Noir World & Noir - Interview with John Adamus

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 and on twitter at Learn more about Noir World by following it on twitter at: @noirworldrpg. 

Dirty Secrets & Noir - Interview with Seth Ben Ezra

Hi Seth! Thanks for talking with me about Noir and crime fiction in games. First off, who is a favorite fictional sleuth of yours? Why?

S: Thanks for the opportunity to be interviewed, Emily!

Probably my favorite literary sleuth is Lew Archer, Ross MacDonald's investigator for nearly all his novels. Where Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade is something of an agent provocateur and Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe is a knight errant in search of adventure, Lew Archer is on a different quest. Someone described him as more of a social worker, seeking to understand. Archer isn't trying to rescue victims, like Marlowe. Rather, he is trying to protect innocence, if that makes sense. This is even more powerful when you consider that nearly all of MacDonald's novels can be summed up by the concept of the sins of the fathers being visited upon the children. Marlowe and Spade move through the criminal underworld. Archer moves through suburbia, uncovering generational sin that has landed unfairly on the children. I find that to be a very powerful story.

Also, Archer gives us this great quote:
"That isn't your real motivation. I know your type. You have a secret passion for justice. Why don't you admit it?"

"I have a secret passion for mercy," I said. "But justice is what keeps happening to people." —Ross MacDonald, The Goodbye Look

A secret passion for mercy...but justice is what keeps happening. I love it.

Now, if you expand to the sleuths of the screen, it's a two-way fight between Brandon from the movie Brick and Veronica Mars from Veronica Mars. Brick was my first exposure to Joseph Gordon-Levitt, so it sticks in the mind. Brandon is definitely a Sam Spade kind of investigator, playing off the various sides against each other, trying to make justice happen. But, in classic noir style, he's not clean either. The hardboiled language is a delight, and the shootout at the end of the

I hadn't been exposed to Veronica Mars when I designed Dirty Secrets; in fact, I heard about it at GenCon 2007, when I debuted Dirty Secrets. So, when I got home, I devoured the series. So good! And yes, my wife and I were early backers of the movie Kickstarter. I guess we really are marshmallows at heart. I like Veronica because she is both the hardbitten P.I. and the vulnerable victim at the same time. The individual mysteries give her a chance to strut her stuff and talk hard, but she is also one of Ross MacDonald's innocents, caught up in familial corruption that has come home to roost with her generation. I find the combination to be irresistible.

What was your approach to creating a mystery in Dirty Secrets

S: I was originally inspired by an unpublished draft of a mystery game by Christoph Boeckle, which was trying to solve the same design problem, which is marrying player-driven play with the emotional impact of the reveal of a mystery. In his game, he had a progression of creating clues which could then be woven together into chains (or threads?) which could eventually support the solving of a crime. As I tried to work with this idea, though, it soon became too cumbersome.

Then, one day, I had an epiphany. Instead of mechanizing the trail of clues, just mechanize the selection of a criminal. I already had the idea of a limited cast of characters. Let the game periodically assign guilt to a character, and rely on the players to reverse-engineer a justification. This ended up being the killer app that drove the rest of the design.

What happens during play, then, is certain events are defined as the Crimes that the game is about. No player is allowed to establish the guilty party, as the system will do that periodically. So, what this ends up requiring is that each player develop a working theory of the crime. What do you think happened? Then, use this theory to inform your playing of the various characters. Of course, since everyone will have a different working theory, different details emerge, and various characters become implicated as suspects. Then, when the game spits out a guilty verdict, the players collaborate to condense this web of details into narrative.

But here's the part that makes the game work. While only one of the characters is guilty of a given crime, all the other incriminating facts are still true. No one is clean. Even if you didn't commit this particular crime, you are actually guilty of all the other things that you did.

I've compared this use of the Crimes in Dirty Secrets to the way a pearl is created. A grain of sand is introduced into an oyster, which forces it to make a pearl, one layer at a time, to protect itself. The Crimes work similarly. By introducing them into the narrative, they provide a core that the players surround with their narrative.

What parts of crime fiction were you most interested in when you wrote your game? How do your rules help players experience that?

