Soth & Noir - Interview with Steve Hickey

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