Monday, March 27, 2017

Five or So Questions with John Adamus on Noir World

Today I have an interview with designer and well-known editor John Adamus on his new RPG product, Noir World, which is on Kickstarter right now! Having known John on Twitter & face to face for a fair amount of time now, I know that an incredible amount of work has gone into this game, and I wanted to talk about his final product. See his responses below!


Tell me a little about Noir World. What excites you about it?

Noir World is a collaborative Apocalypse World hack where everyone gets together to create a Movie using film noir archetypes, dealing with the terrible outcomes of their emotional decisions. The game uses a variety of film and television techniques to express film noir and character development to give people a chance to be both player and GM, ideally letting people tell whatever kind of story they want. 

What excites me most about this is that people are going to get to tell these stories using a framework that prizes agency and decisions. You get to make whatever character you want in whatever way you want, and there's enough modular elements (you pick the time period, you build the City) so that everyone gets to help this Movie happen. This is a game built on collaboration and empowerment.

What were your inspirations, and guidance in development, for the themes and fiction of Noir World

I divide my inspirations into 2 camps: films noir like The Big SleepThe Third ManNight of the Hunter and TV shows with detectives like the Nero Wolfe mysteries; Murder, She WroteMagnum PIRemington Steele. I make the distinction because they're two ends of a range from serious (the films) to far less so (television), though they all have a lot of the same DNA when it comes to storytelling components and methods. While the material covers completely different subjects, that all becomes somewhat superficial when you look past the crime-of-the-week or the good-guy-bad-guy-binary and look at how characters relate to each other and how what happens in the story affects those relationships. Taking any of the source material and finding that emotional mechanism informed a lot how the game got onto the page.

Especially early on, this meant I could sift through material not because it featured the same actors or the same plot, but because it represented certain emotional choices or consequences - X amount of shows and movies involve betraying a lover or revealing at least one person's intimate secrets, for instance, and it kept the design process very rooted in how I wanted the game and ultimately the players to feel when playing. Everything from the art to the example text spawned from locking down the idea that feelings and relationships are at the heart of the game. 

What are the archetypes in Noir World, and what are some aspects you like about them?

There are 20 Roles a player can choose from in Noir World, from the expected ones like The Good Cop or The Dirty Cop or The Fatale to ones that maybe don't come up a lot like The Disgraced Doctor or The Musician. What excited me about fleshing them out and making them available for play was that I got to put my own spin on these tropes, which was often giving them small touches of pop culture or referencing something that's slightly anachronistic or unexpected so that no Role feels "stuck" being played a certain way. For The Career Criminal, I got a chance to make references to Leverage, and The Gambler has quite a few mentions of the Kenny Rogers song. At first I was worried these small nods to non-noir would pull people out of the play experience, but I've found the opposite to be true: it makes them laugh while keeping them connected to what's going on.

I love how open and adaptable the Roles turned out to be. One of the big issues for me with the source material is that it's very phobic and bigoted, there's sexism and racism overt and otherwise, and that's not something I wanted to mechanize or condone in play, so I'm really proud that the Roles can be played by any person in any way they way want even if it wouldn't be "true to film noir". I want it to be more true to the player's wants and interests than condoning 70-year-old social conventions. We can do better.

How did you take Apocalypse World/Powered by the Apocalypse mechanics and make them work with the cinematic, somewhat gritty world of noir stories?

I took it all apart. I had to. I seldom play a game without houserules, mainly because a lot of games have a lot of moving parts, and I don't want to stop to consult a book when an idea pops in my head. This led to a lot of deconstructing and questioning how and why the rules are what they are, then going backwards to the games one generation removed and continuing to question mechanics like "why do we roll dice when X happens?" "why do we always look at the GM at that moment?" and then asking myself if I wanted to make a game that kept doing stuff like that. When I found out that I didn't want to do the same thing, or just file off all the serial numbers with a re-skin of what was already there, I realized I didn't have to come at this like a game designer first and a film/TV/story nerd second, I could reverse that.

So I put the focus on the story elements: how plot gets made, how characters take actions, how characters interact and then I put game design on top. It was both easier (because I kept the focus on the story structure) and harder (because game mechanics are popular and re-used because they're familiar and easy) but I think I struck a balance where the game is about telling stories that feel very baked in genre and give players enormous creative freedom and permission while having mechanics that don't get in the way because they're neither particularly complex or numerous. The focus stays on the story, which lets the story go in whatever direction the group feels it needs to.

In what way do you think Noir World really captures your favorite things about the noir genre, and puts them in the hands of players and Directors to make a good film?

Film noir is about being faced with terrible choices that you know will have some awful consequences, making the choice and then finding out there are consequences worse than what you thought. You didn't just lose your job and your marriage, you've been convicted of murder because your mistress gave you up to the cops. The severity of consequences and the natural downward evolution of consequences, in a worsening spiral make for really interesting and tragic characters. I don't think it would be as much fun to have a terrible character that just kept having worse and worse things happen to them if they had limited or no agency in those events. In Noir World, a Role gets themselves into that position and then has to deal with things, it's the very emotional version of "Make your bed, now lie in it." People are invested in and have a hand in their own emotional rollercoaster, which I think is what makes the experience connect with people in an active way - it's their choices and what happens because they were pro-active, rather than just reacting to a GM saying something like "since you rolled a 12, this happens."

I don't like games where the players can't get creative except in some non-meaningful way. The game where we're all knights and the only thing that could distinguish us might be our weapons or whether or not someone speaks in a funny voice does not have long term appeal to me. The characters don't feel like anything more than plot-tools for the GM to use, and that's not how I want to spend my gaming nights, especially if the GM had a bad day at work and the adventure gets boring or long-winded. Noir is about choice and consequence, so to me that screams "agency" and "empowering players to be creative." A lot of the best games I've seen have players who are normally very hesitant to take a leadership role or a very decisive position, because this game is a permission slip to say what happens and people will help each other to get where they need to be, because everyone should have a voice at the table, and everyone should have the opportunity to develop and use their agency in non-selfish ways to work together to tell a great story.


Awesome! Thanks so much, John, for giving us some info about Noir World! I hope you all will check it out on Kickstarter, and share the interview for others to read!

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