people did. And I barely thought of myself as that talented, even if I liked those moments where my ego inflated like a parade balloon. It was all facade, I thought this was going to be a long history of "always a bridesmaid, never a bride." Several friends won ENnies or got nominated, they received praise and I wanted that. But what did I have?
I had a deep knowledge of detective stories and old movies. I had a huge library of encyclopedias and DVDs and old books. I didn’t know how to really turn that into a game, so I started by taking the games I had worked on or with - Fate Core and Gumshoe primarily, and thought that in order to be as good as my friends, I had to do something big and huge and incredible. So I tried fusing all the mechanics together. A little Fate Core here, some Gumshoe over there, and I’d patch the stuff together with stuff of my own invention.
It didn’t go well. I was trying so hard to be as good as how I saw my friends’ work that I forgot a really important tenet for game development - make the game you want to play. I had made a six page manifesto of mechanics, and it sort of had some Sherlock Holmes-ian window dressing, but it wasn’t fun. It was just words on a page from a guy trying to be like his friends so his friends would notice he was good enough.
I came to the World engine one afternoon when we played Dungeon World, and I liked how easy it was. It didn’t clutter up the game with mechanics, it wasn’t as number-centric as some other games I had played in, and it let people tell a story in their own voice.
So, I started buying PDFs and books of every game Powered by the Apocalypse. It didn’t matter if it was Apocalypse World or Saga of the Icelanders or Black Stars Rise, I wanted to see how the sausage got made, and how different people handled the same basic material. How did Monsterhearts handle player-to-player relationships? How did Dungeon World handle weaponry? How did Headspace build a world?
This led me for a while away from World games and into any noir game I could find on DrivethruRPG, because while I was happy with the idea of moves and fluid dice, I wanted to see how games handled the bigger picture - the world building and the characterization. How trope heavy and trope reliant were games like Mean Streets or Secrets and Lies?
Somewhere in this process, I stopped trying to compete with all these games. I didn’t have to be better than my friends, I didn’t have to do a better job than these others games, I wanted to see what I could do. What did I have to say? What experience did I want to give players? How much fun did I want people to have?
That’s when my game idea became less a spew of paragraphs and into Noir World. Of course writing over forty drafts helped too. I put a premium on the voiceover, on being in character. I wanted players to build a City that had grit and shadows. I wanted players to inhabit characters where it wasn’t easy to peg down their agendas or their thinking.
How do your GMs and players learn about the genre as they play your game?
J: I think it starts the minute people pick a Role, my name for playbooks. There are nineteen possible Roles, and all the major tropes like Good Cop or Dirty Cop or Fatale are represented, along with some lesser tropes like the Socialite, the Politician or the Ex-Con. It was really important to me though that the Role have some elements found in the genre, but not the negative criticisms we associate with it today. Any Role can be played any way by anyone, regardless of race or gender or orientation. Just because the genre routinely portrays a trope a certain way doesn’t mean I couldn’t take it in a different way. I credit Avery Alder for really encouraging and challenging me to find the tropes and subvert them.
As a player moves down the page in building the Role, they choose Actions (moves) that are typical to what function they serve in the genre. The Mook can shrug off injury, the Fatale can inveigle or outright seduce or the Reporter can call in a favor. This helps give a starting point for the player who might only know the genre from a few television shows or the more popular movies.
Where I wanted to submerge people in the genre was in two parts: the Hooks system and City creation system. Through a series of backstory connections, each Role is involved with at least one other Role at the table. Maybe the Good Cop is related to the Socialite and only the Cop knows about it. Or maybe the Career Criminal regrets breaking the War Vet’s heart so many years ago. It’s these complications that turn ordinary character interactions into a tense and messy knot. I think that’s a really important element in keeping a game dramatic and tight.
Where I think the Powered by the Apocalypse system really fuses well with the genre is in City Creation. Crime and noir stories are incredibly claustrophobic, and players build their own City in every game. Each player provides a Location (a place where a Scene in the game will take place) or a Person (an NPC to interact with) and facts about them. Maybe there’s a seedy red light district where the cops don’t go after sunset. Maybe the Citizen has been sneaking off to the underground casino when everyone else is asleep.
By building their own City, it helps turn geography into a vibrant and imperfect character. It also helps to reinforce the genre’s tone of hazy grays amid the black and white moral choices. Every Location or Person has something about them that can be used to serve the story, even if that means people have to get a little dirty to do so.
In Noir World, how would you rank wanting the players to experience adventure, justice, disillusionment and betrayal? What other themes were important to you and how did you capture them in your rules, background or guidance for players or GM?
J: When players sit down to play Noir World, they’ve got three things to decide: what era they’re playing in, what the Crime in the story is, and if the Crime has happened before the start of the story or if it’s going to happen during play.
Because the genre can be stretched from the 1920s all the way to a Blade Runner or Minority Report near-future, that can help shape the City and their play choices. The manipulation of time can indirectly inform a sense of adventure.
With a Crime having happened already, or set up to happen, and depending on what Roles people are playing, you can get either a “catch the badguys” sense of justice or a criminal’s sense of “avoid getting caught” absence of justice and I think having this decision out of the hands of a single person (there’s no single GM in Noir World, the Director’s chair is shared by all players at the table) means that the focus isn’t on the clearcut problem-solving-quests you find in other gaming.
Noir World offers a lot of disillusionment and opportunities for betrayal. With every Role having secrets and personal agendas, as well as a complicated backstory where lives intersect in juicy and tragic ways, play is ripe with chances to double-cross, get even, break hearts or leave things unresolved. It’s a genre that really feels messy, but not in a tabloid sensational way: these are people who live imperfect lives in an imperfect world and they all make things harder on themselves or others despite any best efforts to rise above. In fact, it’s the knowledge that they should be better but can’t be the paragon which drives people deeper into getting caught up in plans and schemes.
I wanted people to play a game that focuses on characters and their flaws. I wanted people to sit down at the table aware that they’re telling a particular flavor of story, and all collaborating to do so, that they weren’t just going to sit down and spend a few hours reacting to someone’s outlined notes. By telling people to think like a movie and think like their character, and giving them tools to be their own Director, they have a hand in telling the kind of story they want. By defining the boundaries of the genre and by providing a roadmap of emotions and choices rather than accomplishments, players put themselves into situations that aren’t all-good or all-bad, and they’ve got to choose between a host of options that will ‘sort of’ give them what they want, but at some kind of cost.
No one in noir comes out the same way they went in. There are not a lot of positive, happy, save-the-world-and-all-is-well moments in noir or crime fiction, and I think Noir World really reflects that. It plays with expectations of what it means to be a “good guy” or “bad guy” and it lets a tragedy develop out of a bitter brew of consequence and emotional decisions. That to me is a great formula for noir, and so long as that remains a throughline, the tone gets delivered, no matter the instance.
Thank you so much for talking with me!
Thank you Emily, for the chance to answer some questions. I really appreciate the opportunity. It means a lot to me.
John Adamus edits games, books and scripts for a living. He lives in a nice yet unfinished house with a little dog and they both spend an absurd amount of time watching old movies and television while thinking about how to make games and food and fun happen. He’s worked on games like Fate Worlds for Fate Core and The Paranet Papers for the Dresden Files Role Playing Game for Evil Hat Productions; Marvel Heroic Roleplaying for Margaret Weis Productions; Night’s Black Agents for Pelgrane Press and so many other awesome games that his awesome friends have made. He talks a lot about writing, gaming, food, and other life stuff on his blog at http://writernextdoor.com and on twitter at http://twitter.com/awesome_john. Learn more about Noir World by following it on twitter at: @noirworldrpg.
Hello Strix, Marissa and Sarah!
Thanks for answering a few questions about noir themes and crime fiction in games. First off, who is a favorite fictional sleuth for each of you? Why?
SB: If you’d asked me this last month [note: questions were asked in 2015!] I wouldn’t have had an answer for you, but right now it’s absolutely Jessica Jones. The Netflix series delves into so much great content I don’t even know where to begin. Noir as a tradition has often struggled against (somewhat correct) perceptions of it not being very diverse. When you think of a gumshoe you conjure up a white guy in a hat, sitting behind a desk and talking to a “dame,” right? Jessica Jones blows all of that right out of the water.
MK: It is hard to choose favorites, but I really love Commander Shepard in Mass Effect 2. I think there are a lot of interesting and fun sleuthy-noir themes in that game. Shepard dies and comes back, she doesn’t know who she is really working for, and she struggles to save the galaxy even though she is a total badass.
SR: Probably Phèdre nó Delaunay from the Kushiel’s Legacy series of books. She a courtesan who’s also trained as a spy, so she’s basically foiling a bunch of kingdom-destroying plots by sleeping with the right people and figuring out all their schemes. She has quite a bit of the “femme fatale” feel of traditional noir stories (and oh does she bring trouble with her), but it’s told through the lens of a society that values free love above all things and was founded by a fallen angel. There’s also a bit of explicit S&M. It’s a really great series.
You may or may not consider your game to be part of the "noir" genre, but it uses the central story of Bluebeard's Bride to make social critique through what is in essence a first-person investigation of a murder in the offing. Noir at its best provides an avenue for fiction to address the ways that society and social structures are harmful or corrupt, as well as the ways our human failings turn us against one another. What are the issues you see your game engaging players with?
SB: It’s an investigation of many murders! But really, it’s a metaphor for the investigation of self and one’s position in the world. Bluebeard’s mansion is a double image, in some ways a mirror of the Bride’s mind, and in some ways representative of the cage that many women find themselves put in. Feminine horror is unique to the feminine perspective, and that’s really what we’re after.
MK: I don’t think of Bluebeard’s Bride as a noir game, but like you said, I think there are a few elements that can be examined through a noir lens, especially the strict societal pressures. The main character is the Bride. She has no name and she is bound by societal pressures to be the bride of Bluebeard and nothing more. If she dies in the house no one will remember her name and if she get’s away, society may still shun her for being disloyal to her nefarious husband.
SR: One of the reactions I get most frequently from male players is anger at how helpless they feel. So as both Marissa and Strix mentioned, it pushes a lot against the roles that society expects women to fulfill, as well as the pressures we put on ourselves. Pressure to be perfect, to be beautiful, to be the perfect wife - these are all things that show up in the game in a magnified way, and then the players can choose how they react - at least within societal strictures.
What is your approach to creating a mystery in Bluebeard's Bride?
SB: The outcome of Bluebeard’s Bride is not a mystery. You know that more likely than not you will meet a grisly end. Therefore the mystery lies within the story of the mansion. I tend to let players dig their own holes. They will naturally gravitate towards setting up and exploring mysteries. My biggest challenge is keeping out of their way, and putting in the right twists at the right time to deliver dramatic beats.
MK: Each room contains its own mystery. We give the GM tools for creating a room with a theme and objects that introduce twists and turns. Each room is it’s own contained mystery where the Bride must decide what happened to who, and why. We place responsibility of stitching together the clues set by the GM and coming up with what events actually transpired with the players, so even the observation of horrors is active rather than passive.
SR: A lot of it is atmosphere. Early on, I had players ask me why they couldn’t just go outside, and my answer was to create a thunderstorm that starts up when you arrive at the house. It’s practical, but it’s really fantastic at creating this foreboding feeling, plus appropriately-timed thunder. The rooms themselves, like Marissa said, are their own little mysteries, and I like to package them up with little touches that are a bit unsettling, like a sofa sitting in the middle of an empty room, or a covered birdcage that has some not-birdlike scratching coming from within.
Can you each tell us a little about what Bluebeard's House is like when your run it?
SB: I love pulling from the Mexican literary tradition of magical realism, surrealism, and mythological archetypal symbolism. I want players to feel like the world is sliding out from under them. A bending, glittering kaleidoscope of experience wrapped around symbolic anchors which act as access points for poignancy and discovery. It’s a little like hallucinating in an art gallery. The paintings are deeply moving, but when you look at them you bring your own meaning, and what you see could be sublime or utterly horrifying. Or both. Because this is a horror game, I do push players towards the horrifying more often. My landscapes tend to be vividly jewel toned and ephemeral, pre-modern, and marked by an eerie “out of space and time” quality.
MK: Every room wants something from the Bride and the hallways of the house are haunted by what the Bride can’t leave behind as she continues from room to room. I try to scare my players, so what occupies the house is an ever evolving mixture of my nightmares and the fears that keep my players up at night.
SR: Most of the time mine is all gothic period dressing, so stone walls and rich fabrics and antique heirlooms and such. I point out how physically uncomfortable the Bride probably is, and then it’s a slow slide into intense discomfort, with ordinary objects and situations turning threatening. That’s what’s scary to me - things and people that should be safe but aren’t, objects that breathe and bleed, and horrors that speak directly to the players.
What is most important to you as you work on the game?
SB: For me, it’s keeping true to our vision. We’re in new territory. No one’s ever published a feminine horror RPG before, at least that I know of. Because there’s not a precedence, people will often try to fit it into other genres that they already understand, because that’s more comfortable. Most often, people will lean towards playing Bluebeard’s Bride as a haunted house game, which it really is not. Being very careful to bake in the type of play that we want out of the game will continue to be key.
MK: My biggest hope is that we can design a solid experience that will be fun and scary for players. Horror is a hard genre to capture, but we are doing a lot to deliver that experience. I also hope that this game will challenge a patriarchal conception of feminine agency.
SR: I really love the horror elements, and bringing forth how intensely personal horror can be during play. I hope the book will not only help people run a game of Bluebeard’s Bride that is true to the feminine experience, but also give them ideas on how to run fantastic horror games in general.
Thank you so much for chatting with me about your compelling game in progress!
