Some system thoughts for Dirty Cities

A week or so ago, I mentioned on Twitter that I’d had a breakthrough on Dirty Cities. I promised Gerald that I’d share it. So, in honor of the day that Illinois’s corrupt governor was arrested, I’ll share it.

So, as I’ve mentioned before, Dirty Cities is supposed to be the game that will let me do play a game like The Wire, Crash, Traffic, Collateral and even The Dark Knight (without the superhero angle). Crime, corruption, politics, dirty secrets, dark family pasts: they should all intersect in this game. Actually, a better way of putting this is that I’d like the game to do a cycle of stories like these, all set in the same city. Therefore, the focus of the game is on the overall health of the city.

When I designed Dirty Secrets, I ended up basing the core conflict mechanic around Liar’s Dice. The reason for this was to bring in the experience of lies and double-crosses into the game experience. So, I considered what the core conflict mechanic of Dirty Cities should be, I was trying to decide what emotional theme should be at the center of this mechanic.

For a while, I was planning on using “corruption” as this emotional core. After all, it seemed like a reasonable fit. But then I watched Mystic River, which feels like it ought to fit into a cycle of Dirty Cities stories, but really isn’t about corruption.

Again, the answer comes from a conversation with Crystal. As she and I were discussing my ideas for the game, she said that the game should include the idea of systemic oppression. People are at the mercy of powerful organizations, who treat them as pawns in their games. Honestly, that’s where The Wire lived: at the intersection of institutions and individuals. David Simon has even gone so far as to say that The Wire is a classic Greek tragedy, with institutions filling in for the capricious gods.

And there’s the hook. The needs of the individual versus the needs of the group.

So, here’s my draft system.

First, assume the basic Dirty Secrets narration structure (e.g. narration, jurisdiction, appeal). I guess that’s my house system. *grin* Instead of a single investigator player, the different players take turns playing different viewpoint characters. If you’ve seen The Wire, then you’ve seen this play out.

Each player has a black d6 and a white d6. Whenever two characters end up in conflict, each player will secretly choose one of the dice. Then, they will simultaneously roll the dice. The outcome will work a bit like the Prisoner’s Dilemma. If both players choose the same color, then the high roll wins. If one player chooses black, then he wins, regardless of die result.

But why would you ever choose the white die?

Before players roll dice, each conflicting player chooses one of the organizations in play to have primary impact on this conflict. So, for example, if the viewpoint character is a cop, then the primary organization might be the police department. Then the other players select other organizations that would have an impact on one or both of the conflicting characters.

Each organization represents certain ideals and methods of getting stuff done. This may be formally established, or it might simply be left to the judgment of the player responsible for that organization. Anyways, when the two players are selecting white or black dice, what they are saying is “I’m going to cooperate with the ideals of this organization” or “I’m going to transgress the ideal of this organizatio”. White=”cooperate”, while black=”transgress”. (The technical game theory term is “defect”.)

Then, once the conflict as such is adjudicated, the impact on the city as a whole is adjudicated. The players of the different organizations then “judge” the actions of the character. If the character’s actions were in line with that organization’s ideals, then the player puts a white stone in a communal pool. If the character’s actions were not in line with that organization’s ideals, then the player puts a black stone in a communal pool.

These stones are then used in various ways to reflect the overall health of the city. White stones represent conformity and social order, and black stones represent individualism and social chaos. So far, I have two mechanics that touch this pool.

The first is the vignette system. At the end of each session, each player draws a stone for each organization that he controls. He then has to narrate a brief vignette involving that organization but not any specific Characters. If he drew a white stone, then the vignette needs to show how that particular organization is contributing to social order. If he drew a black stone, then the vignette needs to show how that particular organization is contributing to social chaos.

Now! An important note. This “order vs. chaos” setup is most definitely not “good vs. evil”. Social order can be maintained through repression, and proper civil disobedience brings social chaos. For example, there are places where the gangs do more to maintain the health of a community than the police. Indeed, the police are viewed as just another gang. But, are the gangs “good” just because they favor “order”?

That’s not for me to answer. That’s where the game is.

The other mechanic is the “oracle” system that Dirty Cities will use. I figure that the game needs a random situation generator. This area is still fairly vague, but here’s what I currently have. ‘ll have a bunch of lists with different themes (e.g. “Family”, “Vice”, “Dark Past”, and the like). These will run from (say) -10 to +10. During setup, the group will allocate their picks to these lists (e.g. “Let’s get two items from Family, one from Dark Past, and one from Vice.”) Then, for each pick, the player pulls four stones from the bowl. Put back any pairs of black and white stones. Whatever remains will add to the die roll (if white) or subtract from the die roll (if black). Then roll 1d6-1d6 and add the modifier to get the item from the list. Once you use an item from the list, cross it out and skip over it when counting. In this way, the group will gradually end up calling on the items that are further from the center of the list.