S: I discuss this at length in the final chapter of Dirty Secrets. As I reread that chapter, I realize that there are broadly two answers to that question. To help structure my answer, I'm going to grab two extended quotes from that chapter to get things going. Here's the first one:

I blame John Tynes.  It's all his fault.  I was reading his list of inspirations for his Unknown Armies roleplaying game, and he talked about James Ellroy.  In it, he says, “If you want to read the best in new horror fiction, avoid the ‘horror' book rack — Ellroy is fighting on the front lines of the human nightmare, and has handily left the sad remnants of the horror field in his wake. “I read this, blinked, and went off to locate The Black Dahlia.  Over the course of several years, I finished Ellroy's Los Angeles quartet.  It was very hard going and horribly brutal, but I understood what Tynes was talking about.  The most horrifying thing in the world is other people.

Dirty Secrets takes a fairly dim view of human nature. Everyone is compromised somehow and lying to cover it up. True horror is having to look at ourselves and acknowledge who we are and what we have done. This is supported in the rules by the Crime mechanics that I described in the previous answer. Of necessity, game play requires that suspicion be cast broadly. This means that many more characters are implicated by their actions than actually committed the central Crimes of the game. No character enters a game of Dirty Secrets and comes out clean.

Here's the other quote:

Dirty Secrets is about injustice.  The powerful oppress the weak, using their money and influence to control them.  In response, the weak rise up in violence against their oppressors.  We are a divided people, and therefore, our society will not stand.  But we hide from this reality.  So long as we are safe, we do not care to look around us.  But the oppression is real, and the violence is already with us. Is it already too late for us to be saved?

Maybe a little overdramatic, but that sums it up well.

Mechanically, this is supported by the Demographics, which is possibly the most controversial part of the game. Each Character is defined by a set of demographic categories: sex, age, race, social class, and legal status. Each of these is selected from a list of items, which were supposed to be fairly objective. In particular, for the "race" category, I looked up the categories used by the U.S. Census and used them. Now, let me be clear: there was no mechanical weight attached to any of these categories. None of them provided bonuses to rolls or anything like that. But you had to do this step for any Character being written down.

It's amazing how much this simple step exposes so many prejudices. You look at the Demographics, and suddenly you know this character...or you think you do. Because this character over here is poor and black, so he must deal drugs, right? But then, due to how the game plays, suddenly you discover that you were really, really wrong.

The game goes one step further. Dirty Secrets produces a lot of paperwork, and keeping all those index cards and papers organized became a problem early on in playtesting. So, we decided to make a virtue out of necessity and establish a filing system for the various Character cards, based on Demographic. The center of gameplay is a Conflict track--the English edition puts it on the back of the book--and around the edges of that are spaces to sort Character cards by demographics. All law enforcement types are on the top. White citizens are on the left, sorted then by social class (wealthy, middle-class, poor), with non-white citizens on the right, sorted similarly. Ex-cons are racially segregated at the bottom.

Again, this is just a filing system. But it was an attempt to express the basic social divides that exist in our country right now and require the players to have to look at it.

These aren't value judgments! In fact, it's an attempt to lay bare these divisions--to force players to confront their own prejudices--which might provide the possibility of self-reflection and positive change within society. And, to get political for just a sec, given our recent experience of Ferguson, "Hands up! Don't Shoot", "Black Lives Matter", "I Can't Breathe" and the like, I think this message is still immediate and relevant.

It's not just that the characters are compromised, but the players are compromised, too. But maybe it doesn't have to stay that way.

In each of my games, I lead off with Bible quotes that seem to fit the themes of the game. Here's what I included in Dirty Secrets:

Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. (Ephesians 5:11-12)

Again I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them. And I thought the dead who are already dead more fortunate than the living who are still alive. But better than both is he who has not yet been and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 4:1-3)

I think that the thematic resonances are obvious. However, having my current vantage point, I do wish I had included something with a little more hope, maybe at the end of the book. Something like this:

And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” (‭John‬ ‭3‬:‭19-21)

There is still hope. There is still light. To answer my question from eight years ago, it's not too late for us to be saved.

How do your GMs and players learn about the genre as they play your game?

S: I think that the elements of compromised characters and social inequity that I mentioned above go a long way towards the players of Dirty Secrets learning the genre, if they didn’t already know it. But I think that there’s at least one more element that enters into the equation. Raymond Chandler spells it out best:

“[M]urder is an act of infinite cruelty, even if the perpetrators sometimes look like playboys or college professors or nice motherly women with softly graying hair.”
—Raymond Chandler, The Simple Art of Murder

At the center of every Dirty Secrets game is at least one murder. And noir cares very much about murder. Not in the “interesting puzzle” sort of way, like an Agatha Christie novel. No, noir cares about murder because it knows that a murder--a true, cold-blooded murder--represents the final stop on the descent of humanity into the depths of darkness.

