Hi Grant! 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: I’m a fan of Dirk Gently, I think. I was never a big fan of traditional detective stories - I always felt like the author was just keeping the mystery from me, and if they knew, why couldn’t they just tell me? Why did they have to put a whole book in there to show how clever they were? Adams doesn’t really bother with any of that with Gently, and instead revels in the humour of it all, so I like that. Also the gag with the horse in the bathroom in Holistic Detective Agency is probably one of the funniest things I’ve ever read.
The setting of One Last Job brings to mind Reservoir Dogs, Oceans 11 and many other heist films. What influences did you draw upon, from film, books, games, etc? How did you incorporate elements of them into the game?
G: I’ve been trying to write a heist game for years, if I’m honest, and I just can’t quite get it right. (The problem, in my experience, is the reveal - so many heist stories revolve around information that’s hidden from the audience by the protagonists, and that’s tricky to manufacture when you need to have a GM keeping the world stable. One day I’ll get it, I’m sure.) Anyway, as part of my ongoing research for that, I watched a few heist films, and… honestly, there aren’t that many good ones. I think the idea of a heist film is far superior to any execution. I think Ocean’s Eleven, the remake, is probably my favourite because it’s slick and swish but also, crucially, because not everyone involved is particularly proficient. They’re clever and tenacious, rather than being inordinately dextrous or skilled in their art, and that counts for a lot. (See also: Gone In Sixty Seconds.) I’d also put forward The Dirty Dozen as a heist film, but not a standard one, and one that I’ve drawn a lot from - a rag-tag group of people up to not entirely honourable ends.
I think the crucial thing that I recreate is the “getting the crew back together” bit which is always fun to see in films, and it works well in One Last Job, too. That’s how heist films start, generally, and it’s great to see where people have taken the formula - One Shot did a magnificent actual play recording of OLJ where everyone played ex-stage magicians, and hearing them pile misfortunes on each other is joyous.
There’s no twist, though, not mechanically. Once the game starts you pretty much know what you’re going to get unless the GM is working overtime to make something exciting happen.
When you think about the game, how might you rank wanting the players to experience adventure, justice, disillusionment and betrayal (highest priority to lowest)? What other themes were important to you and how did you capture them in your rules and guidance for the players and GM?
G: These are the elements of Noir, right? I think adventure is at the top - it’s a high-action game, generally, because it’s abstract and if you give players abstract mechanics they go for over-the-top action more often than not. (Plus it’s a style of play that I very much enjoy myself, as my previous work will hint at.) There are elements of justice, too, in that there’s a big catastrophe that happens off-screen before the game starts, and players generally come back to this and resolve it during play (or at least get some closure on what happened) - and the players are generally underdogs, too, in the narrative, they’re not the best of the best.
Disillusionment and betrayal don’t come up so much; there’s an option, if your character gets taken out of action, to instead betray the party and a lot of people end up choosing it because it’s fun, isn’t it? But honestly I don’t have a lot of fun playing games with other people if I can’t trust their character motivations, I find it frustrating and difficult to relax and roleplay without feeling like I’m being taken advantage of. (Hence why I don’t LARP much, and why my work on the recent rewrite of the Paranoia system takes an awful lot of the backstabbing and betrayal into the realm of the systemic, running off cards that enforce a sort of rough hubris.) That’s why I have a central track that all players help out with - this is an ensemble show, and everyone’s on the same page, which makes things a lot easier for the GM to smooth out mechanically seeing as they’ll have to, by intention, make up the adventure during play.
What gave you the idea to have the players give each other traits during play? How do you find that plays out?
G: I was on holiday in Cairns, Australia, with my wife and in-laws, and I got to thinking about what sort of game my mother-in-law could play - she doesn’t have a lot of patience for complex rules and, you know, she’s in her sixties I think, she’s unlikely to suddenly develop a taste for Pathfinder after so long not gaming. So as a thought experiment I cobbled together a system where you defined your character as you play, and that determines what skills were important to you. (This is, I realise now, a fairly common trope in games that focus around amnesia.)
And then I thought, throwing the idea of my mother-in-law ever playing this out of the window, what if the other players determined your character for you? What if they determined it through a series of flashbacks and reminiscences? And that was it, I was sold on the idea - I love improv, I love challenging and being challenged.
I think a lot of the inspiration for this, the love for it, comes from listening to the old Peter Cook and Dudley Moore Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling skits, and more recently the Chris Morris / Peter Cook interviews. Peter Cook was a goddamn genius; listen to them as a freeform roleplaying exercise, rather than a comedic one, and you can learn a lot about establishing character and letting go of concrete, unchangeable backstory.
Thanks so much for sharing what went into making your game, Grant!
Grant Howitt is a Scottish-born games designer who lives, at time of writing at least, in Brooklyn NY and churns out indie games like nobody’s business. His most recent game is Goblin Quest, a game of fatal ineptitude, and he is currently playtesting Chronicle, a game of cyclical worldbuilding and pulp combat. Take a look at his games here.