Noirlandia & Noir -Interview with Evan Rowland

Hi Evan! Thanks for answering a few questions about noir and crime fiction in games. It's exciting that your Kickstarter for Noirlandia is going on right now! 

First off, who is a favorite fictional sleuth of yours? Why?

E: Jake Gittes, of Chinatown, is a great character. He’s prickly and pompous. He gets on everyone’s bad side. He has a gift for detective work, and he loves the feeling of being good at what he does. But what does he do? He snaps pictures of cheating spouses.

Jake’s past seared his idealism away. He worked as a cop in Chinatown, and you can imagine he would have made a very smart policeman. But he quit, broken by the unbeatable corruption that made all his work meaningless. By the time he opened his detective business, he had given up on improving the world - he just wanted to do the work he was good at, and get a paycheck for it.

Whatever noble principles drove him early in life, when we meet him, he only has one: That he’s the best at what he does. But holding to even that one principle is enough to pit him against the most powerful people of his time. 

Jake wrestles with forces that he can’t possibly beat, and even though he never wins the fight, I love him for trying.

What aspects of crime fiction are you most interested in as you write the game Noirlandia you are making with your collaborators at Make Big Things? How do your rules help players experience them?

E: Front and center is solving the case. It’s a cooperative game, and there’s no game-master or pre-written mysteries, so nobody knows the solution. But we encounter clues, we make connections, and we draw our own conclusions.

The game uses an actual corkboard, where you’ll tack up your leads and show connections with string. The gameplay generates a confusion of clues, which players can gradually connect together. So, with a good die roll, you might have a chance to string together “The blue getaway car” with “The 9-fingered man,” and you’d get to describe the connection - “He must have been the driver, there were only 9 fingerprints on the wheel!”

But the connections we make are vulnerable to the chaos of the case - we might be proven wrong later, and have to snip the string. Even our leads are vulnerable - we might find the 9-fingered man was killed before we had a chance to question him. 

Besides solving the case, the game is also about confronting the past. As we make progress on the case, we’ll also be learning about the players’ characters, who are wrestling with their own troubled pasts. The current case inevitably throws the characters against the regrets of their past, and sometimes gives them the chance to finally make peace with what came before.

Noirlandia is built from the framework of the fantasy-themed Questlandia. What changes did switching genres bring about in the design? What characteristics do the games share?

E: Questlandia’s cooperative worldbuilding became Noirlandia’s cooperative mystery-building. In Noirlandia, we still work together to create a unique city and world, but with blood-stained hands. Everything is in the context of a world that killed someone close to us - and that leads to dangerous settings and corrupt characters.

Questlandia tracks the decline of a society, while Noirlandia tracks our investigation. A bad roll in Questlandia could lead to famine, but in Noirlandia it could lead to a key witness being shot, an apartment going up in flames, or an alibi clearing the obvious suspect.

Noirlandia has a more freewheeling pace - you’ll hunt for answers all over the city, questioning suspects, getting into trouble with both sides of the law. Questlandia’s turns are all built around a single conflict, but Noirlandia you’ll have a mix of small and large troubles - arguing with the doorman, then being stuck in a broken elevator, and finally confronting the kingpin herself.

Both games are designed as brief, 1-or-2 session games that explode into action, create memorable worlds, and are bittersweet at best in the end.

What are the influences you are drawing on, in film, books, games, etc? 

E: Paul Auster’s novel, City of Glass, is about a mystery novelist who tries his hand at playing detective, and in his search for answers, loses track of himself. It’s bizarre, surreal, and definitely an inspiration for some of Noirlandia’s tone.

Chinatown’s hollow victory is the inspiration for Noirlandia’s morality.

The Maltese Falcon features a great blueprint for building a mystery and following a winding path toward the answers.

Deep in the back of my mind, childhood memories of playing Grim Fandango, Sam and Max Hit the Road, and Max Payne have created a primal misunderstanding of the genre that drives my every decision. 

How would you rank wanting the players to experience adventure, justice, disillusionment and betrayal when they play Noirlandia? What other themes were important to you and how do you plan to capture them in your rules, background or guidance for players? 

E: I’d put adventure first - it’s about energetically hunting for the truth in a dangerous and reticent world. Every turn brings you closer to putting together the bigger picture, but runs the risk of throwing your progress into a confusion.

After that, I’d put disillusionment. Your characters start with guiding principles, with a moral code - but your beliefs will be systematically tested by the chaos of the city. Mechanically, this will come up as players offering you hard bargains - success in your efforts, in exchange for a compromise of your beliefs.