And so, if you’re playing Dirty Secrets correctly, you will encounter at least one murder. And then you will encounter all sorts of characters, most of whom had the moral capacity--or lack thereof--to commit this murder. Because, as I’ve said, they’re all compromised. Only one of them actually committed the murder, but how many already committed the murder in their hearts? How many of them would have pulled the trigger but simply never had the chance to do so?

One of my favorite sequences in Christopher Nolan’s Batman movie The Dark Knight is the ferry scene. If you don’t know it, here’s the brief setup: there are two ferries escaping the island that Gotham City is on. One contains a bunch of convicts from the prison. The other is full of civilians. You know, “good people.” The Joker tells both ferries that each has a bomb on board, but each ferry has the detonator for the other ferry. He tells them that they need to blow up one of the ferries within a time limit, or he will blow up both of them. You can watch the relevant scenes here:

Notice how it’s the white, upstanding citizen, supposedly a “good” man who argues for the despicable ending. Notice how he is the one who is willing to contemplate the murder--because it would be murder--of an entire ferry of human beings. Notice his capacity for delusion and justification. Notice how he supported by majority rule, by democracy.

And it’s the black convict--shown as the “hardened criminal”-- who does what they “should have done ten minutes ago” and throws their detonator overboard, refusing to compromise his basic humanity, even at the cost of his life.

This is the sort of thing that noir is made of. Noir is all about someone who is basically decent having gone just one step too far and then trying to fix it by going one step more. Decent people, from decent homes in decent towns, doing terrible things for really good least in their own minds.

And noir is sometimes...just sometimes...about finding light and humanity in the places that you weren’t expecting to find it.

This is exactly the sort of narrative that Dirty Secrets produces, if played with even a little empathy.

Thank you so much, Seth!!

Thank you again for the opportunity!

Seth Ben-Ezra is a human of the male variety who lives in Peoria, Illinois. He's been happily married to Crystal since 1997 and is the father of six children. In addition to Dirty Secrets, he designed Junk, Legends of Alyria, A Flower for Mara, and Showdown, as well as contributing to Little Fears by Jason Blair. For more information on Seth and his games, visit

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 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 until June 23, 2015.


Noir Matrix

Not that kind of matrix....

Not that kind of matrix....

It's a perennial fight: what is noir? We can start with where the term came from, and point to some of the arguments, but the most important thing for our conversations here, really, is what is it about noir narratives that make it worth thinking about?

The History

First, the history*. During World War II, very few films from the US were seen in Europe. France in particular, under German occupation was cut off. After the war ended, French film-goers 

caught up on a backlog, but something had changed. In 1946, what would come to be known as iconic noir films--The Maltese FalconLaura and Double Indemnity--hit French theaters, and a new sensibility arose. What were seen as B-movie pot boilers in the US gained recognition abroad. Later analysis would point to major industrial, political and socioeconomic changes in society as sources of the narrative depth of noir. Specifically: after-effects of the Great Depression, the two World Wars, and the onset of the cold war. Ancillary issues that bubble through as well are impacts of industrialization, suffrage, labor and civil rights movements. 

The Arguments

In 1955, Raymonde Borde and  Étienne Chaumeton began the process of defining film noir, setting off a series of arguments and wrangling which has never quite come to an end:

 Film noir as a concept also birthed a retrospective view of the roman noir, noir fiction. Enter some of the hard questions and arguments about what noir means, and what exactly is a noir film, book or other narrative. Apply this to other, contemporary narrative forms and we ask, what does a noir role playing game look like? What would constitute an Alternate Reality Game noir? What aesthetics and sensibilities make a video game noir?

The Noir Matrix

For the purposes of this blog, I'm boiling down noir to a set of elements. Not definitive ingredients, which if you combine them all off you get the noirest of the noirnstead, these are attributes that are crucial to what makes noir narratives meaningful for our purposes.

The matrix is an analytical tool to help us look at games, stories, films and other media. I'll use it to see what elements various noir texts embody. What they emphasize, how they highlight the elements. What they apply it to. How they differ from one another, and the kind of meaning their structures create.

They break down into three Issues (Identity, Society and Violence) and three Themes (Modernity, Disillusionment and Crime).

The issues are questions raised by the fiction. Themes are motifs and subjects that recur.


