Game Design, LARP, Role-playing Games

The LARP Antagonist’s Oath

What is an Antagonist?

A protagonist and his or her story can only be as intellectually fascinating and emotionally compelling as the forces of antagonism make them.

– Robert McKee, Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting

Antagonists are not just villains.

An antagonist is any character which is defined by their opposition to characters, or by creating obstacles and pressures for other characters. They can even be allies, but they exist to push a character’s limits or challenge their assumptions. They create growth and story.

The best antagonists are not limited in the physical or political conflict they create. They create conflicts in the minds of others – moral challenges and inner choices. They are the fuel of another’s character story engine. The challenge they present is meant to taken on and result in a better story.

LARP’s Unique Player Antagonists

The traditional role of the antagonist relies on the existence of clear protagonists on a journey for the antagonist to complicate and oppose. The antagonist can be a guidepost for the story, with other characters growing in relation to them. The antagonist can still develop as a character, but they do not grow with the same visible force and focus as the protagonist.

But in LARP, there is no clear single story. There is no camera following about one particular group around. There are often dozens if not hundreds of players involved in a LARP game.

So, every player might be someone’s antagonist, even though they are pursuing their own arc and story. True, a gamemaster might set up a major plot with an explicit NPC antagonist by which all players must struggle against. But there is another type of antagonist in LARP – the player antagonist, the character designed and destined to be a provocative force in a game.

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LARP

Why Your LARP’s Safety System Will Fail: A Hacker’s Guide to Engineering Player Safety

I’m been thinking a lot about authority and safety teams in our LARP games. My mind started drawing parallels with my own background in software engineering and security. Part of my job is thinking about complex systems, and how to control the power of users in those systems.

I began to see problems in the ideas and standard policies being proposed. I began to see failures in my community and elsewhere. So, I started to think –

Can you take lessons from the world of hacking and security, and apply them to the meat and bone world of LARP communities? What happens when you start thinking about community safety like a hacker? What problems with our current approach are revealed?

“Can what we are creating to protect people actually be used to make things less safe? How do we stop that from happening?”

Hacking is about how systems can be made to turn against themselves. I want us to start thinking – can my LARP organization be hacked? Can what we are creating to protect people actually be used to make things less safe? How do we stop that from happening?

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Heresy, LARP, Role-playing Games

Five reasons LARP needs to get over the Stanford Prison Experiment

Note: This article is meant to fuel skepticism and critical thinking in the LARP community. These things are healthy, though sometimes painful to face, and I do not expect this article to be taken as gospel. But it does contain some things that really need to be said about this often-cited experiment in the context of our hobby.

In 1971, psychology professor Philip Zimbardo conducted an experiment where 24 male students were randomly assigned roles as prisoners or guards in a fake prison underneath a building in Stanford University. According to the widely read recounting of events, dressed in their uniforms and given their fake authority, the guards adapted overwhelmingly to their role and exceeded Zimbardo’s expectations, and began a systematic campaign of authoritarian brutality with little coaxing. Shocked, Zimbardo stopped the experiment after only six days. It became known as the Stanford Prison Experiment, or SPE.

In essence, it was a live action role-playing scenario that got out of hand. And that is why when talking with some advocates of LARPing, it is hard to get through a discussion of ‘bleed’ without them bringing it up. Central to some LARP philosophy is that one can descend so far into an assumed role through immersion that one can almost lose track of reality, to feel and react as if you really were that person you are playing.

On the surface, the Stanford Prison Experiment confirms these beliefs quite well – normal every-day college students put in a fake prison with fake uniforms suddenly start acting like brutal prison guards with the proper stimuli and without much encouragement. Here, they say while pointing, serious academic proof that the phenomenon is real.

In fact, some critically acclaimed artistic LARPs have been little more than attempts to recreate the SPE in all its brutal glory. Why wouldn’t organizers want people to feel the ultimate immersion, and walk away with a life-changing, haunting experience?

