A Dirty World & Noir - Interview with Greg Stolze

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!

Happy to.

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.