Category Archives: Dirty Secrets Development and Playtest

BREAKING NEWS: Dirty Secrets featured in current Bundle of Holding

So, the newest Bundle of Holding is out. If you don’t know, this is similar to the Humble Bundle for video games: pay a small amount to get a collection of roleplaying games, but if you pay above the average, you get a larger collection. Well, the current bundle is noir-themed, and it includes Dirty Secrets!

You should totally check it out!

Other games in the package:

  • The Big Crime
  • FASTLANE: Everything, All the Time
  • One Last Job
  • A Dirty World
  • Killshot: The Director’s Cut
  • Secrets & Lies: Hardboiled Triple Feature
  • Streets of Bedlam

In particular, I want to call out A Dirty World and Streets of BedlamA Dirty World is Greg Stolze’s noir game using the One-Roll Engine (ORE) which was popularized in Godlike and Wild Talents. It definitely skews to the classic noir period piece, like The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep.

Streets of Bedlam, on the other hand, is inspired more by Sin City by Frank Miller. Written by my friend Jason Blair, it’s powered by the Savage Worlds engine, most famously used in the newest edition of Deadlands.

All this, plus Dirty Secrets, for just a few bucks. If you love hardboiled fiction or noir of any kind, you simply can’t pass this one up.

Check it out, and please spread the word!

Looking for feedback on Dirty Secrets (plus a Showdown update)

So, in the wake of all the Veronica Mars attention, I find myself idly poking at the idea of doing a second edition of Dirty Secrets.

For those of you who don’t know, Dirty Secrets is my roleplaying game of detective noir, set in your home town, last week. One person plays the investigator, who is drawn into the seamy underbelly of her town in the service of truth and justice and righteousness…or at least some of those. The truth can be a dirty thing, especially the truth about yourself.

In fact, I was introduced to both Veronica Mars and The Wire through my work on Dirty Secrets. When I was demoing Dirty Secrets at GenCon 2007, people were constantly asking me, “Oh, so it’s like Veronica Mars?” After having to admit several times that I hadn’t seen Veronica Mars, I resolved to watch it as soon as possible. And, as I engaged discussions on the Internet about how Dirty Secrets handled issues of race, I discovered the need to watch The Wire.

And now, I find myself poking at the idea of another edition.

After all, it has been seven years since I designed the game originally. I’d like to think that I’ve learned a thing or two about game design since then.

For example, I know that Dirty Secrets required significant cognitive load, especially during conflicts. Using Liars’ Dice as the core mechanic was a cool idea, but this was also the time that gameplay could come to a screeching halt, as players tried to juggle narrative and dice info plus bluffing…. It was a lot to hold in the mind.

I’d also like to allow for a smaller footprint for the game. There are a lot of components required to play Dirty Secrets. Dice, index cards, record sheets…the table was full. Maybe I could cut down the clutter a bit. I’d also want to reduce the social footprint of the game. I doubt that Dirty Secrets would ever be an hour-long game, but it might be nice to get it into the three-hour time slot. This is because I’m selfish. I don’t have the mindspace these days for a multi-session game, and I want to be able to play my own stuff, dammit!

So, these are some of the thoughts I have when I start thinking about a second edition. I’ll even admit to having done a little design and prototyping. But here’s where I’d like to pause and ask a question: what were your experiences with Dirty Secrets? Anything that you really liked? Anything that could be smoothed out? Any awesome experiences? Any really bad ones? I’d love to get an idea of what worked and what didn’t.

Please note: this doesn’t constitute a promise to actually release a second edition or even to do any work on it. I’m still in the exploratory phase, you might say. After all, I still need to get Showdown out the door, right?

Oh yes, about that….

Here’s the deal. I have a final manuscript in place. Layout has progressed a significant amount. However, my wife is my graphic designer and layout person. Part of the joy I get from working on Dark Omen Games is being able to work with her. And right now, due to some health challenges[*], she hasn’t been able to work on the project. I like all of you, and I really want to see Showdown in the world, but caring for Crystal comes first.

We both intend on seeing Showdown through to the end. But for now, the project is at a standstill.

At such time as we reach our next milestone, which would be the completion of layout, I’ll let all of you know.

[*]No, nothing life-threatening or anything, but enough to be very tiring.

Matt Wilson talks nice about Dirty Secrets

Matt Wilson, designer of Primetime Adventures, says nice things about Dirty Secrets

A fascinating insight

NPR interviewed Richard Price about his novel Lush Life, and he made an interesting comment, which is recorded here:

“There’s about six different subcultures down there,” Price told the Bryant Park Project in an April interview. “It’s chaos. And I couldn’t figure out how to write about this place without is sounding like a travelogue. And then I realized, which is something I’ve done before, is when you have a very Byzantine landscape, a crime, if you follow the progression of an investigation, it’s sort of a lazy man’s way to a plot.”

Later, Price explains that he is using a crime story to provide both structure and excuse to explore a particular place. That’s part of why I play Dirty Secrets and what I find interesting about it. Now I need to remember this for Major Crimes. And, for that matter, to perhaps inform future writing? Shrug. We’ll see.