One problem – the experiment was utter balderdash. Rubbish. Poppycock. And most of all, crappy science. And LARP scholarship and designers really need to get over it. The SPE wasn’t about ‘bleed’, and in fact, it was all about people just playing out characters without feeling anything was real. To turn it completely on its head, the SPE is the strongest evidence against the ‘immersionist’ outlook I have ever encountered. And it ought to make us very skeptical, or at the very least cautious, of self-ascribed success in immersionist LARPs.

Here’s why:

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Internet, LARP

The Texan LARP Manifesto

Or more like highly exaggerated barely agreed upon opinion that I’m presuming to tell you the residents of an entire nation (yes, Texas is a nation, deal with it) believe in. Let’s get going. You can blame Johannes Axner for this.

So, listen here, you little shits…

1. It’s capitalized.

LARP is capitalized. It’s an acronym. It’s capitalized. Deal with it.

2. Git gud, y’all.

Even in artsy fartsy games, there’s such a thing as a bad player. If you are bad, stop being bad. If you are good, help others git gud. If bad players refuse to stop being bad, kick their asses to curb. If they complain, tell them to deal with it.

3. Don’t make me knock you off that high horse, son.

If a game does what it set out to do, it’s a good game. Every variety, from boffer battle games to vampire werewolf zombie horror sci-fi games to whatever the Nords are getting drunk then praising this week – anyone else notice the Nords can’t talk up their shit while sober? Well, if they ever are sober. If you think something is beneath you or is having fun wrong, you’re as welcome as a tornado on a trail drive. People make their own fun. Deal with it.

4. It’s capitalized.

I’m repeating this. LARP. L-A-R-P. Deal with it.

5. We ain’t impressed by preaching to the choir.

Yeah, yeah, you really hit it out the park with your crazy political statement told to a crowd guaranteed to agree with it. Either say something new or get off the stage. We ain’t impressed. Deal with it.

6. Don’t holler at a brick wall

Who gives a damn about what happens on Facebook or Twitter or whatever else? Turn the damn thing off. Nobody cares to have Online LARP Fight #554 revisited, chrissakes, so knock it off and deal with it.

7. Take the bull by the horns

You at a game? Take charge of your fun. Nobody wants to hear belly-aching and about how you are a customer. You run a game? Act like it, people are counting on you. You have a responsibility. Deal with it.

8. Rather be round a honest pig than a silver-tongued snake.

We ain’t here to judge. It’s not what you say but what you mean that matters, and actions speak louder than words. Walk the walk. You don’t like being called out for being all hat and no cattle? Deal with it.

9. It’s capitalized.

Deal. With. It.

10. Manifestos are bullshit.

Seriously. All they do is start arguments. And who elected anyone King of LARP? Manifestos ain’t worth spit. Yeah, I know, you worked hard on yours. Deal with it.

Well, I hope that clears some things up. Y’all come back now, you hear?

Yes, this was a joke. Well, half a joke. 3/7ths, maybe? Whatever, Johannes made me do it.

Game Design, LARP

Shades: a freeform LARP about ghosts that’s really about trauma

I finished the second draft of Shades, which is the first presentable version of the game I tested earlier this year. As my players were quick to point out, despite the conceit of it being about ghosts, it’s really about dealing with trauma and regret. It’s appropriate. In the purest Gothic tradition, ghosts are about things that are unresolved or the reverberation of bad events from the past. I am considering submitting this to Fastaval for next year’s competition. Let’s hope it translates well into Danish.

You can read and comment on the Google Doc here.

Photo Credit: Zachariah Birkenbuel, https://flic.kr/p/ypz9D – Creative Commons, Attribution license

Game Design, LARP

Nordsplaining and Amerijerking: How not to be a jerk discussing LARP online

Sometimes we need to ask the question, as a community talking across borders and oceans online, are we really talking to each other and helping each other? Or are we engaging in aggrandizing or hindering behavior? In conversations about LARP online, I’ve noticed exactly two phenomenon – one more subtle than the other – that hinder and disrupt conversations about design and development.

I have dubbed them Nordsplaining and Amerijerking, after the two communities who most frequently indulge in them. I will put this out there to start with – yes, you do these things more noticeably than other groups. You can either deny it or own up to it, but either way, the ancient scholars of India invented the number zero because they knew one day I’d have to count the number of fucks I give.

