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.