[A Dirty World] Brief play, fun with the numbers

Started by Ron Edwards, September 02, 2008, 12:18:56 PM

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Ron Edwards

After GenCon, Jari and I were relaxing for a little while at a picnic table by Lake Michigan, rolling dice and trying out some mechanics out for A Dirty World, but we took the processes seriously enough.

The two short-short stories at the beginning and the end of the book helped quite a bit and probably tipped us over the edge to try some of this game rather than any number of others. I like these; they're original and powerful, and stylistically there's a lot of Andrew Vachss and Jim Thompson in there. We read those and found ourselves powerfully motivated to play insofar as we had time.

Jari made a surprisingly dark character: a German immigrant with a Horrendous secret war-criminal background, now a PI in the U.S. I found this difficult, but took a deep breath and shifted myself into more of a Jim Thompson / James Ellroy mindset rather than Ross MacDonald. He gave the guy a name but didn't write in on the sheet, and I don't remember it. His starting scores were (I think; they've been scribbled on and changed):

Generosity 4 - Selfishness 0
Demonstration 1 - Observation 2

Courage 2 - Wrath 1
Endurance 2 - Defiance 1

Purity 1 - Corruption 1
Honesty 1 - Deceit 1

I was excited by the scenario creation rules because I am the kind of person who will sit and rattle dice to generate funky combinations for scenario elements all day long.* I knew we didn't have time for a novel-length set of conflicts, so I reduced the scenario creation dice from eleven to six. We only got one match: 2x5, divorce with property in doubt. The single values yielded official misconduct, insanity, apparently damning physical evidence, and marital infidelity. Well! This is the sort of thing I live for as a GM in the prep-process, and here's what I came up with.

Morton Grove and Patricia Grove are a wealthy couple undergoing a divorce. This is the early 1950s so it's hard to do - one person actually has to sue the other for wrongdoing of some kind to make it happen. She has mental problems, a schizophrenic artistic sort, with a psychiatrist, Dr. Kenilworth, a real control freak. She owns an expensive lakeside cottage, which Morton paid a lot to rehab and wants to keep. Morton has a secret of his own, a male lover, another artist, and he hates Patricia. If Morton's affair and proclivities become known, then there's no way he can get the cottage. His divorce lawyer is covering up some kind of evidence of the affair from the cottage, paying off a police evidence clerk.

(Incidentally, Jari and I were both surprised that the result for 5x2 was apparently soft-pedalled. The necessary result for that combination seems obvious.)

I decided to treat all the NPCs as mere interferences or obstacles, except for Patricia, whom I wrote up as follows (not using the point-total for starting characters):

Generosity 2 - Selfishness 0
Demonstration 4 - Observation 0

Courage 0 - Wrath 0
Endurance 2 - Defiance 2

Purity 2 - Corruption 2
Honesty 0 - Deceit 2

We didn't actually play much of a scenario. just posed a few events and scenes in which we could try out the way dice did their thing. In the first scene, Jari's character looked up Patricia (who incidentally was a teenager in Germany during the war; her maiden name is Köln). The way was blocked at the door by the obstructive Dr. Kenilworth, and the player-character tried to get past him with Honest Persuasion, but failed, and slid his scores about a little bit, becoming more deceptive. In the second, the character had followed Patricia, who'd sneaked out of her own house, in her car to the little cottage miles and miles away. She walked out onto the pier into the lake, and contemplated throwing herself in.

This led to a conflict in which she is trying to make herself do it, and he's trying to convince her not to. Basically, they both rolled, and got no matches. She doesn't do it only because she can't; his shouted phrases are not relevant. This sort of thing happens a lot in the early stages of this game, I think. More about that in a minute.

More scenes did lead to Jari's character shifting some scores around, including becoming more oriented toward Observation. We decided to add some more points to try out a new scene, boosting up some physical scores. In this case, he confronted the police clerk, basically beating the truth of the hidden evidence out of him. I gave the clerk a high Corruption score, which he used to defend with (trying to cut the PC into the deal). If we did this right, then the way it works is, you keep knocking points from the score you're attacking onto its opposite, in this case Purity - so eventually, the clerk used Purity to defend against being battered to a pulp - i.e., confessing. I'm still not quite sure that's the way it's supposed to work, but it made sense at the time and seems to match the complex example in the book.

Here's the major issue of play, which is addressed in the game text, but still seems like the main mental twist to get through in order to enjoy play. Characters begin with low scores, such that they may be rolling only one, two, or three dice, and their chances for matches of any kind are minimal at best. There are going to be a lot of instances in which characters either get blocked off thoroughly from some avenue of participation in what's going on, or they'll be stuck in mutual-failure outcomes like the one we did.

Now, I agree with the text that this isn't necessarily a bad place to start, in story terms. For one thing, the resulting disorientation and sense of ineffectiveness and increasing crisis is characteristic of many hard-boiled novels, as the characters receive multiple brush-offs or even beatings, and various no-good guys keep getting what they want. For another thing, as Greg explains, the system is built to jack up character scores quite steadily, and I think it makes sense that not only does the quantity of one's dice increase, but how they are distributed across the dichotomous scores is intended to be emergent. In fact, how you initially distribute them actually doesn't seem to matter much except in terms of the character's starting imagery and impressions he or she gives - which may well change.

However, since this model is so different from the basic expectations of many role-players, I think it's important that everybody playing know that they'll encounter a lot of what feels like Brownian motion among the characters as they keep moving and bumping up against one another and bouncing away without significant effects, for some time. I am also a little uncertain about how to GM through this initial phase. I figure one must keep things moving even though investigative efforts will be failing drastically and constantly, and that strikes me as a necessary and perhaps difficult art of continuing to provide Bangs without simply mimicking "by chance" what would have happened if the player-characters had been successful.

Considering all the fun of prep and the neat consequences of shifting numbers about based strictly on what occurs in the scenes, I'm looking forward to playing for real. I'm still a bit unsure about the methods for early play, but this game looks like it dares to let things proceed as they may, to wherever they may, and I think that's cool.

Best, Ron

* While typing this post, I got the uncontrollable urge and did it again: 3x8, 3x3, 2, 4, 7, 9, 2. Which means imposture (fraud), destruction of something valuable, a frame job, young/naive/inexperienced suspect, marital infidelity, and addiction. Ahh, that was fun.