Enter the Nordsplainer

Webb’s Law of Nordsplaining: In any serious game design talk regarding rules and implementation, the chance someone will interrupt to go on about how this proves some inherent flaw in the very concept of a rules-heavy game approaches 1.

Imagine that you have a car, and you ask in a public forum, “Hey, should I turbocharge or supercharge my engine?” You get a few responses, some useful insights and advice start to emerge. And then someone shows up, and begins talking loudly and repeatedly about how you should not even have a car, but should instead ride a bicycle. Every comment on the engine tuning is met with the keen observation that you would not have to do these things if you had a bicycle and not a car. Several of this person’s friends show up and begin dominating the entire conversation, talking about how much better bicycles are than cars.

The conversation is derailed. The insight you sought is lost in arguments the bicyclists started with the gearheads, or just by the bicyclists high-fiving each other digitally due to their enlightened position. You are not getting a bicycle instead of your car just because this crowd showed up. They are mainly congratulating themselves on their own opinion and evangelizing their preferred choice rather than addressing the question. And you aren’t getting the answers you wanted to make your decision.

This disruption makes them, however friendly and well-intentioned, jerks. And what’s worse, they probably don’t know that they are being jerks. But that’s why I’m here, boys and girls.

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Gamemastering, LARP, Role-playing Games

LARPing welcomes safe drivers: an American’s thoughts on steering

A new term making the rounds in LARP circles is “steering” – a new term for a very old idea. Steering is using out of character knowledge to alter your in-character behavior to improve the game. In other words, it is metagaming with good intentions rather than selfish ones.

The idea is so old that Gary Gygax advocated for it in the original Dungeon Master’s Guide, and I have called it or heard it called “greasing the wheels”, white hat metagaming or “good” metagaming. But the new term is a useful one in that it removes the technique from the bad connotations metagaming has in the roleplaying community.

I have had to struggle to get players to grab the wheel in my games and steer. Because of the well-deserved bias against destructive metagaming, players have felt they needed permission to steer without facing retribution from on high. Ultimately, I have had to resort to a post or rule that shouts, “this is a good thing, do it!” to put to rest the fears of the game master’s hammer.

I would like to contribute my own addition – the delineation between overt and covert steering, and how the acceptability of either can vary, and which one is preferred, depending on your game.

Overt and Covert Steering

I leaned over to Harrison before the game starts, “Hey, Harrison. You want to have killed my brother and now I want you dead?”

Because he’s that sort of player, Harrison barely paused before saying, “Done. Want to have a duel about it this game?”

That was overt steering. It’s blatant, it’s negotiated and it’s very clear what is being done. No assumptions are made, but it lacks any surprise and is not part of the immersive world.

Later in the same game, I see someone who is sitting in the corner while everyone else is talking. Seeing she is not fully engaged with the game, I walked over and begin talking to her. My boisterous baron would not have much reason to have interest in a wallflower, but as a player, I acknowledged that keeping things fun is part of my duty to the game, so I went out of my way to grease the wheels.

That was covert steering. Using a general rule of thumb, I decided privately what I thought was a good idea and acted on it.

This distinction is not purely academic. Different game systems and game groups have separate opinions about two types, and can encourage one while condemning the other.

Why and Why Not Overt Steering

Overt steering is blatant, can become very elaborate and often involves altering the histories and mentalities of the characters in play. But open communication between players can quickly lead to collusion and conspiracy to get some unfair advantages, and while some might call upon all of us to ‘play to lose’, most of us would prefer to lose fair and square.

Some games prefer overt steering and even make it a central rule of their game set – such as Houses of the Blooded where players trade points while entwining their characters in baroque and petty politics. Other games make their initial character creation session a practice in overt steering – encouraging or requiring relationships and ideas for character development be set forth before the game has even begun.