Additionally, as the game goes on, the players will be able to add new items to the ends of these lists. So, eventually, the lists will transition from being generic material to being player-authored material specific to the group’s game.

My goal would be that “order-based” items would go on the positive side and “chaos-based” items would go on the negative side. Therefore, the more white stones that are in the bowl, the more likely the situation generator will be to provide “order/conformity” items, and vice versa for black stones.

I’ll probably go back to this mechanic to tie other things together. That way, the decisions that each character makes will ripple outward and affect every character in this imaginary city.

So, this mechanic sketches out the thematic territory that I’d like people to address when playing this game. We all live in this city together. This means that we need to yield our personal desires to the needs of the group, just so we can continue to live together. But at what point does that become oppression? There are also times when you need to take your stand against the system. But at what point does that become anarchy?

And we don’t just make these decisions for ourselves. Our choices affect all those around us. My choice to “defect” can hurt you, even if we’ve never met, because I’ve affected the common environment in which we live. But what if the choice to “defect” is the right choice?

That’s what this game is about, and I think that this system will help focus the various stories and story cycles on this overarching theme.


10 responses to “Some system thoughts for Dirty Cities

  • Gerald Cameron

    Thanks for writing this up, Seth. There’s definitely some interesting ideas, and I’m looking forward to seeing a draft 😉

    I think there may be possibilities for adding some more onto the stones, but I need to mull a little. My current idea is a bit heavy-handed.

    It’s not explicit from your post, but I get the impression that your oracle is intended to do more than simply generate initial and/or beginning-of-scene situations. Is there a variant of the owe mechanic at work here?

  • Seth Ben-Ezra

    Re: Owe list.

    Something like that, Gerald. There’s an entire rules module that needs to exist there that simply doesn’t. But, yeah, I see that list as eventually becoming a way of “forcing” reincorporation. The details are still quite vague.

    And I’d love to hear your idea, even if it is heavy-handed. It might spark other ideas along the way. And maybe it’ll even work by itself….

  • Gerald Cameron

    Okay, since you asked nicely 🙂

    Basically, each major character would be assigned as being *primarily* interested in order or chaos. In a conflict, they could pull a bead of their colour to get a bonus (but weakening their interest in the big picture due to the change of the balance in the pool) or pull a bead of the other side and take a penalty (but helping its interest in the big picture).

    Like I said, heavy-handed, and in definite need of tweaking, but it’s a seed, maybe.

  • Seth Ben-Ezra

    Yeah, I was wondering about spending stones in conflict for something. I don’t think that I want to connect a particular character to a particular theme, though, especially because “order”=conformity to a particular organization, which ends up being highly contextual.

    And yet, it does feel like you should be able to do something like that with the stones, doesn’t it? Like, instead of rolling dice, you can grab a handful of stones to resolve the conflict? Dunno.

    Funny thing, though. The entire stone system reminds me of Inspiration and Corruption from Legends of Alyria. So maybe there’s something to mine from that source.

    But yeah, there’s a lot more potential in this system that needs to be mined.

  • Christoph

    Hi Seth!
    This sounds very exciting! Will there be any difference between white vs white and black vs black?

    Also, why [i]Dirty[/i] Cities?

  • Seth Ben-Ezra


    At this point, I don’t think so.

    And I’m in the market for different names! The reason it is Dirty Cities is partly because I was looking at corruption originally and partly because it puts the game in a series with Dirty Secrets. Dunno. Luke has his Burning Splat games; maybe I’ll have my Dirty Splat games.


  • Barb

    This comment has nothing to do with role-playing games. I just noticed your interest in The Wire, Crash, Traffic, et al and want to know – what about these shows/movies interests/attracts you?

    PS – I’m intrigued by these movies myself. I hesitate to say “enjoy” because what’s to enjoy about viewing a degraded society…but I’m drawn to these movies. In fact, Crash is one of my favorites.

  • Seth Ben-Ezra

    Hey, Barb. The answer to your question deserves a full post. So, give me a couple of days, but I’ll answer you then.

  • A Dark And Quiet Room | Proving that there are many types of geeks

    […] I still owe you an answer. Between being sick and the blog server being switched over, I haven’t gotten there yet. But […]

  • A Dark And Quiet Room | Why Major Crimes?

    […] this comment, Barb asked a question: This comment has nothing to do with role-playing games. I just noticed […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s