Strix Beltrán (SB) is a game writer, designer, and academic in both the analogue and digital space. She likes horror movies and cats. She wears elf ears as often as she can get away with it. Follow her @The_Strix or see what she's up to at StrixWerks.com.
Marissa Kelly (MK) is the co-founder of Magpie Games, author of Epyllion, and co-author of Bluebeard’s Bride. In addition to her design work, Marissa also handles art direction for Magpie Games, John Wick Presents (7th Sea), Evil Hat Productions (Fate Worlds), and Storium. She also works as a paleontology intern throughout the year, spending her summers in Montana and Wyoming doing fieldwork.
Sarah Richardson (SR) is a graphic artist who illustrates, lays out, and creates tabletop RPGs. She has several other games currently in development alongside Bluebeard's Bride, and also handles marketing for Magpie Games. You can see her artwork at www.scorcha.net and follow her on Twitter as @scorcha79.
Hi Evan! Thanks for answering a few questions about noir and crime fiction in games. It's exciting that your Kickstarter for Noirlandia is going on right now!
First off, who is a favorite fictional sleuth of yours? Why?
E: Jake Gittes, of Chinatown, is a great character. He’s prickly and pompous. He gets on everyone’s bad side. He has a gift for detective work, and he loves the feeling of being good at what he does. But what does he do? He snaps pictures of cheating spouses.
Jake’s past seared his idealism away. He worked as a cop in Chinatown, and you can imagine he would have made a very smart policeman. But he quit, broken by the unbeatable corruption that made all his work meaningless. By the time he opened his detective business, he had given up on improving the world - he just wanted to do the work he was good at, and get a paycheck for it.
Whatever noble principles drove him early in life, when we meet him, he only has one: That he’s the best at what he does. But holding to even that one principle is enough to pit him against the most powerful people of his time.
Jake wrestles with forces that he can’t possibly beat, and even though he never wins the fight, I love him for trying.
E: Front and center is solving the case. It’s a cooperative game, and there’s no game-master or pre-written mysteries, so nobody knows the solution. But we encounter clues, we make connections, and we draw our own conclusions.
The game uses an actual corkboard, where you’ll tack up your leads and show connections with string. The gameplay generates a confusion of clues, which players can gradually connect together. So, with a good die roll, you might have a chance to string together “The blue getaway car” with “The 9-fingered man,” and you’d get to describe the connection - “He must have been the driver, there were only 9 fingerprints on the wheel!”
But the connections we make are vulnerable to the chaos of the case - we might be proven wrong later, and have to snip the string. Even our leads are vulnerable - we might find the 9-fingered man was killed before we had a chance to question him.
Besides solving the case, the game is also about confronting the past. As we make progress on the case, we’ll also be learning about the players’ characters, who are wrestling with their own troubled pasts. The current case inevitably throws the characters against the regrets of their past, and sometimes gives them the chance to finally make peace with what came before.
Noirlandia is built from the framework of the fantasy-themed Questlandia. What changes did switching genres bring about in the design? What characteristics do the games share?
E: Questlandia’s cooperative worldbuilding became Noirlandia’s cooperative mystery-building. In Noirlandia, we still work together to create a unique city and world, but with blood-stained hands. Everything is in the context of a world that killed someone close to us - and that leads to dangerous settings and corrupt characters.
Questlandia tracks the decline of a society, while Noirlandia tracks our investigation. A bad roll in Questlandia could lead to famine, but in Noirlandia it could lead to a key witness being shot, an apartment going up in flames, or an alibi clearing the obvious suspect.
Noirlandia has a more freewheeling pace - you’ll hunt for answers all over the city, questioning suspects, getting into trouble with both sides of the law. Questlandia’s turns are all built around a single conflict, but Noirlandia you’ll have a mix of small and large troubles - arguing with the doorman, then being stuck in a broken elevator, and finally confronting the kingpin herself.
Both games are designed as brief, 1-or-2 session games that explode into action, create memorable worlds, and are bittersweet at best in the end.
What are the influences you are drawing on, in film, books, games, etc?
E: Paul Auster’s novel, City of Glass, is about a mystery novelist who tries his hand at playing detective, and in his search for answers, loses track of himself. It’s bizarre, surreal, and definitely an inspiration for some of Noirlandia’s tone.
Chinatown’s hollow victory is the inspiration for Noirlandia’s morality.
The Maltese Falcon features a great blueprint for building a mystery and following a winding path toward the answers.
Deep in the back of my mind, childhood memories of playing Grim Fandango, Sam and Max Hit the Road, and Max Payne have created a primal misunderstanding of the genre that drives my every decision.
How would you rank wanting the players to experience adventure, justice, disillusionment and betrayal when they play Noirlandia? What other themes were important to you and how do you plan to capture them in your rules, background or guidance for players?
E: I’d put adventure first - it’s about energetically hunting for the truth in a dangerous and reticent world. Every turn brings you closer to putting together the bigger picture, but runs the risk of throwing your progress into a confusion.
After that, I’d put disillusionment. Your characters start with guiding principles, with a moral code - but your beliefs will be systematically tested by the chaos of the city. Mechanically, this will come up as players offering you hard bargains - success in your efforts, in exchange for a compromise of your beliefs.
Betrayal will pin you up on the corkboard, a suspect in the same case you’re trying to solve. In Noirlandia, nobody is unquestionably innocent. Characters we met before will reappear unexpectedly, sometimes revealed as the merchant who sold the smoking gun, sometimes as the one who pulled the trigger.
As for justice - don’t expect much.
Thank you so much for sharing with us about your game! Good luck with the Kickstarter!
Hi Robin! Thanks for talking with me about noir and crime fiction in games. First off, who is a favorite fictional sleuth of yours? Why?
R: The Continental Op, for his essential unknowability and the stoic spareness of Hammett’s prose.
The Esoterrorists, your original GUMSHOE volume, stands out as the most noir-themed of your games (via Lovecraft, of course, by way of LeCarre and perhaps directed by a young Frankenheimer). It embodies that common tension in noirs: between the investigator bringing order to the world, versus surrendering to the (in this case, literal) chaos and corruption of the world. Did this tension come into play as you designed the game, and the Gumshoe engine itself? What concerns were central?
R: The setting blends noir, the Clancyesque thriller of romanticized techno-competence, and the classic horror spiral of forbidden knowledge. It’s not much of a leap to look at Chandler’s mean streets and the difficulty of walking them without becoming mean with the need to learn more about the entities of the Outer Dark in order to destroy them, but not so much that you are destroyed yourself. Both paradoxes powerfully evoke the human experience while allowing lots of play with beguiling images of decadence and thanatos.
The rules engine addresses the plot bottleneck that results when you treat information players need to progress through the story using the same mechanic a dungeon crawling character would use to find treasure after beating up a bunch of orcs. Instead of making you roll to see if you get a clue or not, GUMSHOE says that it’s never interesting to fail to get information. If you have the right ability and look in the right place, you get the essential clues. This enables us to build richer, more complex mysteries in which the player figures out which information matters. When it is interesting to fail, for example when escaping from a blood demon or determining whether you thought to bring a crowbar with you, a separate mechanic handles that, in a way that allows players to decide when exactly they really want their characters to grab the spotlight with a sure success.
Over at the Pelgrane Games blog and on your podcast Ken and Robin Talk about Stuff, you went in-depth about how your rules shape and are shaped by fiction.The Dying Earth Role Playing Game and the version of those rules that became Skulduggery, and Gaean Reach which primarily builds on the Gumshoe System, are radically different despite being based on fiction by the same author, Jack Vance. If you were going to adapt some of these rules to play stories like those of classic hardboiled writers Hammett or Chandler, what do you think that might look like?
R: It would look an awful lot like the next thing I’m doing for Pelgrane...
Thank you, Robin, for all your insights.
Robin D. Laws designed the GUMSHOE investigative roleplaying system, including such games as The Esoterrorists and Ashen Stars. Among his other acclaimed RPG credits are Feng Shui and HeroQuest. Robin is the Creative Director of Stone Skin Press and has edited such fiction anthologies as The New Hero, Shotguns v. Cthulhu, and The Lion and the Aardvark: Aesop's New Fables. You can hear more of Robin's thoughts and game insights at his podcast with Ken Hite Ken and Robin Talk about Stuff.
Hi Quinn! Thanks for answering a few questions about noir and crime fiction in games. First off, who is a favorite fictional sleuth of yours? Why?
Q: I am a huge anime nerd, So I really am a huge fan of L from Death Note. I like L because he is is willing to become anything to hunt down information. He is smart but so reckless he seems not so smart. I admire his marriage of intellect and bravery a lot.
Your game, Five Fires, focuses on characters involved in hip hop culture and art. What were your influences in film, music, books, games, etc? How did you incorporate elements of them into the game?
Q: Beat Street is my guiding point. the tone, the characters, the themes -- everything points back to that movie. Wild Style is also an influence. It covered much of the ethos and attitude of the culture.
A lot of integrating media into games is about establishing the look and feel and what tropes we are enabling. I rewatch these two films a bit and compare the experiences I’ve had with the game to the experience I have with the films.
As for music, there is so much! I love hip hop and am listening to it all the time.
A book that everyone should read to get a feel for the birth of hip hop is Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop by Jeff Chang. Incredibly written.
You may not consider Five Fires to be noir, but there are some parallels. At its finest, noir and hardboiled fiction critique society, and shine a light on places where society oppresses and lets its citizens down. Five Fires asks players to analyze a city and the problems its inhabitants face with racism, economic discrimination and many other factors. How did you capture this in your rules, and what was most important to you when you were writing the game?
Q: I want players in Five Fires to feel that they are ordinary people with an extraordinary method to relieve the tension and stress of their lives. In the current version of the game, players move towards solving whatever problems they have in their lives. In playtest the game provides a platform for you to explore whatever issues you feel are important to you. So you can tackle having to pay your rent, and your scenes are about finding ways to make money. In the course of trying to overcome these obstacles you may accumulate stress, which is an abstraction of toll that life can take on you. Take too much stress and you might be out of action for a while or take on more burdens.
This is significant in Five Fires because each campaign (the game calls them Eras) is limited to a few session and you only have a few scenes each session. just like in RL, your chance to make an impact is a small window. You don’t want to lose any time!
Creating art -- making songs, doing graffiti, breakdancing -- these are all ways to heal stress, but also build exposure and possible earn fame. In the new revision I’m trying to make the stress you accumulate connect to the level of art you have a chance to make; more stress is potentially more fame!
In the end I think the game helps you explore inequity by giving you a platform to describe oppressive systems in addition to a way to change things or at least express how your character feels about everything happening to her.
In Five Fires, how would you rank wanting the players to experience adventure, justice, disillusionment and betrayal? What kind of an experience do you want players to walk away from the game with?
Q: I want players to feel adventure before anything, and on the way there to feel justice and betrayal and disillusionment as obstacles which they can hopefully transform into art. I want folks to believe that their expression is a potent tool, and that their voice matters.
Thank you so much for chatting with me about your insightful and important game.
Ever since he was a kid, Quinn Murphy dreamed of being other people in faraway lands. He designs today while trying to hold that sense of wonder in his mind, capturing his thoughts sometimes on his blog http://thoughtcrimegames.net and on twitter (@qh_murphy). You can find Five Fires Beta at http://www.five-fires.com and some of his other work at http://payhip.com/thoughtcrime.
Hi Steve! Thanks for answering a few questions about noir and crime fiction in games. First off, who is a favorite fictional sleuth of yours? Why?
S: Nice question! The one I really connect with is Wil Brierson from Marooned in Realtime by Vernor Vinge. Partly it's because of the story's setting and stakes:
- 50 million years in the future
- The human race consists of about 3,000 refugees and criminals rescued from from previous time periods: we’re nearly extinct.
- When a high-tech leader of the community is found dead, it appears someone is trying to murder the human race.
Wil is a refugee, still grieving from being rescued from stasis (from his perspective, everyone he's ever known has just died). He's bewildered by suspects who come from later time periods. His emotional journey in the novel’s setting is a big part of why he’s my favourite detective. But I love his methodical approach--solid police-work, assessing primal human motives, and misdirecting people when necessary.
As for other detectives: Veronica Mars (especially Season 1) and Jack Reacher (in the first four books, when he’s got some fascinating psychological quirks) are both great.
And I need to share this: I've always been irritated with and fascinated by Jessica Fletcher from Murder She Wrote. My theory has been that she commits all of the murders, then frames people.
But recently I facilitated a game of Wicked Lies and Alibis where I played a detective inspired by Jessica. During play, I developed immense empathy for her: she sees murders all the time, in really incongruous places. It became obvious to me that she must suffer from paranoia, PTSD, and the crippling fear that any social event will be marred by something horrible.
So there's a pattern to my favourite detectives: people who want to do good, who are damaged in often severe ways, and who are relentless in using solid detective work to find answers.
What were your influences when you wrote Soth, in film, books, games, etc? How did you incorporate elements of them into the game?
S: The original inspiration came from the Call of Cthulhu RPG (CoC). I played tonnes of it in the 90s and through my poor decisions I killed many investigators. I was thinking about the spells in CoC and how my investigators’ deaths meant I never got to be a ‘magic user’.
I wondered what it might be like to play CoC with lots of Mythos knowledge and low SAN [Sanity] … or zero SAN. That was 2006. Designing Soth has been about unpacking that idea so that when you play it you aren’t wallowing in depravity or creating a one-dimensional story.
I was really unhappy with the earliest playtest, which had all of those problems along with a neurotically rigid and prescriptive structure. At the same time, I discovered Paul Czege’s Acts of Evil and wondered whether Soth was worth continuing. I talked about all of my concerns in this Forge thread, and spent six years wrestling with the advice I received.