Overt steering works best when it is open where everyone knows it is going on and allowed. Its overtness is the main advantage, and it also means the staff of the game can have a good idea of what the players are cooking. When overt steering is not out in the sunlight, it can easily don the black hat and become metagaming. Here’s some good guidelines:

  • Overt steering should happen when it is not disruptive to the immersion of others, such as before the game or quietly to the side.
  • Consult the staff as to how much of this is tolerated, especially when your steering might give you a perceived advantage.
  • Steer with different people, not just your friends. We all know how roleplaying cliques work and how bad they can be.
  • You are generally more free to overtly steer on things that only affect your character and the person you are steering with. But if your ideas will directly affect others, do so with their consent. Not everybody likes someone’s ‘totally sweet idea’ completely changing things for their character suddenly. If you want your character’s daughter to be exposed as the bastard child of an ill-fated love affair, make sure you have the player of the daughter’s consent.
  • Respect the back story of the world. If the two ninja clans are written as sworn blood enemies who never see each other except in battle, do not change that without consulting the staff and giving them a chance to say ‘no’, or at least, give their input on how to make your cool idea work.

In general, games that involve guarded secrets, politics or elaborate worlds are the least tolerant of overt steering. It’s not impossible, but drive safely and obey all warning signs.

 Why and Why Not Covert Steering

Covert steering requires a bit less negotiation and clearance. Even the most cutthroat Vampire chronicle I have played in encouraged veteran players to involve (and mercilessly manipulate) the new characters in order to involve them. While overt steering is tricky, this form of covert steering is widely accepted. I have never heard anyone admonish it, except when it was so completely out of character it defied belief.

But it can go wrong. Very wrong. It depends on what kind of out of character knowledge you are using to steer and cause story, and how you obtained that knowledge. Because good steering and ‘causing story’ can quickly go south then look like targeting and exploiting out of character knowledge. In other words, metagaming in all its negative connotations.

This can go so wrong that I once had to fire a staff member over it.

The situation in question was a Vampire the Masquerade game where one character had severe nightmares that could haunt her or not depending on a random result. One session, she got hit bad, very bad, and was being haunted by visions of past atrocities the whole night. The staff member who ran this session was a fantastic roleplayer who enjoyed running this scene for her.

But then he took his own character into a room and saw her, amongst all these other characters, sitting in the corner. He thought it would be interesting to provoke her in this state. He targeted her in the middle of the crowd and began to do things not appropriate to his character that specifically tried to invoke her nightmare flaws. He succeeded, and when she attempted to excuse herself and eventually ending up fleeing the room, the staff character pursued her relentlessly throughout the night until the player finally complained to me personally.

She felt her night was being ruined by being targeted. But the staff member felt he was steering, trying to cause story. But instead, he managed to take an interesting roleplay situation and turn it into a farce by so deliberately pressing on something his character would not have done accidentally or even plausibly. It was not that it was made part of her roleplaying for the night, but it was made the only thing she could roleplay because of him.

It was an embarrassment to the staff and circulated widely through the player base, because it was easy to see as malicious and out of proportion. Ultimately, after discussing it with the honestly shocked staffer, I had to relieve him of his duties. And I felt bad about it because his intentions were good, but his execution was ridiculous.

So, my advice is:

  • Steer the game, don’t wreck it. Make sure you are just bending things to help the flow of roleplay, rather than flaunting well-established order.
  • Take a hint. Sometimes, people do not want your help or interest, or are having a good time doing what they are doing.
  • Do not be a one-trick pony. Engage people in many different ways so you do not come off as having a “engage the newbie” script.
  • Make sure everyone is enjoying themselves, even you.

Remember, if you are going to take the wheel and steer, drive safely.

LARP, Politics, Role-playing Games

Lit Matches, an art game about censorship and public opinion

This game is intended as a thought experiment. I’d personally never play it – could not play it – mainly because I do not think I could bring myself to burn a book or let one be burned. But maybe that’s an argument for me to play it anyway.

bookburning

There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches. Every minority… feels it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse.

– Ray Bradbury

Lit Matches is a game that explores the themes of censorship and popular opinion controlling what ideas can or cannot be expressed – or even exist. And it will destroy something precious of half (or more) of those who are playing.