Betrayal will pin you up on the corkboard, a suspect in the same case you’re trying to solve. In Noirlandia, nobody is unquestionably innocent. Characters we met before will reappear unexpectedly, sometimes revealed as the merchant who sold the smoking gun, sometimes as the one who pulled the trigger.

As for justice - don’t expect much.

Thank you so much for sharing with us about your game! Good luck with the Kickstarter!

Evan Rowland is a game designer and artist. His published works include Questlandia and 14 Days: A Game about Life with Migraines. He claims to be innocent, but offers no alibi.

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Esoterrorists & Noir - Interview with Robin D. Laws

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

R:  The Continental Op, for his essential unknowability and the stoic spareness of Hammett’s prose.

The Esoterrorists, your original GUMSHOE volume, stands out as the most noir-themed of your games (via Lovecraft, of course, by way of LeCarre and perhaps directed by a young Frankenheimer). It embodies that common tension in noirs: between the investigator bringing order to the world, versus surrendering to the (in this case, literal) chaos and corruption of the world.  Did this tension come into play as you designed the game, and the Gumshoe engine itself? What concerns were central?

R:  The setting blends noir, the Clancyesque thriller of romanticized techno-competence, and the classic horror spiral of forbidden knowledge. It’s not much of a leap to look at Chandler’s mean streets and the difficulty of walking them without becoming mean with the need to learn more about the entities of the Outer Dark in order to destroy them, but not so much that you are destroyed yourself. Both paradoxes powerfully evoke the human experience while allowing lots of play with beguiling images of decadence and thanatos.

The rules engine addresses the plot bottleneck that results when you treat information players need to progress through the story using the same mechanic a dungeon crawling character would use to find treasure after beating up a bunch of orcs. Instead of making you roll to see if you get a clue or not, GUMSHOE says that it’s never interesting to fail to get information. If you have the right ability and look in the right place, you get the essential clues.  This enables us to build richer, more complex mysteries in which the player figures out which information matters. When it is interesting to fail, for example when escaping from a blood demon or determining whether you thought to bring a crowbar with you, a separate mechanic handles that, in a way that allows players to decide when exactly they really want their characters to grab the spotlight with a sure success.

Over at the Pelgrane Games blog and on your podcast Ken and Robin Talk about Stuff, you went in-depth about how your rules shape and are shaped by fiction.The Dying Earth Role Playing Game and the version of those rules that became Skulduggery, and Gaean Reach which primarily builds on the Gumshoe System, are radically different despite being based on fiction by the same author, Jack Vance. If you were going to adapt some of these rules to play stories like those of classic hardboiled writers Hammett or Chandler, what do you think that might look like?

R:  It would look an awful lot like the next thing I’m doing for Pelgrane...

Thank you, Robin, for all your insights.

Robin D. Laws designed the GUMSHOE investigative roleplaying system, including such games as The Esoterrorists and Ashen Stars. Among his other acclaimed RPG credits are Feng Shui and HeroQuest. Robin is the Creative Director of Stone Skin Press and has edited such fiction anthologies as The New Hero, Shotguns v. Cthulhu, and The Lion and the Aardvark: Aesop's New Fables. You can hear more of Robin's thoughts and game insights at his podcast with Ken Hite Ken and Robin Talk about Stuff.

Five Fires & Noir - Interview with Quinn Murphy

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

Q: I am a huge anime nerd, So I really am a huge fan of L from Death Note. I like L because he is is willing to become anything to hunt down information. He is smart but so reckless he seems not so smart. I admire his marriage of intellect and bravery a lot.

Your game, Five Fires, focuses on characters involved in hip hop culture and art. What were your influences in film, music, books, games, etc? How did you incorporate elements of them into the game?

Q: Beat Street is my guiding point.  the tone, the characters, the themes -- everything points back to that movie.  Wild Style is also an influence. It covered much of the ethos and attitude of the culture.

A lot of integrating media into games is about establishing the look and feel and what tropes we are enabling.  I rewatch these two films a bit and compare the experiences I’ve had with the game to the experience I have with the films.

As for music, there is so much!  I love hip hop and am listening to it all the time. 

A book that everyone should read to get a feel for the birth of hip hop is Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop by Jeff Chang. Incredibly written.

You may not consider Five Fires to be noir, but there are some parallels. At its finest, noir and hardboiled fiction critique society, and shine a light on places where society oppresses and lets its citizens down. Five Fires asks players to analyze a city and the problems its inhabitants face with racism, economic discrimination and many other factors. How did you capture this in your rules, and what was most important to you when you were writing the game? 