Of course! It’s so obvious!

Last weekend, several people played a game of Dirty Secrets at OrcCon in Los Angeles. In fact, the actual play report is right here. Last night, before seeing the play report, I talked with Ryan Macklin, who was one of the players in the game. It was a nifty conversation, but he mentioned a couple of things that clicked and were really helpful.

First, he said that this game of Dirty Secrets was like playing The Shield, which is his favorite TV show.

Second, he said that he’d heard about Dirty Cities, and that he’d love to playtest.

And things clicked in my head.

For a while now, I’ve been concerned that I’m trying to cram too much into Dirty Cities, that I want it to do several things that might not actually be compatible with each other. I’d even been toying with taking my different concepts and breaking them into separate games, either as a series of games linked by a campaign system or as an anthology of some kind.

After last night’s conversation, I’m convinced that I need to do something like that. Because I figured out the core of the game I’m currently calling Dirty Cities.

It’s quite simple, really.

1) Make up a crime organization (or a loose affiliation of crime organizations). Work up what they do and how they do it.

2) Make up a special police squad who has the job of stopping it. This can be the Strike Force (a la The Shield) or a detail (The Wire, Seasons 1 and 2) or Major Crimes (The Wire, Seasons 3 and 4 or The Dark Knight)

Now, play characters in both groups. Go!

I haven’t seen The Shield yet, but this would handle The Wire just fine, thank you very much. And, from all accounts, it will handle The Shield too.

So, a big step forward in the development of this game.

This may necessitate a name change, though. One of my ideas is to have a campaign system that would allow me to link together my various crime/urban games. (Yes, I have others bumping around in my head.) So, maybe Dirty Cities would be the campaign system, while this “major crimes” game would have a different name. Not sure yet, but I’ll keep you posted!

On being a crime victim

Hey, Barb! I still owe you a response to your question about Traffic and Crash and The Wire. Been a bit busy. However, I think that I have additional experience now to tack on to whatever answer I finally develop.

For those of you who don’t know, last Saturday, while Crystal and I were driving home from Erie (you know, after her mother died and all that particular joy), we were robbed. We stopped in Indianapolis at a Cracker Barrel and, while we were eating inside, parties unknown smashed one of the car windows and stole a bunch of stuff from the back seat.

So, I’m heading out to the car, while Crystal is, uh, attending to some business inside. I see a police car parked near our car. I’m thinking, “Oh no. What’s going on? We haven’t done anything wrong. It’s a rental car….” And so on and so forth. But I continue to walk the car.

Then I see the woman sitting in the passenger seat of the police car. This is a bit unusual. Normally, if you’re busted, you’re in the back of the car. Then I see her car and the shattered glass. Now I understand! She’s filing a report, and the police officer let her sit in the car, where it’s not quite so cold.

My heart goes out to the poor woman. “That’s terrible,” I think. “I can only imagine what that would feel like.”

And then I see our car, window similarly smashed.

Even then, it takes me a moment to realize that stuff is missing from the back seat.

I’m really surprised at how matter-of-fact I felt about it all. At least right then.

The rest of the scenario played out about how you’d expect. We talked to the police officer and filed a report of our own. The other woman, who actually works at the restaurant, ran back inside to check the security camera tapes. No dice; our cars were both conveniently in a dead zone of coverage. We canvassed the area a bit, hoping that the thieves had stashed our stuff somewhere to come back for it. Nope.

All of it was gone.

My laptop was gone. Among other things, it held my gaming archive, including various playtest versions of games, hard-to-find character sheets (like the sheets for The Mountain Witch). It also included notes for various games-in-progress, as well as my manuscript for Showdown.


My backups were on external hard drives, in case of hardware failure. They were in the laptop bag.


Those of you who have met me know that I carry a large black bag. I’ve done this ever since college. My bag is my toolkit for life. If I think that I might need something, I carry it in there. So, on our trip, my bag contained the following:

–my brand-new ESV Study Bible
–copies of each of my games (including my personal copy of Junk)
–my copies of Breaking the Ice and Shooting the Moon, each autographed by Emily Care Boss
–the game Hive, including the Mosquito expansion
–the book I was currently reading (Homicide by David Simon)
–the book I had finished reading (Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen)
–my PDA charger
–my phone charger
–several decks of cards
–several pens
–a digital recorder
–a green plastic alien who dangled from one of the zippers, which had been a present from my sister Elizabeth

And more, of course.

My bag is an extension of myself, almost a portable sanctum.


The list goes on. Crystal’s dad had given her a couple pieces of jewelry that her mom had bought before she died. They were in another bag in the back seat, which was taken.

Crystal’s slippers.

Several of my CDs, including one on loan from Raquel.

Gone. Gone. Gone.

They didn’t take everything, thank God. But they made out…well, they made out like bandits.

And somewhere in there, my emotions caught up with me. And, besides the anger and the sadness, there was this feeling of being offended. What had I done to these people that they treat me like this?