Ultimately, Acts of Evil became the game Soth kept bouncing off creatively. Acts of Evil’s concerns are grand, cosmological and time-spanning. Soth deals with one small town over about two weeks. And I apply the advice from that Forge thread constantly: to not use a designer’s reputation or games as an excuse to avoid creative work.
I found it hard to think of stories told from the villains’ POV. I knew there was stuff out there, but I couldn’t remember them.
However an image from Blood Simple by the Coen Brothers kept coming to me: the scene where the main character tries to clean blood off the floor and fails miserably. Whatever Soth was, I wanted it to enable moments like that.
Apocalypse World gave me the structure to do it. I realised a move could be triggered by “When you try to cover up a crime” and it could have Blood Simple-esque consequences (the final version is a bit different).
Writing the game unlocked a rich vein of references: Dexter, Hannibal, Psycho (that was a huge one -- covering up Marion’s murder is another key inspiration), an article about the chronology of the Saw movies from Jigsaw’s POV. And I’ve just remembered another one: Double Indemnity.
You combined cthulhu mythos with detectives and crime fiction in your game, what do you find it adds?
S: Once I decided to invert CoC, I knew Soth needed to:
- tell the story of whether the cultists succeeded or failed in summoning Soth
- gave you to the tools to portray the investigators in a way that made experienced CoC players say, “Yes, that’s exactly what we'd do.” (I love the sense of irony that creates).
My friend Morgue has written a lot about how a GM can have a private shared imaginative space while they’re running a game. That definitely manifests in Soth. The Keeper (which is Soth’s name for the GM role) has to build up a clear picture of the investigators’ off-screen actions and how those actions will intersect with the cultists’.
As a result, the game has an ‘unsettled’ rhythm. Different investigators discover clues at different rates. That leads to confrontations at unpredictable times.
There’s also subtext in every scene. There’s irony and power in the cultists knowing something others don’t. At the same time, they’re afraid of being discovered: the players know their cultists are being investigated but not who the investigators are.
Something else I’ve found about this genre: it really benefits from slowing down and appreciating the details. Figuring out where people are, what weapons are in a kitchen, how you’re going to transport a corpse. Having conversations that explore the backstory and feelings between characters.
The more you know and the slower you go, the more satisfying it is when everything explodes.
When you think about Soth, how might you rank wanting the players to experience: adventure, justice, disillusionment and betrayal--from your highest priority to lowest? What other themes were important to you and how did you capture them in your rules, background or guidance for the players and GMs?
S: I’d say ‘betrayal’ is the highest value. The cultists are trying to deceive and (secretly) harm their own community. I also built in mechanisms that encourage intra-party tensions and double-crosses. The game really needed those. Without them, it had the wrong feel--like a heist movie about a high-functioning team.
Justice is fairly high on the list. There’s a sense of injustice while you’re playing, as the cultists get away with murder. There’s also increasing pressure from investigators and police.
Adventure is an interesting one. There are escapades and desperate plans, but they usually occur because the cultists overlook something. So, any adventure is reactive rather than sought-for; it signifies failure.
Disillusionment isn’t a significant value. All the characters are true believers--and that can lead to moments that are both horrific and tender.
As for other themes: I wanted playing Soth to feel tense and fraught. Soth’s table-talk rule is one way I create that tension:
- Players are allowed to discuss their cultists’ plans and give each other out-of-character advice.
- The Keeper gains a point of Suspicion for each piece of advice
- The Keeper spends Suspicion to make the investigators more effective.
So, the table-talk rule encourages players to monitor themselves and each other.
It also makes Keeper bio-breaks pretty funny. As soon as you leave the room, the players burst into frenzied plotting. When you come back, they fall into a silence I can only describe as “smug and guilty”.
The setting also creates that tension. It’s a tight-knit community. The Keeper is encouraged to make all non-cultist characters “neighbourly”: helpful and trusting, but also intrusive, watchful, and likely to spread gossip if someone acts out-of-character.
Thanks very much for delving into the design dirt with me, Steve!
Steve Hickey is a film-maker, script-writer/editor, and game designer. He edited Monster of the Week, and has published Left Coast, Soth and My Life as the GM. His blog is Steve Hickey Games. Steve’s actual games are available from payhip and DriveThruRPG.
Sarah, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me. Your work with games has taken an academic and research bent, publishing such books and articles as The Functions of Role Playing: How Participants Create Community, Solve Problems and Explore Identity, “Educational Larp in the Middle-School Classroom” and “The Psychological Power of the Role Playing Experience.” How did your background in English, media and communication lead into your study of role playing games? And what advice might you have for students and researchers looking to approach recreational games for their area of study?
S: Thanks for your interest in my work, Emily! I received my B.S. and M.A. from the University of Texas at Austin in Radio-TV-Film where I studied fandom and popular culture. Media studies is fairly interdisciplinary. I did some early ethnographic research on the role-playing motivations of my Dungeons & Dragons group for a class in my undergraduate program. I was shocked to realize that what I considered the appealing aspects of gaming were so different from the motivations of other people in my group. I conducted this research in isolation; I had no exposure to creative agendas or any other concepts in role-playing studies.
I then attended the University of Texas at Dallas for my Ph.D. in Arts and Humanities, which is even more interdisciplinary than media studies. When I was preparing my dissertation proposal, I was initially interested in writing about archetypes in fantasy, studying role-players in only one chapter. My advisor, Thomas Riccio, suggested that I write the whole dissertation on role-playing, as the field was wide open in terms of existing research. I consider myself a generalist academically, enjoying dabbling in psychology, literary analysis, theatre, reception studies, comparative religion, and many other interests. Arts and Humanities was a perfect fit for me, as they allowed me free rein to explore whatever topics I found interesting. My committee consisted of two game studies professors; a theatre and tribal ritual specialist; and a classicist who also studies fantasy and science fiction. The dissertation was eventually published as a book by McFarland, under The Functions of Role-playing. McFarland is a great publisher for popular culture and role-playing studies; many of our core texts in the field were published through them.
Most graduate students are in a more difficult position in their relative departments. Role-playing is not widely known in academia, except with scholars interested in using it as a pedagogical tool or who have a background in acting and improv. Traditionally, many scholars have considered popular culture unworthy of study -- especially anything associated with games or fantastic genres. Thankfully, this situation is changing slowly over time, as game and pop culture studies are increasing in popularity and esteem in academic institutions. Still, even if an advisor is sympathetic and interested in supporting research on RPGs, they often have little understanding of the form itself, which is difficult to describe to people who have not experienced it.
In order to help the next generation of academics in the field, I have several goals as a scholar. First, I work to establish foundational texts written by myself and others through writing and editing. I try to publish regularly in academic journals and popular media and I edit the Wyrd Con Companion Book, an annual collection of journalistic and peer-reviewed academic essays. That way, when students contact me, I have a list of texts to send them so that they have a sense of where to start research. I also help organize the Living Games Conference, a place for scholars and practitioners to converge and speak seriously about larp. Other conferences/conventions such as Knudepunkt, Wyrd Con, Metatopia, and Intercon are great places to organize panels to discuss role-playing.
Ultimately, we need to mentor and support each other remotely at this stage, as we do not have established academic departments specializing in role-play studies… yet. Therefore, my main advice for new scholars in the field is to find someone under whom to mentor who understands role-playing and knows the existing works. Groups on Facebook and Google+ are excellent places to get started.
Can you tell us how you got interested in role-playing games? You play both tabletop and larp, did you start with one or the other?
S: I actually started in online role-playing with MUDs, MOOs, and MUSHes. My first subculture was a local BBS when I was 15 -- back when we still had dial up modems. All of my friends migrated to a Wheel of Time-themed MUD on the Internet and I had to learn how to play in order to interact with my group. I soon became fascinated with role-playing and fantasy, transitioning into more freeform online play. I played my first Vampire larp at 19, drawn in by the idea of improvisation and costuming. I played my first tabletop Dungeons & Dragons at 21. I was always mostly interested in rich character development with complicated backstories and costuming. The kind of play that drew me in the most -- and still does -- centers upon romance, philosophy, spirituality, and metaphysics.
In your article "Jungian Theory and Role-Playing Immersion" in the book Immersive Gameplay, you make comparisons of the immersive quality of character experience in role playing games and Jung’s concept of active imagination. Can you explain how active imagination functions in the development of the psyche and what potential role playing games may offer individuals for psychological growth and self-improvement?
S: Sure! Jung theorized through psychoanalysis and personal exploration that when we enter creative, imaginative states, we delve into deep parts of the psyche that are normally repressed -- parts of our personal unconscious and of the collective unconscious. Our personal unconscious contains aspects of our psyche that make us anxious or fearful, but also secret wishes and desires. The collective unconscious taps into fundamental aspects of the human psyche that are inherent in our language structures and the ways in which we make meaning. He postulated that not only do we have the same basic building blocks of language and mythic meaning cross-culturally -- which he called archetypes, building on the Platonic notion of the pure form or essence of a concept -- but, we also may be linked to one another on an unconscious level.
Active imagination includes any creative activity that allows our ego identity to relax: painting, creative writing, performance, etc. While many of these forms of expression are common as artistic professions, the idea behind active imagination is that the subject should feel free to create without excessive constraints or societal pressures to perform. Role-playing is a wonderful way to engage in active imagination because of its spontaneous, improvisational nature, but also because we role-play in groups, not just alone, which can offer added stimuli and insights.
Jung believed that we can interact with our personal and collective unconscious in these states. He spent sixteen years engaging in active imagination through painting and trance work, which culminated in The Red Book (Liber Novus), which was made public in 2009. Much of his theory of the collective unconscious and archetypes arose from these experiments. When reading through the Introduction and looking through the images, I found it striking how similar these experiences were to the scenes I was currently role-playing in text-based forums, many of which featured enacting deity-like beings and using spiritual/religious imagery to help guide the player-characters through psychic transformations. For example, in one role-play scene, I helped guide a player-character to find her spirit animal: a phoenix. The player ended up tattooing the phoenix on her back, as the process of interacting with that archetype in the role-playing game -- which symbolizes death and rebirth -- became a personally meaningful symbol to her in her daily life.
Jung refers to this process as individuation. While engaged in active imagination, we can dialogue and interact with these archetypal aspects and confront the darker parts of our personal unconscious, which he called Shadow qualities. This dialoguing or interfacing offers us the potential to learn more about ourselves. We can choose to grow as individuals, becoming more than the simple ego that we were before, evolving into something he called the Self as we integrate aspects of the archetypal experience into our self-concept.
Many role-players express experiencing personal transformation as the result of gaming, learning valuable things about themselves, important social skills, empathy, and other forms of growth. I believe we can understand these reports better through the mechanism of individuation. If you’d like to learn more, Whitney Strix Beltrán has also applied Jungian theory to role-playing studies in two articles I highly recommend from the Wyrd Con Companion Books: “Yearning for the Hero Within: Live Action Role-playing as Engagement with Mythical Archetypes“ and “Shadow Work: A Jungian Perspective on the Underside of Live Action Role-playing in the United States.”
What are ideas that have come out of rpg theory, or discussion of narrative and psychology that you’ve found important? Are there particular discussions or schools of thought that you draw on?
S: My interests are strongest in regard to the phenomenology of the role-playing experience and the enactment of creativity and imagination. I try to remain open to any concepts that tie into those areas from any field, especially from psychology, but also in media studies, social psychology, theatre, or others.
I find that some of the most salient theories actually arise from the role-playing community itself, as in some ways, the experience of role-playing is unique. We play persistent characters different from ourselves with spontaneously generated content and agency in fictional worlds for long amounts of time. While we can gain a lot of insight from studying the experiences of stage and improv actors, as I’ve investigated in a recent article for Analog Game studies, we can also learn quite a bit from studying our own participants, which is why I favor participant-observation ethnography as a research method. From our own communities, we’ve developed useful terminology such as bleed, alibi, steering, creative agendas, first-person audience, etc. Emily, you’ve been a great help in the domain of helping to establish common terminology over the years, so thanks to you!
As far as theories in codified academic disciplines, I find several concepts of great interest in addition to the Jungian concepts I described above. I agree with Lauri Lukka in understanding role-playing as a dissociative state in which we shift consciousness. I especially am interested in the relationship between dissociation and identity as connected to the creative process. We can study dissociative identity in individuals who have experienced extreme trauma, but I think the process of splitting consciousness into multiple identities is probably quite common and not a “disorder” as such, as we see authors, comedians, and other creative people exhibiting this ability as well.
What’s particularly fascinating about role-playing is not only do we enact these other identities, we do so with full or partial consciousness, often acting as an observer to the actions of the character, a process which we call dual consciousness. A couple of other useful psychological theories may help us understand how that process works. One is metacognition, which means thinking about thinking, or knowing about knowing. In other words, we are aware of our altered state of consciousness and can operate at both levels cognitively. Another is Piaget’s theory of mind, which is the ability to conceptualize another person’s consciousness and predict their thoughts, feelings, and behavior based on existing mental schema, or frameworks. Young children have difficulty developing the theory of mind, as their consciousness is rather limited and egocentric. The theory goes that we become more sophisticated at theory of mind hypothesizing as we grow older. I think that the theory of mind is one of the core abilities that allows us to conceptualize and enact a character. It can also lead to a greater sense of self-awareness and empathy. As we enact a consciousness different than our own while still retaining our sense of self, we build an emotional connection to that person and can reflect upon how their experience relates to our own.
I’m also highly interested in childhood pretend play. Many young people are able to build paracosms, which are pretend worlds that can become quite detailed. Some develop imaginary friends, which are projected, imagined identities with which the child interacts. Pretend play in groups often centers upon practicing social roles, such as playing house, Cops and Robbers, etc. Many cognitivists and evolutionary psychologists link this early pretend play -- which we can also consider an early form of simulation -- as a way for the organism to practice important skills and roles necessary for survival later in life or entrance into the social order. Therefore, play also may serve a pedagogical function in these games, even when unstructured or unsupervised.