It is recommended 6 people or more play and you must have an even number of players, and it requires a private area, suitable for public speaking, where a suitable bonfire or fire pit may be lit. Lit Matches is meant to be played in a single night, but may require a day or more of preparation by the players.

In addition to the players, one more person is required to play the Fireman. Not firefighter. Fireman.

Preparation

Reading Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is an excellent introduction to the themes at play, but it is not required. Other works exploring free speech, free expression, offensiveness, censorship, political correctness and other forms of intellectual control are also encouraged as preparation work.

Each participant must bring to the game a book they own that is important to them in some way. It is recommended that the actual physical copy have some importance as well – heavily annotated or very personal copies are highly encouraged. The literary value of the book has no bearing – a well-loved children’s book is of the same weight as the collected works of Nietzsche.

Before the game, players are paired off into opponents, and informed of their opponent’s book. They should be given time to research their opponent’s choice, at least 24 hours.

The Game

The fire should be lit and brought to a suitable state before the game begins. It is the Fireman’s duty to maintain the fire, in addition to his other tasks. The players should gather around the fire as it is already burning.

The game is played in an order chosen at random. Each paired group takes their books and hands them to the Fireman, and stands on either side of the fire. They are the defenders. The rest are witnesses. The Fireman should put them safely out of the grasp of the defenders, and announce the title of each book and who speaks for it. Who speaks first is determined randomly.

Witnesses are never allowed to speak. Only the Fireman and the defenders.

First you talk…

Each defender is given two minutes to speak. There is no limits on tactics or content of the speech. The defender may espouse the virtues of their chosen work, attack his opponent’s work, engage in ad hominem attacks, appeals to emotion, anything they wish. Anything goes.

..then you vote…

The witnesses to the speeches now must vote by show of hands which book to condemn. The Fireman conducts the vote. It must be done publicly. Any motivation for voting is allowed – including spite for someone voting against your book earlier. The players are allowed to see who condemned their chosen book.

A tie vote ends with both books being condemned.

…then you burn.

The two players take their seats away from the fire pit. At the end of each round, the condemned book is burned, as completely as possible. The Fireman reads the title, and if the player decided to mark one, reads a single short passage from the work. The book is then thrown into the fire and the fire stirred. This should be done in silence.

Play continues until each pairing has had their say, and half of the books brought have been burned.

Epilogue

The game should end with the fire being doused with water, and the players leaving the space. Any discussion, analysis and the like must occur elsewhere. Reading or looking through books that survived is encouraged.

Alternate Rule: A Pleasure to Burn

For a far more brutal game, after half of the books have been destroyed, a new set of pairs made up of the winners is made. New debates and defenses are waged, and the newly condemned books burned. Repeat until only one book remains.

Before the fire is doused, the ‘champion’ with the last remaining book is given the option to throw his own work on the fire.

Gaming, Geek, Role-playing Games

Experimental Tabletop #2: The Quiet Year

It’s been a while since I got the late night inspiration to do an experimental tabletop game review. While our group still meets every two weeks, I must admit it is only when I encounter a game that falls just short of its mark that I feel really inspired to review and critique it. So, that brings us to our latest installment – The Quiet Year.

Quiet-Year-Promo-Wide

The Quiet Year is a story game, not really a role-playing game. It comes from a decent pedigree – the author is also responsible for the seminal Monsterhearts, a popular Apocalypse World hack. It is part of the sub-genre of story games that revolve around drawing a map in order to tell the story of a place, in a similar fashion to Dawn of Worlds. It has a very simple setup – there is a post-apocalyptic community who have just emerged victorious and driven off an undefined enemy called The Jackals. There will be one year of relative peace before similarly undefined Frost Shepherds come in the winter and the game ends. You and the other players will determine what happens in that year to this community.

Notice I did not say you are playing members of this community. In fact, the rules make it very clear you are not. You are instead supposed to be the disembodied advocates of the community and its members, its prevailing thoughts, but at no point do you play out a scene or track a single character too closely. This game is about the players growing and exploring the community and its landscape together.

