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