Q: I want players in Five Fires to feel that they are ordinary people with an extraordinary method to relieve the tension and stress of their lives.  In the current version of the game, players move towards solving whatever problems they have in their lives. In playtest the game provides a platform for you to explore whatever issues you feel are important to you. So you can tackle having to pay your rent, and your scenes are about finding ways to make money. In the course of trying to overcome these obstacles you may accumulate stress, which is an abstraction of toll that life can take on you.  Take too much stress and you might be out of action for a while or take on more burdens. 

This is significant in Five Fires because each campaign (the game calls them Eras) is limited to a few session and you only have a few scenes each session.  just like in RL, your chance to make an impact is a small window. You don’t want to lose any time!

Creating art -- making songs, doing graffiti, breakdancing -- these are all ways to heal stress, but also build exposure and possible earn fame. In the new revision I’m trying to make the stress you accumulate connect to the level of art you have a chance to make; more stress is potentially more fame!

In the end I think the game helps you explore inequity by giving you a platform to describe oppressive systems in addition to a way to change things or at least express how your character feels about everything happening to her.

In Five Fires, how would you rank wanting the players to experience adventure, justice, disillusionment and betrayal? What kind of an experience do you want players to walk away from the game with?

Q: I want players to feel adventure before anything, and on the way there to feel justice and betrayal and disillusionment as obstacles which they can hopefully transform into art. I want folks to believe that their expression is a potent tool, and that their voice matters.

Thank you so much for chatting with me about your insightful and important game.

Thank you!

Ever since he was a kid, Quinn Murphy dreamed of being other people in faraway lands. He designs today while trying to hold that sense of wonder in his mind, capturing his thoughts sometimes on his blog and on twitter (@qh_murphy). You can find Five Fires Beta at and some of his other work at


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

Sad & Miserable & Noir - Interview with Robert Bohl

Hey Rob, thanks for sitting down with some questions about your game Sad & Miserable, and noir. First off, I ask this question of everyone, who is a favorite fictional sleuth of yours? Why? 

R: Jimmy McNulty from The Wire. He’s an inveterate fuckup whose makeup makes him perfect as an investigator, and absolutely shit everywhere else in life. Jimmy wants to win, not to dispense justice. He’s compassionate, and tries to help people when he can, and can’t stand bullshit or pretension, but what makes him so great as a “death po-lice” is his insecurity and desire to be seen as the smartest guy in the room. As with many things in that show, it’s sad, fucked-up, and seems real.

Sad & Miserable is about the lives of comedians. You might not consider this to be part of the noir genre (setting aside comedic detectives like Inspector Clouseau), but noir often looks at the places that society fails its citizens, as well as the ways our human failings turn us against one another--or help us try to find redemption. How might those themes play out in your game?

R: I do think there’s a heavy overlap, there. In researching S&M, I’ve saturated myself in fiction and non-fiction about the stand-up world. A lot of stuff has been covered in the fiction, but I think one big area that hasn’t been dealt with very much is poverty. Most stand-ups, even ones you know, are not rich. It’s an art that almost never pays and if you want to do it right, you have to break yourself from the 9-to-5 cycle, take lower-paying, service-industry jobs that are at odd hours until you can live off being a comic. And if you get there, you have no idea how long you’ll stay there, so you wind up looking for shitty, unsatisfying entertainment-industry jobs to tide you through.

So when I get deeper into it, I want to make sure S&M honors that struggle. I want to make sure that the fight to keep yourself fed and housed is a significant part of the game. I don’t think comedians are any crazier than the norm, I just think in order to be a comedian, unless you’re independently wealthy, you have to endure way more stresses on how you’re going to make your monthly nut than most middle-class people are. If you have underlying mental illness, or a tendency toward it, that can be exacerbated by the stress.

Also, I want the game to be about the dark parts of comedy. The stories of drug abuse and sexual compulsion and twisted thinking that leads to bad ends. And the comedy that comes from all that.

What were your influences as you’ve worked on Sad & Miserable, in film, books, games, etc? You’ve studied stand-up as well. Can you tell us about how that affected your work on the game? How have you incorporated elements of them into the game?

R: The originating moment for me was watching season 1, episode 6 of Louie, titled “Heckler/Movie Cop.” Louie decimates this woman who heckled him, then she comes out after his set and yells at him. In responding to her, Louie points out that these comics whose work she’s ruining, work all week, trudge through mountains of shit, for 15 minutes on stage that maybe might carry them over until the next week. I thought, “That’s a game right there.”