What happens during each week of the year is determined by a draw from a deck of cards, each player getting a turn. On your turn, your draw dictates what happens to the community and you decide how to implement it. Sometimes you are given a choice – either a project fails but you gain a needed resource, or a project succeeds but you lose an important resource. Other times, you are just given an outcome and decide how to implement it.

Also, the active player can have the settlement start up projects, discover something new on the map, or hold group discussions – the only time other players are allowed to give input.

Yes, the game actively forbids you from engaging in table talk with the other players about what you are going to do. The first way to get players input on the possible path of the settlement is to use your action to call for a discussion and positing a question, and even then, each person talks in turn and cannot say more than two sentences. Other than that, the only feedback the other players can give is non-verbally signalling their displeasure with what you have done by taking Contempt tokens from the middle of the table.

The designer does this with the intent of showing that community decision-making and group activities are actually quite sloppy and it is hard to really get a feel for what everyone thinks comprehensively. In large groups, it is easier to tell that people are unhappy than to find out why. Human interaction is messy.

What Works

The game does create a map and chart out the story of a community as they engage in projects, solve problems, find things that are scarce and deal with shortages. The deck draws are interesting but generic enough you can make anything happen – working ‘the weakest of you dies’ or ‘marauders approach’ is possible in any situation of desperation.

In real play, the limited communication clause is more respected in its transgression than in its enforcement, and it takes a disciplined group of role-players to keep restrained. But, the Contempt tokens to give a good way of ominously but abstractly expressing that not all is well and strain is rising within the group as to the decision that have been made.

What Doesn’t Work

The main weakness of the game is the very lack of definition that makes it possible to be so adaptable. Things can get very odd, very quickly, since there is no GM on board to guide things and people are banned from communicating their displeasure or objections fully. Not only the tone but the metaphysics and assumptions surrounding the game world can rapidly go into the realms of what I would call High Weirdness, where fantasy, science fiction and just plain Fortean elements mix together. In our game, bandits armed with old Russian army equipment and abandoned bunkers hidden in hillsides mixed with psychic healing magic priests and zombies, mainly because of the predilection and prejudices of various players naturally pushing things according to their tastes.

The game taken on its own does not establish a common tone or shared fantasy very well. The tips in the rulebook make mention that the ‘weirdness dial’ should be pretty much set by the mid-game, but in our game, it rapidly became a mess long before that. As is the weakness of most GM-less games, you have to start out with a strong consensus as to the type of game and world the story is being told in before you can begin, especially in a game that forbids you engaging the person making additions and changes to the world that might violate your notions of the shared fantasy.

This outlandishness can contribute to another weakness – the lack of emotional investment. The rules encourage you to not focus on individual characters but advocate for the entire community, but that means each individual player is just a nebulous opinion or will floating amongst the community’s population. For a game that wants us to care and ask hard questions and talk about what happens when communities are faced with crises, it would be better if there was more for our emotions and interest to hang on.

Also, the game and its events table are not hard enough on the community. Many in our group were expecting a rapidly worsening situation especially as summer drifted into autumn and the winter approached, but the random events of the later seasons were not much worse than the ones before. There was a feeling early in the game of establishing hopes and goals only to see things destroy or hinder them as the seasons got more harsh, but this was not supported by the events themselves. If this is supposed to be a somber post-apocalyptic setting, a bit more fatalism and unfair brutality might be called for. There were several points in the game where our players thought the citizens of our community had it far too easy.

Tips for Playing

It’s not in the rules, but I would lay out ground rules as group for your universe before you start drawing the map. This can be as simple as agreeing to a movie or book you’d like the world to mimic – such as Road Warrior – that players can build upon and use as their baseline. Or, you could take a page from games like Microscope and have players say elements that they want explicitly allowed or banned from the game – yes to magic, no to super technology. And allow for objections during play on the basis of those agreed on elements and that alone, e.g. “I don’t think radioactive clown zombies really fit the tone here, Bob.”

Also, actively restrain yourselves as players to think small and personal. Realize how little a group of eighty people trying to survive can actually accomplish in a year. And make an effort to define personalities and groups as you go along, not just when they are specifically called for in the event. Keep track of them, make them more human without exclusively following what particular set of characters. Many of the later events involve people dying – it works better if these people had names and histories to the group before they did.