Adolescent psychology is equally fascinating to me. While identity is rather fluid in children, adult life demands the establishment of a stable ego identity, which Erikson believes occurs during adolescence. The adolescent experiments with multiple ways to self-identify, trying on various preferences, attitudes, and social cliques to see which fit them best. If the adolescent is unable to find a place in which they feel they fit, they experience role confusion, which can extend throughout life and cause an identity crisis. This phase corresponds with the mythic hero’s journey, in which the hero must leave the comfort of home, face internal and external fears, and triumph, bringing wisdom back to the community. Each individual must go through their own hero’s journey as they transition to adulthood, which makes the motif so powerful. Much of the original RPG content from Dungeons & Dragons centers upon the hero’s journey, even if the adventurers do not consider their actions heroic. The process is more about the transition from the passive dependency of childhood to the empowered agency of adulthood.
Also fascinating during adolescence are the concepts of the personal fable and the imaginary audience. With the personal fable, the adolescent feels a sense of uniqueness and invulnerability that corresponds nicely with the hero myth. This personal fable can lead to high risk behavior and even depression if the individual experiences disappointment or failure, so the adolescent must learn to moderate this impulse with self-compassion: the ability to empathize with and comfort the self. The imaginary audience is similar to the imaginary friend in that the adolescent consciousness projects a peanut gallery of sorts, imagining all the comments and criticisms their behavior might elicit from others, including parents, their peers, their teachers, etc. This imaginary audience is linked to the personal fable in that it assumes that the adolescent is unique and important enough to be constantly watched and evaluated. I suspect the mechanism also has to do with the fact that children and adolescents are under near constant surveillance from their parental figures and the educational system, which, when combined with the theory of mind, results in hyper-awareness.
In role-playing games, both the personal fable and the imaginary audience can become true. Each player-character is unique and plays an important part of the fiction. We often say “everyone is the hero in their own story” when we describe the role-playing experience, which works to validate the personal fable. Also, we have a first person audience, which means that we both play and observe. [NB: Markus Montola discusses First Person Audience.] Everyone in the game is significant and everyone receives “spotlight” time to greater and lesser degrees. I suspect that play can affirm our desires to feel unique, socially significant, take risks, and have an audience for our actions in a relatively safe atmosphere. Ultimately, adult pretend play features more complex character constructs, systems, and projections of imagination than childhood and adolescent fantasy ideation, but likely arises from the same impulses.
Sarah, you are one of the organizers of the Living Games Conference being planned for May 2016 in your town, Austin, Texas. This conference began as the brainchild and thesis project of Shoshana Kessock to foster the academic study of live games in the United States and North America. Inspired in large part by the Nordic conference Knutpunkt which has occupied a similar role in the Nordic countries since 1997. What are your hopes for the conference, and what are you personally looking forward to most about it?
S: Yes! I’m extremely excited. I hope we can continue the work of the first Living Games Conference by providing a more extended and expansive experience. We’re renting out a hotel with many rooms of conference space, on-site sleeping, and communal eating. The conference will feature keynotes, workshops, show and tell sessions, round tables, social activities, larps, and academic presentations. We will also feature A Week in Austin activities leading up to and closing out the conference in order to provide out-of-towners more opportunities to experience the city. We’re happy to announce, for example, the Role-playing and Simulation in Education mini conference on Thursday, May 19, 2016, which will transpire right before the start of Living Games at the St. David’s School of Nursing at Texas State University in Round Rock, TX. This day-long conference is a great way to get everyone interested in using role-playing as an educational tool in the same place in order to share research and best practices.
Overall, we want everyone to feel welcome from all communities and experience levels: designers, academics, players, crafters, etc. We hope to foster a discourse with larp-adjacent fields such as interactive theatre and others. Personally, I would like to establish a lasting conference in North America in order for academics and practitioners to share their work with others involved in this field for years to come.
What conventions, festivals or online communities do you most enjoy? Which are your favorite for discussion of games and game design?
S: I spend a lot of time in Facebook discussion groups, particularly Larp Haven, North American and Nordic Larp Exchange, Larpers BFF, and others. I also enjoy conversations on Google+. I find that contrary to popular belief, Facebook can be a great venue to check the pulse of various communities, share insights, and connect. I can collaborate with colleagues all over the world with unprecedented speed and ease of communication through social media, which is a huge asset for research and discourse.
For on-ground connections, I most enjoy Knudepunkt, Intercon, Dreamation, Wyrd Con, Big Bad Con, and OwlCon, although I know I need to visit more communities. As far as academic conferences, I consider the Popular Culture Association a great place to share research and connect with colleagues in a low-pressure, mutually supportive environment.
Sarah Lynne Bowman, Ph.D., teaches as adjunct faculty in English, Communication, and Humanities for several institutions including Austin Community College. McFarland Press published her dissertation in 2010 as The Functions of Role-playing Games: How Participants Create Community, Solve Problems, and Explore Identity. Bowman edits the The Wyrd Con Companion Book and publishes in various collections such as The International Journal of Role-playing. Her current research interests include studying the benefits of edu-larp; examining social conflict and bleed within role-playing communities; applying Jungian theory to role-playing studies; and comparing the enactment of role-playing characters with other creative phenomena such as drag performance and improv acting. Visit her website at: http://sarahlynnebowman.com/
Hey Rob, thanks for sitting down with some questions about your game Sad & Miserable, and noir. First off, I ask this question of everyone, who is a favorite fictional sleuth of yours? Why?
R: Jimmy McNulty from The Wire. He’s an inveterate fuckup whose makeup makes him perfect as an investigator, and absolutely shit everywhere else in life. Jimmy wants to win, not to dispense justice. He’s compassionate, and tries to help people when he can, and can’t stand bullshit or pretension, but what makes him so great as a “death po-lice” is his insecurity and desire to be seen as the smartest guy in the room. As with many things in that show, it’s sad, fucked-up, and seems real.
Sad & Miserable is about the lives of comedians. You might not consider this to be part of the noir genre (setting aside comedic detectives like Inspector Clouseau), but noir often looks at the places that society fails its citizens, as well as the ways our human failings turn us against one another--or help us try to find redemption. How might those themes play out in your game?
R: I do think there’s a heavy overlap, there. In researching S&M, I’ve saturated myself in fiction and non-fiction about the stand-up world. A lot of stuff has been covered in the fiction, but I think one big area that hasn’t been dealt with very much is poverty. Most stand-ups, even ones you know, are not rich. It’s an art that almost never pays and if you want to do it right, you have to break yourself from the 9-to-5 cycle, take lower-paying, service-industry jobs that are at odd hours until you can live off being a comic. And if you get there, you have no idea how long you’ll stay there, so you wind up looking for shitty, unsatisfying entertainment-industry jobs to tide you through.
So when I get deeper into it, I want to make sure S&M honors that struggle. I want to make sure that the fight to keep yourself fed and housed is a significant part of the game. I don’t think comedians are any crazier than the norm, I just think in order to be a comedian, unless you’re independently wealthy, you have to endure way more stresses on how you’re going to make your monthly nut than most middle-class people are. If you have underlying mental illness, or a tendency toward it, that can be exacerbated by the stress.
Also, I want the game to be about the dark parts of comedy. The stories of drug abuse and sexual compulsion and twisted thinking that leads to bad ends. And the comedy that comes from all that.
What were your influences as you’ve worked on Sad & Miserable, in film, books, games, etc? You’ve studied stand-up as well. Can you tell us about how that affected your work on the game? How have you incorporated elements of them into the game?
R: The originating moment for me was watching season 1, episode 6 of Louie, titled “Heckler/Movie Cop.” Louie decimates this woman who heckled him, then she comes out after his set and yells at him. In responding to her, Louie points out that these comics whose work she’s ruining, work all week, trudge through mountains of shit, for 15 minutes on stage that maybe might carry them over until the next week. I thought, “That’s a game right there.”
From there, well I had already been listening to WTF? with Marc Maron for a while, but I got the app and listened to every interview he’s ever done on the show with a stand-up. Add his show, Maron, Jim Jeffries’ Legit, Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, and also other podcasts, like Paul Gilmartin’s Mental Illness Happy Hour.... I could go on ad nauseum; unfortunately I’ve spent way too long in research.
And I wound up doing some stand-up (so far I’ve done 20-something sets). I wanted to be able to write authoritatively about what it feels like to be on stage. This was very instructive. I did pretty well, but open mics are brutal (not in judgement, just in the yawning chasm of nobody-gives-a-fuck because they’re all comics waiting to do their 5 minutes). Let’s just say I got plenty of material for feeling bad on stage, and a few moments of feeling good.
But there’s a whole other problem: Initially, I wanted the game to be written so people could play huge-time ex-sitcom stand-ups as well as open mic'ers, to be able to play Jerry Seinfeld and me, but I began to realize how limited my experience as an open mic'er was, and how little it accurately represented even what people who were at the hosting level were experiencing, much less people who are getting paid for it.
So I’m kind of stymied now, a bit, with regard to that. I bet I could write a pretty good game about what it’s like to be an open mic'er in the 2010s in NYC, though.
Sad & Miserable is a game in process, about a genre in formation: there have been many shows about comedians (both Seinfeld and the Burns and Allen Show were shows about comedy shows), but there is an honesty, tragedy and a kind of psychological exploration to Sad & Miserable that feels much more like recent shows Louie, Maron, Broad City and The Maria Bamford Show that are all carving out new territory. Is there a language of this new genre that you are finding for your game?
R: You absolutely picked up on the aesthetic I’m going for (and gave me a few more I need to look into). Honesty and personal exposure is becoming ascendant in stand-up right now. More comics—prodded by the need to fill podcasting airtime, I suspect—are going to their own personal lives and revealing things about their pasts that are bitter, horrible, awful, and hilarious. You’re seeing that in the stand-up, and in all the related media that is booming right now. I have to get off my ass before people’s attention has wandered and we get another comedy bust!
Comedy Noir, though, is probably an accurate description for this aesthetic. Hm, maybe I have a sub-sub-title. Sad & Miserable: The Secret Lives of Stand-Up Comics: A Game of Comedy Noir.
Nah, that’s a bit wordy.
An underlying theme of noir tales is the alienating notion that all life is determined by the stories we spin about one another, that what we believe and live is based not so much on fact, as on how our lives are framed by ourselves and others. Comedians can speak truth to power and frame the major issues of our day (as we see with Jon Stewart and Key & Peele). They also make light of their own trauma, yet are expected to entertain others with their pain and suffering. Their role is to find the stories of our time--whether public or private--that speak to us all, and make us laugh along with them. How does storytelling, and framing one’s life matter in Sad & Miserable? What kind of experience would you like players to have through play?
R: What a wonderful question. I imagine people getting their characters into incredibly awkward situations, things that are maybe even genuinely tear-jerking. But they’re chuckling darkly or laughing uproariously. These scenes of shitty life I’d like to have broken up by some hang-time with other comics, and then all of this becomes mechanical and topical grist for the performance scenes. Those, I hope to feel like a tense battle, like a really good D&D fight. It’s not a stand-up set any more than a fantasy RPG battle is a direct representation of a fight. But the mechanics need to be high-stakes: cathartic when you kill, crushing when you bomb.
It’s a tall order and I have to get off my ass.
Thanks so much, Rob, for talking with us about this unique and important game!
R: Thank you, for interviewing me about the game and lying about its importance.
Robert Bohl has been playing RPGs since he ran the introduction adventure in the Basic Set [of D&D] on the way back and forth from his grandma's in the early 80s. He works in higher education and lives in Brooklyn, New York City with his son, his girlfriend, and two cats who have a complicated relationship.
Rob is the designer/author/publisher of Misspent Youth, a game of teenage rebellion in a fucked-up future. It's about standing up against oppression, friendship, and growing up. He's working on a game, tentatively called In Production, where you tell the story of one person trying to get a movie made. This has been a creatively prolific time for Rob; he just wrote two more new games (designed in Paul Czege's Threeforged RPG design contest) which he's considering polishing up and publishing.
To follow the development of Sad & Miserable, join Rob at his Google+ Community for Robert Bohl Games.
Hello Daniel! Thanks for talking with me about noir and crime fiction in games. First off, who is a favorite fictional sleuth of yours? Why?
D: I’d like to say “Philip Marlowe,” and he’s certain my archetype, but my true favorite is… Batman. Paul Dini’s Batman, the Batman from the animated series, was a great hardboiled detective: cynical, shrewd, and often outgunned by his adversaries.
My second favorite is probably Brendan Frye, from the neo-noir masterpiece Brick. If you haven’t seen that one yet, I weep for all your wasted days. I’m not even going to tell you about it, just go so see it.
Oh! And Veronica Mars! She’s nipping at Brendan’s heels. If she’d ever shaken down a nest of stoolies behind a suburban pie shop, it’d be a dead heat. (That’ll be hilarious after you see Brick.)
And then Marlowe, because I love The Big Sleep.
In Secrets & Lies, what was your approach to creating a mystery?
D: Relationship maps. Lots of relationship maps. Secrets & Lies is a game about the social side of investigation, not collecting evidence and following clues. It’s actually designed to be played with very little prep; the Director starts with a crime and weaves a web of intrigue around it. Players spend the first part of the session discovering secrets and forming relationships that they can burn for mechanical advantage during the second half. Shake the tree and see what falls out.
