February 10, 2012

[Interview] Greg Stolze about A Dirty World

Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon
I've just done a review of A Dirty world and it just felt natural to replicate the 7 Questions of Doom to his author. Of course, different game, different questions. What do you think if I make this a regular column?

Greg Stolze (born 1970) is a novelist and writer, whose work has mainly focused on properties derived from role-playing games.
Stolze has contributed to numerous role-playing game books for White Wolf Game Studio and Atlas Games, including Demon: the Fallen. 
Together with John Tynes he created and wrote the role-playing game Unknown Armies, published by Atlas Games. He has also co-written the free game NEMESIS, which uses the One-Roll Engine presented in Godlike and the so called Madness Meter derived from Unknown Armies.

1) Why do you have chosen the Noir genre as the topic for this game? 
Well, I've had an on again, off again love affair with old films noir like "The Maltese Falcon" or a lot of Hitchcock stuff.  And I went through a phase where I read a ton of Chandler and Hammett and a touch of Highsmith, so I was certainly enthused about the tropes and characteristics of these hard-boiled detective stories.  But actually, it wasn't MY idea: Another game designer approached me about collaborating on a sort of "Film Noir + ________" game.  I don't want to name names or fill in that blank - I think the project's been hanging fire for a long time - but in the course of discussing it with him, I had the idea for the core adaptation of "character sheet as a game board in which your abilities shift according to what's happened to you."  Once I'd had the idea, I couldn't really unthink it, and I bashed it out pretty quick.  Eventually, I got the book put together because it seemed like a shame not to share it.

2) I like a lot your version of the One roll engine. It's elegant end effective. Do you think that this engine could be applied to other type of games? Which ones?

The ADW variation is optimized for emotional conflict, I'd say, both internal and external.  It's the foundation for "Better Angels," which is in the pipe with ARC DREAM publishing, and it's the second in a series of books that poke at some central questions or elements of the superhero genre.  

To digress, the first book in that string was PROGENITOR -- an alt-history with metahumans appearing in the late 1960s.  The setting quirk there is that powers can be contagious, so if you use your mind control to stop a bank robber, he may catch powers from you and turn into your nemesis.  Or if a supervillain uses telekinesis to shove you out of the way, he just might make you into a superhero by mistake.  This is prominent in a lot of classic DC properties - where Batman's responsible for the Joker getting mangled and going insane.  Or some versions of the Superman story where it's his fault that Lex Luthor goes bald!  You can kind of see it with Spiderman and Harry Osborn, too.  So I wanted to set it up so that there's a very clear and present reason for people to create their own superpowered nemeses, and to have close connections to other metahumans so that it's not just "bad guy of the week."  It worked splendidly with my own group, where they started out by messing with the heads of a pair of hitch hikers, only to have one of them catch powers -- specifically, the power to kill people with a word.  Now they're faced with cleaning up their mess, but they couldn't just kill the guy because (1) he was dangerous and (2) they weren't sure he was actually EVIL and not just the victim of a sick joke of fate.  If you didn't know you could kill people by yelling at them, how much collateral damage would your daily commute rack up?  

Anyhow: The question at the center of "Better Angels" is, why do supervillains engage in VILLAINY (of all things) when they're clearly geniuses or super-powerful or whatever?  Why are they robbing banks instead of legitimately OWNING them?  And what's up with those crazy monologues ("Only YOU will understand the brilliance of my plan, Dingo-boy!") and death traps ("Oh, I could just shoot you in the head, but it's more AMUSING to trap you in... MY LIVE-ACTION BIOENGINEERED POCKET-MONSTER ARENA!")?  The answer, according to the "Better Angels" setting, is that villains are possessed by demons.  By acting eeeeevil they keep their supernatural tenants amused.  But at the same time, the human half of the supervillain pairing is desperately trying to fail.  Hence the monologue.  It entertains the evil spirit by mocking the enemy... but also gives the human a chance to drop hints.  Ditto the death trap.  They both have the subtext of "Please stop me before I kill somebody."  