  • Identity  –  who are the characters, how do they understand themselves, how are they defined by others.             
  • Society  –  what is the place of these characters in their community, what does the society inflict upon its members, how does it isolate them, who is empowered.                
  • Violence  – who is vulnerable to violence, who is capable of it, what does it betray about the characters, their motivations and the truth about their relations in society.


  • Modernity  –  the urban landscape, the alienation of labor, the impacts of technology and industrialization. Political realities, transformations to cultural identity, expressions of gender, structure of relationships and the family. Psychology, class analysis, capitalism, rural/urban divides.  
  • Disillusionment  –  a cynical tone, pessimism, undermining of innocence and naiveté. Corrupt officials, exploitative relationships and decaying social institutions. An underlying idealism, perhaps, about what the world could and should be, but with a loss of hope about attaining those ideals.     
  • Crime  –  blackmail, theft, murder. Syndicates, dirty cops, petty law breakers making a living. Protagonists who cross the line between law and disorder, battered by both sides. A look at the unregulated or unacknowledged parts of society which rebel against the nominally established order.

Issues of Identity are questions raised by the stories. Such as "what is it to be human?", explored by Ridley Scott in Blade Runner (and by Philip K. Dick in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), through focusing the story on the so-human seeming replicant androids.  In Walter Mosley's novel Devil in a Blue Dress, his detective Easy Rawlins' investigation threads between white and black communities and hinges on the ethnic identity of the woman he seeks.  An Issue of Society in The Big Sleep, is "who gets away with murder?" with the wild-child Carmen Sternwood being protected from the consequences of her actions by her high-society family, while little guys like Harry Jones die for being a stand-up guy. Violence is a constant of noir. It is the primary currency in these tales. Who has the capacity for violence, who can take the most, who can conceal their ability to deal harm? Who is vulnerable to violence, and why. The issues arise in Bad Day at Black Rock, Spencer Tracy's character searches for a war hero and inadvertently uncovers the complicity of the whole town in a racially-motivated murder. 

Looking at the Themes: crime, disillusionment and modernity riddle noir. They define its parameters even when the genre is transported to the distant future, or the past. These recurrent motifs underscore what created the noir viewpoint: massive changes to human lives, along with massive loss of life on scales not possible before, and also moments of major solidarity and successful fights for emancipation, suffrage and economic opportunity. Cynicism and corruption are the downsides to the hopeful ideal of modernization and technological leaps that remind us that no matter how far forward we progress, we remain human. Many of us with our heels on the neck of someone to move forward, others beneath the heel. With a bloody past behind us, and a bloody future ahead. 

*Documented in Alain Silver and James Ursini's Film Noir Reader.


Why Noir

Role playing games give us a way to escape the world. But if we look at it from a different angle, they can give us tools to deal with the stresses we endure, and try to struggle with them. The world is a terrible place for many of us. With the transformations that our world hurtles through every year, a focus that can encompass these things is welcome. Discussion of noir fiction is ripe for this.

This may need to be proven, though. Noir, particularly film noir is often a very male-focused, white, hetero-normative affair. But, the reasons it packed a punch to the post-WWII French film critics who coined the term are the reasons it is still relevant today: it speaks of the massive trauma to the world and human psyches brought about by modernization of warfare, commerce and technology. What is often swept under the rug are the voices who spoke of oppression and loss of belief in the powers-that-be from long before the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Of the lives lost in the conquest of the Americas by Europeans, and the massive enslavement and forced migration of Africans. 

Noir narrative, also, in its structure broke conventions that bound us to one linear path to knowing a tale. The films were characterized by the flash-back, fourth-wall-breaking voiceover narrations, dream sequences, unreliable narrators, expressionistic and emotion heightening lighting, and the use of real locations over sounds-stages. Film noir creators produced a visual vocabulary which allowed their stories to break the frame of modern, conventional tales and explore contrasts and contradictions of stories from the twilit parts of our lives and minds. These techniques crossed over from literature and psychology, and map readily onto role playing games. Using the strengths and dimensions unique to each form.

Noir can't change the facts of history, but it can allow us to see history differently. It's a mode of communication that points to the gaps and breaks in what we often think of as the closed and healthy system of 20th (and now 21st) century human societies. In fiction, film and in games it is an avenue for criticism and exploration--though one which is as vulnerable to becoming watered down and repetitive as any other genre, mode or form.

Let's approach noir with fresh eyes, then. Looking at the spaces it creates in narrative for critiquing the failings of society and the individual. And as a narrative form that is meant to embrace narratives counter to the mainstream.