That’s an elegant way to create a tangled web for the players to unravel. I like your insight there that the investigation is about the “social side” as well. That is a bit of a dividing line there between crime fiction investigators and noir detectives. Instead of running clues by the lab, the PI is more likely to stir things up with a “swell spoon”. Brendan Frye’s hurt and be-hurt struggle to find the Pin reminds me of the risks taken by Hammett’s Continental Op to shake out the players in Red Harvest. Do you find players make these kinds of big social moves in Secrets and Lies? Your relationship map creates a lot of opportunity.
D: Results have been mixed. Most of my playtests were one-shot games, of necessity, and I found that players tended to ride their stat meters like Major Kong riding the bomb. For one of my best sessions, I framed the scenario as a grindhouse revenge flick, where the protagonists were all gunning for the character at the center of the relationship map. Exploring the map and severing their target’s relationships was integral to the plot, so I got a lot of great social brinksmanship out of that one.
In more serialized games, I think amassing relationships and secrets would be more mechanically necessary, which would drive the players towards those kinds of theatrics.
You have a professional career working with user experience design in website, app and other social media, as well as behaviour design, applying social psychology to virtual interactions. How have your experience in these fields influenced your design and publishing of games in general? And Secrets & Lies in specific?
D: My career and my hobbies all seem to revolve around creating experiences for people. My Lovecraftian horror games are always driving toward those moments of clarity where seemingly insane behavior become suddenly understandable. To make that work, you need to understand the players’ mental models, manage their attention, and prompt them to make choices. That’s user experience design in a nutshell.
I also design street games in order to create unique experiences for people, myself included. I love Cold War era spy crap, so I’ve written games where people receive instruction via dead drop, exchange secret messages with strangers, conduct surveillance, and evade a manhunt. It’s possible that I just enjoy making people better criminals.
Could you tell us more about your street games? Are these pervasive games like Killer or Assassin? Or a sort of larp?
D: I’ve written plenty of LARPs, too, but the street games are definitely more in the vein of Assassin. I played that a ton in college and miss it dearly, but it’s hard to play when everyone’s got a 9-5 job and lives miles away from each other. I wanted to write a game that captured all the paranoia and conniving of Assassin in a way that had tighter bounds of time and space. If gameplay wouldn’t get you put on a terrorist watch list, all the better.
So I ended up with a game called Tradecraft, where rival spymasters compete to pull off the best covert pass, under surveillance and in full view of the public. I’ve run it many times with great success. With enough players, there are all sorts of interesting permutations like double agents, provocateurs, and spies recruiting their own spies.
What parts of noir were you most interested in when you wrote Secrets and Lies? How do your rules help players experience them and create a noir atmosphere?
D: My favorite noir has always been the hardboiled detective variety. It’s characterized by moral ambiguity, compromised characters, and protagonists who cling to their own codes of honor. To emulate that, Secrets & Lies pushes players into situations where they need to make nuanced moral choices. The tools it gives them (blackmail, deception, violence) are inherently compromising; they demand hard choices about when and how they should be deployed.
Most of the dice mechanics are designed to pace the session. Early investigation is easy; as long as you’re asking the right questions, success is automatic. The longer that goes on, though, the less reliable it gets. Dice pools build up to create an ever-escalating probability of failure.
The Director can adjust as needed by setting the stakes for given roll. A “softboiled” failure just imposes complications, while a “hardboiled” failure should alter the course of the narrative. I like these “less gamey” mechanics, because they privilege the needs of the story over random outcomes. The players take a more author-like stance, so the narrative turns out more literary.
As much thought as I put into genre emulation, I’ve had a lot of success using Secrets & Lies in a variety of settings. The Hardboiled Triple Feature includes an urban fantasy riff and a… psychological thriller, I guess? It drops players into a strange, isolated town where the inhabitants believe the world ended in 1969. Just by renaming the PC stats, you can drastically change the tone of the game.
Thanks so much for talking about your games!
D: No need to thank and author for talking about their games. We take every chance we get :)
Daniel Bayn is a prolific genre-masher and former RPGnet columnist. His most successful game is Wushu: The Ancient Art of Action Roleplaying. He’s most proud of his wuxia noir novella and an anthology of short stories about a phantom dog. His non-fiction applies social psychology to the design of online communities.
He recently moved to Oakland, CA, from Minnesota and keeps himself plenty busy enjoying the incredible weather. During the day, he designs websites and web apps.
You can find all his writing at DanielBayn.com
Hi Grant! Thanks for answering a few questions about noir and crime fiction in games. First off, who is a favorite fictional sleuth of yours? Why?
G: I’m a fan of Dirk Gently, I think. I was never a big fan of traditional detective stories - I always felt like the author was just keeping the mystery from me, and if they knew, why couldn’t they just tell me? Why did they have to put a whole book in there to show how clever they were? Adams doesn’t really bother with any of that with Gently, and instead revels in the humour of it all, so I like that. Also the gag with the horse in the bathroom in Holistic Detective Agency is probably one of the funniest things I’ve ever read.
The setting of One Last Job brings to mind Reservoir Dogs, Oceans 11 and many other heist films. What influences did you draw upon, from film, books, games, etc? How did you incorporate elements of them into the game?
G: I’ve been trying to write a heist game for years, if I’m honest, and I just can’t quite get it right. (The problem, in my experience, is the reveal - so many heist stories revolve around information that’s hidden from the audience by the protagonists, and that’s tricky to manufacture when you need to have a GM keeping the world stable. One day I’ll get it, I’m sure.) Anyway, as part of my ongoing research for that, I watched a few heist films, and… honestly, there aren’t that many good ones. I think the idea of a heist film is far superior to any execution. I think Ocean’s Eleven, the remake, is probably my favourite because it’s slick and swish but also, crucially, because not everyone involved is particularly proficient. They’re clever and tenacious, rather than being inordinately dextrous or skilled in their art, and that counts for a lot. (See also: Gone In Sixty Seconds.) I’d also put forward The Dirty Dozen as a heist film, but not a standard one, and one that I’ve drawn a lot from - a rag-tag group of people up to not entirely honourable ends.
I think the crucial thing that I recreate is the “getting the crew back together” bit which is always fun to see in films, and it works well in One Last Job, too. That’s how heist films start, generally, and it’s great to see where people have taken the formula - One Shot did a magnificent actual play recording of OLJ where everyone played ex-stage magicians, and hearing them pile misfortunes on each other is joyous.
There’s no twist, though, not mechanically. Once the game starts you pretty much know what you’re going to get unless the GM is working overtime to make something exciting happen.
When you think about the game, how might you rank wanting the players to experience adventure, justice, disillusionment and betrayal (highest priority to lowest)? What other themes were important to you and how did you capture them in your rules and guidance for the players and GM?
G: These are the elements of Noir, right? I think adventure is at the top - it’s a high-action game, generally, because it’s abstract and if you give players abstract mechanics they go for over-the-top action more often than not. (Plus it’s a style of play that I very much enjoy myself, as my previous work will hint at.) There are elements of justice, too, in that there’s a big catastrophe that happens off-screen before the game starts, and players generally come back to this and resolve it during play (or at least get some closure on what happened) - and the players are generally underdogs, too, in the narrative, they’re not the best of the best.
Disillusionment and betrayal don’t come up so much; there’s an option, if your character gets taken out of action, to instead betray the party and a lot of people end up choosing it because it’s fun, isn’t it? But honestly I don’t have a lot of fun playing games with other people if I can’t trust their character motivations, I find it frustrating and difficult to relax and roleplay without feeling like I’m being taken advantage of. (Hence why I don’t LARP much, and why my work on the recent rewrite of the Paranoia system takes an awful lot of the backstabbing and betrayal into the realm of the systemic, running off cards that enforce a sort of rough hubris.) That’s why I have a central track that all players help out with - this is an ensemble show, and everyone’s on the same page, which makes things a lot easier for the GM to smooth out mechanically seeing as they’ll have to, by intention, make up the adventure during play.
What gave you the idea to have the players give each other traits during play? How do you find that plays out?
G: I was on holiday in Cairns, Australia, with my wife and in-laws, and I got to thinking about what sort of game my mother-in-law could play - she doesn’t have a lot of patience for complex rules and, you know, she’s in her sixties I think, she’s unlikely to suddenly develop a taste for Pathfinder after so long not gaming. So as a thought experiment I cobbled together a system where you defined your character as you play, and that determines what skills were important to you. (This is, I realise now, a fairly common trope in games that focus around amnesia.)
And then I thought, throwing the idea of my mother-in-law ever playing this out of the window, what if the other players determined your character for you? What if they determined it through a series of flashbacks and reminiscences? And that was it, I was sold on the idea - I love improv, I love challenging and being challenged.
I think a lot of the inspiration for this, the love for it, comes from listening to the old Peter Cook and Dudley Moore Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling skits, and more recently the Chris Morris / Peter Cook interviews. Peter Cook was a goddamn genius; listen to them as a freeform roleplaying exercise, rather than a comedic one, and you can learn a lot about establishing character and letting go of concrete, unchangeable backstory.
Thanks so much for sharing what went into making your game, Grant!
Grant Howitt is a Scottish-born games designer who lives, at time of writing at least, in Brooklyn NY and churns out indie games like nobody’s business. His most recent game is Goblin Quest, a game of fatal ineptitude, and he is currently playtesting Chronicle, a game of cyclical worldbuilding and pulp combat. Take a look at his games here.
Hi Seth! Thanks for talking with me about Noir and crime fiction in games. First off, who is a favorite fictional sleuth of yours? Why?
S: Thanks for the opportunity to be interviewed, Emily!
Probably my favorite literary sleuth is Lew Archer, Ross MacDonald's investigator for nearly all his novels. Where Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade is something of an agent provocateur and Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe is a knight errant in search of adventure, Lew Archer is on a different quest. Someone described him as more of a social worker, seeking to understand. Archer isn't trying to rescue victims, like Marlowe. Rather, he is trying to protect innocence, if that makes sense. This is even more powerful when you consider that nearly all of MacDonald's novels can be summed up by the concept of the sins of the fathers being visited upon the children. Marlowe and Spade move through the criminal underworld. Archer moves through suburbia, uncovering generational sin that has landed unfairly on the children. I find that to be a very powerful story.
Also, Archer gives us this great quote:
"That isn't your real motivation. I know your type. You have a secret passion for justice. Why don't you admit it?"
"I have a secret passion for mercy," I said. "But justice is what keeps happening to people." —Ross MacDonald, The Goodbye Look
A secret passion for mercy...but justice is what keeps happening. I love it.
Now, if you expand to the sleuths of the screen, it's a two-way fight between Brandon from the movie Brick and Veronica Mars from Veronica Mars. Brick was my first exposure to Joseph Gordon-Levitt, so it sticks in the mind. Brandon is definitely a Sam Spade kind of investigator, playing off the various sides against each other, trying to make justice happen. But, in classic noir style, he's not clean either. The hardboiled language is a delight, and the shootout at the end of the movie...wow.
I hadn't been exposed to Veronica Mars when I designed Dirty Secrets; in fact, I heard about it at GenCon 2007, when I debuted Dirty Secrets. So, when I got home, I devoured the series. So good! And yes, my wife and I were early backers of the movie Kickstarter. I guess we really are marshmallows at heart. I like Veronica because she is both the hardbitten P.I. and the vulnerable victim at the same time. The individual mysteries give her a chance to strut her stuff and talk hard, but she is also one of Ross MacDonald's innocents, caught up in familial corruption that has come home to roost with her generation. I find the combination to be irresistible.
What was your approach to creating a mystery in Dirty Secrets?
S: I was originally inspired by an unpublished draft of a mystery game by Christoph Boeckle, which was trying to solve the same design problem, which is marrying player-driven play with the emotional impact of the reveal of a mystery. In his game, he had a progression of creating clues which could then be woven together into chains (or threads?) which could eventually support the solving of a crime. As I tried to work with this idea, though, it soon became too cumbersome.
Then, one day, I had an epiphany. Instead of mechanizing the trail of clues, just mechanize the selection of a criminal. I already had the idea of a limited cast of characters. Let the game periodically assign guilt to a character, and rely on the players to reverse-engineer a justification. This ended up being the killer app that drove the rest of the design.
What happens during play, then, is certain events are defined as the Crimes that the game is about. No player is allowed to establish the guilty party, as the system will do that periodically. So, what this ends up requiring is that each player develop a working theory of the crime. What do you think happened? Then, use this theory to inform your playing of the various characters. Of course, since everyone will have a different working theory, different details emerge, and various characters become implicated as suspects. Then, when the game spits out a guilty verdict, the players collaborate to condense this web of details into narrative.
But here's the part that makes the game work. While only one of the characters is guilty of a given crime, all the other incriminating facts are still true. No one is clean. Even if you didn't commit this particular crime, you are actually guilty of all the other things that you did.
I've compared this use of the Crimes in Dirty Secrets to the way a pearl is created. A grain of sand is introduced into an oyster, which forces it to make a pearl, one layer at a time, to protect itself. The Crimes work similarly. By introducing them into the narrative, they provide a core that the players surround with their narrative.
What parts of crime fiction were you most interested in when you wrote your game? How do your rules help players experience that?
S: I discuss this at length in the final chapter of Dirty Secrets. As I reread that chapter, I realize that there are broadly two answers to that question. To help structure my answer, I'm going to grab two extended quotes from that chapter to get things going. Here's the first one:
I blame John Tynes. It's all his fault. I was reading his list of inspirations for his Unknown Armies roleplaying game, and he talked about James Ellroy. In it, he says, “If you want to read the best in new horror fiction, avoid the ‘horror' book rack — Ellroy is fighting on the front lines of the human nightmare, and has handily left the sad remnants of the horror field in his wake. “I read this, blinked, and went off to locate The Black Dahlia. Over the course of several years, I finished Ellroy's Los Angeles quartet. It was very hard going and horribly brutal, but I understood what Tynes was talking about. The most horrifying thing in the world is other people.