From there, well I had already been listening to WTF? with Marc Maron for a while, but I got the app and listened to every interview he’s ever done on the show with a stand-up. Add his show, Maron, Jim Jeffries’ Legit, Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, and also other podcasts, like Paul Gilmartin’s Mental Illness Happy Hour.... I could go on ad nauseum; unfortunately I’ve spent way too long in research.

And I wound up doing some stand-up (so far I’ve done 20-something sets). I wanted to be able to write authoritatively about what it feels like to be on stage. This was very instructive. I did pretty well, but open mics are brutal (not in judgement, just in the yawning chasm of nobody-gives-a-fuck because they’re all comics waiting to do their 5 minutes). Let’s just say I got plenty of material for feeling bad on stage, and a few moments of feeling good.

But there’s a whole other problem: Initially, I wanted the game to be written so people could play huge-time ex-sitcom stand-ups as well as open mic'ers, to be able to play Jerry Seinfeld and me, but I began to realize how limited my experience as an open mic'er was, and how little it accurately represented even what people who were at the hosting level were experiencing, much less people who are getting paid for it.

So I’m kind of stymied now, a bit, with regard to that. I bet I could write a pretty good game about what it’s like to be an open mic'er in the 2010s in NYC, though.

Sad & Miserable is a game in process, about a genre in formation: there have been many shows about comedians (both Seinfeld and the Burns and Allen Show were shows about comedy shows), but there is an honesty, tragedy and a kind of psychological exploration to Sad & Miserable that feels much more like recent shows Louie, Maron, Broad City and The Maria Bamford Show that are all carving out new territory. Is there a language of this new genre that you are finding for your game?

R: You absolutely picked up on the aesthetic I’m going for (and gave me a few more I need to look into). Honesty and personal exposure is becoming ascendant in stand-up right now. More comics—prodded by the need to fill podcasting airtime, I suspect—are going to their own personal lives and revealing things about their pasts that are bitter, horrible, awful, and hilarious. You’re seeing that in the stand-up, and in all the related media that is booming right now. I have to get off my ass before people’s attention has wandered and we get another comedy bust!

Comedy Noir, though, is probably an accurate description for this aesthetic. Hm, maybe I have a sub-sub-title. Sad & Miserable: The Secret Lives of Stand-Up Comics: A Game of Comedy Noir.

Nah, that’s a bit wordy.

An underlying theme of noir tales is the alienating notion that all life is determined by the stories we spin about one another, that what we believe and live is based not so much on fact, as on how our lives are framed by ourselves and others. Comedians can speak truth to power and frame the major issues of our day (as we see with Jon Stewart and Key & Peele). They also make light of their own trauma, yet are expected to entertain others with their pain and suffering. Their role is to find the stories of our time--whether public or private--that speak to us all, and make us laugh along with  them. How does storytelling, and framing one’s life matter in Sad & Miserable? What kind of experience would you like players to have through play?

R: What a wonderful question. I imagine people getting their characters into incredibly awkward situations, things that are maybe even genuinely tear-jerking. But they’re chuckling darkly or laughing uproariously. These scenes of shitty life I’d like to have broken up by some hang-time with other comics, and then all of this becomes mechanical and topical grist for the performance scenes. Those, I hope to feel like a tense battle, like a really good D&D fight. It’s not a stand-up set any more than a fantasy RPG battle is a direct representation of a fight. But the mechanics need to be high-stakes: cathartic when you kill, crushing when you bomb.

It’s a tall order and I have to get off my ass.

Thanks so much, Rob, for talking with us about this unique and important game!

R: Thank you, for interviewing me about the game and lying about its importance.

Robert Bohl has been playing RPGs since he ran the introduction adventure in the Basic Set [of D&D] on the way back and forth from his grandma's in the early 80s. He works in higher education and lives in Brooklyn, New York City with his son, his girlfriend, and two cats who have a complicated relationship. 

Rob is the designer/author/publisher of Misspent Youth, a game of teenage rebellion in a fucked-up future. It's about standing up against oppression, friendship, and growing up. He's working on a game, tentatively called In Production, where you tell the story of one person trying to get a movie made. This has been a creatively prolific time for Rob; he just wrote two more new games (designed in Paul Czege's  Threeforged RPG design contest) which he's considering polishing up and publishing.

To follow the development of Sad & Miserable, join Rob at his Google+ Community for Robert Bohl Games.

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