Esoterrorists & Noir - Interview with Robin D. Laws

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.