Dirty Secrets takes a fairly dim view of human nature. Everyone is compromised somehow and lying to cover it up. True horror is having to look at ourselves and acknowledge who we are and what we have done. This is supported in the rules by the Crime mechanics that I described in the previous answer. Of necessity, game play requires that suspicion be cast broadly. This means that many more characters are implicated by their actions than actually committed the central Crimes of the game. No character enters a game of Dirty Secrets and comes out clean.
Here's the other quote:
Dirty Secrets is about injustice. The powerful oppress the weak, using their money and influence to control them. In response, the weak rise up in violence against their oppressors. We are a divided people, and therefore, our society will not stand. But we hide from this reality. So long as we are safe, we do not care to look around us. But the oppression is real, and the violence is already with us. Is it already too late for us to be saved?
Maybe a little overdramatic, but that sums it up well.
Mechanically, this is supported by the Demographics, which is possibly the most controversial part of the game. Each Character is defined by a set of demographic categories: sex, age, race, social class, and legal status. Each of these is selected from a list of items, which were supposed to be fairly objective. In particular, for the "race" category, I looked up the categories used by the U.S. Census and used them. Now, let me be clear: there was no mechanical weight attached to any of these categories. None of them provided bonuses to rolls or anything like that. But you had to do this step for any Character being written down.
It's amazing how much this simple step exposes so many prejudices. You look at the Demographics, and suddenly you know this character...or you think you do. Because this character over here is poor and black, so he must deal drugs, right? But then, due to how the game plays, suddenly you discover that you were really, really wrong.
The game goes one step further. Dirty Secrets produces a lot of paperwork, and keeping all those index cards and papers organized became a problem early on in playtesting. So, we decided to make a virtue out of necessity and establish a filing system for the various Character cards, based on Demographic. The center of gameplay is a Conflict track--the English edition puts it on the back of the book--and around the edges of that are spaces to sort Character cards by demographics. All law enforcement types are on the top. White citizens are on the left, sorted then by social class (wealthy, middle-class, poor), with non-white citizens on the right, sorted similarly. Ex-cons are racially segregated at the bottom.
Again, this is just a filing system. But it was an attempt to express the basic social divides that exist in our country right now and require the players to have to look at it.
These aren't value judgments! In fact, it's an attempt to lay bare these divisions--to force players to confront their own prejudices--which might provide the possibility of self-reflection and positive change within society. And, to get political for just a sec, given our recent experience of Ferguson, "Hands up! Don't Shoot", "Black Lives Matter", "I Can't Breathe" and the like, I think this message is still immediate and relevant.
It's not just that the characters are compromised, but the players are compromised, too. But maybe it doesn't have to stay that way.
In each of my games, I lead off with Bible quotes that seem to fit the themes of the game. Here's what I included in Dirty Secrets:
Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. (Ephesians 5:11-12)
Again I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them. And I thought the dead who are already dead more fortunate than the living who are still alive. But better than both is he who has not yet been and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 4:1-3)
I think that the thematic resonances are obvious. However, having my current vantage point, I do wish I had included something with a little more hope, maybe at the end of the book. Something like this:
And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” (John 3:19-21)
There is still hope. There is still light. To answer my question from eight years ago, it's not too late for us to be saved.
How do your GMs and players learn about the genre as they play your game?
S: I think that the elements of compromised characters and social inequity that I mentioned above go a long way towards the players of Dirty Secrets learning the genre, if they didn’t already know it. But I think that there’s at least one more element that enters into the equation. Raymond Chandler spells it out best:
“[M]urder is an act of infinite cruelty, even if the perpetrators sometimes look like playboys or college professors or nice motherly women with softly graying hair.”
—Raymond Chandler, The Simple Art of Murder
At the center of every Dirty Secrets game is at least one murder. And noir cares very much about murder. Not in the “interesting puzzle” sort of way, like an Agatha Christie novel. No, noir cares about murder because it knows that a murder--a true, cold-blooded murder--represents the final stop on the descent of humanity into the depths of darkness.
And so, if you’re playing Dirty Secrets correctly, you will encounter at least one murder. And then you will encounter all sorts of characters, most of whom had the moral capacity--or lack thereof--to commit this murder. Because, as I’ve said, they’re all compromised. Only one of them actually committed the murder, but how many already committed the murder in their hearts? How many of them would have pulled the trigger but simply never had the chance to do so?
One of my favorite sequences in Christopher Nolan’s Batman movie The Dark Knight is the ferry scene. If you don’t know it, here’s the brief setup: there are two ferries escaping the island that Gotham City is on. One contains a bunch of convicts from the prison. The other is full of civilians. You know, “good people.” The Joker tells both ferries that each has a bomb on board, but each ferry has the detonator for the other ferry. He tells them that they need to blow up one of the ferries within a time limit, or he will blow up both of them. You can watch the relevant scenes here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K4GAQtGtd_0
Notice how it’s the white, upstanding citizen, supposedly a “good” man who argues for the despicable ending. Notice how he is the one who is willing to contemplate the murder--because it would be murder--of an entire ferry of human beings. Notice his capacity for delusion and justification. Notice how he supported by majority rule, by democracy.
And it’s the black convict--shown as the “hardened criminal”-- who does what they “should have done ten minutes ago” and throws their detonator overboard, refusing to compromise his basic humanity, even at the cost of his life.
This is the sort of thing that noir is made of. Noir is all about someone who is basically decent having gone just one step too far and then trying to fix it by going one step more. Decent people, from decent homes in decent towns, doing terrible things for really good motives...at least in their own minds.
And noir is sometimes...just sometimes...about finding light and humanity in the places that you weren’t expecting to find it.
This is exactly the sort of narrative that Dirty Secrets produces, if played with even a little empathy.
Thank you so much, Seth!!
Thank you again for the opportunity!
Seth Ben-Ezra is a human of the male variety who lives in Peoria, Illinois. He's been happily married to Crystal since 1997 and is the father of six children. In addition to Dirty Secrets, he designed Junk, Legends of Alyria, A Flower for Mara, and Showdown, as well as contributing to Little Fears by Jason Blair. For more information on Seth and his games, visit http://sethbenezra.wordpress.com
Andrea, you’ve done tremendous work in the cross-disciplinary field of transmedia, crossing the lines between writing, game design, involving the many and changing platforms of communication. In fact, you’ve written the definitive book on the topic: A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling! How did you become interested in transmedia development? Is there one key skill or experience you would recommend to others seeking a similar career?
A: I fell into transmedia through a series of coincidences and social connections you’d never be able to replicate. I was really just in the right place at the right time. But if you’re looking to forge such a career on purpose, I’d recommend becoming a habitual dabbler. Try new technologies as they arise. Try all different kinds of writing and interaction. Make lots of little weekend projects to see how they work and how they don’t. Learn everything you can about games and media, about social psychology, about history, about science. Ideally you’ll be just about competent at a lot of different things, enough to visualize how things can and should work; and then you can recruit a team of specialists to build out the places where your vision exceeds your skill. But first you need to develop that vision of what a story might be like or feel like.
What games do you play for fun? What kinds of stories do you enjoy?
A: I try to game pretty widely; it’s important to see how the field is changing around you as conventions and technologies evolve. I’m a fan of the fantasy RPG, games like Dragon Age or even Fable. But I also love Phoenix Wright, Katamari Damacy, Candy Crush. And even board games like Blokus, or 3-D tic-tac-toe. And I try to read widely, too. Lots of science fiction and fantasy across many subgenres, of course, but also romance, mysteries, nonfiction about the history of salt or Victorian-era inventions.
It’s all about putting a lot of different kinds of things into your brain. The media you consume are inevitably the primordial soup from which your new ideas will emerge. So the more weird and different things you put into your brain, the more interesting your own ideas will be.
You’ve worked on large scale commercial Alternate Reality Games like Perplex City to interactive adventure fiction like the Lucy Smokeheart ebooks. What are the greatest changes you've seen take place in game design and media? Are there new technologies that you are itching to take advantage of?
A: When I started making ARGs, social media as we know it today hadn’t been invented yet. The smartphone as a category barely existed, and the iPad and iPhone weren’t out yet, either. So the entire category of mobile games and social games as we know them today have sprang into existence and eaten the world in that time. And here’s the kicker: it’s only been ten years. Ten. That’s it.
If you squint you can see the shape of the future to come, too. Apple Watch and similar wearables are going to change things, even if we’re not yet sure how. And eventually augmented reality and mixed reality will hit its stride. (I’m still not sold on virtual reality as such, though.) I desperately want to make a whole series of mixed-reality games -- I wrote a white paper on the subject several years ago, but at the time the technology didn’t really support my wild imaginings. But I think we’re getting there. I just need to persuade some nice AR company to give me a call, I guess...
Congratulations on the release of your book, Revision! You recently tweeted about how much more vulnerable writing from the heart can make you feel in comparison with game design. I find writing daunting since you must present the full narrative by yourself, instead co-creating a story with your players as you do with a game. What are your challenges with writing fiction, and what makes it worth the struggle?
A: Thank you! It’s been an emotional rollercoaster. I’ve been astonished at how well the book has been received!
So -- there are some profound differences in what you can do in various media. There are some kinds of emotional textures you can’t provide except through interactive forms. You don’t feel pride or guilt over your own complicity when you watch a movie. But there are also some kinds of artistry you can’t pursue in a game, and it’s a rare game that lets you reach the same levels of depth and abstraction as a novel does. There’s not much place for elegant metaphor in a game, you know? So I go to fiction to fulfill a different set of creative needs in myself.
But writing straight and serious fiction -- not the silly stuff like Lucy Smokeheart, not children’s media like Circus of Mirrors, but the projects where I’m trying to say something true and important to me -- it’s terrifying. And so far, nobody is counting on me or keeping a deadline over my head, so it’s more difficult to get started. And to keep started. I like deadline pressure.
And then when you finally send that kind of work into the world, it’s like stripping all your clothes off and standing in the middle of town square, where people can see who you are with no pretense or artifice. But that same vulnerability gives you an opportunity to connect with other people under starkly honest conditions. And that’s amazing and powerful, for someone to see what you normally keep locked away in your heart and have them tell you, “Hey, I like what I’ve found here.”
Your podcast The Cultures with Adrian Hon and Naomi Alderman is a great listen, rich in observation and you grapple with serious and challenging topics in popular culture as well as design. What podcasts, online communities, conventions or festivals do you most enjoy? Which are your favorite for discussion of writing and design?
A: Oh, I’m so glad you like The Cultures! It’s tremendous fun to do, and I always come away from it feeling a little wiser than I started.
My #1 favorite venue for discussion about writing and design is Twitter. It’s not deep, but it’s always there, and just knowing you’re not all alone in this game is morale-lifting. I feel sorry for writers in decades past who didn’t have that persistent social connection. Once you find a community of other writers like you on Twitter (or the social media of your choice), the gatherings they go to will present themselves. That might be something like ARGfest, a Worldcon, WisCon, a local comicon. But the important thing, to me, isn’t the programming at any given convention, it’s finding a convenient time and place to connect with your community. A lot of the programming is still 101-level stuff you can get more information on faster by Googling, but there’s no replacement for having coffee face-to-face with your peer group.
I should also say I learned a lot about writing from Absolute Write, particularly the threads run by novelist Jim MacDonald (Learn Writing with Uncle Jim.) It starts out a little bit opaque -- or it did for me -- and I had to grow into it. Looking back, it was a tremendous help to me in learning how to think about structure, pacing, and tension. Not how to write, but how to think about writing. Understanding that every word and sentence is doing a specific piece of work in your story.
I’m also a huge fan of the Ditch Diggers podcast done by Mur Lafferty and Matt Wallace. There’s a lot of myth swirling around the processes and business elements of writing, and Ditch Diggers talks about writing as a job, with a clear-eyed and unromantic perspective a lot of writers can benefit from. Mur’s other podcast I Should Be Writing is also great for addressing the emotional landscape of creative work.
But at the end of the day, the most important thing is to break away from talking and reading about writing so that you actually do the writing. All the theory in the world doesn’t help you when the page remains blank.
You’ve mentioned that in reviewing or discussing games, people rarely address the narrative aspects--such as pacing, characterization, plot. If you don’t mind, pick a game you enjoy and give us an example of how that kind of discussion could look.
A: Right now my favorite game to deconstruct is Dragon Age: Inquisition. It’s a fun game, with a lot of beautifully written moments -- there’s a mission that closes the first act called In Your Heart Shall Burn that is an incredibly powerful scene, one of the finest pieces of writing I’ve ever seen in a game or a film. It comes when the heroes seem at the edge of total victory, but find that instead they lose everything that they’ve built for so far and have to start over again. You find yourself stumbling alone from the ashes of your home through deep snow, trying to find the other survivors. When you finally find them, they’re arguing among themselves about what to do and where to go. And then a religious leader raises her voice in song: a religious hymn that cements you as a symbol of hope for the Inquisition to rally around. You survived, and that means all is not lost. Better: that hymn is the theme music for the game, so you get a shiver of that moment again every time you boot up the game from that day on.
But afterward, the pacing takes a turn for the worse; the hero enjoys a slow, steady slide to victory, and there really aren’t any major setbacks after that. There’s a point very close to the end of the game where it seem briefly that you’ve come under the power of an old and tremendously powerful figure from prior games with ambiguous motivations -- someone who might be outright evil, or at least inhuman. But that twist isn’t given any time to settle in; it’s resolved in practically the next moment. So you don’t feel like the jaws of defeat are closing around you. And as a result, the latter parts of the game feel less tense. There’s no real sense that losing is possible, nor that anything is really at stake.