And then I felt violated. This was more than just my sense of security being shattered, though that’s certainly true. Rather, I felt attacked. These are things that I carry close to me, and they had been suddenly stripped from me. Violence had touched me, leaving me feeling exposed to the cold dark world.

I really needed that laptop to do work this week. Instead, I’m trying to do time-sensitive work while configuring a new computer. That’s frustrating.

I’m so used to carrying my bag everywhere that the lack of it is a constant reminder of what happened and what I lost. Crystal encouraged me to start putting together another bag, which I’ve done. But, it’s not really ready yet. And I’ll never be able to replace that green dangly alien.

And here I am, writing this, and I’m actually starting to cry over a silly plastic alien.

But it was special. It meant something to me. It was mine.

And someone stole it away from me. Just like that. Stole it and probably threw it away, because it wasn’t actually worth any money. Or worse, dangling from someone’s key ring as a trophy of that amazing smash-and-grab where they scored big.

If you have to be a victim of a crime, I guess this is the best kind. Neither Crystal or I were hurt. In fact, neither of us were physically threatened in any way. I mean, I’ve been reading Homicide, right? Those victims don’t get to walk away. So, I’m thankful to God for that.

And yet, we both are still feeling violated and hurt. And, honestly, there’s nothing to do except try to move on from here and say, “The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.” And, by God’s grace, that’s what we shall do.

But, I suppose, I have also gained something. I have gained an immediate understanding of what it feels like to be a victim of crime. And, if nothing else, I will be better able to empathize with others who have been similarly victimized. And, perhaps, I will be better equipped to help stop others from being victimized, too.

And, lest anyone is concerned, yes, I still plan on making and playing crime games. I mean, after an experience like this, how could I stop?

Paul Tevis likes Dark Omen Games

Dark Omen Games has been getting a bunch of good press lately from Paul Tevis of the Ennie-winning Have Games, Will Travel podcast.

On The Twelve Days of HG,WT: For A Few Games More-mas: Day 6, Paul discussed his top five favorite new roleplaying games of 2008. A Flower for Mara was his number two game, being beat only by the fine Zombie Cinema. Where was Dungeons and Dragons, 4th ed. on this list? Number three.

On The Twelve Days of HG,WT: For A Few Games More-mas: Day 7, Paul reflected on his roleplaying in 2008. He said that his favorite new game that he played in 2008 was Dirty Secrets.

On The Twelve Days of HG,WT: For A Few Games More-mas: Day 8, Paul reviewed A Flower for Mara and had a number of good things to say about it.

So, thanks for all the good words, Paul!

I’m interviewed on the Independent Insurgency

Recorded at GenCon, but now available for your listening pleasure, Rob Bohl and I talk about Dirty Secrets.

For a little bit of context, Rob Bohl is actually a convert to this game. He raised some difficult questions about Dirty Secrets in a forum post on Story Games, specifically having to do with the treatment of race in the game. Then, a crazy thing happened: a productive conversation broke out. By the end of it, Rob’s concerns were addressed and all was well. (Plus, I got another plug for The Wire, which resulted in my watching it, which has resulted in my wanting to design another crime game. So, I guess it’s all Rob’s fault.)

I was really glad to have the opportunity to be interviewed on Rob’s podcast. I enjoy listening to his long-form interview style about other games, so I was looking forward to having the opportunity to wax eloquent about my game. Hopefully you will find it as interesting as I do.

You will, right?


Buy my stuff!

Yeah, that’s a subtle subject line.

Anyways, I wanted to announce a new place where you can buy Dark Omen Games materials.

In addition to being able to find my fine games at Indie Press Revolution and and direct from the website, you can now purchase from the Indie RPGs Un-store. This is a new venture, being coded by Vincent Baker, which will act as an aggregator of sorts for a number of indie publishers. While each publisher will handle his own orders and fulfillment, this site enables the customer (that would be you) to browse listings from a number of different publishers, all on the same site.

So, check it out! And buy my stuff!

Some good words about Dirty Secrets

Jesse Burneko discusses Dirty Secrets in a recent post:

Dirty Secrets is similar. That game is fueled almost entirely by the player’s opinions of the characters and their willingness to express them. The grid is less about generating a surprising random outcome and more about voting. Because the grid is used for all the crimes you’re voting for a given character to be guilty of something. It’s the height of being judgmental. The scary thing about Dirty Secrets is that the only thing you are given to form your *initial* opinion is demographics. That’s by design. But if you don’t put your feelings at the forefront of the application of the rules then the game falls flat.

Also, Berin Kinsman writes about playing Dirty Secrets at a recent con:

If you like crime novels, film noir, detective shows, mysteries, anything akin to those genres, buy this and check it out. It seems like it would be a good party game for mystery buffs who aren’t into roleplaying games and might be a good “gateway drug” to introduce your non-geek friends to roleplaying. It handles genre tropes in clever ways. Definitely a good touch. Nice job, Seth.

Thanks, guys!