The world is a dark, dirty place these days. You don't know who to trust. Everyone seems to be holding some kind of dark secret, except for those who seem to be just in it for a quick buck. Even the streets seem filthier and why the hell is it raining all the damn time?
Some folks fight for justice in this dirty world while others seek to exploit it for their own gain. But there's no such thing as black and white and today's saint might be tomorrow's sinner.
Noir is a very difficult genre to get right through the medium of RPGs. This is in no small part due to the fact that it's all about atmosphere and that can be something that's very difficult to pin down through mechanics. In my opinion, A Dirty World is one of those that gets it right. Everything is about your character's personal values and every conflict is about putting those on the line. Sure, you may have a line on your sheet reflecting how you're a detective or that you know astrophysics, but what really matters is what part of your heart and soul are you putting in the conflict. Are you going to try and appeal to the lawyer's better nature or seduce him? Are you going to wave your gun in O'Malley's face and hope he surrenders or rush in, fists swinging? Are you going to patiently work up the evidence to take down the mob or figure out some kind of quick scheme to ruin them? These are all meaningful choices in A Dirty World and all conflicts resolved with the same mechanic.
What's also interesting about A Dirty World is that there's always a trade-off to be made. Every stat comes in a pair. If you want to raise one stat in the pair above tree, you limit the other stat to two dots. Hit the maximum of five and that other stat can't rise above one. Stats fluctuate quite a bit in the game, however, so you might not be limited for long. One shocking betrayal could turn the idealistic DA into a bitter, paranoid mess.
A Dirty World is a One Roll Engine game, which I first covered in my Godlike post. Quick reminder, roll a pool of d10s, look for matches.
As always, the thing I adore about ORE games is their one roll generators of various kinds and A Dirty World's One Roll Legal Problem Generator is simply delightful. One roll gets you a crime and the inevitable tangled web of conspiracy and outrage it lies at the centre of. The fact that they also provide a couple of examples of how to fit the roll results together is always appreciated.
Step 1) Identities
Before we get started on building the character, I'll outline what I have to work with and my goals. I have 40 points to use, with different stats costing a different amount of points. As you'll see, 40 points doesn't actually go that far.
Now, who am I making? I want a character who strives for the truth, a white hat in a sea of grey. But I also want that character to properly struggle. I'm thinking a tabloid journalist, a guy who means well but is a little bit of a crackpot with a not-so-sterling reputation. Arnold 'Arnie' Paxton is the editor of The Raconteur, originally a forum for returned servicemen to tell their war stories. Many of these were outlandish or outright false in some cases, which gave the paper its reputation. Arnie has branched out into attempting to expose organised crime and corruption, but is held back because of his rag's status, as well as his own slightly unhinged nature.
Right, now that that's out of the way, on to Identities. Identities are the core stat of the game and are also core to who your character is as a person. You use them as the basis of every roll. They come in three pairs, Mental, Physical and Social. A character with high Patience will seek to achieve their goals the slow but thorough way, while a character with high Cunning looks for the quick, immediate solution. A character with high Vigor is tough and physically powerful, while a character with high Grace . Finally characters who are good at Understanding are good at comprehending motives and determining goals, while characters skilled in Persuasion are good at convincing others to support their own motives and goals. You can have certain amounts of both stat in each pair with no problem, but once one of them is raised above three, it restricts the maximum
I get one free point in Vigor to start off with and every additional point in an Identity costs another three points. I need at least one dot in each, so I'm going to start off by spending 15 points to get 1 dot in the remaining five. After that, I think I'm going to put 2 more dots in Understanding, a fairly important skill for a journalist.
Step 2) Qualities
Qualities are still important, but less static aspects of your character. They tend to represent values which are far more malleable and prone to being changed by single events. There are six pairs of these, two pairs being linked to an Identity Pair. When you get into a conflict with someone, be it a battle of wits, an attempt of seduction or a punch up, you're generally attempting to trade off one of these qualities for the other in its pair or, even better, reduce them outright.
Characters that are Generous are able to achieve their goals by giving things to others, while Selfish ones are all about taking and stealing. Demonstration is all about teaching while Observation is all about learning. Courage is used in violent situations where you're at a disadvantage, while Wrath is used when you have leverage against your opponent (suing a gun always puts you at an advantage). You use Endurance to make it through trying situations and Defiance to avoid them Corruption focuses on your ability to deal with lies and base motives and Purity on truth and better nature. Honesty is about dealing with the truth and Deceit with lies.
Each dot in a Quality costs 1 point. I don't start with free dots in any of these, so I'm going to start off by spending 12 points and getting a dot in each of them. I'm then going to sink another two points in Corruption (it helps him figure out the mind of the criminal element) and three points in Observation (investigative journalism).
Step 3) Profession
This is actually something of a misnomer, your Profession is more of an archetype that encompasses your goals and how you achieve them. The main benefit of a Profession is that it lets you trade two particular Qualities that aren't in a pair through their Professional Link. There are six to choose from and they come in opposing pairs, just like stats. The Academic is about imparting information, the Detective finding. The Defender protects from harm, the Thug inflicts it. The Ingenue is all about innocence, the Femme Fatale corruption (note, while both of these are typically female archetypes in noir, your character doesn't have to be a woman to be one).
I'd say that Arnie is a Detective, constantly searching for the truth. This lets him trade points between Observation and Selfishness.
Step 4) Specialities
Specialities represent broad but specialised areas of knowledge you possess. When applicable, they let you perform certain kinds of actions others cannot (you need a pilot to fly a plane, for example) and in other circumstances will give you an extra die to your roll.
Each Speciality costs two points, which funnily enough is how many I have left. I'm going to give Arnie a speciality as a Journalist, giving him an extra die where being a recognised member of the fourth estate would be useful.
Step 5) Secret
In the world of Noir, everyone has a secret. Some of them are just embarrassing, others have the potential to destroy lives if brought out into the open. A minor secret will net you an extra die to your rolls, with greater and more weighty secrets giving you more dice. When making characters as a group, the player to your left knows your secret somehow.
Arnie is a heroin addict. He got hooked on the stuff after he came back from the Great War, as it helped calm his mildly shell-shocked nerves. He's very good at rationalising the addiction, but also understands that if it gets out it could ruin his career and any chance of The Raconteur being taken seriously. I think this counts as a Serious secret, which is in fact worth an extra point. I think it feels appropriate to put this point into Deceit.
The Finished Product
Arnold 'Arnie' Paxton
Profession: Detective (Observation/Selfishness)
Secret: Heroin addict
How I'd Run It
The moment I saw this game I actually wanted to use it to run a superhero game. Something along the lines of the amazingly brilliant Marvel Noir line of comic books, street level characters battling in a world of grey. Particularly choice pieces of gear or even minor superpowers could use the Speciality rules. I'd probably give starting characters a few more points (50, perhaps), since competence is fairly important.