Some of this is down to the nature of an open world game, because pacing is always a hard problem if you don’t know what may happen next. But big-picture story missions happen in a particular order, and I kept waiting for the discovery of the Horrible Truth that it’s too late and you’ve already lost. But it never came, and so the eventual victory didn’t feel as powerful as it should have.
What’s next for you? Any dream projects you’d love to do some day?
A: Right now I’m writing a fairly straightforward YA novel about the luckiest girl in the world (literally), and a secret society of luck-eating magicians. The working title is Felicity, but you can be sure somebody will change that before it hits.
I have a Lucy Smokeheart-style Choice of Games game coming out later this year, too; it’s called Mermaid Hunter, and you play as an aspiring scholar of the Royal German Marinological Society, trying to prove the existence of mermaids.
After that, I have a transmedia project I’d like to build named The Attachment Study. It’ll play out through emails and text messages that arrive in your inbox over the course of the story. Among other things, I want to explore the space of having a character in a story fall in love with the reader; it’s a very rich territory, and I want to see what I can find there.
Thank you for sharing your time and experience with us, Andrea!
Andrea Phillips is an award-winning transmedia writer, game designer and author. She has worked on projects such as iOS fitness games Zombies, Run! and The Walk, The Maester's Path for HBO's Game of Thrones, human rights game America 2049, and the independent commercial ARG Perplex City. Her projects have variously won the Prix Jeunesse Interactivity Prize, a Broadband Digital award, a Canadian Screen Award, a BIMA, the Origins Vanguard Innovation Award, and others. Her book A Creator's Guide to Transmedia Storytelling is used to teach digital storytelling at universities around the world.
Her independent work includes the Kickstarted serial The Daring Adventures of Captain Lucy Smokeheart and The McKinnon Account, a short story that unfolds in your email inbox. Her debut novel Revision is out on May 5 from Fireside Fiction Co. and her short fiction has been published in Escape Pod and the Jews vs. Aliens anthology.
You can find Andrea on Twitter at @andrhia. I mean, if you like that sort of thing.
Hi Greg! Thanks for answering a few questions about noir and crime fiction in games. First off, who is a favorite fictional sleuth of yours? Why?
G: Mm, that’s kind of a tough question… I like Sherlock Holmes quite a bit, just for the whole iconic stalwart “Yes I’m smarter than everyone else and we’re all just going to have to bear that burden together” vibe. Modern day “smarter than y’all” sleuths all seem to be a bit of a xerox off Holmes, unless they have some interesting diminishment.
On the other hand, I like TV’s Columbo a lot too, for the exact opposite reasons. He just trudges and trundles and grinds away doggedly and humbly until he succeeds, after being methodically underestimated throughout. Plus, he’s compassionate, which isn’t something you see much in sleuths.
In developing A Dirty World, what was your approach to creating a mystery?
G: The model of a mystery novel is extremely mechanical, I find. You need to have everything placed where the reader can see it (because otherwise it’s a cheat) but it has to be occluded and shuffled in with red herrings so that when the detective puts it together, the readers slap themselves on the head and say “I COULD have figured it out, if only I’d been a bit more clever!”
Now that I think about it, it’s a bit like poetry. The poems I like the best always provoke this contradictory reaction in me, where I think “I’ve never thought of that before but I’ve always felt exactly the same way.” With a good mystery, you get to the end and think “Oh, it’s obvious but I never would have figured it out in a million years.”
Doing that in a book where you can meticulously plan your advance and the deployment of characters and clues--that’s hard enough. Doing it in a game where you have unpredictable players in the mix? Nah. I don’t even try to replicate the mystery structure. I just have an unsolved and unstable situation, then spam the PCs with clues until something busts loose.
With the new version of DELTA GREEN that’s coming, I’ve tried to approach the adventures I wrote for it from the perspective of “The PCs are entirely predestined to have an encounter with the awfulness of the world, and their rolls and decisions only determine if they encounter it with some hope of surviving or prevailing, or whether they just get one horrid revelation before rolling up new agents.” With ADW, the mystery is always THERE, but it’s really just a framework--a jungle gym upon which the contortions of morality and ethics can be performed.
Noir often has a jaded view of society, how is this a part of A Dirty World?
G: The mechanics in ADW are a series of sliders between contrary capacities, like “Honesty vs. Deceit” or “Courage vs. Wrath.” It’s possible to be bad at both, but you can’t be GREAT at both. If you’re really brave (and therefore really good at fair fights or those where you’re overmatched) you can’t also be really vicious with those who are weaker than you. If you’re essentially deceptive, that always comes through a bit.
There are no hit points in ADW. You take damage directly on your ability to do things, but direct losses are less common than shifts. When your courage gets injured, it often makes it EASIER for you to be cruel to others. When your honesty is diminished, lying becomes more reliable.
Of course, in lengthy conflicts, you inevitably lose some ability, so every scene has an opportunity to increase one trait. But you can only do it if you’ve acted appropriately. You can only improve your Purity if, in the previous scene, you righted a wrong at cost, without duress. That’s a pretty high bar, right? To improve Corruption (the opposite of Purity) you have to deliberately make someone miserable, with no personal gain. One of those is clearly a lot easier to engineer, and the positive, upright abilities are generally harder to raise up than the dark, malevolent abilities. Being bad is easier and more powerful, which makes people behave in Noir-appropriate ways pretty quickly.
What parts of your rules and overall system capture what drew you to write a noir game in the first place? How do you communicate those elements of the genre to your GMs and players?
G: ADW is pretty short because I figure anyone who wants a Noir game has their own opinions about what Noir is and how to evoke it. To me, Noir copes with doing the right thing even when it’s the hard thing. But at the same time, it’s about pragmatism, taking a long hard look at the ugliness of life and saying “Yep, that’s ugly and hard.” I don’t want to impose moral judgments on players (because they rarely work) but I do want to evoke a lot of questions about right and wrong, and their impact on personality.
ADW, for better or worse, is tightly focussed on the internal states of its characters, and they’re constantly in flux. You can start out the game as an honest, courageous and certain individual, but between the choices you make and the things that get done to you, you can end up doubting, dishonest and mean as the rattler that bit its own daddy. Solving the mystery is less important than what the detectives do while chasing it, how they change others and how they are changed in turn.
Thanks for chatting with me about your game!
Greg Stolze was born way back in 1970, when phones were shackled to walls like prisoners in a dungeon and wide ties ruled the Earth. He designed the rules systems for Unknown Armies and Wild Talents, and contributed heavily to a couple Worlds of Darkness as well as Delta Green and the early days of Legends of the Five Rings. You can find tons of his work on www.gregstolze.com and follow him on Twitter as @gregstolze if you want to read about his writing, gaming and assorted physical injuries. A Dirty World is part of the Bundle of Holding deal at https://bundleofholding.com/presents/DeadlyGames until June 23, 2015.
An Interview with Robin D. Laws; Writer, Editor and Role Playing Game Designer.
Robin, your work on games and fiction spans decades and genres –Talislanta, Star Trek, Earth Dawn, Warhammer, as well as your own systems Rune, The Dying Earth, Over the Edge, Feng Shui, the Gumshoe System, the DramaSystem and more. Your career with role playing games is among the most distinguished in an industry that has seen many changes. What advice might you have for designers and writers today to find good partner companies, and to become successfully established?
R: There's a paradox inherent in asking people who've been successful for a while about their career paths. In any creative field the trick is to spot a you-sized hole and then fill it before someone else does. That spot isn’t there anymore because the person you want to emulate has already filled it. Also, things have changed enormously since I started in the early 90s.
That said, what I would advise is to get involved in online communities and hopefully finally in face-to-face interaction with the games and companies that excite you. Making sure that you work with good partner companies is a matter of doing a little bit of behind the scenes sleuthing to discover stuff like how far behind a company is in its production schedule, whether they pay freelancers on time, how pleasant they are to work with, and so forth. There's really no substitute for going to Gen Con and leveraging the profile that you built with your online activities to earn face time. If I already kind of know you from the cool stuff you’ve written about my games, you’re going to make a bigger impression on me than if you’re approaching me cold and I can’t tell how much you know about the lines I work on.
Of course, face to face contact gives the people you’re meeting the opportunity to evaluate you, as well, so you have to make sure that you present yourself as together and personable and fun to be around.
When you do get work, be on time, hit the specs you’re given, and require as little prose editing as possible. Having great ideas is important too but the power of reliably delivering quality work on time can’t be underestimated.
I’ve been enjoying listening to your podcast with the excellent Kenneth Hite: Ken and Robin Talk about Stuff. You often discuss film and fiction as well as games. Your notes from film festivals are particularly fun to listen to! Narrative structure seems central to your approach to game design, as shown by Hamlet’s Hit Points and the DramaSystem. What led to this, and how has it shaped your designs over the years?
R: I thought of myself as a writer from a very young age, but never considered gaming as an outlet for my work until fairly late, when I kind of fell into it backwards. Originally I thought that I was going to be a playwright. Although I've always been analytical about story my sensibility is as much a literary or art-house perspective as it is rooted in geek culture. When I first started out it seemed liked there was a big unexplored territory in looking at the way narrative is constructed in other forms and applying those techniques to role-playing games. That's why for example Feng Shui is an emulative, not simulative, game. It's more interested in modeling the way action movies present themselves than in caring about the real world effects of things like gun calibers or body armor. In hindsight emulation seems like a pretty obvious approach but at the time it was very much running against the tide of the simulative of wave of games that preceded it. The interest in Hong Kong movies in particular came out of my festival going because the Toronto film festival (then called the Festival of Festivals) was one of the first to highlight those movies for a western audience. So, just ahead of the curve, I got to see something that I knew would become a geek favorite genre before it hit, a result of the cross-pollination of high and pop culture.
Throughout your career, you’ve also examined how role playing games work. Back in 1994, your essay “The Hidden Art: Slouching Towards A Critical Framework for RPGs,” was a call to arms for players, designers and GMs to look critically at rpgs as a new artform. In the 21 years since then a lot of pixels have been burned talking about rpgs. You've made influential contributions, such as Robin's Laws of Good Game Mastering and the insights in Hamlet's Hitpoints. What concepts and ideas of others do you find have contributed to play and design?
R: Criticism by gamers can fall into the trap of not being descriptive but rather proscriptive. A lot of critiques really operate as disguised manifestos for the writer’s preferred play style or design focus. The things I most value work to find a vocabulary to refine and spread practical play techniques in a way that makes game sessions better. So for example whoever* nailed down the concept of failing forward in its RPG sense deserves a huge amount of gratitude on the part of gamerdom. [NB: Here is a nice summary of Failing Forward.] But I have to admit that I don't spend a ton of time following role-playing criticism. This is a comment not on its importance but on the ever-escalating time demands facing a full-time freelance creator in today’s incessantly connected environment.
*R: The Twitter hivemind can’t quite agree and I am loath to misattribute.
In your 1994 essay, you made some predictions that have come true: Jungian game analysis is actually being done by Sarah Lynne Bowman and Whitney Beltrán; the issue of how game mechanics affect the narrative in a game has been a well-traveled path in indie game design; and the ghost of Goethe’s three questions for the art critic (What is the artist trying to do? How well is it done? Was it worth doing?) haunts Jared Sorenson, Luke Crane and John Wick’s Big Three (or four) Questions about game design: (What is your game about? How is your game about that? What behavior does your game encourage or reward? and How do you make this fun?). Are there other elements of “The Hidden Art” that you’d like to see followed up, or new directions you think we could go today?
R: In the early days of any new form or movement the artists and the critics are often the same people. This is because if you're doing something new the people making the new thing are the only ones qualified to form a vocabulary around it. For example when Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and their circle were creating bebop they had to come up with a new iteration of jazz talk in order to discuss it with each other. In a mature field you need and want a distance between the practitioner and the critic. We're starting to see that happen with people coming at tabletop from an academic point of view. This is a maturation I’m happy to see, so we’re getting more than people trying to either justify their game designs or to confer legitimacy on their preferred play style. When I wrote that essay that wasn't really happening: its point was to predict and encourage it. Now that it is happening it would be self-contradictory of me as a practitioner to tell the new wave of academics what to look at. Though if someone wants to be the Northrop Frye of interactive narrative I’m down with that.
What conventions, festivals or online communities do you most enjoy? Which are your favorite for discussion of games and game design?
R: I go to Gen Con and Dragonmeet every year. As I don’t need to tell you, being a guest at a mid-scale European con has much to recommend it. I don't spend a lot of time online discussing games and game design. My main outlet for that sort of thing is the podcast discussions I have with Ken every week.
Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with us!
Robin D. Laws designed the GUMSHOE investigative roleplaying system, including such games as The Esoterrorists and Ashen Stars. Among his other acclaimed RPG credits are Feng Shui and HeroQuest. Robin is the Creative Director of Stone Skin Press and has edited such fiction anthologies as The New Hero, Shotguns v. Cthulhu, and The Lion and the Aardvark: Aesop's New Fables. You can hear more of Robin's thoughts and game insights at his podcast with Kenneth Hite: Ken and Robin Talk about Stuff.
John, you've been involved in role playing games by writing, running and documenting the industry since the early 1990s. Your encyclopedic website is a great resource for people who want to learn about the successive waves of game design, and spotlighted women designers.You've written for the Knudepunkt (the Nordic larp convention) companion books and published other essays on how role playing games really work. And, for many years have been the steward of the Indie RPG Awards site. Thank you for all that work. Can you tell us how you got interested in role playing games? You play both tabletop and larp, did you start with one or the other?
J: I started with tabletop RPGs from an early age. Back in the 1970s, my best friend in preschool had an older brother who was into Dungeons & Dragons (TM) , which at the time was cool and new, and I have been fascinated with RPGs since then. I played a number of RPGs through grade school, including D&D as well as the superhero game Champions and the science-fiction game Traveller - which kindled a continuing interest in science for me.
