May 202011

I’d like to talk a bit about A Dirty World, a roleplaying game I recently picked up in which players can “explore the rain-slicked streets of film noir.” Before I begin the review proper, I should point out that I have yet to play in or run a game of A Dirty World, and as such, the following is based purely on the sourcebook itself and my speculations about how the system it describes would work in practice. That said, I’m highly looking forward to playing this game, not only because I indulge in the occasional hard-boiled detective film, but also because the mechanics of the game itself are designed to push dramatic conflict and character development.

A Dirty World was developed by Arc Dream Publishing and printed in 2008 by Cubicle Seven Entertainment. Penned by Greg Stolze, one of the original creators of Arc Dream’s One Roll Engine and co-author of such roleplaying systems as Godlike and Unknown Armies, the game’s sourcebook contains a pared-down, streamlined system of rules based on the ORE that is designed to enhance characterization, create dramatic conflict, and capture the gritty mood of the noir genre, all within the small space of just 70 pages. If this seems a bit short — and I can tell that some of you who are eyeing the $15 price tag think it is—rest assured that this slim volume contains everything you’ll need to have your friends yanking the brims of their fedoras down over their eyes and turning up the collars of their trench coats against the rain.

The mechanics of A Dirty World are elegantly designed and easy to explain, intended to swiftly resolve skill checks so that the pace of your game doesn’t slacken. Each player character is built off of three main Identity pairs that measure her mental, physical and spiritual facets along a spectrum between two extremes. For instance, the Mental Identities are Patience and Cunning, the logic being that a character can either be the slow, careful type (patient) or a quick-thinker who shoots from the hip (cunning). Each of these three Identity pairs has two more pairs of associated Qualities that also reflect the dual nature of the character. The Mental Quality pairs are Generosity vs. Selfishness and Observation vs. Demonstration.

To accomplish an action, a player takes the die pool of an Identity and adds to it the pool of an associated quality, each of which range from 0 to 5, and rolls the total number of dice. The outcome is determined by looking for matches among the dice rolled; the more matches you have, the faster your action was accomplished, and the higher the number you matched, the more successful you were.

What really makes A Dirty World unique is that these stat scores are meant to change by the scene, instantly reflecting the characters’ experience and changing moods. Players can, for instance, slide a point from one side of a Quality pair to the other once per scene, provided that their character has an in-game reason for doing so. Likewise, characters can also gain points by performing certain Quality-specific actions, most of which are meant to add fuel to the dramatic fire. In order to gain a point of Selfishness, for instance, a character must steal from someone who trusts her. The rules openly encourage players to use these point-gaining opportunities on one another, usually by way of a built-in double benefit. If one character steals from another to gain a point of Selfishness, the victim could gain a point of Honesty (by suffering because he was deceived) or Deceit (having his faith betrayed).

Another cool aspect of the game mechanics is that you determine which die pools to use based on how you accomplish your intended goal, not what the goal is. Let’s say that a character is trying to defuse a pipe bomb. If she examines the bomb to determine how it works, carefully eliminating the wrong wires before cutting one, she’d roll Patient Observation. If, on the other hand, she clips a wire and hope for the best, Cunning Demonstration would be the roll. This allows players to enhance their characterization by rewarding them for playing to their characters’ strengths, a truly ingenious way of interweaving story and gameplay.

Though the rules are pretty simple to grasp, I would say that A Dirty World is definitely a system for advanced players who understand the nuances of roleplaying games. While systems like Chaosium’s Basic Roleplaying Game or Dungeons and Dragons can bog themselves down with rules for every contingency, becoming dense and confusing at times, they are nevertheless explicit about which skills apply to each action and what the exact results of a roll are. A Dirty World, on the other hand, is based almost purely on rhetoric and characterization: pretty much as long as you’re acting on your character’s strengths and you can make a valid argument as to why you should roll a certain Identity / Quality combo, the game master should allow it. That said, you can’t “talk someone to death,” as the sourcebook emphatically points out, which may leave players who are used to exploiting rules loopholes frustrated. I could easily see this game devolving into an entrenched battlefront of angry bickering among players who aren’t yet ready for high-concept gaming.

All told, I would recommend A Dirty World without reservation. It may seem like a tiny amount of content for its price, but it really is a gem. One of the reasons the book is so thin is that the author dispenses with the setting and focuses almost exclusively on the system mechanics; a justifiable tradeoff, for as Stolze points out, noir means different things to different people. The rules are extremely flexible, but I could see the argument that they are too vague for some people to have fun with them. However, with a group of reasonably mature people, even amateurs, who have at least some experience with roleplaying, this game could be loads of fun. I’m definitely looking forward to playing.

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