TSR's Gangbusters & Noir - Interview with Mark Hunt

Hi Mark! Thanks for answering a few questions about noir and crime fiction in games. First off, who is a favorite fictional sleuth of yours? Why?

 M: Ezekiel "Easy" Porterhouse Rawlins is a great detective whose stories combine traditional conventions of detective fiction with descriptions of racial inequities and social injustice experienced in the 40s and 50s.  I love how he starts out as the Every man, one only seeking to get paid and ends up caught up in things beyond his control.  This is so typical of Noir characters. 

TSR’s Gangbusters goes all the way back to 1982, are you working with the game as it was then (or the 1990 revision), or has it been updated to match modern interpretations of the 20s/30s or changes in game design since then?

M: I am working with the rules as written, they should flow well with 1982 version as well as the 1990 version.  I would love to write a modern interpretation of the rules while maintaining compatibility with the classic. Rick Krebs the original writer and creator of Gangbusters RPG has been very nice to allow to me to put out new material for his great game. 

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

M: Gangbusters is a game that takes place in the Roaring 20’s and early 1930’s, essentially the Prohibition Era, of America. The focus of the game is on the Prohibition and the police/law enforcement struggle to control the streets and the halls of power. The player characters can take the roles of law enforcement, criminals, and other types of roles. The game is based in Lakefront City, ostensibly a fictional Chicago. 

What parts of the rules and overall system capture what drew you to work with this noir game? 

M: Gangbusters may be one of the most perfectly formulated roleplaying games ever made. Criminals get awarded for making money. Cops get awarded for making high profile busts. Journalists get awarded for scooping stories. The game supports as few as a single player all the way up to dozens. The rules are a simple percentile based system that can be easily adapted to many things simply roll a percent chance to do anything you want to do. 

Noir often has a jaded view of society, how is this a part of Gangbusters?

M: This is a game where you don’t have to work together. There aren't that many non-cooperative roleplaying games out there. Gangbusters is one of them. Some of the players may play cops, others play as  criminals, and still  others play folks on the side. You don't have to cooperate if you don't want to. Sure, you could play a corrupt cop that lets your criminal friends getaway. But you can also play a straight-arrow detective who gets the other PCs put in jail. It's all up to you, and it doesn't interfere with the game the way, say, a party of evil destructive PCs killing each other might. Because this is part of the very meat of the game.  On top of that the damn thing is deadly.You get in a gun fight, you can die, Fast. Players need to use their head and know when to fight and know when to walk away. 

How would you rank wanting the players to experience adventure, justice, disillusionment and betrayal in Gangbusters? Are there other themes you find of interest in the game?

M: Well that all depends on the story and what is going on at the time. Some players may find out that winning may end up costing them more than they are willing to pay.  Prohibition is a time where the rules don't apply, you can get a prescription for booze and still drink alcohol if you have it in the stored up. but to sell it or transport it will get you locked up. It's a time of open secrets where lots of players will find a double edge sword in most  things.   Players often experiences both sides of the law and  conspiring with gangsters during the course of the game. So how much and how often is often up to the players and their actions. 

Thanks very much for talking with me about Gangbusters and for bringing this classic game back into people’s view!

I want to thank Rick Krebs for creating a great game and allowing its continued support.

Mark Hunt  is a Former Deputy Sheriff and Air force Veteran now game designer. He has created Drongo for Dungeon Crawl Classics., Adventures for Gangbusters RPG and currently writing his own RPG Swords of the Empire.  You can find material here  for Ganbusters RPG  if you  are interested in the game:

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 http://writernextdoor.com and on twitter at http://twitter.com/awesome_john. Learn more about Noir World by following it on twitter at: @noirworldrpg. 

Secrets & Lies & Noir - Interview with Daniel Bayn

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