What games have you played recently, or want to play soon?
J: I have three tabletop campaigns that I'm playing in - a weekly D&D game, a monthly GURPS game, and a bi-weekly Call of Cthulhu campaign. I also go to a weekly group that does a mix of story games - our most recent games were The Quiet Year, Universalis, and The Play's The Thing. I also do a various larps - mostly at the four Bay Area local conventions I go to, as well as AmberCon NorthWest in Portland. I'm currently preparing to run a voodoo and noir themed larp for KublaCon in May.
You've been part of several generations (so to speak) of game discussion and theory. In particular you were instrumental in recording discussion on the UseNet group rec.games.frp.advocacy, which fed into discussion at the Forge forums and in Nordic game communities. What are the greatest changes you've seen take place? Are there conversations going on now that you are engaged by?
J: I think the biggest shift has been what transformed rec.games.frp.advocacy in the mid-nineties, which is moving away from advocating for a particular style of role-playing, and moving toward accepting that there are differing creative goals. This is still going on, but (for example) I think there are fewer people who tout story as the only legitimate intent of role-playing, and more people who accept that as an alternative to their own style. The boom of online publishing has brought together a lot of previously disparate groups. Also, the cross-polination of larp - and especially Nordic larp - with tabletop design is an intriguing new direction.
The main ongoing conversation that I'm engaged by is discussion of educational games. I was fascinated by the glimpses I'd seen of material out of Osterkov Efterskol, the larp-based high school in Denmark. I hear about a number of U.S. based educational larps, and I would like to see more discussion of design principles among these.
What do you think are some of the most important ideas that have come out of rpg theory discussion?
J: I do think that the Threefold Model was an important early step in discussion, and another key development from rgfa was the concept of group contract - which the first step into many analyses of the real-world social structure and interactions of games.
Among a lot of furor in tabletop RPG theory of the 2000's, two that stick with me are Troy Costisick's "Power 19" design questions and Vincent Baker's "Fruitful Void". The "Power 19" questions are a compact version of designing with specific intent, which is a good summary of the trend of narrow/coherent game design where each choice is in service to a chosen creative agenda. However, this can lead to literal, reductionist design - where to make the game about love, you have a "Love" stat, mechanics to resolve love affairs, and characters with lots of loving relationships. Vincent Baker's "Fruitful Void" is an expression of the vital counter-trend, that points out how the game's focus isn't always the literal meaning.
An important recent idea is characters as psychological (especially Jungian) archetypes, as advanced by Sarah Bowman and Whitney Beltrán, among others. This is only starting to touch the surface of psychological process. Previous psychological theory tend to regard story and serious themes as goals unto themselves. The more interesting question is what the game accomplishes.
What's your favorite social medium to talk about games today? Any of them? Why?
J: My favorite social medium to talk about games is unquestionably to play games with people in person. There are innumerable subtleties and details of play that just can't be communicated without shared experience. This is particularly true of role-playing, which is an improvisational form whose analytic language is still in its infancy.
What conventions have your favorite gaming? Your favorite talks on games and game design?
J: My favorite convention for play is AmberCon NorthWest, held outside Portland in early November. It has a strong, close-knit community and lots of innovative concepts for tabletop play. The theme of Amber fiction and diceless play gives a common culture without being limiting.
My favorite for discussion of games and game design is the Knutepunkt conventions held in spring in the Nordic countries. It also has some great example games run in the week prior to it, and during the convention, but mostly it is a whirlwind of impassioned people talking about the games that they are dedicated to. Living Games is a plan for a U.S. larp discussion conference similar to Knutepunkt - it will be starting in Austin in May 2016. [NB: The first Living Games conference was run in New York City, March 2014]
Other excellent conventions include local California conventions - particularly Big Bad Con in Oakland in November for innovative tabletop and larp play; and the larp convention WyrdCon in L.A. in September. The Bay Area also has four (!) other major gaming conventions: DunDraCon in February, KublaCon in may, and PacifiCon and CelestiCon in September.
I understand that the website to the Indie RPG Awards has changed to. The awards have been going on since 2002, and the indie rpg movement is going strong. Have you thought about adding a live action component? Do you have any other new plans for the site?
J: Thanks. I think the new website has actually a better name than the old one of "www.rpg-awards.com", but unfortunately the old URL is no longer available to redirect, so there may be some confusion.
Live action games have always been included in the Indie RPG Awards, but there is not a separate live-action-only award category. Notably, the "Nordic Larp" book was on the slate in 2010, and the "Blood on the Snow" with your own larp rules was in 2013. There still are not that many English-language larp designs published each year, certainly not compared to the many dozens of tabletop designs published. At the current rate of publishing and nomination, I don't think it's ready for its own category.
I will be on the lookout for how to include more larps among nominations, and larp designers among voters, for them to potentially get their own category in a future year.
If people are interested in discussion of rpg play or design, what do you recommend they read or listen to?
J: I think it depends a lot on what they're looking for. Some people like fast-moving trends such as Google+, Facebook, or Twitter. I think those can be good for getting alerts from time to time, but for in-depth I prefer books and permanent websites on the topic. For larp, both Knutepunkt and Wyrd Con publish books of articles each year.
Are you working on any games? Are there any projects you'd like to work on?
J: As I mentioned earlier, I am working on a voodoo and noir themed larp, called "Dark Ridings", where the characters are all practitioners on a fictional Carribean island come to a summit meeting. In terms of game design, I am explicitly experimenting with archetypes and possession - where each character has the option to at some point be ridden by a loa. It's written for a convention audience, which makes it touchy - since I have to simplify and work with American's view of the real-world religious beliefs of Haiti and elsewhere. However, I don't want to stick to only Western culture just because I can't portray other cultures to an equal standard. At least with voodoo, it's easy to do better than the horribly negative pop culture depictions.
On the longer term, I have been considering a major update to my venerable website, which started way back in 1994. I have been learning a lot more about modern website design in the past year, and I am considering an overhaul that would majorly improve the functionality, making information easily at people's fingertips.
This Spring I helped curate and participated in a charity Bundle of Holding called the Indie Spring Festival. Spione is one of the earliest written of the games in the bundle and in many ways was a precursor of the others and the movement in game design they represent. This game is a capstone to the collection and embodies recurring themes seen in the whole group. All together, these games exemplify the structures that can make tabletop freeform a powerful and elegant form of design.Read More
It's a perennial fight: what is noir? We can start with where the term came from, and point to some of the arguments, but the most important thing for our conversations here, really, is what is it about noir narratives that make it worth thinking about?
First, the history*. During World War II, very few films from the US were seen in Europe. France in particular, under German occupation was cut off. After the war ended, French film-goers
caught up on a backlog, but something had changed. In 1946, what would come to be known as iconic noir films--The Maltese Falcon, Laura and Double Indemnity--hit French theaters, and a new sensibility arose. What were seen as B-movie pot boilers in the US gained recognition abroad. Later analysis would point to major industrial, political and socioeconomic changes in society as sources of the narrative depth of noir. Specifically: after-effects of the Great Depression, the two World Wars, and the onset of the cold war. Ancillary issues that bubble through as well are impacts of industrialization, suffrage, labor and civil rights movements.
In 1955, Raymonde Borde and Étienne Chaumeton began the process of defining film noir, setting off a series of arguments and wrangling which has never quite come to an end:
- What is the classic period of film noir? Concensus generally places it starting in 1941 with The Maltese Falcon to 1958 with Orson Welles' Touch of Evil. But arguments can be made for including gangster films from the 30s like The Public Enemy, Scarface and Fury, or latter-day noirs such as Cape Fear and Chinatown.
- What the are defining characteristics of a noir? It does not fit neatly into a set of traditional genre conventions as did western and gangster films. Noir elements are everywhere in films, from crime drama, maternal melodrama to westerns and science fiction. Looking at noir aesthetics: cynical tone, high-contrast black and white visuals, expressionistic low-key lighting and (paradoxically) realism are the common threads.
- What constitutes a neo noir? What life and legacy, if any, does the movement have in later films? Color film lost the characteristic dramatic light and shadows of classic film noir. Crime and investigations precede and follow noir without necessarily being part of it. And the noir detective has become genre-ized, full of out-of-place fedoras, "broads" and hard-bitten voice-overs re-iterating the components of noir without necessarily embodying the soul of what made noir worthy of notice. For proof, simply watch Chinatown and then its sequel, The Two Jakes.
Film noir as a concept also birthed a retrospective view of the roman noir, noir fiction. Enter some of the hard questions and arguments about what noir means, and what exactly is a noir film, book or other narrative. Apply this to other, contemporary narrative forms and we ask, what does a noir role playing game look like? What would constitute an Alternate Reality Game noir? What aesthetics and sensibilities make a video game noir?
The Noir Matrix
For the purposes of this blog, I'm boiling down noir to a set of elements. Not definitive ingredients, which if you combine them all off you get the noirest of the noir–nstead, these are attributes that are crucial to what makes noir narratives meaningful for our purposes.
The matrix is an analytical tool to help us look at games, stories, films and other media. I'll use it to see what elements various noir texts embody. What they emphasize, how they highlight the elements. What they apply it to. How they differ from one another, and the kind of meaning their structures create.
They break down into three Issues (Identity, Society and Violence) and three Themes (Modernity, Disillusionment and Crime).
The issues are questions raised by the fiction. Themes are motifs and subjects that recur.
- Identity – who are the characters, how do they understand themselves, how are they defined by others.
- Society – what is the place of these characters in their community, what does the society inflict upon its members, how does it isolate them, who is empowered.
- Violence – who is vulnerable to violence, who is capable of it, what does it betray about the characters, their motivations and the truth about their relations in society.
- Modernity – the urban landscape, the alienation of labor, the impacts of technology and industrialization. Political realities, transformations to cultural identity, expressions of gender, structure of relationships and the family. Psychology, class analysis, capitalism, rural/urban divides.
- Disillusionment – a cynical tone, pessimism, undermining of innocence and naiveté. Corrupt officials, exploitative relationships and decaying social institutions. An underlying idealism, perhaps, about what the world could and should be, but with a loss of hope about attaining those ideals.
- Crime – blackmail, theft, murder. Syndicates, dirty cops, petty law breakers making a living. Protagonists who cross the line between law and disorder, battered by both sides. A look at the unregulated or unacknowledged parts of society which rebel against the nominally established order.
Issues of Identity are questions raised by the stories. Such as "what is it to be human?", explored by Ridley Scott in Blade Runner (and by Philip K. Dick in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), through focusing the story on the so-human seeming replicant androids. In Walter Mosley's novel Devil in a Blue Dress, his detective Easy Rawlins' investigation threads between white and black communities and hinges on the ethnic identity of the woman he seeks. An Issue of Society in The Big Sleep, is "who gets away with murder?" with the wild-child Carmen Sternwood being protected from the consequences of her actions by her high-society family, while little guys like Harry Jones die for being a stand-up guy. Violence is a constant of noir. It is the primary currency in these tales. Who has the capacity for violence, who can take the most, who can conceal their ability to deal harm? Who is vulnerable to violence, and why. The issues arise in Bad Day at Black Rock, Spencer Tracy's character searches for a war hero and inadvertently uncovers the complicity of the whole town in a racially-motivated murder.
Looking at the Themes: crime, disillusionment and modernity riddle noir. They define its parameters even when the genre is transported to the distant future, or the past. These recurrent motifs underscore what created the noir viewpoint: massive changes to human lives, along with massive loss of life on scales not possible before, and also moments of major solidarity and successful fights for emancipation, suffrage and economic opportunity. Cynicism and corruption are the downsides to the hopeful ideal of modernization and technological leaps that remind us that no matter how far forward we progress, we remain human. Many of us with our heels on the neck of someone to move forward, others beneath the heel. With a bloody past behind us, and a bloody future ahead.
*Documented in Alain Silver and James Ursini's Film Noir Reader.
Role playing games give us a way to escape the world. But if we look at it from a different angle, they can give us tools to deal with the stresses we endure, and try to struggle with them. The world is a terrible place for many of us. With the transformations that our world hurtles through every year, a focus that can encompass these things is welcome. Discussion of noir fiction is ripe for this.
This may need to be proven, though. Noir, particularly film noir is often a very male-focused, white, hetero-normative affair. But, the reasons it packed a punch to the post-WWII French film critics who coined the term are the reasons it is still relevant today: it speaks of the massive trauma to the world and human psyches brought about by modernization of warfare, commerce and technology. What is often swept under the rug are the voices who spoke of oppression and loss of belief in the powers-that-be from long before the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Of the lives lost in the conquest of the Americas by Europeans, and the massive enslavement and forced migration of Africans.
Noir narrative, also, in its structure broke conventions that bound us to one linear path to knowing a tale. The films were characterized by the flash-back, fourth-wall-breaking voiceover narrations, dream sequences, unreliable narrators, expressionistic and emotion heightening lighting, and the use of real locations over sounds-stages. Film noir creators produced a visual vocabulary which allowed their stories to break the frame of modern, conventional tales and explore contrasts and contradictions of stories from the twilit parts of our lives and minds. These techniques crossed over from literature and psychology, and map readily onto role playing games. Using the strengths and dimensions unique to each form.
Noir can't change the facts of history, but it can allow us to see history differently. It's a mode of communication that points to the gaps and breaks in what we often think of as the closed and healthy system of 20th (and now 21st) century human societies. In fiction, film and in games it is an avenue for criticism and exploration--though one which is as vulnerable to becoming watered down and repetitive as any other genre, mode or form.
Let's approach noir with fresh eyes, then. Looking at the spaces it creates in narrative for critiquing the failings of society and the individual. And as a narrative form that is meant to embrace narratives counter to the mainstream.