7/10 – Simple with good execution and beautiful art, but needs a few tweaks.

Gaming, Role-playing Games

Experimental Tabletop #1: Dirty Secrets

I’ve decided to start keeping reviews and notes of the bi-monthly experimental tabletop night that several friends and I hold. The concept is simple – we find one of the plethora of new indie tabletop roleplaying games available on the Internet, and try one out that night.

We’ve done several already, and it’s been great. Some games have failed, others have been brilliant, but all have taught us something about game design and roleplaying. I am not going to attempt to summarize the mechanics, but rather give a quick overview and review. Less is more, I say. So, here is my first installment. Last night we played a little game called Dirty Secrets.

Dirty Secrets is an homage to the hard-boiled detective stories of the likes of Dashiell Hammett, but set in your own hometown, one week ago. It is about an investigator scouring through collections of sleazy characters in an attempt to find the perpetrators of a small set of crimes. It is a GM-less game. It takes the interesting twist of having only one player portray a single character throughout the game – the Investigator.

The rest of the narrative control (a position known as the Authority) is passed around between the other players around the table, as the Investigator pursues more and more evidence.

The rules deliberately keep any player from actually declaring who committed a crime until a set of criteria are met, so it is a mystery to everyone until the reveal. Conflicts are resolved via a game of Liar’s Dice between the current Authority and the Investigator, and the Authority can pull in the various other players to improvise specific roles in the scene that the Investigator is in, as well as interrupt the Investigator’s activities with acts of violence.

What Works

The game manages to create an excellent collection of sleazeballs rather seamlessly, and our game moved at a good pace to begin with. Evidence was acquired, leads pursued, seemingly innocuous characters became more and more important.

There is an excellent mechanic for becoming unstuck called ‘Revelation Sequences’ where a relationship is randomly determined between two existing characters in order to break open the case – which was amusing in our case when the local Mexican mafia crime boss turned out to be having a homosexual tryst with a illegal immigrant caretaker we met in an earlier sequence.

But all and all, the game manages to parade out a good collection of twists and turns, where everyone is considered a suspect. The Investigator is drawn into a pit of paranoia and tangled webs are woven, all without anyone knowing the eventual outcome will be.

What Doesn’t Work

When I say ‘eventual outcome’, I do mean eventual. The pacing mechanic is where the game can hit the skids. It is slow, which can be very frustrating for players not particularly familiar with the onion layers style of the hard-boiled genre and more familiar with crime dramas like Lethal Weapon.

The Investigator cannot force the story along; the reveal cannot be accelerated by violent interrogations or stunning situations. It can only come when it comes.

Like many games trying to replicate a single genre, the players, especially the Investigator, have to be familiar with the base works and their tone. This game works best with people who already like detective mysteries and understand what the game is attempting to replicate, not with just your average gamer looking for a night’s entertainment. It best produces stories that are tense and shadowy, rather than full of action and showdowns.

While the game has its share of violence (it is not a Miss Marple story by any standard), the violence takes forms more like bullets fired from an darkened alleyway with tires squealing off shortly afterward.

Tips For Playing

If you want to play Dirty Secrets, I suggest the most experienced and rules savvy player be the Investigator. And that the Investigator player be the one most familiar with the genre.

If you are a fan of hard-boiled mysteries who wants to play this with less-inducted friends, you definitely need to take on the Investigator role. The Investigator is really a sort of reverse GM, pushing the story along and producing scenes which the others have to improvise and attempt to play out. The Investigator controls the tone more than anyone else at the table.

In our particular game, the Investigator’s player became frustrated because the increasingly violent path the Investigator was on could not produce the results he wanted within the rules. When confronting the character most likely to have committed the game’s central murder with a gun, there was no easy way to resolve this situation in a satisfactory manner.

No amount of escalation can force the plot to resolve quicker, and the player ran into that brick wall hard as he attempted to achieve his character’s primary goal. While this certainly reflects the pacing of the chosen genre, it was frustrating to a Investigator player who wasn’t used to it.

6/10: Promising and fun, but needs work.