So "Better Angels" has a combination of physical conflicts alongside interior ones ("oh, my demon rider would get off my back for WEEKS if I just kick-murdered my ex-girlfriend's new fiance...") and external emotional struggles ("No Jethro!  You're not a killer!  Don't listen to Xotappath the Reaver, he's not a true friend to you!")

Scarlett Johansson in The Black Dahlia
3) Noir is a really hard game to put together. Do you have advices to players and GMs trying to write and play adventures in this genre?
With ADW in particular, don't take it personally if the other PCs kind of dick you around.  It's Chinatown, Jake, and as a bonus it can make your character stronger.  (I'm very pleased with how the emergent mechanics in ADW turned out: Events that happen immediately impact your abilities, and I tried to fix it so that taking abuse equips you to pay it back in kind, eventually.)  For general Noir players, trust no one, take big risks and poke your nose in where it doesn't belong.  For GMs, let people get away with all that but keep the pressure on and make sure that there's no clear-cut, easy solution.  Stories about good people doing good things are boring.  In Noir, everyone's on the continuum between a little bit bent and totally depraved.

4) I brought my copy of A Dirty World on lulu.com. How well goes the online self publishing gig, compared to the PDF publishing and/or traditional publishing? Do you believe in a future paper free?

"Traditional" vs. "Indie electronic" both have their charms.  A lot of times, it's great to have an editor with a vision telling you where to go and bouncing ideas off you.  It's lovely to work with other talented writers, supporting each other and specializing.  With a lot of my indie stuff, I do everything myself.  (I even did all the illustrations for the first version of "eCollapse," with so-so success.)  I have to be the publisher, the layout guy, the marketing department and the accountant.  I... haven't exactly min-maxed any of those skills.

I think the "paper free future" is a bit overhyped.  No, in fact, I'll go farther and say that the 'conflict' between e-books and print books is mostly a figment.  Both formats have unique advantages.  Electronic files are easy to store, easy to share, cheaper to produce, simpler to search and you can have a ton of them on a device the size of a checkbook.  Books, on the other hand, are platform-independent, the batteries never run out, drop safe, nicer to look at and handle, and you can write in the margins.  Saying one or the other is superior seems, to me, like saying that escalators made stairways obsolete.  

(As an aside, "eCollapse" was another in that series of books examining the core ideas of superheroism.  In its case, it's a question of "What makes you a hero or villain?  Is it up to you, or can a good guy and a bad guy do the same exact things, just on opposite sides of a polarizing ideology?"  It's also super-sarcastic about, well, everything.)

5) Do you think A Dirty world could catch unusual demographics for RPGs or you imagine your audience just as hard core gamers?
Man, I don't know.  If I knew what was going to be popular, my stuff would sell better.

Mike Hammer
6) Let us know you better: tell us a game other than yours, that you love and a game that you hate and why.

"FIASCO" is pretty glorious, but it gets a lot of love already, so I'll go more obscure.  "A Penny For My Thoughts," by Paul Tevis, is like this perfect little design gem.  It does one thing, one hyper-specialized thing, perfectly.  It's a game about recovering traumatically repressed memories, and it's optimized to create juicy, scenery-chewing scenarios of big, weepy pain.  It's all spontaneous, GM-free, but structured.  It's simultaneously spare and rich: There aren't any wasted or pointless rules, but everything gets covered.  And you can tweak it for "I lost my memory to hideous Lovecraftian awfulness" or "I lost my memory because I'm a super-spy."

I'd decline to slag anyone else's game, though.

7) Do you want to talk about your future RPG projects?

Sure!  I blathered about "Better Angels" a bit already, and I'm fussing about with "HORIZON," which I'd call a sort of 'fantasy-science' game.  It's got a blog at http://gregstolze.wordpress.com/ and what I want to do with it is start a world-history at a primitive state, and then move it forward through historically important eras with PCs at the helm of social and magical developments.  You can download a rough draft of the rules in the first blog post there, and I'm still looking for comments from people.  

A Dirty World is available from:

A Dirty World
A Dirty World
A Dirty World

A Penny For My Thoughts
A Penny For My Thoughts
A Penny For My Thoughts
NOTE: If you buy from here I will get a little income, with no extra cost for you. Just to be straight.

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