My Life with Games (part 14)–Designing Dirty Secrets

Correction: Originally I said that this post covered August to December 2007. It was 2006. Sorry for the goof.

August, 2006. Crystal and I have just accomplished a difficult move for our family. Well, let’s be fair. The house that we were going to buy was being remodeled, but it wasn’t done just yet. At the same time, our landlord was really hoping to sell the house that we were living in, and summer is the best time for that kind of thing. So, through God’s providence, we managed to find a house to live in month-to-month just down the block from our new house. Sure, it’s small, and there are eight of us to fit into the house, but it’ll be for just a month, right?

Well, it was actually six months in fairly tight quarters. And, in August, we were just at the leading edge of that time, and I was already feeling uncomfortable. I need stability in my home life for my mental happiness, and that’s the opposite of what was happening.

So Crystal and I went for a walk one Sunday afternoon, and I told her that I had a game idea bubbling in my head. She encouraged me to start working on it as a way to preserve my sanity. So I drafted the first rules for my game about detective stories. I threw a working title on it and called it Dirty Secrets. “But that’s just a working title,” I thought. “I’ll come up with something better later.”

One lesson I learned from designing Dirty Secrets is that working titles get stuck easily as the final title.

The roots of Dirty Secrets extend back to John Tynes’ comments about James Ellroy and my subsequent reading of his work. At the same time, I knew that I’d need more exposure to the genre to really wrap my mind around it. I knew that Ron Edwards was quite the aficionado of the genre, so I asked him for recommendations. At the top of his list: Ross MacDonald.

The hardboiled detective/noir genre is actually fairly broad and is even a little hard to define at times. In fact, it could be debated that I’m trying to jam two separate genres together. So, I know that Dirty Secrets can’t quite cover the entirety of the genre(s) in play. It does fairly well, I’d argue, but it is best at replicating Ross MacDonald stories.

If you like detective stories–no, scratch that–if you have ever picked up a detective story in your life and think that, someday, you might get around to reading another one, you need to read Ross MacDonald. Arguably, each of his stories are really variations on the same story, but it’s such a good story that you shouldn’t care. I’d recommend The Far Side of the Dollar or The Goodbye Look as places to get started.

The name of MacDonald’s primary detective is Lew Archer. Just like Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe before him, he has a particular style. Spade is an agent provocateur, inserting himself into the situation and playing off the various parties against each other to accomplish his own ends. Marlowe is the knight errant, seeking adventure and attempting to rescue the person in distress in the situation, who isn’t necessarily his client.

Archer is a social worker and counselor. More than anything, he is seeking to understand and explain. The situations he falls into tend to be less about the seedy underworld (though it definitely shows up) but about family secrets buried too long that have festered. The sins of the fathers are visited upon the children, or even the grandchildren, and Archer gets to witness it all. He is the one who untangles the dirty deeds of the past that are causing suffering in the present. He is the one who figures out why the young scion of his target family is acting out in the way that he is.

And, ultimately, he is the one who passes judgment.

Great stuff.

Also, each Lew Archer novel is about 200 pages long. In an era of bloated multi-volume epics, the clarity and intensity of story in a single Lew Archer novel must be experienced.

I engaged the genre in other ways. I read all the Philip Marlowe novels. I watched The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, Chinatown, and Brick. I followed up by reading Red Harvest and The Maltese Falcon. And I’m still a sucker for the genre. You can hook me into almost anything if you can make the connection to world-weary detectives, long-buried secrets, tortured consciences, and the suffering of the innocent.

I just realized that makes me sound like a really, really bad person. So let me add one more thing to the list.

Justice. Justice and mercy. I’m a sucker for stories about justice and mercy, which gives me a chance to quote my favorite Ross MacDonald quote, from The Goodbye Look:

“That isn’t your real motivation. I know your type. You have a secret passion for justice. Why don’t you admit it?”

“I have a secret passion for mercy,” I said. “But justice is what keeps happening to people.”

Dirty Secrets was also ambitious from a design perspective. I had three driving goals for the design.

First, it needed to be a game that Crystal would want to play. Sure, I could make something that would make me happy, but if she wouldn’t play, what fun would that be? Herein lay a challenge. I tend to like games where I hover above the characters, weaving their actions together into a story without necessarily engaging closely with any of them. In contrast, Crystal likes to play games where she can closely identify with a particular character. My solution: design the game to do both. In Dirty Secrets, one person gets to play the investigator. He gets to drive the story in a lot of ways, but he is only associating with one character. Since everything is narrated from his viewpoint, the game allows for immersion in that character. At the same time, the other players play everyone else, which allows for some of the higher-level style of play that I prefer.

Second, Dirty Secrets needed to be a GMless, low-prep game. Increasingly, I do not like to have to prep for games. There’s not a lot of spare time in my life, and the time I have I don’t want to put into solo prep time. So, Dirty Secrets needed to work without any pre-game prep. My solution: random generation of an initial situation, married to a fixed setting, which is “your town, last week”. So, instead of someone needing to sit down and figure out a detailed backstory, players could just assemble at the table and play.

Third, Dirty Secrets still needed to produce the reveal moments that are key to the genre without being prepped in advance. This was a tricky one. How can you surprise all the players when no one actually knows what’s going on? If someone just gets to say “This is what happened”, there’s no shock or surprise at the reveal. It just becomes someone’s opinion or desire, enforced by the rules. My solution: quasi-random assignment of guilt. I don’t want to get into all the details, but the game keeps track of the suspicion levels of the various characters and uses that to choose guilty parties for certain aspects of the story. This is probably the most controversial mechanic in the game, but I’m still rather fond of it.

By December 2006 I had a functioning proof-of-concept prototype. Now, we had to produce the final product.

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