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.

2 thoughts on “Experimental Tabletop #1: Dirty Secrets

  1. Thanks for the review of Dirty Secrets! I’ll admit that I haven’t played in a while. The game having been out for almost six years now, I wonder what I’d think if I revisited it myself….

    Anyways, I thought all your comments were fair, though I’ll note that it is somewhat possible to control pacing through shaping the Crime Grid. Moving the Witness into confined areas of the Grid makes it more likely that Crime Resolution will occur, whereas moving the Witness into open areas signals that the game’s pace will slow down. Also, Pushing in conflict provides another way to trigger Crime Resolution, which might have allowed your investigator to accomplish some of the violent confrontation he was trying to do.

    I totally cop that none of that is necessarily obvious just by looking at the game, and there are a lot of nuances that are simply not apparent without either reading the book or having played before. That’s not a defense or anything; simply the way it is.

    And you’re definitely right about needing to have at least some awareness of the genre, particularly its pacing. I spent the year I designed Dirty Secrets immersing myself heavily in the genre. So I hadn’t even considered the somewhat deliberate pacing of the genre, compared to (say) a modern thriller. Good thoughts.

    Finally, thanks for playing my game. I’m glad that you were able to get enjoyment out of it, and I’m happy that you took the time to review it.

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